Straight No Chaser’s Paul Bradshaw reflects on the art of buying reggae music. A back in the day journey from Dalston Junction to Tottenham High Road.
It was around 1973, while living in the leafy, conservative backwater of Cheltenham, that I got bitten by the reggae bug and got my first taste of buying reggae music. Based on the ground breaking writings of Carl Gayle/Jah Ugliman in Black Music magazine I headed off to the Gloucester, the nearest city with a Jamaican community, in search of the ‘Version Galore’ albums which united the lyrical talents of “toasters” like U Roy, I Roy, Big Youth and Dennis Alcapone. In a humble reggae emporium in Barton Street I found what I was looking for but as I gazed upon the selection available I realized I was totally out of my depth. Not only that, I was also oblivious to the fact that a certain etiquette of buying prevailed in such establishments.
The early Seventies was responsible for a wave of astonishing soul and jazz albums from Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane and despite their considerable impact on my musical outlook reggae had become an obsession. A visit to a blues dance run by a local sound man called Skinny and an encounter with the mighty Sir Coxsone Sound system at the Jamaican Club in Gloucester had ensured a point of no return. The impact of hearing the music on “Sound” took on a metaphysical dimension. Words, Sound and Power. The mysterious, apocalyptic vision of Jamaica’s sufferers – the Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari, The Wailers, Big Youth, Yabby You, Gladiators, King Tubby, Gregory Isaacs, Augustus Pablo - was what dominated my hi-fi.
I graduated to the metropolis in the autumn of ’74 and settled in E8, between Mare Street and Dalston Junction. I had arrived in reggae music heaven and driven by this mighty music I’d regularly roam the High Road from the Junction to Seven Sisters in search of new acquisitions. I would begin my journey in Dalston Lane at Java. A stones throw away from the legendary Four Aces night club. Freshly opened, this most alluring little “record shack” was run by drummer Jah Bunny, bassist Floyd Lawson and a most stylish and knowledgeable youth called Lenny. The style and pattern of the day was most enticing – the unbuckled woven ites gold and green belt and the Gabichi were vital, as was that rakishly offset Baker’s boy – and the attempts of this grey boy to look relaxed and “down” in this 100% black environment earned me the tag of “screwface”. That said, Java and its successor, M&D Records, which was run by Lee Hall – a selectah and salesman par excellence - became my second home. It was there that I gained a serious education into this music and learned to peel an orange with a ratchet knife.
Initially, I was out to buy what I’d read about. Up to that point I’d failed to grasp that reggae was essentially a singles market. I hadn’t a clue what a “Pre” was – I’d simply heard that some shops kept a selection of exclusives under the counter for their regulars. So, the mission was usually specific and mostly album orientated and that would sometimes take me beyond Java to other local shops which had their own imprint or reputed speciality.
Music City in Ridley Road market was always an enticing prospect on a Saturday. If I recall, the shop had direct links to the prolific Trojan Records. It was the covers of brilliant albums like Dennis Brown’s ‘Just Dennis’, Big Youth’s ‘Screaming Target’ or Ras Michael’s ‘Nyabinghi’ that hung in the shop window and the speakers outside the shop projected a little burst of Al Brown doing Al Green or Ken Boothe previewing what was to become a Chart topper or a touch of “skenga” - a scattering of ‘Irie Feeling’ from Rupie Edward’s Cactus label.. The sounds of young Jamaica rose above the vibrant hustle and bustle of black and white working class shoppers and the cockney mantras of the various vendors. Sadly, during the Seventies, this grainy, positively harmonious black and white image of east London was consistently tainted by a racist undercurrent based on the popularity of the National Front.
Having partaken of a pattie or a begel one would trod from Ridley Road further up the High Road. In the region of Arcola Street, one might be tempted to deviate slightly from the mission and check a mom and pop record store owned by some local white folks who stocked the Top 20 hits of the day along with a positively arresting selection of Nigerian ju ju from the likes of Sir Shina Adewale and King Sunny Ade.
However, to get back on track we cross the High Road and head for the shop of Ephraim Barret aka Count Shelley – a pioneering and most popular local sound system operator who, in early 70s, was the resident DJ at the fabled Four Aces. Of course, his reputation as a sound man and selector ensured he was always in possession of the latest singles from JA and was constantly plied with acetates of tunes well in advance of their release. Shelley knew what rocked the dancefloor and accordingly his shop boasted an array of compilation albums and excellent 7” releases on his own Count Shelly label. Along with UK based artists like Honey Boy, Gene Rondo, Roy Shirley and Laurel Aitken he released music from the JA stars of the day - Delroy Wilson, I Roy, Dillinger, Alton Ellis, Prince Jazbo, Errol Dunkley. Confirming the man’s vision it was Count Shelley who first released Topper Zukie’s majestic ‘Man A Warrior’, an album that became the stuff of legend partly due to the writings of Penny Reel – a youth man of Stamford Hill origin who also roamed that same High Road.
From Shelley’s one had to resist stopping of at the Astra Cinema which is now the Aziziye mosque. Back then it specialized in uncensored martial arts movies… Shaolin vs Lama, Iron Monkey, 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. The next stop on Stoke Newington High Street is shop I associate with Pepe Judah from the 12 Tribes of Israel organization. However, this shop was actually home to one Leonard Chin and his Santic label. He arrived in London from Jamaica around the same time as I did and set about releasing the music he’d recorded with Gregory Isaacs, Augustus Pablo… this was deep stuff. The compilation, ‘Harder Shade Of Black’ featured a cover shot taken on Hackney Downs while the vinyl delivered a brace of tracks that included ‘Pablo In Dub’, ‘Horace Andy’s ‘Problems’ and Gregory’s ‘I’ll be Around’. Fortunately for today’s roots generation this classic album of vintage deejay, dub, instrumental and vocal cuts is still available – with a few extra cuts - from Peter Holdworth’s discerning, hi-quality Pressure Sounds set up.
Leonard Chin’s JA roots credentials are impeccable but he was also quick to respond to the rise of UK lovers. Santic enlisted a new wave of up and coming local singers like Carrol Thompson, Jean Adebambo and Trevor Walters. While I was standing tall in a darkened hall (respek to Mikey Dread!), head was up in a cloud of herb smoke, solo steppin’ in a dark corner to the “Roots”, a new generation of London born, Afro Caribbean girls voted with their feet and opted for the lovers rock selections of Sir George, a long standing sound system which hailed from Clapton and had a popular residency at Cubies in Dalston Junction. It was Anthony Brightly, the former keys player with the ground breaking, Stoke Newington based band Black Slate, who ensured Sir George’s rep. He’d become the controller of his dad’s sound and as a musician he, like Santic, recorded homegrown, Black British “Lovers” to play on the sound and release via his Pure Silk imprint. Lovers Rock arrived and where the girls went the boys followed.
From Stokie it was most tempting to hop on a double decker to Stamford Hill and touch down at the most excellent R&B Records. While London’s Orthodox Jewish males strutted their stuff and did their runnings in their white stockings, black silk coats and extravagant fur hats and beaver Stetsons, a more modest Jewish couple Benny and Rita King plied the post Windrush generation with some serious music. Amazingly R&B Records opened back in 1953 and following constant requests for Jamaican”blues” records they contacted legendary sound man and producer ‘Coxson’ Dodd in order to buy the music directly from Jamaica. The early Sixties saw them launch their own R&B and Ska Beat labels, satisfying the tastes of the Jamaican community along with the style obsessed Mods who’d discovered the music in clubs like Count Suckle’s Roaring Twenties in Carnaby St. However, by the early Seventies Benny and Rita had given up the labels and were distributing pre releases from JA to thriving shops around Britain like Black Wax and Don Christie in Birmingham.
My fondest memory of Rita and Benny’ was asking Rita – who was like your gran - if they’d got Burning Spear’s ‘Marcus Garvey’ LP. It had just been released in JA on Jack Ruby’s Fox label and the buzz was massive. Lenny at Java had a copy and it was most definitely not for sale – they were awaiting a next shipment. I couldn’t wait so here I was at R&B Records. Rita said, “Burning Spear? Marcus Garvey? No! Do you have this?” And put an album on the turntable.
“I & I son of the most high, Jah Rastafari, All hearts shall cross thine and beat in one harmony, Sounds from the Burning Spear….”
It was of those record buying moments, an experience that I can only compare to hearing Coxson Dodd’s mother spinning the Gladiators ‘Root’s Natty’ in the Brentford Rd shop in JA. There’s a feeling… it goes through the whole body to the crown of the head… maybe it’s something in that voice… something ethereal. Spear could do that. He did it in the Rainbow in Finsbury Park at his first London concert. He walked onstage and as his voice gathered power to the sound of ‘Fr-r-e-e-d-o-o-o-o-o-o-m.... ” the whole of the theatre stood up in unison… one time! Deep! And so, back to R&B Records… without even knowing it I’d paid, thanked Rita gracefully and stepped out into the street in a quietly euphoric daze.
It was rare that I would progress beyond Seven Sisters and onto Tottenham High Road. This is an area I associate with Jah Bones and RUZ (Rasta Universal Zion). Also Club Noreik where Jah Shaka was resident and, of course, the legendary Fat Man Hi Fi. However, it was the release in 1974 of an extraordinary album by Keith Hudson called ‘Flesh Of My Flesh’ had me scouring the High Road in search Atra Records. I’d heard the opening cut of ‘Hunting’ with it Rasta drums, stinging electric guitar and supersonic atmospheric mix and was on a mission.
There was a definite mystique surrounding the album and as it was marketed like a pre-release you had to track it down before it potentially vanished. Upon locating the shop I was overjoyed to sight a copy of the said LP. From the sleeve design to its lyrics, ‘Flesh Of My Flesh’ was an intentionally conscious venture. This was not a collection of singles. This was Hudson as producer, songwriter and vocalist – he had a concept and that was totally radical. Only later did I discover that, upon landing in London in ’74, Hudson signed up with Brent Clarke's Atra label and that this album – now, unequivocally rated as a classic! - came to life at the Chalk Farm Studios in Camden where he set about reworking and overdubbing his JA rhythm tracks using local players. Ironically, ‘Flesh Of My Flesh’ was never released in JA – maybe it was too radical. Keith Hudson’s vocals may well be an acquired taste but I headed back to Atra to purchase both his made to measure and monumental dub LP, ‘Pick A Dub’, and the follow up to ‘Flesh Of My Flesh’ – ‘Torch Of Freedom’. Hudson sporting the beret and looking militant.
Over time my buying skills became more refined. There was the occasional trek to Battersea, to Clapham Junction where, every Saturday, John MacGilivray had a stall in the open air market, on the right, going up Lavender Hill. Dub Vendor maintained an excellent mail order list and the market stall attracted buyers like a pre-radio David Rodigan who’d make the journey from Oxford. What Dub Vendor represented was quality control.
However, when Lee took over Java and it renamed it M&D Records my wanderings diminished. Whenever passing, I was sucked into the shop. I’d idle away the hours, sipping on bottle of Guiness, listening to music new and old. As I said earlier Lee was a controller and skilled selectah. The man had a nice little pre-amp, a couple of superb Tannoy speakers and some discreet, uncased tweeters tucked way in the corners of the shop which gave that little extra lick of tops. Word would go out when a shipment of pre’s was to reach and the shop would be packed. You had to stand firm and hold a place where Lee could clearly see you signal that the tune was to be added to your pile. Hesitate, and all you’d hear was the words, “It done!”. He would work the buyers, sound men and punters, dreads and baldheads, geezers who knew their music, had refined tastes and quickly recognized an intro from a tune dropped in the dance, and when all that new music had been reduced to no more takers he would start on the revives, the Studio One – the head corner stone. Lee was the master and at those sessions he would ensure that whatever money you had in your pocket would be seriously dented. That was how it was and you’d step into the night with a righteous bowling walk, clutching a brown paper bag full of deep ridim on the most enticing labels… Clinch Records, Music God, Prophets, Black Solidarity, Youth Promotion, Marlion’s Victorius Steppers, Black Ark, Tuff Gong, Heavy Duty, Disco Mix, Crazy Joe, African Museum, Yard Music, Intel Diplo, Soul Syndicate, Solomonic, High Times, Jah Guidance….