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Gussie Clarke - From The Foundation

The quotes used in these liner notes resulted from a stay in Jamaica during 2015, whilst working on a film about Gussie commissioned by VP Records. Only a fraction of the interviews I did were used in the documentary, but they proved invaluable when writing about Gussie's story, which is unique among Kingston record producers.

Gussie Clarke is not only a celebrated record producer – he has a reputation for being business-like and deservedly so. You need an appointment to sit down and talk with him, and a good reason to drive through the gates of 7 Windsor Avenue, where the single storey facilities nestle under shady trees, surrounded by tall walls. From the outside it’s deceptive. Anchor isn’t an idlers’ rest where artists and musicians congregate aimlessly, or music booms from the windows night and day. It’s only once you’re inside the actual premises that you get to understand why Anchor has been Jamaica’s busiest and most highly rated studio complex for the past twenty years.

There are three different studios but the flagship is Studio Two, which Gussie calls “the Church.” It’s one of those fabled “cathedrals of sound” we hear about – places where hits are born, and a reverential feeling descends upon you from the minute you cross the threshold. The attention to detail is impressive. It’s not only very well equipped, but every fixture has been sculpted to get the best possible audio quality. The voicing room can hold a full size band comfortably, whilst the spacious control area has hosted every reggae name you could mention, as well as foreign acts like Jason Mraz, Akon, Sting and Wyclef.

Gussie still produces the occasional track himself whenever he discovers an artist he particularly likes, but his output has slowed considerably since he launched Anchor during the mid-nineties. He’d been pushing at the boundaries of reggae music for over two decades by then and instigated changes that have had a tremendous impact on the industry as a whole – more of which later.

His story, as outlined in the selection of tracks and film documentary presented here, is a triumph of self-reliance and ingenuity, coupled with tremendous determination. It began back in 1953, with his birth in St. Mary’s. Gussie was adopted soon afterwards and moved to an address in Church Street, in downtown Kingston. Whilst still at school he made some speaker boxes and started his own sound-system called King Gussie’s Hi-Fi. He also developed an interest in electronics and after leaving Kingston College in 1970, embarked upon his career as a record producer aged seventeen.

“I guess that I was destined to be in music and to do what I’ve been doing because I’ve always been a creative person, coming up with ideas and looking for human resources that can assist me in delivering them,” he says. “I usually save my lunch money to buy electrical parts because I had a technical bent and made an amplifier which I swapped with Errol Dunkley for a cut of the Baby I Love You rhythm, and then I voiced U Roy’s The Higher The Mountain on that. From there I began importing foreign records into Jamaica and sold them to all the top sound-systems, and I bought a dub machine from Duke Reid at Treasure Isle and cut dubs upstairs at that same little wooden house in Church Street. We were doing so good that nearly every record producer in Jamaica took their two-track tapes and gave them to me so that I could sell them to the sound-systems as dub-plates. It’s like I became the promotional arm of the music in Jamaica at that time and even abroad, because that’s when I also started exporting records to shops in England and New York.”

Gussie inherited his first label from Leonard Chin. The name “Puppy” suited him because of the youngster’s fondness for dogs, although there was no mistaking the maturity he brought to his various projects. His first two albums featured Big Youth and I Roy, who were among the top deejays in Jamaica at that time. Both had an immediate impact on the reggae market after Trojan Records issued them in 1973. I Roy’s Presenting I Roy included the hit singles Buck And The Preacher and Black Man Time, whilst Gussie says that Big Youth’s Screaming Target deserves an entry in the Guinness Book Of Records as it was recorded, mixed and manufactured within less than twenty-four hours.

“Big Youth was just coming on the scene at that point,” he recalls. “We recorded all of the tracks at Dynamic Sounds. It was edited by Sid Bucknor; we mastered it that same night, printed the sleeves and then it went straight into the UK because I left for England the very next day. It was phenomenal.”

It’s Big Youth’s voice you can hear on the intro of The Higher The Mountain. He then reappears on Strictly Rockers and Must Be Revelation, which first saw light of day on a various artists’ compilation called Rockers Lyrics, issued on the Gussie label in 1976. That same year Gussie produced Hortense Ellis on a cover of Jose Feliciano’s Unexpected Places, which he later licensed to Hawkeye Records in the UK. Another various artists’ set called Gussie Presents The Right Tracks came next. One of the highlights was Tommy McCook’s The Right Track, which is an instrumental gem from the former Skatalites’ tenor sax player.

“If you look at that album you can see me standing alongside that old dub cutting machine which I had upstairs in Church Street,” says Gussie. “That was the probably the best part of my life back there. Everything was just so spontaneous and there was so much love in the music. We weren’t thinking of money. We just loved what we were doing and felt good when a song was out and everybody in England was coming to buy it and export it back there. It was passion time.”

Another UK reggae label called Burning Sounds issued Gussie’s next few albums, starting with Black Foundation Dub and Funny Feeling in 1977. The latter was a various artists’ set featuring tracks by Augustus Pablo (No Entry), Gregory Isaacs (Loving Pauper), Delroy Wilson and Dennis Brown, whose To The Foundation remains a classic of the Jamaican roots canon. It’s arguably one of Dennis Brown’s best-ever songs, and exudes a sense of brotherhood from every note.

“Actually there was this guy who had a sound-system in Waterhouse and he built the rhythm. I can’t remember his name, but he was no longer interested in music and so I bought it from him; went to Dennis, he wrote the song and I thought it was so good I had him write another song for it as well. We actually re-recorded the rhythm maybe two different times but Dennis was such a great guy to work with and I never had a problem with him. He was a real gentleman and musically, we loved what each other did.”

A little-known cut of To The Foundation by vibes player Lennie Hibbert features on this anthology, and proves every bit as essential as his recordings for Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label. By this time Gussie had begun working with Trinity, Leroy Smart and the Mighty Diamonds, who gave him his biggest success to date with Pass The Kochie – a hymn to the holy sacrament of ganja smoking that afforded listeners a front seat at a Rasta gathering, or grounation. This record was a massive hit in the dancehalls, but it was Musical Youth (with Pass The Dutchie) and unseen publishing interests that reaped the rewards.

“The Diamonds’ publishing was signed to somebody in America and I was like, ‘okay, this song made so much money out of my idea but I have no benefit so I need to get an understanding of this whole thing called copyright,’” says Gussie. “As of then anything we recorded we had to own the copyright to it, because building the rhythm and developing the artists was my investment.”

Gussie started his own music publishing business after this experience, which he calls “an awakening.” He’d moved into premises at 56 Slipe Road by this time, not far from Crossroads. His operation was now called Music Works, and consisted of an office-cum-storeroom and a toilet that he would eventually convert into a vocal booth. The studio wouldn’t be complete for another few years yet. In the meantime Gussie continued recording tracks at Channel One or Harry J’s, using a complement of musicians centred on Sly and Robbie’s Taxi Gang. Albums by the Mighty Diamonds and Delroy Wilson, whose Worth Your Weight In Gold set included Come In Heaven and Is It Because I’m Black date from this period, circa 1983-84. That’s when U Roy recorded Everybody Hustling; Pam Hall turned the Stylistics’ Children Of The Nightinto a reggae classic and Larry Marshall revisited Throw Me Corn, which he’d originally voiced for Coxsone. Greensleeves issued the Music Works’ version on a 12” single b/w Tetrack’s Tribal Warriorswhich like Trappers, was taken from their Trouble album. Tetrack were a vocal group from Mountain View Avenue led by Carlton Hinds, who would become a key member of Gussie’s song-writing team. He wrote Let Off Sup’m for Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, together with a majority of other songs from the duo’s Judge Not album. Five years later they repeated the feat with Big All Around, which again dominated the reggae charts and airwaves.

“They were concept records,” explains Gussie. “Dennis and Gregory were stars by themselves but whenever those two met at a stage-show, here’s a great song for both of them to do together and bring the house down. That was the thinking, and that’s how those songs came about. It was the same thing with Freddie and Dennis. If they all ended up on the same show, here is a great song they can sing together and the crowd will love it. It was an example of visionary thinking and of course they were all such good friends to begin with.”

Greensleeves would release most of Gussie’s productions in Europe from now on, and issued Gregory Isaacs’ Private Beach Party just as reggae’s love affair with computers began in 1985.

“When I first met Gregory, I was riding a small Honda 50 bike and selling records,” says Gussie. “I have never met anyone so quick-witted as Gregory. When we were at Dynamics recording Private Beach Party, he wrote something and I said, ‘what is the name of the song?’ He said Nick Of Time, because he’d just written it in the nick of time.’ He would come up with a topic and just create a song out of it. That’s how he was. He was just wired that way. I remember one time Gregory said he was sending a representative of his staff to see me. This young man came with a letter saying he was authorised to collect royalty payments but you know what was strange? Where his signature should have been, Gregory had drawn a picture of his gun! He was funny...”

The singer would enjoy great success with Music Works over the next few years. His 1986 hit Rumours was the first track recorded at Slipe Road, once Gussie had finished building his own studio. The song had originally been penned for the Mighty Diamonds but those outlaw lyrics proved a far better fit for Mr. Isaacs and Rumours remains a dancehall anthem to this day.

The opening of Music Works coincided with a new era for reggae. Whereas other producers looked to cut costs and make inferior digital versions of existing rhythms, Gussie created his own sound and also modus operandi. Like Berry Gordy of Motown, he hired talented songwriters to come up with material for specific artists, which he’d then present to them in demo format.

“We took a different approach really because I took the view that you had to understand the concept of the record even before the song is written. You need to have an idea of where you want it to go and how you want it to work, and then you just execute it. It’s not like now where a producer gets a rhythm from one man and then tells an artist to sing on it without knowing what the hell they’re going to do. For me, the song has to be interpreted correctly and if I pay someone to voice the song and it doesn’t end up how I’d like it to be, then I’m going to get someone else to do it.

“One of the things that made a lot of difference is that I always knew how to find good songs. I had good writers and I chose good songs. I didn’t take a song because you are the singer and you present the song to me. No, if I don’t like the song, then we are not going to do it. To my mind it’s the song that makes a singer and not the other way round.”

His alliance with Greensleeves went into overdrive during 1987, even as Jamaica reeled in the wake of Hurricane Gilbert. The Mighty Diamonds’ The Real Enemywas their strongest cultural outing in years thanks to songs like Gang War, Free Africaand the title track. A reworking of their former Channel One hit Mr. Bodyguard was the big hit from their follow-up set Get Readybut it was J. C Lodge’s Telephone Love that opened the door for reggae and dancehall in the US, and best defined Gussie’s approach to production. Mixing engineer Steven Stanley played a key role in the sound of that record with its sampled background vocals and “rolled orchestra” effects. Gussie calls him “the best engineer Jamaica has or has ever had” and likens him to Picasso.

“He would take each song like it was a piece of art,” he says. “He would hear what you have, take your idea, strip it down and twist it around until he gets what he’s hearing in his head. He made things different and if he can’t find the sound he’s looking for then he’ll go and get a synthesiser or a keyboard and tweak or fine tune it until he gets what he wants.” Stanley had recently arrived back in Jamaica from Compass Point studios in Nassau, where he’d worked on hits by Grace Jones, Tom Tom Club and other international acts. His wizardry at the mixing-board made a tremendous difference to the Music Works’ sound, as heard on the various artists’ set Music Works Showcase 88 (featuring Lady G’s Nuff Respect) and Gregory Isaacs’ Red Rose For Gregory. The standout tracks on that album – all former Greensleeves’ 12”s – included Rumours, Rough Neck and Mind Yu Dis, which became the centrepiece of Music Works Showcase 89. Music Works was now taking computerised reggae and dancehall to another level. The sound they produced fitted in well with the new jack swing and hip-hop then dominating the US market and was founded in a number of different factors including an enviable roster of talent (in all departments); a willingness to embrace new technology, astute business practice and traditional production skills. A talented generation of younger musicians had emerged led by members of the Browne family, and they formed the core of Gussie’s house band. The sound they created continued to push at the boundaries whilst enjoying good sales, which is a rare combination in any genre.

As Music Works’ fame began to spread, some of the UK’s leading reggae talent made the trip to Slipe Road, including Aswad, Maxi Priest, jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine and Deborah Glasgow, whose Champion Lover co-starred Shabba Ranks, and was the forerunner of Shabba’s chart-topping Mr. Loverman. J. C Lodge was also London-born, but had been raised in Jamaica from childhood. Her 1990 album Selfish Lover included Telephone Love and other songs written and arranged by Mikey Bennett – a singer with Home T4, and a talented all-rounder in the studio. After Gussie provided him with the opportunities to realise his potential, Mikey worked on a series of hit records that will forever stand as landmarks. He and Shabba Ranks worked especially well together. They had the “golden touch,” and lost no time proving it. It’s the latter’s commanding tone that announces, “One station, it couldn’t run England” on Pirate’s Anthem, credited to Home T, Cocoa Tea & Shabba Ranks, and the track certainly lived up to its name. There was an army of pirate radio stations being hounded by authorities in the UK, and no stopping Pirate’s Anthem as the nineties began.

Mikey Bennett had recently launched his own Two Friends label and 1991 was his year, even as Gussie embarked upon album projects featuring Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor and Cocoa Tea. The latter also starred on the no-holds-barred Gang War, shared with Cutty Ranks, who’d replaced Shabba in the Pirate’s Anthem line-up. These recordings were among the last Gussie produced at the Slipe Road address. He knew that if he were to realise his ambition of building Jamaica’s most advanced recording studio then he would need larger premises. Looking back, he calls the old Music Works’ studio “makeshift” but it took over two years before the facilities at Windsor Avenue become fully operational. It was at this point that Gussie reverted to using Anchor as his company name.

One of the first things he did at Anchor was to install a Soundcraft console in Studio Three. That’s where he produced Gregory Isaacs’ Absent with the singer nowhere to be seen on the cover, and his hat and jacket draped over an empty chair. It’s an enduring image, but then both men shared a good sense of humour. Work on the new studio complex was finally completed in 1995, around the same time Gussie discovered a young deejay called Daddy Rings. Soon, there would be a queue of producers wanting to hire Anchor. Its success quickly exceeded all expectations and led to Gussie devoting most of his time to administrative, rather than recording matters. He’s still got the gift however, as heard on the last three tracks included here. Sizzla recorded most of his Xterminator hits in Anchor’s Studio Two, and responds magnificently to Gussie’s direction on the modern-day roots hymn Put All My Trust In Jah. The principles that have underpinned Gussie Clarke’s musical career these past forty-five years continue to serve him well, and Get Well Soon, which boasts an extraordinary all-star line-up, is again produced to the highest standards. Finally Cuban singer Mey Vidal, who played a pivotal role in the birth of reggaeton, offers proof of dancehall’s far-reaching influence on artists from around the world withTing A Ling A Ling, whilst confirming Anchor’s reputation as Jamaica’s foremost centre for reggae music.

John Masouri


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