Rub A Dub Style – Chapter 7

Barrington Levy & Jah Thomas

Barrington Levy – The Winner

“It’s hard to pin a musical change down to any one component,” mused drummer Santa Davis who played on the first Jah Life/Junjo sessions. Yet, one of those possible components is the influence of the singer. “The singer would come into the studio and it depends on the kind of song he’s singing,” Santa continues. “Once the singer start singing now, he has a certain attitude and you [as a musician] kinda adapt to that – that style, that vibe – cause it’s a vibration.”

Barrington Levy had a new vibration. The interaction between the adolescent vocalist and the young but experienced session men, created an electrifying musical mix that reflected a change in the course of reggae.

In 1979, when Junjo and Jah Life began working with him, Barrington was still a ragamuffin youth. According to Jah Life, “Barrington, now, him used to just wild, do all kinda wild stuff, just run up and down, run down [chase] girls and all them thing there like a little kid – cause he really was a little kid still.” But he was already blessed with a rich voice and the ability to make up lyrics on the spot. Wherever he went, whatever he was doing, he accompanied himself with song. Always performing or joking around, he would entertain friends with his imitations of well known people in the business, from Gregory Isaacs on stage, to the Hookims at Channel One.

Barrington’s mother and father strongly objected to his entering the music business. They wanted him to be an “auto mechanical engineer”. But Barrington couldn’t stay away, “He [my father] beat me because if he send me to the shop to pick something up for him and then I go out and I start to hear certain songs, I get carried away, forget all about what my father send me out for.” So, to pursue his career, he had to leave home. His family had recently moved from Kingston to the country where Barrington felt he had no hope of connecting with music industry. “So, I have to run away and go back to Kingston.”

Mighty Mutlitudes – My Black Girl

Back in Kingston, Barrington joined a group called The Mighty Multitude, and passed the time hanging out in Backto and in Payneland where he often performed with Burning Spear Sound and Tapetone. The group cut a record in 1975, a 45 called ‘Black Girl’. It never came out in Jamaica but sold a few copies in the U.S. and England, enough to earn them a contract with Dynamic Records in Kingston. The group stayed together just long enough to record one more 45, ‘Been a Long Long Time’, before disbanding. That left Barrington on his own. He recorded a few sides for singer Dobbie Dobson, but without much success. His career seemed stalled – until Junjo saw him singing in a dance one night. Junjo sent a friend to go find the youth and invite him to come and get acquainted. Now, Junjo had a singer to go with the rhythm tracks he had obtained from Leon Symoie. He was just waiting for the financing when Jah Life arrived.

Barrington Levy – Deep In The Dark

The initial flurry of albums in 1979 and 1980 established Barrington as Jamaica’s top newcomer. Tupps, King Jammy’s selector, commented, “At that time, the artist that was kicking up Jamaica was Barrington Levy, Shaolin Temple album, and we used to have them pon dub [dubplate]. That’s how come Jammys [sound] used to conqueror the place.” Barrington was making records at such a pace, it was hard to keep up with everything he put out. By 1982, he had at least six LPs and a number of hit 45s. But Barrington didn’t stop there. He was enjoying success and loved to sing. Thus, he continued to record with a whole string of producers in Jamaica and abroad until he began to wear himself thin. He was getting “overexposed”, the term reserved for artists with too many releases out at one time. Beyond the Junjo and Jah Life material, he had the 45s, ‘The Winner’ for Channel One, his own production ‘Deep In the Dark’, ‘Min’ Your Mouth’ for Joe Gibbs, ‘Poor Man Style’ produced by Linval Thompson (Clocktower/Trojan), ‘Doh Ray Me’ on JB Music and an LP in Canada called Run Come Ya.

Barrington Levy – Mine Yu Mouth

Being considred ‘over-exposed’ can put a damper on a young artist’s career. But, because Barrington was an ambitious singer with vast reserves of raw talent, he was able to bounce right back. In 1982, the hit ‘Twenty One Girl Salute’, again for Junjo with Scientist and The Radics, put him back on the map and launched Barrington on another hit- making spree. After another round of releases, the market, once again, reached the saturation point. “I did have too much song on the road,” He now admits. “So, I decide fe just cool off for a while. But, you find say some new artists get bad pon the scene! So, I have fe take up back my whip again and start ride, say ‘Gwan Jockey!’” Again, Barrington bounced back, this time in 1984 with ‘Prison Oval Rock’ (again for Junjo with The Roots Radics), a huge hit both inside and outside the dancehall.

Barrington Levy – Prison Oval Rock

Soon he was back at the top of the charts with, according to his estimate, with “around five number one”. And he was still just gathering steam – his biggest releases were still to come. Along the way, Barrington’s hit making streak continued with ‘Money Move’ for George Phang and ‘Murderer’ for Jah Life. But it was his two releases with former Stur-Gav selector Jah Screw – ‘Here I Come’ and ‘Under Mi Sensi’– that really demonstrated his talent as a mature and capable vocalist. Both were huge hits, topping charts in Britain for months in 1985. From that point on, Barrington was no longer seen as a site specific dancehall singer from Jamaica. With Jah Screw as his guide, he became an international name, attracting broad audiences wherever in the
world he performed.

Barrington Levy – Here I Come

Jah Thomas

When Jah Life and Junjo first recorded the new songs with Barrington, they included a deejay cut of most of the tracks. Jah Life’s business partner Percy Chin recalls, “Junjo didn’t really know the business. He wanted to put out 12 inches.” The original format of the songs were as “disco” 45s with Barrington’s vocals and either a Jah Thomas rap or a dub following. So, when Junjo was in England, he was originally looking for a deal for the 45s. In the meantime, Jah Life and Percy released the material as the Bounty Hunter album in New York. The Jah Thomas deejay tracks from the discos ended up on a separate LP called Dance Pon the Corner*. The vocals where on one side and the dubs on the other. Percy recalls, “We did not have enough songs from Jah Thomas to make a full two sides.”

* Not to be confused with Dance On the Corner which Jah Thomas released on his Midnight Rock label in 1979

As a youth, Jah Thomas was working in a garage as a bodyman but seeking a start in music. Growing up in Rosetown, where he moved at the age of eight, Thomas would hang out in a small ghetto called Backto, at Three Mile.* Each day, he and his friend Guy Beckford would ride their bicycles after work down into Backto to listen to music on the juke boxes in the little bars that lined the streets. “It was a lively place with all these juke boxes. It’s a ghetto place and I used to like [the] ghetto.”

* Backto was another name for Majestic Gardens, an economically challenged area of St Andrew near Three Mile

After moving to Payneland, Thomas began following local sound Burning Spear, selected by Stanley Braveman, with deejays Dillinger, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cliff. “The owner was named Bones. He used to sell ganja, used to smoke chalice, drink him Dragon Stout. A lot of deejays used to come, like U Brown. But Clint Eastwood was my mentor there, cause he was the guy who take up the needle off of the record and say [to me], ‘This is how you approach a rhythm’, and from there I catch on.”

Jah Thomas – Midnight Rock

Thomas’s big break came with the hit ‘Midnight Rock’ in 1976 for Alvin Ranglin’s GG label. Ironically, it was E.T. at Joe Gibbs studio who told the youth that GG was holding an audition. Thomas recalled, “GG hear me tonight, record me tomorrow, next week, the song is on the radio. He didn’t hold back. It was an instant hit, eight weeks on the chart.” It was his first recording, the first time he had ever been inside a studio. “I’ll never forget that morning when Sly said, ‘Rolling’, and I started to do my song. It was Maxie, the engineer. When I go in the studio to voice my first song, the mic was on the mic stand, and when the music hit me, I tried to hold the mic, through I used to be in the dance and hold the mic. [Maxie said], ‘This is a studio! You can’t hold the mic. Step back and talk into the mic’. Then I come from top again, ‘This one call the Midnight Rock, so Rock on! Yea!’”

Thomas had been waiting for the chance to show his talents. “One night I was in Backto, VJ the Dubmaster was playing the original song – ‘Back out with it, your days are numbered’, Wailing Souls*. So, VJ the Dubmaster, when he play ‘Back Out With It’, he play ‘Things and Time Will Tell’. After he played them, he played the version and this guy named Stickman was deejaying. So, when I asked him to play the rhythm for me to get a chance to talk, Stickman was avoiding me. I could feel it – I know I have a hit song. Cause when the rhythm hot me and I know what I had in me, I bus’ a flight with him to get a chance to express myself at the mic.”

* The Wailings Souls recorded two classic songs on the same basic rhythm, ‘Back Out with It’ and ‘Things and Time’, both done originally for Studio One and, later, for Channel One

As soon as ‘Midnight Rock’ came out on 45, the song was being played everywhere. “I’d be going through Backto and eight different shop with eight different jukeboxes playing my song at the same time, all the corners, all the shops, playing the song at the same time. It was such a big hit. That‘s why I call my label Midnight Rock.”

A tall, self confident, thoroughly extroverted man, Jah Thomas lived every moment of his life as if he were inside a dancehall. His deep voice carried well and commanded attention. He would break into a rhyme or throw out some impromptu lyrics. To greet a person, he was always, “glad to see your face ina the place”. When he had to leave, he announced, “Got to move – a so me improve!” Rather than relying solely on established producers for his income, Thomas started his own label, Midnight Rock, and began producing himself and other artists in 1979, starting with his first self produced release, ‘Cricket Lovely Cricket’. The rhythm he used was the same ‘Conversation’ version that Leon Symoie had sold to Junjo, the magic rhythm that supported so many hits.*

* Of those very first ten rhythm tracks that Jah Life bought from Junjo, at least six originally belonged to a man named Leon Symoie, whose brother, Chester, worked with Lone Ranger. Leon had already used the rhythms to produce people like Tony Tuff and Dean Stone. He was then working with Tony Murray, Barry Brown, Carlton Livingston and, of course, Chester’s good friend, Lone Ranger. The backing track for Barrington’s Collie Dread, an update of Slim Smith’s ‘Conversation’, had been voiced by Lone Ranger for one of his biggest hits, Barnabas Collins, released on Alvin Ranglin’s GG Records. As Jah Thomas expressed it, “I give [Leon] a money, but the money that I give him- the rhythm is bigger than the money I give him. ‘On my way up to Maverly’– ‘Collie Weed’, Barrington Levy’s first set. That was the first song that people start recognize him. Cause it mash up the place”

Jah Thomas – Cricket Lovely Cricket

Barrington Levy – Collie Weed

Lone Ranger – Barnabus Collins

Jah Thomas continued to record sporadically, but his greatest success came from working with young artists. If all he had ever done in his life was release Tristan Palma’s ‘Entertainment’, it would have been enough to inscribe Jah Thomas in the annals of dancehall history (and it was such a big hit that was later referred to as the ‘Dancehall Anthem”). But he did much more, releasing Michael Palmer’s ‘Ghetto Dance’, Little John’s ‘Gambling’, various 7 inch and 12 inch 45s with Sugar Minott, Al Campbell, Earl Cunningham and albums Junior Keating with Barry Brown (Showcase, 1979), among others. Although his biggest hit was with a singer, Jah Thomas’ years of dancehall exposure gave him a special knack for working with deejays. Thomas had the ear to pick a solid old standard to refurbish, and a feel for what the fans would react to. This first-hand experience helped him produce hits like Peter Metro’s ‘Seven Heroes’ and ‘Calypso Calypso’ (with Zuzu), Buro Banton’s ‘MC Peggy’ and some of Early B’s strongest material including ‘Sunday Dish’, ‘Wheely Wheely’, ‘Ghost Busters’, ‘Call the Doctor for Me’, ‘History of Jamaica’ and ‘Learn fe Drive’.

Michael Palmer – Ghetto Dance

But it was his work with Tristan Palma that has had the most lasting response. Thomas released a total of four LPs with Tristan in the early eighties, each one containing major hits. Entertainment and Joker Smoker, LP title tracks, were huge successes, and the LP, Showcase, contained two more sound system favorites, ‘Miserable Woman’ and ‘Runaround Woman’*. The forth LP, Touch Me, Take Me, had ‘Reggae Music Taking Over’. Currently, his son Orville Thomas is carrying on the tradition as Da’Ville, a multi award winning reggae entertainer, but as a singer, not a deejay.

* ‘Runaround Woman’ was voiced over still another version of the ‘Shank I Shek’ rhythm, the same rhythm that formed the base for ‘Entertainment’. Thomas later admitted it was his favorite rhythm.

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