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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.

EXTRACT 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.”

John Masouri

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