I have to go on record as saying that the movie ‘Legends of
Ska’ we saw in San Francisco last week was the best treatment of Ska I have ever seen.
Let me just go a step further and say without any apologies
that it may be the best JA music documentary ever! This should set the standard for these films!
How wonderful to see Owen Gray right at the beginning, sitting
at the piano, his left hand rolling that ubiquitous Roscoe Gordon styled beat, singing a blues shuffle. There is a guy who was on the scene right at its conception, who has never forgotten its roots, and who yet has moved with the times and recorded in a variety of styles, all heavily imbued with great feeling.
That scene was one of the highlights for me in the film. What a groove he has going on the piano and his voice is still soulful as ever. Anything Owen tackled was dripping with Soul. He even covered John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” with a very soulful approach, although he may have taken his cue from Donny Hathaway’s wonderful cover of that song. Owen’s version was our friend Danny Holloway’s first production for Island Records. Owen also sang the heck out of Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”, so really Owen can sing anything and put it across effectively.
I remember him coming into Island’s offices when we were in Kilburn in 1965 and 1966. He had a big scar down one side of his face. Guy Stevens had been doing some things with him, I think; ‘Shook Shimmy and Shake’ and ‘It’s Gonna Work Out Fine’ are two of the tunes that come to mind. Pretty sure Chris Blackwell and Guy worked on those together.
Those songs are a bit too go-go-ish for me but I like the
guitar solo on “Shook” which I presume is a young Stevie Winwood?
That’s a good question. I really would imagine that it is Stevie … I’ll make some inquiries. Owen’s records were amongst the first Jamaican recordings to be released in the UK, on Melodisc’s BlueBeat label, and Esquire’s Starlite imprint. Other early UK labels were Island and Chek.
He sure had some stellar cuts on those labels. I particularly
love the “Owen Gray Sings” LP which I have a hunch is on Starlite? Loaded with lots of groovy Blues & Boogie shuffles with wicked singing!
I think that was the very first Jamaican blues LP to be issued in the UK. I’ll check with my good buddy Mike Atherton, who seems to know everything. In his words, it is ‘hideously rare’ … I have a copy digitally …. love to have the LP, but finding a playable copy these days is probably impossible. It originally came out in 1961, I think. It was on Starlite. Did you ever hear him in person?
I never did. It would be a dream come true to see him perform
live. I’ve watched video footage on youtube and even up to this day he sings and dances just like a youngster.
I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t recall if I saw him. I was thinking that I did see him at one of the shows that Trojan was involved in, but upon reflection, I think it was Laurel Aitken. I was married back then, and rarely stayed in town during the evening. I was living in Hemel Hempstead, which is about 30 miles outside London. One of the things I find interesting about Owen is the fact that he was one of the early guys to come to the UK and record there. Do you know who played on some of those early sessions in the UK? And here is another question: if you had to compile a list of your favorite ten songs by Owen, which ones would they be? And why?
You were obviously having far too much fun during that time Bob! He! He! When you ask about Owen’s early sessions in the UK, which ones are you referring to? Wow, my top ten favorite songs by Owen? Tough question but here goes in no particular order:
- ‘Still In Love’ (this is a rare 45 of Owen singing one of Alton Ellis’ massive hits over the same riddim that Alton relicked it on in the late 70’s. It is a B Side on Alton’s label All Tone Records. Owen sings the hell out of it as he wrings every ounce of soul he can out of each note. It’s a stunning vocal performance and depending on the day of the week, I like it more than Alton’s which is saying a lot for me.
- ‘Bongo Natty’. I’m not sure who Owen sang this for but it is a very heartfelt Rasta themed roots reggae number with a nice simple melody sung with loads of soul by Owen.
- ‘Let Jah Arise’. Another roots theme by Owen where he sings “let Jah arise and all Babylonians scatter”. He even has a vocal scat intro which I love. Once again a wicked heartfelt vocal performance by our man.
- ‘When I Need You’. I’m not ashamed to say how much I love Owen’s interpretation of this somewhat cheesy love ballad which was originally a huge hit for Pop singer/songwriter Leo Sayer. Owen obviously loved this song by witnessing the passion he injects into his delivery.
- ‘Rib Di Bim Bam’. A wonderful performance with an obvious Mento influence from the backing band as well as having a superb vocal. I’m not sure of the origins of this song but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a Mento song originally or at the very least mento inspired.
- ‘Running Around’ . As we know Owenwas a fantastic Blues singer in the early stage of his career and this Rosco Gordon style number is one of his finest in that vein.
- ‘Mash It’. Another Blues boogie shuffle affair with great vocalizing by our man but I must admit the Ernest Ranglin guitar solo, which sounds a bit like Billy Butler to me, doesn’t hurt my love for this song. He! He! This comes on the aforementioned ‘Owen Gray Sings’
- ‘On The Beach’ (this was a sweet boogie shuffle that Owen did for Coxson Dodd. I’m not sure of the history of this song but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was recorded as a sound system special for when Dodd would battle it out with Duke Reid as Owen sings about “Sir Dodd” on this track.
- ‘Girl I’m Sorry’. Owen sang this for Coxson and I think it may be an older riddim that he voiced for Dodd at Studio One. Owen sings so sweet and pretty on this with some romantic backing by the Sound Dimension fellas, with one of my favorite JA guitarists, Eric Frater.
- ‘Sinners Gonna Weep And Mourn’. Another one for Coxson Dodd. This one sounds like it could’ve been cut in the Crescent City.
Some interesting choices there Rusty. Some I am familiar with, others not so. I read in an interview with him that he originally wrote ‘On The Beach’ for King Edwards, and had his name in the original version. Something went down, and Edwards decided not to record it, so Owen took it to Dodd, with the appropriate name change. The early sessions I was referring to were the things he was cutting in there UK in the early and mid sixties. He worked with a band called The Big Four for a while – English band. I think they working in France for a while together. Owen said in an interview that Howard Casey was in the band – I guess that was Howie Casey from Howie Casey & the Seniors – a great English R & B band. Howie played tenor sax. Be interesting to know what sessions he might be on. I believe Howie recorded with Paul McCartney in later years. He did a few things for Trojan when I was there, ‘Too Experienced’ comes to mind, in 1969. I think he was recording for Pama mainly around that time. In the mid 70’s he cut some stuff for Trojan’s Horse label, but I was long gone from the company by then. The thing is that Owen worked constantly during his career, singing blues, ska, rocksteady and reggae / roots reggae, and brought to all those differing idioms a great sense of soul and artistic integrity. I’d really like to recommend the interview with Owen on the Reggae Vibes website … it is very comprehensive.