On the Selection Train, we like to let the music do the talking! So here is a little selection of 20 of the finest early reggae 45s from Sir Coxsone Dodd's famous Studio One recording empire, operating out of Brentford Road, Kingston. More or less anyone who was anyone in the early days recorded at the “Motown of reggae”, with many Jamaican superstars, such as the Wailers and the Heptones, getting their first break there. I will use this little pile of treasured 45s to frame some further discussion of what is, in my opinion and that of many others, the finest production set up ever to come out of Jamaica. Long live Studio One!
NO. 1 – ME FRIEND – INN KEEPERS (PRESSURE IS ON – PURPLE-ITES) BANANA (UK)
As I come from London, let’s start off with a UK release. This one was issued on Junior Lincoln’s Banana imprint, which operated out of his little shop, Junior's Record Spot, at 88 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park (10 minutes from where I grew up). Lincoln was a legend in the business. He brought Studio One productions to the UK and released them with Coxsone’s permission, but also produced his own records, sometimes voicing his own artists over Studio One rhythms to great effect. Lincoln obviously had impeccable taste, and the Banana series is ever popular with collectors and selectors alike. This tune was also released in Jamaica as the Purpleites – Pressure is On, continuing the Coxsone tradition of completely mis-crediting and mis-titling UK issues (some would say to avoid paying the artists). A nice mellow harmony roots typical of the early 70s.
NO. 2 – RUN COME – IRVIN BROWN – BAMBOO (UK)
One of a fair few 45s only issued in the UK, this came on Junior Lincoln’s other imprint, Bamboo. Again a label to take notice of, although the style of this imprint tends to be less rootsy and more skinhead-stomper! Despite the slightly off-key singing, I like the vibes of this record. It’s another mellow bubbling rhythm from the loose group of early 70s Brentford Road musicians most commonly called the Sound Dimension at this point. Of course, members came and went, and over the years the Brentford Road band were also called the Skatalites, Soul Bros, Soul Vendors, New Establishment, Brentford Road All Stars and Brentford Rockers, to name a few. This is the flip side to the better known I’m Still Around, also by Irvin Brown. The rhythm became a lot more famous when it was recycled in the late 70s for Eternal Peace from Johnny Osbourne's incredible Truths and Rights LP.
NO. 3 – TEN TO TWO – VINCENT GORDON / NEW ESTABLISHMENT – COXSON (JA)
Vin Gordon is a true genius of the trombone. Crowned as Don Drummond Jr after the troubled genius was finally locked up in Bellevue mental asylum, Gordon went on to fulfil the role of resident master Studio One trombonist for many years, and pursued an equally successful solo career afterwards. You only need to hear his Red Blood (go and do it now if you haven’t, trust me!) to appreciate his soulful genius – Vin Gordon is a real rootsman’s musician! This cut of Ten to One by the Madlads, a massive foundation classic, was missing on later presses (and possibly there was an earlier press without this cut too). Selection Train have recently had the pleasure of working with Mr Gordon and he is as personable and humble as he is legendary. Look out for the fruits of that session coming soon.
NO. 4 – MISTER DJ – DELROY WILSON – MUZIK CITY PRE (JA)
This is really rocksteady not early reggae but it fits in well so what the hell. One of the most prolific Studio One vocalists, sweet-toned Delroy was massive over the years in Jamaica; he was already big at the start of the rocksteady era, which lasted from 1967-69. I would guess this tune is at the later end of that, when the reggae beat began to emerge. Many tunes in this era came only on blanks and there are hundreds of unidentified Studio Ones out there despite decades of work by collectors and authors. An upful selector’s tribute that always goes down well in a Studio One session!
No. 5 – RUDE BOY TRAIN – ITALS – WAREIKA (US)
This is from the same Itals that later brought us Time Will Tell and countless other killer roots outings. This was produced at Studio One by the Mighty Sir Collins, long time resident and community leader in Stoke Newington, London (Selection Train's stomping ground). I believe this was recorded at the same sessions as the legendary You Touch My Soul by the Invaders, which was also recorded by Sir Collins at Studio One and is a matrix number (the code etched into the edge of the vinyl) away from this release on the same label. Rude Boy Train was also released on the UK Smash label but without a version on the flip. One of many, many recordings that came from other producers using the Brentford Road studio with other musicians. Coxsone actually released a DJ cut by Sir Harry over You Touch My Soul and when I played it to Sir Collins – who produced the rhythm – he said he had never heard it in his life! That’s how the Jamaican industry goes (or went) – credits are always a blurry subject.
NO. 6 – GUESS WHAT? – CEDRIC “IM” BROOKS – COXSONE (JA)
Another legendary foundation artist who shaped the sound of Studio One in the 70’s, Cedric “Im” Brooks was a devout Rastafarian and member of the Nyabinghi order. He brought Rasta and spiritualism to Coxsone’s music alongside other Rasta musicians such as Count Ossie. They came from an independent spiritual musical place, unlike many musicians whose first success was at Studio One. These foundation Rastafarian artists went on to create some seminal roots music, notably as founder members of the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and the Light of Saba. This tune is an early and rare outing from Cedric, I would guess from around 1971.
NO. 7 – SOUND OF THE REGGAE – RICHARD ACE – SUGAR (UK)
Back to the UK connection with this one. Charles Ross was a UK producer who, like Junior Lincoln, licensed rhythm tracks from Coxsone. Unlike Lincoln, he seems to have always cut his own versions over the rhythms and, to my knowledge, never released a tune actually voiced at Studio One Jamaica. The Sugar label boasts a few undercover killers with Coxsone rhythms and the connection seems to have been little known until recently. Here, Ross employs a JA Studio One artist anyway – Richard Ace, better known as an instrumentalist, who also cut an instrumental of this rhythm on the serious World of Reggae vol 2 LP (Charles Ross Combo). A good playout selection for a rowdy crowd!
NO. 8 – FOR STAR – PRINCE JAZZBO – COUNT 1-2-3 (JA)
One of many self-productions by Studio One artists who either licensed or “borrowed” Studio One rhythms for a bit of commercial success on their own labels. Here it is Prince Jazzbo over a searing dub of the Heptones’ How Could I Leave. The rhythm sounds like a dubplate and I like to think it might have been cut straight over the acetate. These cuts sometimes lacked Coxsone’s quality control and the melodica piece on the flip is one of the most off-key pieces of music I’ve ever heard! A killer off-radar Jazzbo cut though. “You don’t have to go to college to inherit knowledge!”
NO. 9 – GUIDING STAR – LEROY SIBBLES – AIRES (US)
Another obscure "overdub" release on a Coxsone rhythm. By the sound of it, Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones has borrowed the same plate as Jazzbo above, and he delivers a deadly solo vocal version of How Could I Leave. This was, of course, originally his own lyric on the rhythm, retitled Guiding Star here. There’s some wicked xylophone that I assume was added by the Wackies’ crew – since Wackies owned the Aires imprint and Leroy Sibbles worked closely with him in the US. This was probably not a legit release, hence no credits or titles. But having said that, Coxsone often allowed his artists to take rhythms or studio time in payment for their services, so he might well have allowed this release. In any case, this is a musically more interesting cut to my ears than the original Coxsone 45, with Leroy delivering the bitter lyrics in a more heart-wrenching and personal way compared to the earlier Studio One piece.
NO. 10 – KNOCKING AT MY DOOR – ALTON ELLIS – COXSONE (JA)
Alton Ellis “Mr Soul of Jamaica” really lived up to his nickname with his heartfelt, sweet yet raw voice. Truly one of the elder statesmen and legends of Jamaican music, he passed away in 2008 leaving a gaping hole in the reggae world. He was close to the heart of Jamaica and its music fans and will be sorely missed. Alton was equally at home on the sweetest of love songs or the dreadest roots music. His dynamic voice had an edge that few could test. Tunes like Blackish White, African Descendants and Reasons in the Sky were some of the heaviest roots music ever produced at Brentford Road. With this selection, though, we see Alton in a sweet and meditative mood as he sings upful and conscious roots lyrics over a mellow but heavy Sound Dimension rhythm. Long live Alton, music never dies!
NO. 11 - INTO MY LIFE - CARL HENRY - MONEY DISC PRE (JA)
Studio One was as musically diverse as it was prolific – Coxsone himself was a big jazz fan, and sought inspiration for his productions from all kinds of sources. He cut many one-off tunes with little known artists, some of whom disappeared after their one shot. This is one of those one-hit wonders, and with a voice like this it is a wonder we didn't hear more from Mr Henry. A heartfelt expression of regret and uncertainty – the harmonies are beautiful and the rhythm is a typically mellow-yet-raw affair from the New Establishment era. Just one of many Coxsone obscurities from this time.
NO. 12 - SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME - THE RIGHTEOUS FLAMES - ATTRA DISC (JA)
Continuing in the same vein, I would say this is from the same time as the Carl Henry above, New Establishment rhythm in effect. Unlike Mr Henry, however, this group of singers – who included Winston Jarrett – now enjoy legendary status and were already quite well known at the time. This is one of their earliest tunes in the roots vein, even if the rhythm is quite soft compared to their later dread releases. Although recorded at Studio One, the Righteous Flames enjoyed the luxury of releasing this on their own Attra Disc imprint and no indication is given on the label of Coxsone's involvement. This could have been the result of payment in kind - ie, free studio time given to the group in return for services rendered on other tracks. The melancholy and regret in this tune never fails to touch me – anyone who has known deep love and then lost it can't help but be moved by the Righteous Flames' delivery.
NO. 13 - SMOOTH - VIN GORDON - FAB BLANK (UK)
This series of Coxsone 45s, which were released on licence from Coxsone by the legendary FAB imprint in the UK, are now very highly sought after by collectors, some of them reaching astronomical sums due to their extreme rarity. The mighty reggae journalist Penny Reel has stated he believes there were only 100 copies of each title pressed – and all on blanks, just to confound and confuse the collectors. There are a few labelled Coxsone tunes on FAB but this series of blanks is earlier than those. One reason for the blank labels may have been to avoid paying the artists – who are gratuitously mis-credited even in FAB’s own publicity. For example, Freddie McGregor and Al Campbell became Alf and Tepp on their infamous and deadly Born a Free Man 45 – not the most convincing of made-up names! This Vin Gordon outing is a long-lost treasure, and features the same matrix number as a different Coxsone / FAB release (the matrix number is the only means of identifying blanks without listening – so this is a particularly confusing 45). An uplifting and quite merry, yet raw piece of music, this was made when Mr Gordon was coming into his own as Don Drummond's replacement as lead trombonist. Vin was a teenager at this point, fresh out of Alpha Boys’ school and still learning the ropes from the older players such as Tommy McCook, who introduced him to the free-spirited, ganja-fuelled life of the one-time Skatalites.
NO. 14 - UP FULLY - CEDRICK "IM" BROOKS & DAVE MADDEN - SUPREME (JA)
Another beautiful 45 from the one they call "Im" – this time alongside trumpeter Dave Madden, who adds a perfect counterpart to Brooks's sax. David Madden was another Studio One stalwart, who later became a founder member of Zap Pow. They are best known in roots circles for the incredible Lee Perry-produced masterpiece The River, but they also achieved some international success with their less rootical productions. This early horns cut is pure, raw – Jamaican to the core. It's a next cut of Larry Marshall's tribute to peace, love and togetherness, Come Let's Make It Up, in which he urges us to forgive and forget. Always played as a pair in this house, the two cuts complement each other perfectly, with the horns following the heartfelt vocal to devastating effect. The brass duo blast into the intro for the main chorus and then take it in turns for characteristically loose and jazzy solos, forming the icing on this delicious musical cake.
NO. 15 - BLUES FOR-I - THE NEW ESTABLISHMENT - BONGO MAN (JA)
Jazz was always a key influence on Studio One from its earliest days. Coxsone was a serious jazz aficionado and extremely knowledgeable about the genre, which certainly had an effect on the musical development of Studio One – and the sound of Jamaica as a whole. Coxsone produced a handful of pure Jamaican jazz LPs over the years and always remained devoted to the music. The Skatalites were more than capable of playing in the notoriously difficult and formless genre, many of them having been classically trained at Alpha Boys’ school. Fast forward to the mid-70s and the likes of Tommy McCook and Ernest Ranglin were musical masters, capable of the most complex and technically brilliant compositions. This 45 is a testament to their legendary talents. I have heard this tune quoted separately as being by both Tommy McCook and virtuoso guitarist and arranger Ranglin, and certainly both of them are here in the mix as the New Establishment – who are credited on the Bongo Man label. This record is in a style all its own – cool and jazzy, heavy and rootical. The Studio One masters take it turns to dazzle us with their effortless delivery. Tommy McCook takes to the flute this time, and his haunting yet laid-back style completes the moody flavour.
NO. 16 - DO DANG DO - SLIM & FREEDOM SINGERS (LEROY SIBBLES) - BANANA (UK)
The Heptones were one of the most successful groups to come out of the Studio One stable – and probably the most prolific, releasing endless sides in their three-part harmony formation. They cut their teeth at Studio One during the rocksteady era, and then progressed with deadly finesse into roots music. Leroy Sibbles often took the lead part with Barry Llewelyn and Earl Morgan providing harmonies, though not always. Sibbles was also an accomplished bass player, and played many of the most famous Studio One bass lines of his era as well. He was clearly a man who enjoyed the contemporary music coming over from the US during this time – soul, funk and disco, which was perhaps not that popular amongst many of his fellow Rastafarian musicians as it represented a lifestyle that devout religious people could not support. Maybe Leroy found the funky bass lines irresistible! Whatever the reason, he covered a few big funk hits of the day as a solo singer. He also probably played the bass on a few of the other (admittedly not too common) funk-inspired Studio One covers, with his musical mentor Jackie Mittoo, being another lover of the funky groove, doubtless initiating many of these versions. Express Yourself by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band (one of the seminal funk records) was probably irresistible to Mr Dodd's business sense, and Leroy sang on a storming Coxsone version of the rhythm. In a similar style, Do Dang Do is loosely based on Do Your Thing – another US smash by Isaac Hayes – this time with the lyrics gone Yard! "Do your thing – reggae reggae jeggae y'all!" As funky as it is, the bass line is also very Jamaican sounding. In the light of his later funky works in the 70s, I can definitely imagine Mr Mittoo skanking to this one. The UK issue is typically credited to someone completely wrong – Slim would suggest Slim Smith but the tune is definitely Leroy Sibbles. This record saw Jamaican release too, without the added strings. This is one of the few examples where I think strings have improved the overall record – tastefully done, though some might disagree. This is one reliable 45 to drop at a party!
NO. 17 – SOUND NO 1 - SIR HARRY - SIR HARRY (JA)
The Heptones cover of the Temptations’ militant soul classic Message from a Blackman forms the backdrop for this rare self-released DJ cut by Sir Harry, one of the earliest DJs at Studio One. This is another example of the rhythm track being given to the artist to use as a payment or favour from Mr Dodd; I am reliably informed that Sir Harry was given this and other rhythms by Coxsone to use legitimately. One of the glorious fruits of these favours is the immortal Musical Rights cut to the Abyssinians’ Declaration Of Rights, which is certainly one of Sir Harry's finest. Sound No 1 finds Harry voicing in an early dubplate special style! Although he doesn't mention Coxsone's Downbeat sound system by name, it is a safe assumption which sound he considers No 1. Sir Harry drops his lyrics in the talkover style of the early sound system selectors, who started off simply announcing and interjecting over records. As the style progressed, dedicated DJs like Sir Harry began to emerge. This can be confusing as these DJs performed in the same way as today's MCs and did not necessarily select records, as the title of DJ may suggest in any other genre.
NO. 18 - ONE ONE - DELROY WILSON / GEORGE PHILLIPS (?) - Studio One BLANK (JA)
This is a beautiful and moving record urging parents and elders to teach their children. "Tell them me say tell them – one one," refers to adding (one plus one is two, etc) as an example of education. The singer sings of his own shame and embarrassment at not being well-educated, and expresses the wish for his youngers to do better. The rhythm is characteristically deep and contemplative for this time at Studio One, just at the dawning of the roots era. Many Rastafarian spiritual artists were gathering in Coxsone's famous yard at this point, and from it emerged some of the deepest and most beautiful rhythms ever recorded there. This one is no exception and uses the same backing as Roland Alphonso's gorgeous flute cut Psycho Rhythmic. The vocal delivery is second to none here, but is the subject of a bit of confusion: I have always been told by those more knowledgeable than myself that this is Delroy Wilson singing. It certainly sounds like it could be, but when Soul Jazz issued the tune on an LP, they credited it to George Phillips – not a name I was aware of previously. Whatever the truth, this is an unmissable slice of early roots music at Studio One.
NO. 19 - SUN IS SHINING - WINSTON MATTHEWS - BANANA (UK)
At this point, it may seem like the Banana label is unfairly represented here! Writing this article has made me realise just how on-point Junior Lincoln's taste seems after the passing of 40-odd years. There were a good few unique records released on his Banana imprint that never appeared anywhere else, including Jamaica. Here we have one such piece of music – a cut to the Wailers’ rootical staple Sun Is Shining, a dread and rootsy piece of music. It was born of the early-70s collaboration between the Wailers, who were by then already famous on the island through their work at Studio One, and the infamous and cantankerous genius that is Lee "Scratch" Perry. Winston Matthews was the lead singer of the Wailing Souls, and he clearly always modelled himself on Marley. Their voices share a very similar tone, and Matthews capitalises on that for this version, improvising his own feeling into the original lyrics while letting his personality shine through. The Studio One rhythm is tighter and cleaner than the loping and lazy genius of the Wailers band on the original, and Winston's delivery only sounds more cutting and deadly in contrast to it.
NO. 20 - HOMEWARD BOUND - HONEY BOY - BANANA (UK)
A mellow and spiritual song about the passing of our lives and the need to live for the moment. Another of the unique Studio One related recordings on Lincoln's Banana label, this one has to be my favourite. Honey Boy was a UK-based singer with a super-sweet voice who was doing the rounds in London at this time. Lincoln got him into the studio to record this spine-tingling memory of his Jamaican home over the rhythm of the Jackie Mittoo instrumental Iron Side. The rhythm was recorded at Studio One and also released by Lincoln on several separate LPs on his Bamboo label. This record is the perfect marriage of Jamaican and UK production skills, and the fact that Lincoln produced such a breathtaking tune over the rhythm shows that he was not to be taken lightly. The flip side – also Honey Boy – over the Studio One cut of Beat Down Babylon by Junior Byles is also an all-time favourite and equally stirring.