A Conversation Between Rusty & Bob Bell: American & Jamaican Music Icons

Bob:

 

Two very influential people died last week, as I am sure you have probably read. One was Bob Crewe and the other was Cosimo Matassa, and both had influences on Jamaican music, although Cosimo’s was by far the greater.

Crewe started out as a singer in the early fifties, partnered with Texan pianist Frank Slay, and together they wrote a huge amount of songs, many of which they also produced. ‘Silhouettes’ / ‘Daddy Cool’ by The Rays was perhaps their first memorable hit – that same ‘Silhouettes’ whose rhythm you so successfully used recently on ‘Angela’. Bob Crewe went on to write and produce for The Four Seasons, and here you have another connection. It is of course, ‘I Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’, that wonderful song he wrote with Bob Gaudio that became Frankie Valli’s first solo hit in 1967. Your version is now heading for 860,000 hits on YouTube. I have no idea how many of his other songs have been adapted by Jamaican artists, but I am sure there are many.

 

Rusty:

 

Bob Crewe was one heck of a gifted songwriter. Sad to see icons like him pass on because they just don’t make ’em like that any more. Yes, “Silhouettes” was covered a few times by JA artists but I believe the first cover of it and my personal favorite, was by The Crown Prince of Reggae, Dennis Brown, when he was very young. It was produced by the legendary Derrick Harriott with my favorite reggae studio session band, Now Generation,led by my friend Mikey Chung and his brother Geoffrey. I would venture to say that it was Derrick’s idea for Dennis to cover this tune as he has always been a total Doo Wop fanatic. His productions were always so classy and sophisticated while still retaining that ghetto street sound that is crucial to good quality Reggae. His version is totally the basis for the riddim I sang “Angela’ over that was played by none other than the great Fab Five band from JA.

 

Bob:

 

Recording engineer Cosimo (pronounced Cosmo) Matassa was the man who really put New Orleans music on the map. He opened his first studio, J & M Studios, in the late forties. It was the first studio in New Orleans and there he recorded such seminal artists as Roy Brown (‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’), Paul Gayten and Dave Bartholomew. Over the years he moved and improved his studios at least four times, and from the 40’s through the 70’s engineered the vast majority of R & B sessions cut in the Crescent City. Artists Like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, Shirley and Lee, Etta James, Dave Bartholomew, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Joe Turner and Huey Smith were all recorded by Cosimo, and as we know, were hugely popular with the crowds who attended the Jamaican Sound Systems pioneered by the likes of Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd and all. If you take a listen to a cut like ‘Be My Guest’ by Fats Domino the sound of nascent ska is right there. So let’s tip a hat to Cosimo – he really captured the sounds that caught the ears of the world.

 

Rusty:

 

Now this is a massive loss. Can you imagine being in those studios in the heyday of New Orleans music? Just to be a fly on the wall? So many crucial records came out of this studio under Cosimo’s supervision. The last time I was in New Orleans I went by the location where the studio used to be and it was a Laundromat. Very sad as that should’ve been turned into a museum by the city if you ask me. Speaking of Fats Domino and his influence on JA music, I sometimes feel his band and it’s sound was the crucial blueprint altogether for Jamaican music after Mento. There is often a Ska feel off beat in both the piano and the rhythm guitar on Fats’ recordings not to mention the second guitar in the band is always bubbling and percolating the bottom strings like we hear later in Jamaican Rock Steady and Reggae

We also lost a very important Jamaican music icon last week. The one and only Hopeton Lewis. His song “Take It Easy” is considered the very first Rock Steady song ever. Surely when you were at Island and Trojan, y’all released records by Hopeton?

 

Bob:

 

Very sad to Hopeton leave us so soon – he was only 66. I remember ‘Take It Easy’ very well … the song defined Rock Steady. His later big sellers in the UK came in 1970 with the tune that won the Independence Festival Song Competition,’Boom Shacka Lacka’ and in 1971 with ‘Groovin’ Out On Life’. I was Production Manager at Trojan then and well recall how much ‘Boom Shacka Lacka’  sold. It was really popular. The Song Competition was a really big deal (guess it still is!) and whatever song won was guaranteed to be a huge hit. Hopeton had fine baritone voice, very soulful and extremely tasteful. What I mean by that is he never over embellished a song – he sung the tune with feeling and reserve. He devoted most of his later life to Gospel singing. I haven’t heard any of this stuff – have you?

 

Rusty:

 

Funny you should ask about if I have heard Hopeton sing Gospel because the last time I was at Hux Brown’s house, his wife Bobbi had a couple of Hopeton’s Gospel CDs laying around the living room. In the Rock Steady documentary that came out a few years back there is footage of Hopeton singing Gospel in his church out in the country. I agree with you wholeheartedly about Hopeton and his talent. Very soulful singer and composer. Another song of his I love from his Rock Steady days at Federal was “Cool Cool Collie”. Those song competitions must’ve been and probably still are real exciting.

 

Bob:

 

It is interesting how Ska segued into Rock Steady. The common understanding is that the slow down in tempo was due to the extremely hot summer in Jamaica in 1966 – dancing to Ska just got one too hot ‘n sweaty! After five or six years of blues shuffles and thumping ska, the time was probably ripe for a change anyway. Just as the music that came out of Cosimo’s studios was a huge influence on Jamaican blues and to Ska, the coolness and soulfulness of 1960’s US Soul music was employed in Rock Steady. A more polished and urbane sound. Some of Jamaica’s early pioneers adapted to the newer sound while others didn’t. Two that I wanted to discuss were Laurel Aitken and Owen Gray. Both singers started out in the fifties and would have listened to stuff that Cosimo engineered, and would go on to incorporate many styles, from mento, blues, rock steady and soul. I remember seeing Laurel Aitken at ‘The Caribbean Music Festival at Wembley’ in London in 1970. Desmond Dekker, Bob and Marcia and many others were on the bill … it was a great night. The highlight for me however was Laurel Aitken. Backed by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, wearing a pork pie hat, Laurel snapped his fingers and wailed into Chris Kenner’s ‘Sick And Tired’. The effect was startling. More R & B than ska, the performance was magnetizing, and the arena went wild.

 

Rusty:

 

As for the creation of Rock Steady, I have heard all the claims as to how it started and there are many just like the so called creation of Ska and reggae for that matter. Lynn Taitt is truly one of the crowned kings in the creation of Rock Steady. He’s the first to introduce that bubbling pick guitar sound in Jamaican music even though he is a native of Trinidad. He developed this approach by trying to emulate his first instrument, the steel pan drums, on the guitar. Anyhow, he was on the session of “Take It Easy” along with Gladdy Anderson on piano. Taitt said that Hopeton was having trouble singing the lyrics to the typically fast paced Ska that was still the music of Jamaica at that time, so he slowed it down and changed the rhythm a bit, thus we had Rock Steady and of course everybody fell in line then. Ah yes, I have seen the Wembley footage a few times but don’t recall seeing Laurel Aitken perform in there. That must’ve been wicked. As You know, I absolutely love the U.S. R&B connection to Jamaican music. Owen Gray is indeed another fantastic soulful singer and is still going strong to this day.

 

Bob:

 

I was speaking with Tom Hayes a few months ago. Tom started at Island in 1963 or 64 as a van sales rep, became international Sales manager, and eventually became Chairman of Island worldwide. He had just attended an Island reunion of sorts, and reported that Owen Gray was present, looking as sharp as ever in a sharkskin suit. He was born in 1939, so he’s well into his seventies now. I remember Owen coming into Island’s offices in Kilburn, London in the mid 60’s. Chris Blackwell and Guy Stevens were pushing him as a soul singer, and his recording of ‘Shook, Shimmy And Shake’ / ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ (Island), his then current release, had a very heavy groove. I’d very much like to know who played on those two sides. Was Stevie Winwood involved? I am sure this information is available somewhere. Trojan / Sanctuary put out an Owen Gray anthology a few years back. Do you have that? I have many of the cuts on various compilations, but would love to hear the anthology in its entirety. Trojan put out a few singles by Owen in 1968 and 1969 … most produced by himself. As far as I recall, they weren’t giant sellers, but Owen always had a following.

 

Rusty:

 

Yeah I saw footage of Owen from that show and he was stunning. Not only singing his tail off but also “dropping legs” as they say in Jamaica! Yes I do own that Trojan Anthology that was released in the early part of the Millenium and it’s fantastic. It’s a double CD set and covers all of the stylistic changes in his musical journey. When he started he was one heck of a Blues styled singer but he can sing anything. I always thought his voice held up great through all the musical style changes in JA. Hmmm, Stevie Winwood could very well be involved in some of that crossover Soul/Pop stuff owen cut for Island. It’s funny, like Jackie Edwards, Owen Gray seemed to miss out on the Rock Steady era which makes me believe he was living in the UK during that brief time?

 

Bob:

 

I’m pretty sure Owen was in the UK during most of the 60’s … I’d see his name in the Melody Maker club listings all the time. Kinda makes sense that he’d be doing more R & B / Soul things then rather than Rock Steady because the former styles would in all certainty have gone down better on the club scene at that time.

 

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