Errol Bellot & Jah Bunny interviewed by David Hill – April 2013
David Hill: Could you tell me a little about where you were born and what life was
like growing up?
Jah Bunny: I was born in Allman Town, in Kingston. Kingston 4. It was lovely
growing up as a boy in Jamaica, it was quiet, and in my area it was really quiet,
but it was a lot of fun. I used to listen to the radio for different sounds coming
from abroad. Jamaica used to have its own radio stations, Rediffusion, RJR, and
Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation, JBC. They would play sounds from all over
the world, but when Ska happened – Jamaican music – I was really interested
in that and paid a lot of attention to the way the drum pattern changed. I love
the drums since I was a boy.
DH: I know that Ska had a huge impact as prior to that Jamaican music had been
based upon American R&B, particularly the sounds from New Orleans.
JB: Oh yes it did, it was in ’60-’61 when the music changed from American
boogie and the drum pattern got more uptempo. I was listening to Drumbago –
Arkland Parks is his right name – he was well known on the drum session scene
and worked for Treasure Isle and Coxsone. Tracks like ‘Musical Communion’ (by the Baba Brooks Orchestra) and ‘Rough and Tough’ (by Stranger Cole), Delroy Wilson’s ‘Spit in the Sky’ and The Maytals ‘Six and Seven Books of Moses’ – those were the new sounds coming from Jamaica.
DH: So you must have been a boy when independence came?
JB: Yes, we were celebrating and feeling glad that we’d got our independence and we hoped for a better future for Jamaica.
DH: Could you tell me about your friend Keith Sterling who first took you to Studio One?
JB: Well, I ended up at Studio One because I wanted to meet Lloyd Knibbs (the drummer in The Skatalites). He created this new style of drumming – the Ska drumming – and was the originator of the One Drop. He had all these different styles, with magnificent rolls, accents and all that. There was real high energy in his playing and his inspiration is still with me today.
Sterling said he could take me to see him at Studio One, and when I asked how we were going to get in, because it was pretty tight to get into the studio, he said not to worry, because his brother Lester is in The Skatalites. So he took me up to Brentford Road, and as I went in I could see all the musicians arriving. I saw Don Drummond with his girlfriend Margarita, Roland Alphanso, Lloyd Knibbs, and Tommy McCook. Then further down in the yard there was the Wailers, the original Wailers, Bob Marley, Beverley Kelso, Junior Braithwaite, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, and they were rehearsing in the yard. I remember Bob playing the rhythm with a guitar and they were rehearsing ‘Simmer Down’, but they didn’t have a record at the time. I can remember Roland saying to Lester that these youngsters really sound nice, and of course no-one realised where the band would get to!
I was taken in the studio when the session was going to start, so I went in and have a little look around. I saw the musicians and the instruments being set up, and I was sitting opposite my mentor, Lloyd Knibbs, paying attention, looking at everything. Coxsone come round looking for idlers who he don't want in the studio, and Keith had to vouch for me.
The first track made on that day was [The Wailers] ‘Straight and Narrow Way’, and the singer that led was Junior Braithwaite. It became very popular in Jamaica and it used to play on all the sound system. The second track recorded was ‘Simmer Down’. Don Drummond created the intro for that track and the back-up sound, so I was experiencing the whole way of how they make the music. The studio was a big room with six microphones, two boom mics – one for the horn section, which was about six or seven horn pieces, and the other boom mic was for the group to sing on. Then there were other mics for the drums, bass and all that. So this is all happening in this one big room and it’s going down to two track ¼” [tape] on a 7” spool. It was eq’ed up – there was no individual tracks like we have now – it was a room balance, and it’s all set. If there was a take where the voice was a bit low, Coxsone would come out [of the control room] and say, “Can you step a bit closer to the mic”, and they’d do a second take.
DH: So it was musician placement in those days, not mic placement?
JB: Yes, yes! On that day I also remember seeing Jackie Opal, who’s from Barbados, but he lived in Allman Town, just a few streets from me. He was there singing with Doreen Schaeffer and they sing ‘Welcome You Back Home’ and then ‘Push Wood In Fire’ (‘Push Wood’). Coxsone asked me and Keith to emphasise the lyrics “Push in the fire”, so on the first day I’m at Studio One I get a bit of backing vocal work – that’s my first recording! I also remember when ‘Addis Ababa’ (by The Skatalites) was recorded. Don Drummond had come up with his masterpiece and was demonstrating it [to the band] before they started rehearsing. I remember Coxsone came out and asked Lloyd Knibbs not to play a Ska beat, so he played more of a Nyabinghi repeater style on the track. By then I'd moved beside him and I was watching him keenly like a hawk, watching every move he’s doing on the drums. I tell him that I love his style, and he said to me, “Watch me young boy, watch me!”
DH: I know that you saw Lloyd Knibbs in London in mid-90s, did he remember you from that session when you were a young boy?
JB: Well, he was scratching his head at first and then remember, but (Lloyd) Brevett and Roland (Alphanso) remember me quick, because to get in the studio I started to do my kindly deeds (laughs). I’d go out to buy them beer and cake, because there was a shop nearby (Brentford Road). One time, when they had a lunch break from the session and went to get the ackee, saltfish and yam that was cooking in the yard, so I went on the drum kit and Keith went on the piano and we started playing. For some reason I couldn't help it! I’m playing Ska on the drums and they all rush back in, and when they see me on the drums they start laughing and said, “Yes young boy, go on, get on with it!”
DH: So was the first record you recorded in JA, or when you got to London?
JB: No, after that, me and my mates were still going to blues dances, listening to Coxsone and Duke Reid, you know, still the everyday vibes. I was hoping we could build a band together but my dad was preparing to bring me over to England, and then he sent for me in 1965.
DH: What do you remember of the change, moving from Jamaica and then arriving in London?
JB: Well I wanted to come but when I get here it was cloudy and cold and I miss my family a lot. I was living in Clapton, so it was from eastern Kingston to east London! My dad asked if I wanted to work, so I said yes, and in Jamaica I used to like mechanics, spraying cars and all that, so I was working in garage, but I still [felt] destined to play the drums and form a band. I had this dream that I become the best of my trade, the best drummer in England.
I just strive on with life and start searching for musicians in London. I met a few guys who play different instruments, and one drummer I met was called Sleepy – Ruben’s his name – and he was doing Calypso at the time. I met him in 1966 in Finsbury Park and he gave me a little time on his drum kit. He’s playing with Ska Cubano now.
Along the way I also met a singer called Gene Rondo, who sang ‘Prisoner of Love’. We started talking about forming a band. At the time, which would be about 1967, we started rehearsing with some friends and this was the beginning of The Undivided band.
I’d also started working with Trojan Records in Ridley (Road) market, because I knew who played on the tracks and could recognise the musicians, so the manager gave me a job there. At the time my Dad bought me a drum kit and in the evening I used to rehearse with Gene Rondo and Floyd Lawson, who played bass, and a guy named Joe Sinclair, who played the keyboards, and we formed a band called The Trojans. I’m very grateful for that drum kit.
Then when Bob and Marcia hit with ‘Young Gifted and Black’, we start touring with them and my first UK national tour was something like ten days. We played Leeds, Birmingham, Brighton, Southend. I remember there was a gig at a club in Venn Street, Huddersfield, and it was lovely, the people them come up on stage, because the stage was so low too, and they hug Bob and Marcia, cheer and lift them up. I had a good time with them on the road.
DH: Did you play with anyone else at that time?
JB: After the Trojan band, The Undivided started to build up and we were doing sessions for various labels.
DH: So The Undivided started before The Trojans, but was put on hold, and then picked up again later?
JB: Yes, that’s right. We were doing sessions for various producers, like Mr Coke, who lived in Stoke Newington and had the Magnet label. We also did a few sessions for Metro Downbeat, a sound from the 60s and 70s – he built a lot of amplifiers for Jah Shaka, and he’s a great electrician. We recorded ‘Eastern Standard Time’ and a track called ‘Hucklebuck’, and that track appear on Harry Moodie’s Moodisc label. We also worked with Alton Ellis when he first arrived here and we played with him all over London. Over the next few years we did a lot of sessions for the Third World label, Count Shelly, Sir Collins and the Dip label.
In 1974 we start collaborating with the Decca label and they ask us to do an album for them. They had a studio up in Finsbury Park where we recorded ‘Listen to the World’. That was our first major recording.
I’d also started doing sessions for Clement Bushay, Roy Shirley, Junior English and Mr Palmer (of Pama Records). I also did some work for Trojan labels Big Shot and Black Swan. On some of them I played percussion, like ‘Going West’, which was an instrumental with Rico for the Black Swan label, where I played bongos. I did Ijahman Levi, ‘Jah Heavy Load’ and ‘I’m A Levi’, I play on those and we did them down in Gooseberry Studios. People like my style, that I hold the tracks steady, and they like my personality, so I started sessioning for a lot of labels in London.
And then The Undivided started touring with Delroy Wilson, U Roy, Eric Donaldson, The Heptones.
DH: So is this The Undivided as support on the bill, or were you the backing band for the visiting Jamaican artists?
JB: This is the Undivided backing all these artists. When the guys come in from Jamaica they would go back and say to their friends, ‘Check Jah Bunny and his band, they can play the reggae properly’. This was in the days of the One Drop and the roots reggae in the mid-70s. So we were in the groove and were getting tighter, and it was good learning from the Jamaican artists about how to conduct ourselves on stage – each one had some different input on producing the stage show, so it was a good for our band.
DH: So that was from the early 70s to the mid 70s, how did you join Matumbe?
JB: Well, the Maytals were touring for the ‘Reggae Got Soul’ album, together with The Heptones, who had the ‘Night Food’ album out. Toots, he bring up his band from Jamaica, he had Winston Wright, Jackie Jackson on bass, Hux Brown, Dougie on guitar, and Paul Douglas on drums, and Island Records asked us to work with The Heptones. When the tour finished, The Undivided wanted to pack it in, but I didn't want to because I like to be making productions in the studio and making records, but the band decided to bring the curtain down on The Undivided.
At this time I’d been running a record shop in Dalston called Java, and when I was on tour with The Maytals and The Heptones, there was phone call that came through to the shop saying that Matumbi want me to play with them, ’cos news travel fast and they’d heard that The Undivided were splitting. It was Dennis (Bovell) who send the request for me to come and see him, so I go and we have a good talk. They’d been watching me, and they like me, so that was it. This is mid ’75.
DH: And at that point Matumbi must have been one of the highest profile British reggae bands?
JB: Oh yes. So I join Matumbi and started gigging, we played Birmingham, did a few shows in London, and were recording lots of tracks in the studio. We did an album called ‘Ah Who Say? Go Deh!’, and ‘Leggo (Ah-fi-we-dis)’ and ‘Scientific’, all on the Rama label, under the name Fourth Street Orchestra. And then we signed with EMI records (as Matumbi) and they released the ‘Seven Seals’ and ‘Point of View’ album and the ‘Point of View’ single entered the British charts.
We also did a lot of session stuff for Mr Harris, who had the Dip and Lover’s Rock labels. Mr Harris had an eight-track studio in his basement in Brockley, where we did lots with Brown Sugar, tracks like ‘I’m in Love With a Dreadlocks’, ‘Black Pride’ and ‘Hello Stranger’. We also worked with Winston Edwards at Studio 16 and Winston Curtis at Empire Records, in Stoke Newington. We did a lot of stuff for him, like Freddie Clarke and Samantha Rose in ’76, ’77. We then did session work for the Arawak label and S&G – we worked for most of the labels in London.
DH: This would be about the time of the Main Line label, could you tell me about that?
JB: Well, I wanted to form my own label, and my first released production was ‘Stick By I’ on a label I formed called Peace, and Roy Shirley was the singer for that. Then the second track was ‘Six and Seven Books of Moses’, a rendition of The Maytals track, and that was the first release on the Main Line label, and after that it was ‘African Love’ (‘Gimme Gimme African Love’).
DH: This wasn’t the Jamaican African Brothers though was it?
JB: No, I just like the name, and to be honest with you, I didn't know the African Brothers. That’s me singing, and I wrote and produced it, with Dennis Bovell on the bass and us both on harmonies. It was the best seller for me and I recently re-released it on 10”. Then there was the Freddie Clarke and Debbie Rivers that were on Main Line. Then I had a dub album in ’81 called ‘Dubs International’, and in the late 80s, that’s when the Must Dance label arrived, so we keep the productions flowing.
DH: And it was when you had Main Line that you won the best drummer award for your work with Matumbi?
JB: Yes, in 1977 I won Best Drummer in the Black Echoes Reggae Awards, which was presented to me by Rupie Edwards. It was the first reggae award of its kind.
DH: Errol, could you tell me about your background?
Errol Bellot: I was born in 1963 in St. Giles hospital in Peckham, in SE5, and then in 1968 my parents bought a house on Monica Road in Forest Gate. I was about nine when I left the country and we went to Dominica. We were there for about a year, but my father had some finance problems with the house, so we all had to come back. I stayed with some friends in Forest Hill and then we moved to Plaistow and then to Bow, where we lived in a block of flats. At that time in the 70s we lived in the deep poverty, ’cos east London was the worst part – Poplar, Limehouse, it was so hard down there. It was the roughest area.
I was twelve years old when I first went to a dance. I remember sneaking out through a window, and I remember my mate Militant Mikey was with me. The first record I bought was Dennis Brown ‘We’re Having a Party’, and when we went to that party we didn’t have any money, all we had was that record. It was fifty pence to get into that rave, so we started begging our mates, and we made the fifty pence and got into the party. I played the Dennis Brown tune and vividly remember that there was a microphone that I picked it up, and so it started there.
I used to go to dance as youths and listen to Jah Tubby’s, and I remember there was a club called Saxon Club, not far from Roman Road, near the S&G record shop, and I said to Delroy Pinnock, “That’s the sound I want to be in”. And so said, so done.
DH: So when did you both meet?
JB: This was late 70s at Easy Street (studios).
Errol Bellot: Yes, it was down the studio at the Easy Street that used to be in Bethnel Green – the original place in the church. Smithy (the owner of S&G) always had the S&G lot in there, and I would say it was late ’79, early 1980.
DH: Jah Bunny, so you were in and out of S&G because you’d been doing sessions for them. What about you Errol?
EB: Well that’s when I had my first releases.
DH: This was ‘Babylon’ and then ‘Gimme’?
EB: Yes, it all started there and I did a year with S&G. I used to go to the S&G record shop because I used to live in the neighbourhood in Bow. We used to link up in Roman Road market and on Saturdays to buy our records, play bar football, and there used to be food round the back of the shop. That shop was mad and Smithy tried all sorts of things – one minute they’d have pool tables down in the basement and the next ping pong machines. Then the shop got a reputation and Smithy was in the local newspapers, because behind the back of the shop there were hundreds of purses that the sticksman used to shell, which means get rid of (after they’d stolen them at the market), and Smithy got done for it. Smithy didn't know nothing about it, he was just in his office blazin’ his herbs! There was a song that Black Slate made about it called ‘Sticksman’.
One day Smithy asked if me and Delroy could sing, so we said yeah, and we sang in a knockout competition at Columbo’s in Carnaby Street in the West End, which was The Roaring Twenties Club before. It was mid-week and was over four weeks, and Sir Coxsone, Lloydie Coxsone, was the resident in there. Smithy just wanted to try us to hear what were like.
DH: So it was a talent show that Delroy and yourself entered it to prove yourselves to Smithy?
EB: Yes, that’s right, and we got a year contract – this was just before Smithy formed the S&G label with Bertie Grant, who’s a producer. He’s the one who was behind Carroll Thompson, he discovered her. Bertie was the main producer and Smithy was the financer, so with Bernie came Carroll Thompson and Sugar Minott, and then all the musicians started coming in, Jah Bunny, Ras Elroy. They (S&G) were armed (with musicians), we basically had two of everything.
DH: Could you tell me about recording ‘Babylon’?
EB: I remember at the session they said to me, “Youth, what bassline you want?”, so I hummed them the bassline to Babylon. I wrote the song already and was helped by Henry Defoe, who was the guitarist in (jazz-funk band) Central Line. He was a distant cousin and used to visit our home because he liked my older sister.
DH: Jah Bunny, so you played on Errol’s S&G tracks?
JB: Yes, and on Carroll Thompson’s albums and the single ‘Hopelessly in Love’.
DH: So that’s how you first hooked up?
EB: Yes, I did a year and then I left S&G.
DH: Why was that?
EB: Well I would say it was to do with money because I was young and naive. Me and Delroy, we were so close and we felt that we weren’t being treated right. We felt that there was more of a spotlight on Carroll Thompson and that she was getting more work than us. We felt that Carroll was given more priority and that we were the support. They wanted to sign us again [for a second year], but we said no, we didn't want to sign anything.
DH: Wasn’t there a documentary on the shop?
EB: LWT did a documentary on Carroll Thompson and Sugar Minott and about the S&G shop. They came to the shop to do an interview with Carroll Thompson, filmed inside the shop and outside of it, and then they recorded me down in the cellar rehearsing. I was just there, I didn’t know anything about the filming – I was just rehearsing on the mic. I’d love to get a copy of that!
DH: And after S&G?
EB: Then I linked up with Jah Bunny and recorded the songs on this album. These songs were built here (at Jah Bunny’s home studio in Hackney).
DH: Jah Bunny, so that was when you’d just completed your studio?
JB: Yes, that would be late ’82.
EB: And I started coming round in ’83, ’cos the work I did with Jah B was ’83, ’84, ’85.
DH: So Errol, were you on sound systems as well at that time, or was it just studios?
EB: Yeah, I was flexing with Tubbs (Jah Tubby’s), and then later on I was with Unity Sound.
JB: That was Chappy Dread times.
EB: That’s right, and this is where the Bertie Grant story comes in. Chappy Dread is one of the bredrens who’s an elder and who have a corner, a spot where lot of artists come round, and he was based in Forest Gate, and Chappy is a good mate of Bertie. It was Chappy who heard me one night with Jah Tubby’s sound and he was impressed and said, “Bellot, you’ve got to make some records, it's time for you to make some records now”. I was doing sing-jay style, and at the time people used to class me as a Little John, with the voice I had. I could do dancehall and so I sharpen up my tool more and I started working with Jah Bunny, because Jah Bunny gave me more freedom to express myself.
DH: So you were more of a voice for hire before and then Jah Bunny gave you more creative input?
EB: Yes, because this is where I really start to find myself as a singer.
DH: Can you tell me about the sessions, were they all recorded here in Jah Bunny’s house?
EB: Yes, Jah B had his studio with his brother [Red-Eye] Errol. They had a four-track tape machine that he’d use to bounce the tracks, and there was a separate room with the drum kit in. It was rare that I’d buck up (see) Elroy (Ras Elroy, the bass player), I would come at a certain time and if there was riddim, I voiced on them. At the time I trying to improve my writing and I had the freedom to sing on the tracks that were laid down there. Elroy came and did his thing, Matic 16 come, and I just come and did my bit and I’m away again. It wasn’t a jamming session, but there was a vibe.
JB: Yes, and the backing tracks were built already.
EB: With the songs, you could say that we had the basic tracks already, drums, bass keyboard and guitar, and when my voice went on it, then we started building – and Matic would come in and blow. Jah B had raw tracks, and after I’d voiced he would work the sounds around it, so you could say it was created around the songs.
DH: Why did the tracks sit on the shelf for such a long time and remain unfinished until recently?
JB: Well, I’m a small record company and there were so many songs and we didn't have the money to put them all out.
DH: Which tracks were released?
EB: There was only one of mine and it was ‘Rootsman’. It came out in 2006. It was just the funds.
JB: And in the early days, I used to sell some of the songs on dub to sound guys to get some promotion. Like Regal in Lower Clapton, he would sell them for me so I could test them out.
DH: So it's possible that someone out there has dub cuts of some of these tracks and they were played by sounds back in the day?
JB: Yes, back in the days, and probably ‘Rootsman’ was one of them.
DH: Were you tight with any particular sounds that you would do specials for?
JB: No, I was more in the studio working, there were just a few friends that would pass through, and one was Afrikan Simba. He would hire the studio and do his own specials here.
DH: Errol, so the next records that you released would have been for Jah Tubby’s in 1985, so you had a period of four years without having a record out?
EB: Yes, it was Tubby’s and I also gave Unity Sound five songs. There was ‘Wicked and Wild’, which was on the ‘Fret Not Yourself’ riddim, which is a King Jammys riddim, ’cos Ribs (Robert Fearon, who formed Unity Sound) used to deal with Jammys, and he gave me some tracks.
DH: Could you tell me about ‘The Wicked Them’ session, how did that come about?
EB: That was same time that I started coming to work with Jah Bunny. I used to have a little sound system I flex with, and Tony Davis, who was a good mate of mine, financed it. The sound we had was called Jet Sounds, and we used to play some little parties in Wembley Park, and all over the place. One day, my mate Tony, who knew what I was going through as a singer, he said we should go in the studio so that I can produce my own tune. He just wanted to give me an opportunity for myself. I made The Wicked Them at Mark Angelo’s in Britten Street, Farringdon. Lyndell Lewis was the engineer and he guided me through making my tracks. I used my own band, because at S&G there were two bands, the seniors’ band, and me, Delroy, Leslie Caesar and Ivan Douglas, and we had our band, and ours was a young band. So I took them in Farringdon and created ‘Don’t Joke With Love’ and ‘The Wicked Them’. I recorded it, produced it and release the record, and this was in ’83.
DH: So was Tony producing that session with you?
EB: No it was just me. Tony just financed it. He paid for the studio and the 2” Ampex tape and all that.
DH: Could you tell me about how you met up with Ras Elroy?
JB: I saw Elroy playing with Black Slate in the mid-70s in [a club called] Phoebe’s, and I like his personality. I used to get a lot of sessions and people would check me and ask me to get a side (band) together, so this is when I start to bring Elroy in. We’d be playing for lots of different producers, Winston Curtis, Les Cliff, Count Shelly, Sir Collins – we played on lots of hit records, and this helped to build up his reputation of being one of the best bass players in England. We groove together in combination like Sly and Robbie, or Brevett and Knibbs, and so on. Actually, in an interview that they did in London, Sly and Robbie recommended me and Elroy as the best drum and bass in England! We’re still working together and we’re just happy for that. Cool and happy, we just stick to the groove.
EB: I know Elroy from when we were youths, but I really got to know him via S&G, cos he used to flex there and do sessions. And with Must Dance, I was always on the bill and Elroy was always the bassie, so over the years I got to know him well. Around 2000, we did some work together for King Original and a label called Studio 55. He always stick up for the talented youths out there and he does a lot of community work to give them opportunity. He’s helped a lot of young musicians and is well known in the community.
DH: So like Sugar Minott did with Youth Promotion?
EB: Yeah definitely, and Sugar actually sang on one of Elroy’s personal tunes.
JB: Elroy also played bass on Carroll Thompson’s ‘I’m So Sorry’, Jean Adebambo’s ‘Paradise’, Pablo Gadd’s ‘Hard Times’ and Winston Reedy’s ‘Dim The Lights’.
EB: And Sugar Minott was on ‘Gimme’, my second song. If you listen to the harmonies, it’s me and Sugar Minott. A lot of people didn’t realise that – it’s him on the DJ part as Papa Honey. Looking back, I feel so honoured that Sugar was on my tune, but it’s only since Sugar’s gone that it’s really hit me how much of an honour. Sugar was always good with all of us, because he recognised young talent and he helped us.
DH: So finally, thirty years later, and with the help of Dougie at Conscious Sounds, these tracks are finally going to see the light of day.
EB: Yes, it’s all been worthwhile now, the way it's come together, and I give thanks to Jah B for looking after me voice. I always knew that the tracks were safe and I just want people to hear them now.
Copyright David Hill 2013