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Steely & Clevie - Old To The New

It was VP Records' Murray Elias who conceived and oversaw this tribute to Jamaican producer Joe Gibbs, and then commissioned me to write the liner notes. He had to fight hard for the album's biggest hit - Sean Paul & Sasha's I'm Still In Love With You - although I doubt anyone else could have breathed new life into this collection of seventies' hits so successfully as Steely and Clevie.

When Steely & Clevie recorded an album of Studio One recreations using several veteran artists who’d helped producer Coxsone Dodd celebrate thirty-five years of his famous label in 1992, the results would reverberate throughout the entire reggae industry. Leading sound-systems began searching out long-forgotten artists to voice specials, and revival shows proliferated in Jamaica, where history is traditionally measured in weeks, and only rarely decades. The sessions for this same album also yielded the recut version of Dawn Penn’s ‘No, No, No’ that would subsequently prove a worldwide hit two years later, surprising everyone who’d thought a classic rub-a-dub tune stood no chance amidst competition from younger dancehall stars like Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton.

With Steely & Clevie at the controls, they should have known better. This two-man team have influenced reggae’s every significant development of note since their emergence during the mid-eighties, and continue to explore new horizons at will, as demonstrated by the stream of trail-blazing records released on their own Studio 2000 label. That they remain ahead of the game is indisputable, but with their roots firmly locked in the music of the mid-to-late seventies, both men retain an unshakable admiration of their predecessors, and are serious students of past reggae styles and sounds.

It was with these exceptional skills in mind that Murray Elias approached them to reinterpret some classic Joe Gibbs’ tracks in 1999 – VP Records’ A&R director having already chosen every track and listed his favoured artists before recording began in the summer of 2000. The results now speak for themselves. The old and new schools of reggae are bridged like never before and in such compelling fashion, listeners of both generations will find equal cause for rejoice.

Murray had been a DJ in New York clubs like the Ritz, Tunnel, Danceteria, Mud Club and Limelight during the late seventies, providing an essential, musical antithesis to the fare served up in disco clubs. It’s testament to Joe Gibbs’ records of this period – and Errol T’s scintillating mixes in particular – that every other DJ in New York started playing them, thus establishing an important early foothold for reggae on the US club scene. Murray subsequently ran Joe Gibbs’ office in Manhattan, and credits Errol Thompson with being “way ahead of his time. He had a modern sound, not like Studio One for instance, because it wasn’t so limited or “time-cast” by the technology of the period. That’s why so many of his records like ‘Someone Loves You Honey’, ‘Money In My Pocket’ and ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ became anthems, because those tunes were massive club hits in New York.”

“We too are from the old school,” explains Cleveland “Clevie” Browne, who made his reputation at Studio One as a drummer, playing on hits by Freddie McGregor and Johnny Osbourne before joining forces with Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson and spearheading reggae’s digital revolution (most notably at King Jammys’) during the early eighties. Steely himself was a founder member of the Roots Radics, and played keyboards on memorable sides by Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott, among others. They first played together on a session for Augustus Pablo in 1974, years before pooling their talents as a regular double act, and also played on songs from Bob Marley’s posthumous ‘Confrontation’ album, including ‘Trenchtown’ and ‘Stiff Necked Fools’. A former member of the Browne Bunch and In Crowd, as well as an occasional sideman for Joe Gibbs during the late seventies, Clevie says that he and Steely had a younger generation of listeners in mind when working on this latest project, even whilst honouring past glories.

“This is what helps keep great music alive, and whilst most of those early producers had their own recognisable sound, at Joe Gibbs they used to mix directly from the mixing console, and that was what gave his music its real identity. Also he had several engineers there who were all excellent, and who brought a slightly different character to his productions.

“In our case, we wanted to get as close to that original Joe Gibbs’ style as possible, even though we were using what I call ani-digital, which is a combination of analogue and digital technology. Having gone through the whole computer revolution, Steely and I are able to analyse the roots of a particular style of music, and then try to get as close to that as possible. Having said that, we didn’t want to just recreate those old songs, but also needed to add something of ourselves to the project, making them sound as good, if not better according to the original producer’s intentions.

“We’ve also attempted to showcase some of our elder musical statesmen, and to give the younger generation of fans something they can relate to by combining elements from both eras. Because current, popular artists like Luciano sound very good on those old rhythms as well, but whilst that song ‘Identity’ is perfect for him, there are youngsters who don’t know of the Mighty Diamonds or the many other pioneers from that earlier era. With this in mind, we’ve tried to use the original artists wherever possible. Alas, Dennis Brown has passed away, so we had to find artists who could bring something of that old school feel to his songs, and represent him in the best possible way. Having said that, his presence is felt throughout the album, which is only right, since he was the main artist in Joe Gibbs’ stable.”

More than a tribute, these new versions not only recapture the original Joe Gibbs’ sound, but also reshape it to fit in seamlessly with contemporary developments – a statement borne out by the excitement that greeted the first few tracks to be previewed in Jamaica itself, with Sean Paul & Sasha’s electrifying performance of ‘I’m Still In Love’ being especially well-received. In their hands and those of the other artists featured on this ground-breaking set, the legacy of Joe Gibbs lives on as never before, confirming his status as one of reggae’s best and most influential producers.

Real name Joel A. Gibson, he was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1945. After training as an electronics engineer in the USA, he opened a television repair shop at 32 Beeston Street in downtown Kingston, from where he also sold records and was soon to install primitive two track recording facilities. It was Lee “Scratch” Perry who supervised Gibbs’ initial batch of recordings, which began in January 1967. These included hits by Scratch himself as well as Roy Shirley, whose ‘Hold Them’ is widely acknowledged to be the first rocksteady recording. Gibbs’ success was unusual in that he didn’t own a sound-system, which was still the most effective vehicle for promotion at that time. He did however make a habit of employing the very best musicians on his sessions, and encouraged by Bunny Lee, was quick to realise the business opportunities then available to Jamaica’s progressive young producers.

In 1968 Trojan Records began licensing Gibbs’ recordings for the UK market. Niney the Observer then took over Perry’s role, and the latter’s parting proved far from amicable. Perry’s first self-production, ‘People Funny Boy’, was a spiteful retort at Gibbs, who counteracted it with the equally scathing ‘People Grudgeful’. In the meantime, Gibbs had moved his retail operation to 11 South Parade, and his recording equipment to the Kingston suburb of Duhaney Park, where he geared himself up for the new reggae era – the laidback, soulful strains of rocksteady having been replaced by a more insistent, rhythm-driven sound. The earliest recordings from this phase were released on the JoGibs, Pressure Beat and Shock labels, as well as Amalgamated, and in addition to a handful of early classics by Peter Tosh, included sides by a host of vocal groups headed by the Pioneers, who gave Gibbs his first crossover hit during the autumn of 1969 with ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’. Further success then arrived six months later with Nicky Thomas’ ‘Love Of The Common People’, which raced into the UK Top 10 the following June. Recordings by early dee-jay pioneers such as Count Machouki and Sir Lord Comic had now begun to supplement Gibbs’ unstoppable flow of vocal productions, as had early prototypes of what would later be called dub – i.e., his ‘News Flash Versions 1 & 2’.

Attracted by his success, the Heptones, Ethiopians, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Alcapone, Winston Scotland and former Jamaican child star Dennis Brown all linked up with Gibbs soon afterwards – the latter recording the original version of ‘Money In My Pocket’ on Gibbs’ new Record Globe label in 1972. That same year, Gibbs moved his retail outlet to 20 North Parade, just a few paces from Randy’s famous record store and studio operation, from whom the wily producer would soon recruit engineer Errol “T” Thompson. The first releases credited to the Mighty Two – Gibbs and Errol T – appeared in 1975, shortly after Gibbs relocated his studio to 24 Retirement Crescent and not only upgraded his equipment to sixteen track, but also added a pressing plant to his burgeoning empire.

Errol T had already mixed one of the first ever version albums (‘Java Java Java’) two years earlier, and would continue to release productions on his own Errol T label throughout the seventies. His outstanding dub techniques would soon be further showcased on Gibbs’ classic ‘African Chapter Of Dub’ series, which although featuring mainly recut rhythms, were laced with a dazzling array of sound effects, including sirens, ringing telephones, express trains and even barking dogs. Whilst Ruddy Thomas, Ossie Hibbert and Blacka Morwell were also regulars at the studio, contributing greatly with both engineering and production, it was ET’s technical expertise and imaginative sound explorations that were to define this phase of Joe Gibbs’ productions, and would leave an indelible stamp on the reggae music of the seventies.

From 76-77 onwards, their productions were released on a prolific number of different labels, including Belmont, Joe Gibbs, Town & Country, Reflections and Crazy Joe. This was the rockers era, as pioneered by the militant drumming of Sly Dunbar at Channel One, and later enshrined in the film of the same name, itself partially filmed at Gibbs’ studio. Dunbar, together with regular partner Robbie Shakespeare, Lloyd Parkes, Ossie Hibbert and premier Jamaican horn players Tommy McCook, Herman Marquis, Bobby Ellis and Vin Gordon were all mainstays of Gibbs’ famous studio band, the Professionals. It was the nucleus of this line up that ensured reggae immortality to so many of Joe Gibbs’ productions from this period, which not only arrived with increasing frequency, but found ET exploiting every possible advantage of the new 12” format with its wider grooves and enhanced playback performance. ET’s skilful mix of bass-heavy toughness and sharp, sweet mid-range and treble made the songs leap from the speakers with a vibrancy few other engineers could match, and Gibbs’ 12” releases with their distinctive orangey-red labels and full length singer/dee-jay sides subsequently dominated reggae dancehalls of the period, as well as impacting further afield on both the US and UK club scenes. Althea & Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ even topped the UK national charts in December 1977, their infectious rhymes riding a rhythm (reworked from a Studio One original) that had already propelled first Marcia Aitkens, then Trinity, to local fame in Jamaica.

By now, punk and reggae were captivating UK audiences in equal measure, and inspired by Bob Marley’s success, reggae’s leading practitioners were seriously redoubling their attempts to find a wider audience. Since the Joe Gibbs’ oeuvre encompassed something of everything, whether dread, Rastafarian themes, popular love songs or topical dancehall ditties – all mixed perfectly for sound-system, radio and mainstream use, and featuring the island’s leading talent – it’s little wonder his records proved so well-liked and influential. His impressive stable of acts included Culture (with their classic ‘Two Sevens Clash’ and ‘Baldhead Bridge’ albums), Gregory Isaacs, Junior Delgado, the Mighty Diamonds, Prince Far I, Trinity, Freddie McKay, Joy White, Bobby Melody, Glen Washington, Jah Thomas, Kojak & Lisa, Clint Eastwood, Junior Byles, Cornell Campbell, George Nooks (who also dee-jayed under the name of Prince Mohammed) and others too numerous to list here. It was headed however by Dennis Brown, whose reworking of ‘Money In My Pocket’ raced up the UK national charts during March 1979, and whose popularity proved second only to that of Marley’s as hits like ‘Cup Of Tea’, ‘Ghetto Girl’, ‘Equal Rights’, ‘Ain’t That Loving You’ and ‘How Can I Leave’ – all recorded for Gibbs – confirmed his status as reggae’s Crown Prince.

1980 hits by Eek-A-Mouse, Barrington Levy, Junior Murvin, Cornell Campbell, Barry Brown, Freddie McGregor, Lady Ann and Chalice continued Gibbs’ run of form thereafter, but would prove surprisingly short-lived, despite him producing two further Dennis Brown UK Top 50 entries in 1982. Having initially claimed to have written it, unpaid royalties resulting from J.C Lodge’s ‘Someone Loves You Honey’ then forced him into bankruptcy, bringing to an end one of the most successful recording careers of any Jamaican producer. He subsequently moved to Miami, selling his studio premises to Bunny Lee and leaving his son Carl “Rocky” Gibbs to oversee the label’s ongoing and ever popular reissue programme.

John Masouri


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