Inside The Rich History of Jamaica’s Iconic Studio One and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd
The Motown of Jamaica is Studio One and its version of Berry Gordy would be Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. Arguably the most important figure in Jamaican music, Dodd (1932-2004) discovered and recorded a very young Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston as The Wailers in 1963, opened the first black-owned studio on the island, mentored legends like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Prince Buster and was the first to record Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, The Heptones and The Abyssinians, among others.
Chris Wilson, the head of A&R for Studio One, moved to the U.S. from Jamaica in the late ’60s for college, and by the late’ 70s, was running Heartbeat Records, where he reissued numerous classic reggae, ska and rock steady by Studio One. While releasing contemporary reggae and dancehall from Mikey Dread, Sugar Minott and others in 1983, Wilson produced the first compilation on the studio and label, simply titled The Best of Studio One. These seminal tunes had never before been heard by many stateside reggae fans, and they jump-started a rediscovery of Studio One. Wilson subsequently compiled and released hundreds of albums, and without his work, the legacy of Studio One in the U.S. might’ve not been cemented.
We asked Wilson to curate playlists for TIDAL of the best of Studio One from Ska to Dancehall and answer a few questions about the label and his relationship with Dodd.
Did you have a moment in Jamaica as a child when hearing a specific song or band really moved you?
One of the first records that made an impression on me was My Fair Lady. That was around 1957, and I still have the record. My older sisters listened to Elvis and rock & roll, and my dad liked jazz, so I heard that as well. But around 1962, a friend gave me a few 45s, including Monty Morris’ ska tune “Oil In My Lamp.” I knew then that was my music even though I was still quite young. I’d just started 1st form (7th grade).
When you moved from Jamaica to the U.S. to go to college, did you always know that you wanted to bring the culture of your home country up north?
The Americans had heard “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker but otherwise knew nothing about Jamaican music. They were listening to bands like the Grateful Dead, so a two-and-a-half minute reggae song didn’t turn them on. Still, I played them my music, like The Cables or Alton Ellis. But when I studied under Edward Brathwaite, the great West Indian poet, it was then that I really began to revisit my roots. I had written poetry in Jamaica, so that was a grounding I expanded on.
You, of course, knew Coxsone Dodd very well. How did you meet him and get to know him?
I met Mr. Dodd in 1968 at the studio. I went looking for the single “Hello Carol” by the Gladiators. He was a formidable man even in the few minutes I spent with him. In the early ’80s, I approached him to release some records, and I guess he saw something in me because we worked for decades after that. I compiled some records, some he compiled and some we did together, like Don Drummond’s Don Cosmic.
Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid were big rivals in the ’60s. What were the differences or similarities between these producers? Did things change between them?
At parties uptown, you’d hear a lot of Federal stuff, Merritone, plus Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle, which was all like soul music, really. The Paragons’ On The Beach was a huge hit for Treasure Isle. On Studio One, there were the Cables, the Heptones and the Gladiators. The biggest difference is that Studio One had the bass lines that have lasted as so much effort was put into that portion of each song. I think that Tommy McCook, who led the Reid sessions, was more interested in the horns and the vocals.
It also turns out that the Duke was going bankrupt during the ska era and as Mr. Dodd’s mother was friendly with the Reids, he did a session for Reid at Studio One that produced a few hits.
We think of Studio One as the top label in Jamaica throughout the ’60s and early ’70s but at the end of the ’70s, it came back with a vengeance in the dancehall era. How did this come about? Was it simply the return to the Studio One foundation riddims by other bands?
There had already been a history of Mr. Dodd using older rhythms before, like Bob Andy’s “Desperate Lover.” It utilized the earlier “Music Like Dirt” by the Lyrics, but he became aware when studios like Channel One started to do over his hits with good results. Also, the different sound systems would use his rhythms and have different DJs toast over them, so many Studio One songs were still popular. It turned out that Mr. Dodd could beat the new soundmen at their own game. His hits were truly massive!
As they say, it’s impossible to pick a favorite child. Can you pick a favorite Studio One/Coxsone tune?
Today, I might say Alton Ellis’s “The Picture Was You,” but no way could I pick one. I, like many Studio One fans, have an arsenal of favorites. I do tend to like the songs that I heard at dances growing up as they have more history around them for me, like “Baby Why” by the Cables. Somehow, my friends, always about four or five couples, thought it was my theme song, so we always danced when it came on—flooding the dance floor!
And do you have a reissue/record that you are most proud of?
I was very inspired by the story of Don Drummond. I followed the court trial as a young child. (In 1965, trombonist Drummond was charged with killing his girlfriend and was found guilty by reason of insanity. He was imprisoned in Kingston’s Bellevue Asylum and died there four years later.) It was really an echo of the time, but I have always felt that the Don D. story has never been told. So much of the reports and stories I read don’t resonate with me. So maybe Don Cosmic, which I worked on for many years, holds a special place. Mr. Dodd and I went over the track listing so many times, it made sense to “park” it occasionally and revisit it. It was part of a trio of albums of the top horns men alongside Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook.
You were head of A&R for seminal American reggae label Heartbeat Records and now handle the Studio One catalog. You’ve done about ten releases with Yep Roc, who now help manage Studio One, for these new reissues. What’s next?
Studio One, as we speak, is embarking on the huge task of cataloging the tapes and storing them digitally. So we are going through the tapes and seeing what is there. We’re at the tip of the iceberg. We are trying to only release from tapes so it’s an arduous process, and we have to judge the quality of the tape itself.
Releasing albums is a process in which you can’t please everyone, especially collectors, as most of them own the records already. But I like to have new people explore Studio One, which is why The Skatalites’ Foundation Ska became such a good seller. It’s a great place to begin.
Are there any contemporary dancehall or reggae artists that you listen to who might have the same creative ethos of someone like Dodd?
There was only one Clement Dodd. I was fortunate to know him and to have worked with him. My coming from Jamaica maybe made that easier because I had a more of a home mentality—hearing songs in their natural context, following a hit in Jamaica, seeing how it changes. Hearing “Baby” by the Heptones blaring out of the radio for the first time on Shortwood Road or hearing Dennis Brown’s “Westbound Train” brand new—those were the moments. It was something that I was so fortunate to have experienced, but reggae has changed and has included many more people from different countries and with different life experiences. You can hardly believe its influence, it’s everywhere you go. I want Reggae Large.
To me, though, Studio One is stand-alone. I’ve never known or seen anything else like it. Other producers are not like Dodd. They didn’t have his vision.
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