MIDNIGHT RAVER SPEAKS WITH BLACK UHURU FOUNDER GARTH DENNIS ABOUT HIS UPCOMING ALBUM TITLED ‘TRENCHTOWN: 19 THIRD STREET.’
Originally published October 2012
Former founding member of Black Uhuru and legendary Wailing Souls vocalist Rudolph “Garth” Dennis is preparing the release of his first solo album titled 19 Third Street since leaving a reunited Black Uhuru nearly 20 years ago. Since releasing their first song with Tommy Cowan, a beautiful cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Romancing To The Folk Song” (pressed as “Folk Song” on the Top Cat label) in 1972, Garth Dennis blazed a trail through popular reggae which many have followed, yet very few have been able to match.
In this exclusive interview, Garth talks about growing up in Trench Town at 19 Third Street (where he witnessed brother-in-law Joe Higgs rehearse The Wailers; forming and naming Uhuru (later to become Black Uhuru) on the streets of Waterhouse; his successful run with the Wailing Souls; and his reunion and departure from the original Black Uhuru in 1998.
It is under his ackee tree at 14 Balcombe Drive, in the heart of the Waterhouse section of West Kingston that Rudolph ‘Garth’ Dennis rehearses two talented, but ruff rudebwoys. His method is demanding – persistence and repetition is key, perfection is a must – a method he learned watching his revered brother-in-law, a short and stony brother named Joe Higgs, as he rehearsed The Wailers to exhaustion every afternoon in the Dennis family home at 19 Third Street in Trench Town.
The two rudies, Waterhouse street kids – one called “Junia” Reid and the other “Mykal” Michael Rose. The heat, the heavy air, the dry mouths, the sore throats – Garth tells them it’s all part of the game. Hurt now, earn later. It’s not just a profession in the music business they are seeking, but enlightenment. Singing praises and paying their dues as Rastas. What they don’t know at the time is that this road they are travelling has no off-ramp, no exit. This road, this path that the Almighty has placed them on leads to one destination – up de gully bank past brother Feeble house – Uhuru, Black Uhuru, Black Sounds Uhuru – singing about Crisis and creating those Black Sounds of Freedom.
Garth Dennis formed Uhuru (which would later become Black Sounds Uhuru and finally Black Uhuru) in Waterhouse in 1972 with his two bredren from the neighborhood Derrick “Duckie” Simpson and a tall, lanky brother with the golden voice by the name of Ervin Spencer, also known as Don “Jah” Carlos.
“Uhuru, I was the one who put this thing together and I told Don and Duckie this is the name,” says Dennis during our recent interview. “I have been too humble all of these years. Now it’s my time fi really talk, you know? Cause there are some people out there now making a lot of noise.”
Dennis moved to the West Kingston ghetto from Trench Town, where he was groomed as a vocalist and performer by brother-in-law Joe Higgs. Garth recalls:
“Joe Higgs was so influential in Trench Town at the time. Most of the singers come to him to learn how to sing. He used to rehearse them in my family yard. The Wailers was formed in my yard at 19 Third Street in Trench Town, where Joe Higgs also lived. That is where Bob meet Bunny meet Peter.
So Joe Higgs dem a call my ‘twin brother-in-law.’ His brother and my sister have a son, and my brother and one of his sisters have a son. I rehearse with Joe Higgs so much you know, with Wailing Souls, and The Wailers.”
“When I was putting Uhuru together, there used to be this guy name ‘Feeble’ that we sing about in “Firehouse Rock.”
Take a little walk down on de gully bank
Say we a go check brother Feeble
He say Lord live upright,
come make we share this small morsel
Him was a friend of Joe Higgs. Joe Higgs used to come to Waterhouse up the gully bank where brother Feeble live. I remember taking Don and Duckie with me to go rehearse with Joe Higgs up the gully bank with Feeble. So Joe Higgs used to rehearse that early Uhuru trio too.”
He spent much of his formative days in Trench town running with a musically inclined crew that included Junior Braithwaite, Peter MacIntosh, Neville Livingston, and a young rudie with a wicked screw named Nesta Marley.
“Bob (Marley) used to come to Trench town from time to time to visit his mom. He would just come to visit his mom and then leave again. When he found out that the Dennis family was living there, he stayed. We played cricket, and football, and marbles dem kind of ting.”
Dennis followed the exodus of talented singers from Trench Town to Waterhouse after the building of the Olympic Gardens housing scheme. His sister Joan, commonly referred to as Joey, was already a singing sensation on the island as half of the Andy and Joey duo. The duo had a smash with “You’re Wondering Now.”
“I come from Trench Town. I took that Joe Higgs vibration to Waterhouse where I put myself, and Don, and Duckie together to form Black Uhuru. So even when I move to Waterhouse I would go back to Trench Town to rehearse with The Wailers and with Pipe dem, which was Joe Higgs’ singing group” (commonly known as the Wailing Souls).
“I used to rehearse Duckie and Michael Rose. Dis was before Love Crisis. I help rehearse Don Carlos and Gold, and a guy by de name of Terry McDonell, Sammy Tracy a group dem call Voice of Progress, that included Jr. Reid and all a dem kinda people.”
Based on the Higgs model of the power trio, Dennis, Simpson, and Carlos rehearse endlessly, slowly honing the harmonies and creating the sound and vibe that will define Black Uhuru for the next 30 years. Their first session takes place at Dynamics with sound engineer Karl Pitterson and George Philpott. They spend the entire session attempting to record “Folk Song,” a Curtis Mayfield-inspired tune crafted by Dennis, who at the time, wrotes most of the songs. Unable to work out the harmonies for the song, Pitterson enlisted the help of Boris Gardiner, who was booked for studio time that day. Uhuru’s first single “Folk Song,” featured Garth Dennis, Don Carlos and Boris Gardiner.
“See when I put the group together I start doing the same thing like Joe Higgs and get the guys together to rehearse. I had two or three songs that we rehearse but where harmony is concerned, certain guys wasn’t up to it. It was more Duckie than Don. See nowadays you can get away with a lot of things. You just mix it and you can hide certain things. But in those days, the 60s and 70s you couldn’t really hide it if the harmony was not there.”
After laying two recordings, a single titled “Time Is On Our Side” and the previously unreleased “Going To Zion” (released as part of the Roots, Rock Randy’s Box Set in 2012) with Clive Chin at Randy’s Recording Studio, the trio recorded their third single “Slow Coach,” a song written and sung by Garth Dennis, which speaks to conflict in Jamaica and the Middle East. The riddim was laid down at Randy’s and the vocals at King Tubby’s.
Dennis discusses the vocals session in David Katz’s book Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae:
“We lay the riddim at Randy’s and when we come to Tubby’s to do the vocal it was the same thing with the harmony – we couldn’t nail it down.”
During our interview, Dennis told me the real story of what happened next in Tubby’s studio:
“There’s a early version of ‘Slow Coach,’ I don’t know if you hear it, but at the beginning before I start to sing you can hear Tubby say:
‘Alright Garthy! You take this one.’
Then you hear ‘Slow Coach’ start. The reason Tubby was telling me to take that one because Duckie kept getting mess up. It was supposed to be a Black Uhuru song with my lead voice and the harmonies. But as I tell you again the harmonies kept getting mess up. Dem release that song as a Garth Dennis song.”
Trench Town, Jamaica. 1974. Joe Higgs, now a member of the singing group Wailing Souls (previously The Renegades, Pipe and the Pipers) is recruited by Jimmy Cliff for a US tour. The Souls turn to Garth Dennis as a replacement one day in Trenchtown while Dennis was helping them work out a few songs.
“So Black Uhuru kind of stop recording because Duckie disappear and Don start doing his postman work thing right. What happened now, me knowing Pipe (Winston Matthews), and Bread (Lloyd McDonald), and Buddy (George Haye) and them, we used to rehearse together in Trench Town they asked me to help them work out some songs. So I work out the songs with them and was about to leave. They said ‘we want you to come to the studio and work on the whole thing’. So we record those songs (“Tings and Times,” “Jah Jah Give Us Life To Live,” and “War”) and as soon as they get released they jump to number one.”
The session was recorded at Channel One Studio by producer Joseph Hoo Kim with The Revolutionaries backing Wailing Souls. Other hits produced by Hoo Kim at the time included “Back Biter” and “Very Well.”
By 1977 the band started their own Massive label, and released more hit singles including “Bredda Gravalicious” and “Feel the Spirit.” Their big break came in 1978 released their album Wild Suspense, featuring remixed tracks from their successful singles.
At the same time Wailing Souls enters the studio to record Wild Suspense, Duckie Simpson is reconstituting Black Uhuru as Black Sounds Uhuru with Waterhouse wailer Michael Rose and Errol T. Nelson formerly of The Jayes. Rose and drummer Sly Dunbar had been busy cutting singles throughout the mid-seventies with Niney the Observer and Soul Syndicate. Sly Dunbar, in an effort to expand his influence throughout the island music industry, proposed to Rose that Black Sounds Uhuru record and release their debut album on his upstart Taxi label. This idea is placed on hold when Dunbar accepts an invitation from Peter Tosh to go on tour. Uhuru accepts an invitation from Waterhouse record producer Prince Jammy to record the Love Crisis album.
Although Garth Dennis has a successful career going with the Wailing Souls, he still has Uhuru in his heart. He spends countless hours rehearsing Uhuru for the album. They even record one of Dennis’ songs for the album called “Satan Army Band.”
“Yes, my friend, I write that song meself.”
Black Uhuru “Satan Army Band”
The Love Crisis album, produced by Prince Jammy, is released in 1977. It is overdubbed and re-released in 1981 as Black Sounds of Freedom by Black Uhuru.
“I rehearsed Black Uhuru a lot for the Love Crisis album. Duckie, Michael, and Errol Jayes (Nelson). Errol Jayes take over, cause they didn’t know nothing about harmony. I rehearse them a lot. Most of them songs on that album come from the writings of that Elder man in Waterhouse. The only one mine is ‘Satan Army Band.’ I wrote that.”
“There was a man who live in Waterhouse, [a neighborhood elder], his last name is Johnson, him write ‘Shine Eye Gal’, ‘Abortion,’ ‘Penitentiary,’ dem song that come from the Black Uhuru that became established. Those set of songs were given to us in a book by the elder. We add certain tings to it but neither Duckie, nor Michael Rose, nor myself write those songs. He used to work for the government in Jamaica and ting. I used to read the songs from this hardcover exercise book. Duckie was close to the family and when dis man die, somehow dem gave Duckie that book. So here comes Duckie with this book of songs. Michael didn’t really have any songs at de time, so Michael start deliver those songs. Duckie gets all the credit for those songs, but those songs were written by elders.”
Over the next decade, Black Uhuru and Wailing Souls become two of the top ranking roots reggae outfits in the world. Throughout the early 1980s, Wailing Souls record primarily with Sly and Robbie for the duo’s Taxi label, at Channel One for producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes, and for producer Linval Thompson (Wailing). Between 1981 and 1984, the Souls are based primarily in California, where Dennis still lives today.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Black Uhuru, now made up of Duckie Simpson, Michael Rose, and American singer/dancer Sandra ‘Puma’ Jones, begin releasing successful singles featuring Sly and Robbie including their groundbreaking debut singles “General Penitentiary,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “Shine Eye Gal,” the latter two featuring Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones on guitar. The group found Grammy Award-winning success with the release of Anthem in 1984. Michael Rose departs the group during the recording of the ‘Brutal’ album in 1985. In order to replace him, Duckie recruits Rose’s friend and rehearsal partner, Junior Reid, who finishes the Brutal album. Unfortunately, Puma Jones departs the band before the recording of their next album Positive. The group begins recording an album with King Jammy, but it is never completed. During this tumultuous and uncertain period, Sly and Robbie also leave to pursue their own productions. The 1988 release Positive, featuring Simpson, Reid, and Janet Olafunke, is met with mixed reviews. Tragically, the beloved Sandra ‘Puma’ Jones succumbs to cancer in 1990.
“So round about 1989, Don was doing him own thing with like six, seven, eight album to his credit. I was preparing to do my solo thing. There was a concert here in California. Big big concert. I perform at it for the first time as a solo artist. Don Carlos was on it. Mutabaruka was on it. Black Uhuru with Junior Reid was supposed to be the headliner. Junior Reid didn’t show up. Just Duckie and the girl show up. I perform. Muta performs. Don Carlos performs. Time for Black Uhuru to perform – they can’t perform. The emcee was Muta man from Waterhouse who tell Muta , him say:
‘You the three that start Black Uhuru in Waterhouse! Go deh and perform fi the people! Create an excitement for dem!’
So we go on stage and do bout three, four songs for the people. Some Don Carlos songs.”
They did not know it at the time, but this single performance would lead eventually to the recording of four outstanding roots reggae albums that help redefine the sound of new roots in the early 1990s. NOW (1990) is a brilliant album (it makes my top 5 of all time) which features new and unique versions of several songs from Black Sounds of Freedom, including Dennis’ own “Satan Army Band.” The album, nominated for a Grammy Award is soon followed by Iron Storm (1991) a driving album with hip-hop and dancehall influences. “Colourblind Love Affair” is featured on a Hollywood film soundtrack and rapper Ice-T is featured on “Tip Of The Iceberg.”
They return to the new roots style with Mystical Truth (1993) and Strongg (1994). During this period, the band tours incessantly. At the time, it seemed like they were on the road for 5 straight years. I know that I saw them perform in my hometown no less than 5 times in a three-year period.
In 1994 the group fragmented again, with Simpson leaving to tour Europe with dub poet Yasus Afari. Garth Dennis and Don Carlos tour the U.S. under the name Black Uhuru. The Dennis/Carlos version of Black Uhuru is very popular among reggae fans. In 1997, they were the first reggae group to perform at Billboard Magazine’s new Los Angeles night spot Billboard. In 1996, they were featured on CNN playing a party in honor of Denise Brown Simpson (O.J.’s wife), who was a big fan of theirs. They also played for a crowd of 110,000 at the 1996 Olympics, and at the Reggae On The Rocks festival in Colorado where they record a live album.
It is during this period that Duckie Simpson makes the assertion that he, and he alone, owns the name “Black Uhuru.” He pursues, and is granted, an injunction against Carlos and Dennis in Jamaica on October 30, 1997 just as they prepare to play the Air Jamaica America Jazz and Blues Festival at Rose Hall Great House on November 9, 1997. The case is of such importance in Jamaica that the judge, Ms. Justice Harris, historically decides to hear it on a Saturday.
On November 9, 1997, the very same day that Carlos and Dennis are scheduled to perform, Justice Harris sides with the defendants and directs that the injunction be dissolved. Dennis and Carlos are awarded damages as well.
If you ask Dennis about the mid-90s war between Dennis, Carlos, and Simpson, the three original members of Black Uhuru, he is more saddened by the thought that a great institution in reggae music had been destroyed over money.
“You know, dis de ting, it not always haffe be about the material part you know? There’s more to it than the material part mon. Dem guys done spent the material part because dem haffe mek a way, and dem break up a good thing. You know, when you come from Trench town, unity is de ting.”
Garth Dennis is focused on one thing right now: fulfilling his dream to release a solo album and write a book about his experiences in two of the most legendary roots reggae acts ever to come from that “likkle island that could.”
The album, appropriately titled Trench town 19 Third Street, is slated for a release sometime next spring. If the two singles that I listened to off the album are any indication, then fans of Garth Dennis are in for an early Christmas. Like all the greats, Bob Andy, Horace Andy, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown, that voice is eternal. Dennis’ voice is a Jamaican national treasure that is surprisingly still able to “satisfy your soul.”
Garth Dennis’ influence on reggae music throughout the past 40 years cannot be overestimated. He was part of that original “fraternity” of singers and musicians from Trench Town who created a whole new genre of music – a lifestyle – a culture. As a vocalist and lyricist, he is simply one of the best to ever do it. He is, in large part, responsible for the Waterhouse sound of the 1970s, a sound that is still evident in reggae today. As a mentor, coach, and spiritual guide, he was elemental in the early careers of the brightest stars to come from Waterhouse, including Junior Reid and Michael Rose.
Listen to Garth’s new single “Marijuana” HERE.