I don’t know how in the name of Red Stripe beer I missed the death of pioneering, crucial ska and reggae producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd back in May – he was 72.
The new Tings a Gwann reggae magazine has a fine feature on Father Dodd, founder and owner of the legendary Studio One record label and recording studio:
- Founded in Jamaica in the late 1950’s, just prior to the island’s release from the British colonial shackles and subsequent desire to establish its own global identity, Studio One established a foundation in reggae music which helped to put this likkle island on the global radar screen thus making it internationally recognizable. Nuff reggae music legends and worldwide ambassadors of the music were born in the house of Studio One. True reggae music pioneers such as Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, Toots & The Maytals, Burning Spear, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Marcia Griffiths, and a little known group called Bob Marley & The Wailers, all got their start at 13 Brentford Road, Kingston, Jamaica, the home of Studio One Records.
Before there was reggae music there was ska, a faster more rhythmic forefather to the rude bwoy style music we know today. With legendary producers such as “Scratch” Perry leading the way in the early 1960’s, Studio One began to make its mark on the Jamaican music scene with numerous ska hits by groups such as the Skatalites. The more the ganja pipe burned over the years, the slower the music got and the creative vibes began to take it to a new level. Ska gave way to rocksteady, rocksteady to roots, roots to dub, and dub to dancehall, and so goes the chronology of reggae music in the late 60’s to mid 70’s. Instrumental in each transition of the development of this music, was Studio One Records which happened to be the breeding ground for virtually every wicked riddim and artist of these times. Artists such as Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, and Freddie McGregor came to Sir Coxsone @ Studio One with raw talent and a dream. Studio One honed their skillz, put some wicked production behind their vocals, and made them into international superstars who have forever changed the face of reggae.
Another major contribution of Sir Coxsone and Studio One was the establishment and popularizing of a soundsystem and sound clash culture. Studio One popularized its music in the streets of JA by playing the just bust, hot off-the-press releases on Coxsone’s Downbeat Soundsystem. Led by legendary DJ’s like King Stit , a style of talking and rhyming over the record (known as toasting) was born which evolved into dancehall reggae, which eventually gave birth to rap (yes, that rap). There was tremendous competition among the top soundsystems of that time to see who could play the hottest new Toots & The Maytals (“Bam, Bam”) or Dawn Penn (“No, No, No”) or Marcia Griffith (“Truly”), etc. This competition, backed by the toasting of the soundsystem DJs, led to sound clashes which featured one soundsystem versus another, with the battle for supremacy and bragging rights on the line. So today when you hear about a clash, featuring Stone Love versus Black Chiney , remember it all started with Studio One
Although major recordings and productions at Studio One slowed drastically towards the end of the 1970’s, the riddims originating at Studio One would continue to have a profound influence on dancehall reggae, which has been on a steady rise in popularity since the late 70s. Riddims such as “Real Rock”, “Mr Bassie”, “Hot Milk”, and Satta-A-Masagana, all originated in the house of Studio One. If these riddim names sound unfamiliar, maybe you’ve heard of “Murderer” by Barrington Levy, “Raggy Road” by Capleton, and nuff odda big chunes on Studio One riddims. Pick up this Studio One anthology, and you are sure to hear 5 or 6 riddims that you thought originated with Sizzla, Capleton, Buju, or Beres. Trust mi, the influence that Studio One has had on this music goes deep and as today’s top dancehall producers continue to put their own spin on classic Studio One riddims, they keep the legacy of this legendary studio alive… [continued]
Here is Chuck Foster’s excellent bio of Dodd from the Encyclopedia of Record Producers:
- If only one reggae producer were included in this book it would have to be C.S. “Coxsone” Dodd. Though not the earliest Jamaican producer, his work is certainly the most pervasive.
Coming up through the ranks from sound system to record producer in the ska era, his rock steady and reggae productions are still the jumping off point for the most popular reggae rhythms of today, and he was the producer of note for the early work of most of reggae’s better known acts – the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, the Heptones, Dennis Brown and literally hundreds of others.
“Downbeat,” as he was originally called (most Jamaican producers and artists go through a series of names if their careers last long enough) started out building speaker boxes for some of the earliest sound systems in Jamaica. He went on to run his own sound and became chief rival to the island’s then-number one sound, Duke Reid the Trojan.
Playing American R&B in the early days and scouting records in the U.S. in heated competition, they began recording their own homegrown music as good records got harder to find. One of his earliest productions, Theophilus Beckford’s “Easy Snapping,” helped usher in the era of ska, which celebrated Jamaica’s independence both musically as a nation.
Among his outstanding contributions to ska are “Guns Fever” by Baba Brooks, Don Drummond’s “Man In the Streets,” “Further East” and “Schooling the Duke,” Clancy Eccles’ [see entry] “River Jordan” and several albums worth of Roland Alphonso, and the Skatalites. Tracks like Alphonso’s “Ball of Fire” or the Skatalites’ “Phoenix City” are what ska was all about, unbridled energy channeled through horn sections determined to stamp a Jamaican imprint on jazz, R&B and the world.
Among hundreds of ska vocals, the Wailers’ “Simmer Down” is perhaps the perfect example of how powerful an undercurrent this music could contain. Recording mainly at Federal Records before building and opening his own Studio One on Brentford Road in Kingston, Dodd issued product on a series of sub-labels like Supreme, Downbeat, Iron Side, Money Disc, Winro, Bongo Man and others. Most of his product was released or later reissued under the Coxsone or Studio One imprint.
Because he never puts dates on his records the earliest pressings are sometimes the only way – besides the constantly evolving sound – to fasten down the time period of the original recordings. In the U.K. he issued product on Bamboo and Banana as well as Attack, Trojan and others.
Dodd’s Studio One was Jamaica’s music school and he employed a long line of bouncers who became engineers and arrangers and then went on to their own productions. Among them were some of the earliest like Prince Buster and best like Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Sylvan Morris and Syd Bucknor both engineered for “Scorcher,” another nickname he put where we would put the writers credit on a single. For musicians he employed the island’s best. Like the singers whom they backed, they often cut their earliest and best records for Dodd for little remuneration. Having made their name with his productions, they then moved on to Duke Reid, Buster and others for later records.
“All these songs you’re hearin’ with us were just two-track songs” says singer Ken Boothe of the early days at Studio One. “At first we have to record the same time, singers, musicians, everybody.”
Among those who made great records at Studio One are Freddy McKay, an achingly talented singer who seems almost forgotten today, Horace Andy and early duos like Jackie (Edwards) and Doreen (Schaefer), Owen (Gray) & Millie (Small), Larry (Marshall) and Alvin and Alton (Ellis) and Eddie.
Coxsone recorded a diverse bag of music from balladeer Lord Tanamo to Nyahbingi drummer Count Ossie: including calypso, soul, jazz and gospel.
Despite this and his groundwork in ska and rock steady, his name will always be associated with the early days of reggae.
Singer/songwriter Bob Andy began his career at Studio One, first as original lead singer for the Paragons (later replaced by John Holt). His major hits with Dodd include “I’ve Got To Go Back Home” (with backing vocals by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh) and “Too Experienced,” a much-covered tune whose rhythm has become almost community property in Jamaica. He also penned hits like “Feel Like Jumping” for Marcia Griffiths when she recorded for Dodd.
Dodd went through an almost endless string of house bands: The Skatalites, Soul Brothers, Brentford All Stars, Soul Vendors, Soul Defenders and Sound Dimension are a few. Among the musicians who contributed greatly to the sound were keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and bassist Leroy Sibbles (also lead singer of the Heptones) both of whom arranged and auditioned during their tenure, as well as guitarist Ernest Ranglin and key-man Pablove Black.
Incorporating talent was perhaps Dodd’s greatest ability and scores of well-known producers like Derrick Harriot, Lloyd Charmers and Niney the Observer began their careers working for Coxsone.
Among those whom Dodd was first to record is Winston Rodney, AKA Burning Spear. His two Studio One albums sketched out the conscious roots sound he’s modified but stayed with throughout his long and successful career. The late Delroy Wilson was a youth of 14 when he cut some ripping ska sides for Coxsone, and his first two albums were done for Dodd as well. Freddie McGregor was all of 7-years-old, and had to stand on a crate to cut his
earliest vocals for Dodd as a member of the Clarendonians.
Others who scored early at Studio One include Slim Smith, Jackie Opel and later singers as diverse as Clifton Gibbs and Sugar Minott.
Vocal groups were stock in trade at Studio One, from the pre-lovers rock style of Carlton and the Shoes to the early reggae sound of the Cables. One of the first self-contained reggae bands, the Gladiators cut their first album for Dodd, including hits like “Hello Carol,” that the group (and others) returned to over and over throughout their career.
Other groups that made their mark at Studio One include the early Clue J and his Blue Blasters, the Bassies, Gaylads, Westmorlites, Termites, the Wailing Souls and the Heptones.
Coxsone also recorded some of the best early reggae in the DJ style including Dillinger, Prince Francis and Dennis Alcapone. Later the likes of Lone Ranger and (still later) Michigan and Smiley fired their opening salvo’s from Brentford Road.
King Stitt, who recorded mainly for producer Clancy Eccles, was originally a sound system DJ for Coxsone, and Prince Jazzbo, who later recorded for Lee Perry (then went on to become a producer in his own right), recorded for him as well.
Not only Coxsone’s recordings but his original rhythms have stood the test of time as Jamaican producers have returned again and again to rework and “modernize” them. Dodd himself has revisited the original rhythms many times too, bringing new generations of singers like Johnny Osbourne or Earl Sixteen on to sing on tracks cut as much as two decades previously. In the late-’70s and early-’80s he “updated” many of the rhythms by adding disco-era syndrums, though fortunately this tendency passed fairly quickly.
In that same time period Dodd moved his operations to New York and though occasional new recordings were released, the bulk of his work from that point has been in reissues and licensing product for American and European release.
A longstanding arrangement with Heartbeat has kept a large body of his work
available in the U.S. The rest of the reggae industry never stopped nicking his rhythms (or artists) and Coxsone has remained the foundation for much of the best of reggae. After four decades in the business he is still issuing some of the best music ever recorded in Jamaica, and in the last year, for the first time, manufacturing and distributing his own compact discs.
RIP Sir Coxsone.