First of all Jerry - I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the ‘Just Cooling’ album. I don’t know how many modern ska tunes you have listened too Jerry - but most of them just don’t work. But your tracks have got the right feel - they have a modern Sound as well. But all the tracks are good. A very good album.
“Thank you very much”
So anyway. How did it start for you?
“It started in Junior High School. I started playing in like 1971. Around them times.
How old was you then?
“About 12, but my Father back in the day, had a Jamaican night club. From the sixties Right up to the eighties. “
What was that called?
“In the beginning it was called Chippie Chapper! He changed the name a couple of times. He changed it to the Blue Lagoon. Then to Penthouse. It was a swinging spot. It was like one of the first in New York. Back in the Sixties, you know.”
Were your parents from Jamaica Jerry?
“My father was from Jamaica and my mother from Barbados. I used to go the club When I was really young. I used to see like, I didn’t know who they were…but I came to find out that. That was Lester Sterling. The Skatalites sax player. I saw Bunny Rugs from Third World. He was playing with a band named Wild Bunch. I saw the Blues Busters. The famous vocal group. I saw Phyllis Dillion. I saw Morgan’s Heritage’s there Dad used to have a band called the Black Eagles. All of these groups used to play at my Dad’s club.”
Did you ever come across a group called the Buccaneers?
Lester Sterling on sax.
“That’s who Lester Sterling was playing with!”
“He was playing with Hugh Hendricks and the Buccaneers.”
A lot of people were in that band?
“That was a great group, they had a lot of horns man! I used to sit there, and they used to blow me away. Hugh Hendricks was a good friend of my dad. Back in the early days there was a barber shop around the corner from me. And there musicians in there, I came to find out that the trumpet player was Sugar Minott’s uncle. Lester Minott. They used to play at Dad’s club. And the sax player was guy called Coozie, he used to play at Dad’s club. I was like five years old. Mr Minott gave me my first haircut!!!He really wopped it up! It was cool”
Yes. All the people you are mentioning have a sound that is Jamaican, but your sound seems to be more from New Orleans. Where did that come from?
“I guess it’s a mixed flavour you know. Cause growing up in the early days I was listening to a lot of funk bands. And my father had the jazz albums here at the house. He had all the Jamaican music at the club. The Jazz, it was kinda, I heard it but I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t get into it until I was older. But I was listening to a lot of Maceo and Ronald Bell from Kool and The Gang. Then I started hearing Lester And I started to hang out. Then I met Roland. I spent a lot of time with Roland, I would go to his house and check him. It just moulded itself.
Its very interesting to hear what you are saying. What kind of sax do you play - Tenor Sax?
“I was playing Tenor - mainly, when I got into the studio I had a Alto and started to double up. And started to play both, I would put three or four saxes in the background. When I go to the studio, I Just spread it out. I put Alto’s and Tenor’s together.”
How many Saxes have you got Jerry?
“I got four saxes and a flute.”
It’s a great sound, it gave the Wackies sound a distinctive sound. So your first album was ‘For All Seasons’?
“ Yeah, that was my first album.”
“Yeah early eighties, I was playing with a band called Wreckless Breed, they used to work up at Wackies. So when I joined the band - they took me up there. And there was really no other horn player that was steady up. It was basically a hang out spot for me up there. I would jump on my bike and go and hang out for the day. A couple of sessions would go on. Eventually I started working on the CD. I met Roland up there. I met, Sugar, Horace Andy and Coxsone. I met a lot of people up there. They was giving me work too.”
When you say met Coxsone, you never actually worked for him?
“I worked at his studio, but I remember doing a tune for him. Me Roland and Kevin, I cannot remember who was in charge of that project. We did a Ska tune. I think it was Coxsone’s tune, but I don’t think it ever came out. I never heard it.”
That sounds about right. So what were your first tunes?
There were a few 12” with your name on them before the album came out. So the album ‘For All Season’s was it done as an album, with an album in mind?
Neville and Jerry
“It was done as an album, Wackies said why don’t you do an album? I was doing horn work for everybody. I was like the house horn up there you know. I was playing with this funk group called ‘Full Strength’ That’s where I met Neville Anderson the trombone player. Who did the Brass Rootz CD with me. That was back in the early eighties. We was playing R&B gigs and stuff. Playing a lot of funk. I came to find out
When did you team up with Kevin?
“Yeah, Kevin was going to school in Boston. Him and friends they came to New York to do some shows with Sammy Dread. They ended up staying here, and at that point the band I was playing with they had left to Florida. So I wasn’t really playing with no Band. So Kevin’s band they didn’t have a sax player. And I was like the sax man here for years. So they called me , and I went and did a couple of gigs with them. And so me and Kevin became the horn section, and everyone started checking us for sessions and gigs. We were like playing with four bands at the same time.”
You never actually made an album as Tom and Jerry?
“We went to Jamaica and did one, with Sugar Minott - Youth Promotion. He was trying to give it to Heartbeat I believe. But Heartbeat wouldn’t take it because it had a lot of Studio One songs on there. And they were dealing with Coxsone at that time and didn’t want to start any bad vibes. So the album got rejected. It was a nice album, I don’t know what happened to the tape. I think after a while they called back for the tape and it was lost! Wow man! But me and Kevin did a lot of singles at HCF studios.”
Philip Smart's studio?
“Yeah, we did a lot of work out there.”
What happened to Kevin. Is he still in the business?
“I spoke to him about five minutes ago, he just came back from Europe. He plays with The Skatalites right now. I have played with them off and on.”
That is amazing!
“They need a tenor player now, Cedric Brooks is in the Hospital at the moment. I went to see him a couple of weeks ago.”
“No…he was just there sleeping, he’s in a coma still. I did a lot of gigs with him around town. He’s just, he’s just tremendous you know.”
I think that generation all are.
“When I play with Cedric, its like I don’t even want to play! I just stand there And listen to him, you know what I mean? And he will be saying “Go ahead, Go ahead.” Haha. Wow man. He puts me into zone!”
Why did you think that instrumental albums or instrumentalists are not that popular today?
“I don’t know, its all about money. Gimmicks, that sells music. Record companies don’t really have time, they want the quick sale.”
Its beyond me. Considering how popular instrumentals were in the sixties and the seventies. And no matter how many great works have come since from people like yourself. Its still kinda low key.
“I know, nothing really is happening. You never get like a big overnight hit. The thing with instrumentals is that they might sell forever, but its real real slow. You know what I mean, five, ten years from now someone might pick it up and buy it.
I thought at first it might have been the arrival of dub that caused a lack of interest in instrumentals, but then when dub went the same way as instrumentals….
Your next album was the ‘Score’? Your second album?
Was that done in the same way. A concept set?
“Yeah, ‘The Score’ was basically the same. Actually I was just trying to hustle….I wanted to do an album and just sell it. After I did I was going to sell, but Wackies told me he would take it. It was an independent project you know what I mean.”
Does it take you long to put together albums? Weeks, months?
“ Oh, I would say, a couple of months. When I did the first album. All the tracks were already laid - I didn’t have much say so. I had say so, but, yo, you see this track here. Do a instrumental to that. See this track here… You know what I mean? When I did ‘The Score’ I laid some of the tracks. You know when you make your music. Or you pick music that you really feel - it tends to flow quicker.”
“Yeah, you hear more things that you like. Or a tune that you have built. So that will take a couple of months if you are working almost everyday. That’s just recording. The mixing and all the other stuff, an whole other thing. But just getting it down. My recent albums, they took a while. Cause we built most of them from scratch. I had to travel far to go to the studio. Up in Conneticut. I worked with the group called ‘Anthem’.”
That Coozie’s Mellors group isn’t it?
“Yeah, Coozie and them, I played with them last night. So me and Coozie we really produced it. And his brother Charles.”
They play a lot of instruments?
“I have with them off and on for like twenty years. Even when I was with Steel Pulse - I was with them. I would still come back home and play with Coozie and them.”
You played with Steel Pulse?
“Let me give you the run down. I played with Steel Pulse for something like nine years. From 1990 to 1999, something like that. I have played with Sugar, John Holt, Ken Boothe, Horace Andy, Leroy Sibbles and The Heptones. I have did recording with Shaggy, Fredlocks, Judy Mowatt, Queen Latifah, Sister Carol. And I have played on Burning Spear’s Cds his last two. He got a Grammy for the last one.”
I suppose I have just been checking for your own works rather than for the work you have done for other artists.
“I have been a solider for years….Have you ever heard of Big Mountain?”
“I played with them for a long time also. Then I was with the Black Eagles, which is Denroy Morgan. Then I was with Wreckless Breed, that was the band that took me up to Wackies. I have played with Jackie Mittoo. “
That must have been an experience Jerry?
“Yeah yeah. I worked with Maxi Priest. I did tours with him. U.Roy, I have did gigs with Beres Hammond. That was when I with the A Team with Val Douglas. “
I have heard about that band, I think they have made a couple of tunes?
“Not really, but we used to tour England a lot with Frankie Paul. When Frankie first bust. We used to be in England all the time. We came with Beres. Marcus Miller have you heard of him? I have worked with him.”
I’ve probably seen you play - and not even known!
“Yeah, we have played the Brixton Academy - we have done a lot of gigs there. The Town And Country club.”
Going back to your albums. How about ‘East Of The City’ another great set.
“Actually I got it mixed up. ‘East Of The City’ was the one I was trying to get a deal for. I did the ‘Score’ for Wackies. I took the picture for the cover of that in England!”
You always like to work in some great old rhythms.
“Yeah, you have to mix it up to get there attention.
A very old tradition in reggae music.
“ ‘This Jerry Johnson Plays The Hits of Sugar Minott’ could work.”
It’s a very good idea.
“I have covered some of his lovers rock and some reality tunes. And he’s voiced some background voices. You will his voice and then my lead sax. He might come and sing one verse and then come out. And then I will take over.”
So the album you have done with Neville will be album number four? And ‘Just Cooling’ will be number five?
“ I did ‘Just Cooling’ first.”
So the one with Neville 'Brass Roots' is your latest album?
“Yeah, Neville lives in Thiland now. He comes here once a year. And when he’s here I try and have all the tracks lined up. And when he comes in I try and get him to do ten tracks. But I couldn’t get him the last time, that’s why we only did eight! He had to leave the next morning.”
And he’s originally from England?
“He grew up here in New York.”
That is another thing with the trombone thing, Buttons in the UK did a great album for Mikey Brooks on some old rhythms, a great album, but it didn’t get that much attention.
“It is what it is, we just have to keep on doing what we do, you know.”
But at the moment the whole reggae scene is depressed so…..Its senseless.
“Its really getting a beating.”
“I have done sessions here. When I with Steel Pulse I was just up in Birmingham and a couple of sessions came up where they wanted horns. I did some sessions for Sammy Levi. We didn’t do any Steel Pulse recordings over there. They were done in Jamaica.”
With Bands that is another problem again. There were hundreds of reggae bands in the UK at one time. Then they just disappeared.”
“Right now with Steel Pulse, they are still selling out shows, maybe not in England…but when they come to the States or in places like France - Europe. My friends are still in the band. They come to New York - they don’t have no hits.”
Have you been following what as been going on in the Virgin Islands, Midnite Army…those bands?
Some great music coming from that part of the world.
“I have about that group.”
“Steel Pulse, when they come to town, before they have put the name up on the Billboard the tickets have gone. Now if you can do that, and that have any hits…”
They made such a big impact in the seventies…They have held onto there fan base.
“I think some movie deal is going down with them. Some guys came and interviewed me - what it was like playing with them. And my friend called, whoever is doing the movie they are giving him a couple of tracks to do. So I might be playing on those tracks.”
Just going back to the Ska thing?
Were they easy tracks for you to do, on ‘Just Cooling’?
“My favourite one is the ‘Ballroom Ska’ That reminds me of my Dads club. Back in the day. And it kinda reminds me of Roland. - The Skatalites style. Those tunes were easy. What happened was that I went up to Coozie’ studio and he said lets try a little ska thing. So he played a little bit on the piano. And from that they built the whole tune. Then I got my friend Clark Gayton. He’s a bad trombone player he used to play with Sting and Bruce Springsteen. He played with The Skatalites way back in the day, before all of us. He played with us in Steel Pulse, we had a three piece horn section. So he put on the trombone solo… he actually took two solos - cause it was just put on a nice different flavour to it.”
“And then we did the other one - ‘The House Of The Rising Ska’”
A very clever tune.
“I think that was Coozie’s idea actually. And another one ‘Discovery Bay Ska’ That one was me and my cousin in Jamaica. A trumpet player. He plays in a Military Band. His name is Joseph Brady. We wasn’t really that close, because I didn’t know him. He grew up in Jamaica, and I grew up here in New York. His mother was my first cousin. So when I went down to do Sun Splash with Steel Pulse. That’s when I meet him, and said I heard you play Trumpet? Anyway the Military Band came to New York to do some kind of parade. So I went and checked him out, and snatched him up and took him to the studio. I took him to Sidney Mills studio, the keyboard player for Steel Pulse.”
He’s been around a bit?
“He got me into Steel Pulse. Anyway I took my cousin down there. He was kinda shy. But Cedric Brooks and Kevin was there were in the booth doing some instrumentals. So he said, wow man they are the man, cool cats. So after Cedric and Kevin were finished. We started building that tune. ‘Ballroom Ska’ so I kinda had a bassline already, and then Cedric took over it and flavoured it. We all ended up working on the tune, but they didn’t blow on it. It just me and my cousin. And Kevin and Cedric were saying turn that note here, and so on! And at the end of the day, when he went home he was like….he was in like a different zone!”
Do you see much of Lloyd Barnes these days?
“Once in a while, off and on. Its not like the old day you know. The money just wasn’t …. you know. It wasn’t happening. Wackies he deals with his product. Its not really a commercial studio. When you have a bunch of clients and you just go in there. And someone wants to hire you for horns. That’s how I got a lot of work with Phillip Smart. He had a lot of commercial clients. I had to pay some bills and there were a lot of sessions going on over there. Whereas with Wackies everything was for him and his label. Its cool to go and hang out, and do a one tune, but”
It’s a major problem Jerry…So many problems running a label. Distribution problems….”
“Tell me about it!”
(C) Ray Hurford 2010