Hip To The Jive And Stay Alive: An interview with Count Matchuki

By Michael Turner And Mark Gorney

In 1995 The Beat published the obituary of Count Matchuki (Win­ston Cooper), the man generally recognized as the originator of the Jamaican dj style. It was a brief notice, since no one seemed to know much about him other than that he had outlived his fame by at least three decades. Therefore I was thrilled when an interview with Matchuki surfaced, recorded by Beat contributor Mark Gorney in 1993. Despite the technical difficulties, background noise and Mitchuki’s tendency to mumble, we were able to get most of his story. It’s an important story, and a colorful one. too, that includes gangsters and thugs, Jamaica’s musical pioneers and Royal Crown Hair Dressing.
Michael Turner

Mark Gorney: How did you get your name.
Count Matchuki: Oh that started from way back in school. I always have a matchstick in my mouth. I had a teacher who always have a problem because she say I mustn’t talk with a matchstick in my mouth, it’s not good manners. My elementary school friends start to call me Matchie Cooper (laughs). And I got involved in sports too and they is to call: “Gwan Matchi, gwan Matchichi, gwan Matcheeks, gwan Matchooks”. All sort of name. And Matchuki eventually grown, and become my name when I entered the dancehalls. Because I want to tell you that was one of the best dancers in Jamaica. (Softly) ” Girl just hold on to Matchuki now.” A creative name. The only one in the world! (laughs)

MG: As a youth growing up you heard music?
CM: I was really fortunate. Born with a Syrian mother with two gramophones, so from day one I have been acquainted with recordings. In parties at school or when friends start to migrate I was always called upon to make the selection. So all along I was always involved with recordings.

MG: Swing and jazz?
CM: Yeah! I would say time coming from the days of the swing right up to jazz, be bop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll. Well, it was my desire that we Jamaicans create our own music. When I see this was in the atmosphere I throw in my lot. Because I always had a dream. Playing so much foreign records I said:” We should have an industry of our own”,knowing that there were a lot of talented Jamaicans like myself around and I saw I could have my input as a master of ceremonies. And they didn’t have much difficulty putting over the music because I had a burning ambition, I would say. I saw those foreigners making records, their bridges already built. And we who were starting off were supposed to get a chance. So with that in mind I put my all in getting over our local productions with classic utterances that really catch the ears.

MG: Did you start at house parties?
CM: In the early days there was lodge halls, I did most of the promotions at lodge halls. You have several in Kingston: You have Freemason Hall, Shephard Hall Lodge, the Galilee, Forester’s Hall, Jubilee. Most of where the sounds played in the early days were lodge halls.

MG: And what would happen?
CM: Well, generally dances. And I personally had a dance flare, I was gifted that way because I was a dancer also. Wherever I play people used to dance. Never much of listening. Even when I make selections from the jazz musicians I look for those that can be danced. See, that’s why Sir Coxsone’s sound was so versatile, ca’ we could give a wide selection of music. Spiritual’s? we could give a wide selection. Records with the African drums? We could give a healthy selection. And our music, ska. We even got one of the strongest selections of instrumentals we may play for you. And talk about soft sentimental tunes? we had a healthy selection of that also.

MG: These were 78s?
CM: Yeah. They were foreign records. Most of them were foreign in the early days. Because I eventually became the first man to place strictly Jamaican music.

MG: Do you remember where you got the foreign records?
CM: Well very few could be had in Jamaica. Most of them come from the States. The regular channels where I get records here, maybe on a 3 weeks basis, were those ships that go-between New Orleans and Jamaica. Those working on those boats were always bringing rhythm and blues records. So we had a regular source of getting those records, different from what had been imported by Times Store. (Times Store was a department store, located for over 100 years on King Street that closed down in 2001.) See, the records there was supplied twice a year. They was not putting out more. That was not good for active young brains whose ears was open for new sounds! That could not really hold us. So we had our secret outlets. We listened to radio stations and pick up some records that play in America like “Poison Ivy” by Willie Mabon. Those were the kind of tunes I pick up, that we saw was good enough. And most of the tunes that come from America, what was A-side was not our A-Side I because generally what was B-side was the R&B side. So that was our source of getting records, via those boats that run between New Orleans and Kingston.

MG: Who manufactured the first local records?
CM: Calypso records was manufactured all along by Stanley Motta on Hanover Street. There was a recording studio there and
she usually record a lot of Calypsos. The first record that really started the wave was recorded there too. It was called Lollipop Girl by Derrick Harriott and (Claude) Sang.

Rooty sound. Real home-cooked music yunno. And the flavor really got over, because that night, the first time I play that in Forrester is Hall, me have to play it 50 times nonstop. (laughter) And that wrote history. Duke Reid was there as Jubilee that night, the #1 sound of the day, and he threw his equipment down, fling it down early. At 10:30 at night, put him boxes back pon the sidewalk. I couldn’t believe it, but King Stitt him say, “Yeah it’s true man, him threw him boxes pon the sidewalk!” And I had to leave Forrester Hall and go see for myself. On a Saturday night dance get started around 11:30, and the king of that leaving so early. Knock it down so early. And that was the thing that really did it. From there we really find the flavor of Jamaican music. Coxson getting strong then, went in the studios right there and thereafter. And the Duke went into the studios to even the score with us. He makes a music also, even a weaker version of the Lollipop Girl. But Coxson lead the way.

MG: The jive talk that you did – did it just come out of you?

CM: No. To be honest, what gave me that idea, I was walking late one night about a quarter to three somewhere in Denham
Town. And I hear this guy on the radio, some American guy advertising Royal Crown hairdressing. (affecting an American accent) “You see, you’re drying up with this one Johnny , try Royal Crown. When you’re downtown you’re the smartest guy in town when you use Royal Crown and Royal Crown makes you the smartest guy in town.” That deliverance! This guy sound like a machine! A tongue twister! I heard that in 1949 on one of them States stations that was really strong. I hear this guy sing out pon the radio and I just like the sound and I say to myself I think I can do better. I would like to play some recordings and just jive talk like this guy.

MG: Do you remember the first set you got on?
CM: Yes. Tom the Great Sebastian. He was a man who really got the bands, the orchestras out of the dance hall. 1949

MG: Records took over.
CM. Yeeeah! He built a sound, built a set that could deliver the same volume that orchestra could give you. Before that, sound system it was strictly public address, and so when you was playing records you don’t hear much bass, you hear more tops than bottoms. But Tom got Headly Jones, the president of Jamaican Federation of Musicians, who is a very great sound engineer, to build his first sound with good amplifiers.

MG: What was Tom’s real name?
CM: Thomas Wong. He was half Chiney. He committed suicide. His wife and him went apart so he put his head in exhaust and
the car went up and killed him with exhaust. But he was the first sound who did all the dance halls around, with a sound
equipped for the dance hall. And at the same time he had some very good selections because he had a brother-in-law who would supply him with tunes. Tom was the person I started along with, but when Duke Reid the Trojan came on the scene now time he didn’t feel I should stay in town and match the competition that Duke was offering. But competition was then with a sound needed! For it to take on a growth. So I get in touch with a top sound guy by the name of ———–. I was along with him for a few months but I could not see eye-to-eye with him and his behavior and his disrespectfulness as a gangster I would not tolerate.

But just as I was about to turn my back upon sound, I came by Clement Dodd, my schoolmate. It came out in a very unusual
way. He was playing at a send off party at the corner of Orange and Bond Street. And when I went in the building they were saying nice speech so I left iandsay I am going to go home and change my clothes and return because I new is a fellow who was going away. When I return they was playing music. I had a black pants and a white shirt and to my surprise I didn’t have a kerchief. And the building was kind of warm. And I perspired when I dance and he didn’t have my kerchief. So while Coxsone was there dancing I came and I play backs the tune there 3 times and go through the pile of records and by the time I take a record off the turntable him say: “Man can play! I never know this thing about you!” And I say: “Yes man, I associate with the sound while you was away.” So him say:” Is a man like you I really want here in my sound” , so I say: “Okay we’ll talk when we are leaving tonight.”.

The first job I went was in St. Thomas. Keep getting jobs from there. Then spread out myself, keep going with Coxson right on. Sound get big now. More than one set, four, five at a time.Coxsone have about six sound. Well, I used to place 7 nights, 8 nights a week. In those early days we really make sound to come get established. Here, there, and everywhere. So eventually when I have to play at night I have to get myself prepared, so eventually I asked for a second assistant to set up the sound. And through then I appear. And people wait for me like the king is coming. And when the king has come the people have to come in there. I come in kind of late., because I would have a second to start and then I come in. Later, one of the seconds want to overthrow me, but I say “just cool yourself”, and he couldn’t overthrow me. But being the man that I am, proud, I don’t like a confrontation. So I step away and left the sound. But I regret it today because I could have gone further.

And then I started a little sound of my own called Kingston Matchuki. But the expense was much more than the income.

Recently I was running a beer garden and playing up music nightly. So all in all I have been deeply involved with this thing. At one time I was involved in sales for Federal records.

M: What do you remember about Duke Reid?
CM: Duke was a man who love sound system. But his strength was in his equipment. He brought fanfare and a lot of excitement with his strength of money and promotions. His promotion was very elaborate. He did everything to pull in the crowd. That was Duke Reid. He was no ordinary competitor because he would even get thugs to upset his opponent. I remember one night at the New Prosperity Lawn by the corner of Duke And North St., Coxson’s DJs sabotaged by him. And I declare that: “The man comes in to destroy my cherry tree where I have eaten my cherry from.” And when Duke Reid’s thugs here that they stepped back. That was typical Duke, he always carries some strong arm man with him. He was a force to reckon with musically. Without him, sound would not have reached the heights it have reached today.

M: Do you remember Pompidou?
CM: Ah. He was one of Duke Reid’s favorite promoters. His first name was Clifford, but what was his second name I could not say. He was always nattily dressed, neatly dressed. Always cool. Cool cat. He was not violent type really, he was a jive artist and a jive king.

M: Did you ever play any other sounds?
CM: I assist V Rocket, say he wants to go to the toilet or check a girl he might say “play tune for me, I want a break” and I would do that. But I never associate myself with any sounds away from those I mentioned before. I don’t run into things I am not invited to. The other sound system saw me as a teacher, as a creator. So all the operators respected me and when I play against them every man want to flock me. Every time I play a sound system their sole ambition was to hear Count Matchuki. Everybody want to hear me there and then. There was no animosity. Them say, “come man give me the jive talk nuh.” And I would give them something good which match their sound. So they respect me. And when I am playing my sound out you find a portion of the crowd are sound system operators that have come to take less than from this man, and the Coxsone selection of records. The selection was crucial. See, I don’t depend on one tune when I have a big night. The power of mytune is when I put on a selection they say “play it back” but I play a next one. And the next one is cooler than that, and I keep that up all night. I didn’t have a problem, and I tell you honestly, I am still loved by the people.

M: Did you hang around Duke Reid at all?
CM: Duke like me you know, he offered to take me off Coxson and give me a set. But like I told the Duke:” I curse you so much, if I come back and praise you, people will call me a traitor!” Because all of my lyrics when I play is opposed to the duke. I never selected for him or promoted with him once. There was a guide play for the Duke name Professor Blood Stone that people thought was I. But I never play for the Duke. I put it straight to him, I could never play for him because the same man you cuss you can’t come back and praise.

M: Did you ever take part in stage shows?
CM: Well recently I was asked to appear at one of the reggae shows put on by the government. But I’ve never been on the stage regularly. But this I can say, I was the operator or sound engineer when Bob Marley make his first public appearance, At the Ward theater. I gave him a special tuning. That was loved by Bob Marley and until the day he died he never passed through here, through Kingston, and as a baldheaded man he gives me nuff respect. Nuff salute. He was the leader of the group and I know the type of voice he had. At the Ward theater anything could happen, you could end up squeaking because you had a lot of feedback.

M: I heard that in ’66 there was a long hot summer and the music got slower and people started dancing slower.
CM: It really was a hot summer that time. See, we, Clement Dodd and myself, always wanted to know why bass was not prominent in the music. And even when we start recording to move up the bass we find some of the bass men even hide behind the drums! And by the time we clarify that point, rock steady was ready. But we are Jamaicans. We’re creative. And the people called Jamaicans have their roots in Africa. And the drum is related to us, because we used to send our message through the drum. So every Jamaican, the drum have some influence on him. But as far as other instruments, there were a lot of good instrumentalists but you never hear a lot of those instrument, so we decide to bring them up in the forefront in the recording. So when you hear rock steady the whole rhythm section start to play a part. So that’s what really brought round the rock steady is working on the presence of these instruments on our record. Experimentation.

M: Do you remember what you were paid for playing out?
CM: Well it was always still small when you work it out today. I remember I start to play at first I used to get 10 shilling a night. Until I reach about 30 shilling a night. It was not no much what I earn but the joy that give me satisfaction. I did it all for love not really so much for money there and then. It was for the love of it, because I had a burning ambition in making Jamaica with its own recording industry and let our talents get exposure. And that came from way back when. And I start to use my ways of getting it across in several aspect. I was a record ad writer too. Advertising. Write ads for dance, promoting dance.

M: Do you remember some lines?
CM: “It’s fantastic. It’s fabulous. Tonight all roads lead to Forrester’s Hall” y’know? “Follow the crowd and join the throng all night long in the Forrester’s Hall. You’ll be dancing to his Mightiness Emperor Sir Coxsone, first with the most in any coast, the Night Man with the Blues Empire, the Master of the Royal Society of Jazz and the Professor of Rock and Roll. Sounds Superior. Lovin’ and diggin’ him the most is I, Count Matchuki who create for others to imitate the work you have to appreciate what them could never duplicate. So hip to the jive and stay alive!” [Laughter]

After transcribing this interview .1 spoke with Bunny Goodison of JBC radio, one of Matchuki’s contemporaries, who verified most of the details in this text and added a few of his own. Tom the Great Sebastian made his money in the hardware and cement business, and kept a sound system outside
his stare that played hits by artists like Louis Jordan and Nat “King” Cole. Bunny remembers locally produced hits that preceded “Lollipop Girl” (like Laurel Aitken’s “Boogie in My Bones” and Owen Gray’s “Millie Girl”) but does recall the stir created when Matchuki used the tune to best Duke Reid. He played it as a dub plate produced by Coxsone, but the Duke later used his “strength of cash” to gain revenge, inducing Harriott and Sang to record the hit version for Reid’s Treasure Isle label. Matchuki himself is fondly remembered as a dancer and sharp dresser, “very spontaneous, with an outlandish manner and full of impetuousity.”*

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