Today I find myself at a home in Gaithersburg, MD sitting across the kitchen table from one Delroy “Barry” Wright, record producer and owner of Live & Learn records. I had been seeking to link with the elusive Ras for some time but he’s not an easy one to pin down for an interview. I was planning the interview to end all interviews. It is not often that you get to sit down with someone who has a resumé like Barry’s. From his work with Ras Michael, Freddy McKay, and Winston Hussey to his association with Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Linval Thompson, and the early dancehall revolution at Channel One, he has a tremendous story to tell and I was going to help him tell it.
For those who don’t know, Barry and his brother Jah Life (Hyman Wright) relocated to the US from Jamaica in 1970, settling in the NYC area. Delroy soon moved south to Washington, D.C. where he opened the legendary Live & Learn Record Mart, which would, for the next 20 years be the checkpoint for all displaced Jamaicans and touring reggae artists.
“It was the place to be you know. If you on tour here in the U.S. you haffe come check in at Live & Learn” Wright explains laughing.
For someone who prefers to let his music do the talking ( he’s only granted two previous interviews) Barry is one of the most amiable, unassuming, and humble individuals I have ever met in the business.
I give thanks to Barry for giving me the interview and to Doctor Dread for getting us together to make it happen.
JR: So I really want to talk in depth about your career. For people reading this who may not know, you and your brother Hyman “Jah Life” Wright moved to New York in the mid-seventies…you eventually settled in Washington, D.C.. But you would travel to Jamaica often to record artists and then bring the tapes back to the U.S. to sell. What was that dynamic like, you know, dropping in on Jamaica for a week or two just to record?
DW: I tell you Mike. I don’t play when I used to go in Jamaica. It’s serious business when I go to Jamaica. When I’m there, everybody wan come sing. I tell you Mike I have so many songs. Ansel Meditations, this guy I give you the record here on Studio One Ernest Wilson I have some songs wid him. Y’understand me? Even Freddie McGregor. I was the first one to bring him to Doctor Dread. I tell Doc to listen to him. Don Carlos. I take his record to Jim Fox for the very first time. The one “Here I Come Again,” “Black History,” “Spread out.”
JR: So start at the beginning. Where are you from?
DW: I’m from Kingston…Denham Town. Jus’ like the album I did with Wailing Souls Kingston 14. You see on de cover deh Denham Town. Dat where me a come from. Me know Pipe, Garth, dem from Black Uhuru, Duckie, Michael, Junior Reid all a dem. Waterhouse.
JR: You come from a large family?
DW: Yeah mon, my family big! I got two brothers and eight sisters. My father Vincent Wright used to be a you know, seh the government wan’ bring more lights on the street, so dem haffe come to my father. He was like the village lawyer.
JR: Kind of like what we would call an Alderman or community representative?
DW: Yeah mon. He used to have a little sound system business too you know. He used to play at a place dem call Forrester’s Oil. Maybe you might see Duke Reid or Coxsone there or Chocomo Lawn. He also used to have a jukebox system where he put records in the bars so the people can punch and play and dance you know listen or whatever.
JR: What was the name of the sound system?
DW: It didn’t really have a name (laughing). He just a show up and turn it out (laughing). True my dad wasn’t as big as Coxsone or Duke Reid, his sound didn’t have a name. So he start doing a few recordings with Delroy Wilson and Stranger Cole. He and Stranger Cole form a little label they called W&C Records and they open a little shop on a place dem call North Street. You know “Run, Run”? My father the first one to do it even before Coxsone.
JR: With Delroy (Wilson)?
DW: Yeah and also “Once Upon A Time” my father is the first one to record that one with Delroy also.
JR: And these records were released?
DW: Yeah mon them release in Jamaica on the W&C label. So that how it all start with the music ting ya know…with the little label and the shop on North Street.
Label Scans by Johnny Spencer
JR: Now there are many sources that point to Delroy Wilson and Stranger Cole as the label owners. Is this not true? Wilson and Cole?
DW: I have heard that too but it is not true. The label was owned by my father and Stranger Cole. They opened the shop together on North Street. The label is W&C – Wright & Cole. The store on North Street was called W&C. My father produced some tune by Delroy Wilson on the label.
JR: Sorry to belabor the issue and I know this seems trivial but you are refuting what has been considered fact for many years. Some sources say that W&C was Delroy Wilson’s label and that your father’s label with Stranger Cole was called B&W. You ever hear this?
DW: Yes I hear it. I hear all of it but it not true. W&C – Wright & Cole. As for B&W I don’t really know about it.
JR: There are also several Stranger and Gladdy tunes on the label as well.
DW: W&C? Yes, yes Stranger and Gladdy were a big group from early on. Even before Bob Marley Stranger and Gladdy were like the big ting. So this is like late 1960s and around 1970. Y’know my father was well known in the music business at the time. At his birthday you would see Roland Alphonso, the Skatalites would come and play. So that is how I get to know a lot of the musicians. Tommy McCook you know…all of those guys.
JR: So the tune he did for Delroy [Wilson] “Run, Run” on the W&C label, was that tune a hit?
DW: Oh yeah, yeah mon. You hear it on the radio. It was very popular.
JR: Did the record sound a lot different than the later version from Studio One?
DW: Yeah, it sound a lot different. The Studio One version was more of a rocksteady beat. Coxsone change the beat so it have his sound, the sound coming from Studio One at that time which was rocksteady.
JR: I’d love to track down a copy of that original version. It is such a great tune.
DW: You know, my brother have it. Him have it and he have the master tape too.
So getting back to what I was saying, my brother Jah Life was more interested in it than I was. I wasn’t interested in it until say around 1970, 1971.
JR: And how old were you at this point when you started to get interested in the music?
DW: I was around like seventeen yeah seventeen years old.
JR: I’ve read somewhere that you first started recording in the early 1970s. What did you record? Do you recall?
DW: Well, I did so many recordings in 1970, ’71, ’72…I try to recall but there were so many. Many of them never released. I still have the tapes. I recorded Ernest Wilson, Freddy McKay, Ras Michael some maybe release on a 45 but some still not released today.
Al Campbell (l), Winston Hussey (c), Delroy Wright (r)
JR: So let’s slow it down for a minute. How did you make the transition from a sort of street kid you know to entering a studio to record and produce? I suspect that is not a transition that is easily made.
DW: Well, OK. I was in Jamaica. Let me recall. (laughing)
JR: Long time right? (laughing)
DW: Yeah mon, long time. I cannot remember! (laughing)
I was in Jamaica. I went to Channel One. Yeah Channel One on Maxfield Avenue. I think it was Ras Michael. Ras Michael was one of the first to bring me around you know. It was the day ah…there was an instant in Jamaica where there was a coffin running around in Kingston all by itself without anybody directing it or anything and they were saying that it was evil spirit. That was the song that Bob Marley cut called “Mr. Brown.” That was the day. That is when I decide you know I’m gonna go to Channel One and start doing some work. I could see that the music was going to take off because of what Bob Marley was doing at that time.
JR: Yeah but how do you make that transition though? They are just not going to let you in to start running the board. So how did you…or who did you know that allowed you to get behind those walls?
DW: Oh OK, yes, yes, you haffe book studio time and you haffe be familiar to the people, the musicians and producers. I knew a lot of these people because my father was in the music business. So I didn’t have to go through a lot of things to get in you know. So I decide that music gonna be my life line now.
JR: So back to your first recordings…Do you recall any of them?
DW: I record so many ‘ting you know. In the early ’70s I was recording Michael Prophet. I was even recording Ernest Wilson. Ansel Meditations. Ras Michael.
JR: All of it at Channel One?
DW: Yes most of it at Channel One because at the time there were three studios that would press and sell my recordings. You had Channel One, you had Dynamic, you had Tuff Gong you know. But most people choose record at Channel One because Channel One had the sound.
JR: Tuff Gong?
DW: Yes, upstairs Bob Marley have a little shop with Peter and Bunny. It was on…trying to recall…maybe Beeston Street at the corner of Beeston Street and Orange Street…right over there, yeah.
JR: And they would sell your records there?
DW: Yeah, yeah mon. It a record shop you know.
JR: It must have been later than 1970. I think Channel One was built in 1972?
DW: No, no…Channel One was there before 1972. Yeah mon. I remember like even 1969 Channel One was there on Maxfield Avenue.
JR: Was Sly and Robbie there at the time?
DW: Yeah mon! Sly and Robbie was there. I did a lot of recording with Sly and Robbie. Also Lloyd Parks. We The People. Radics. You see Mike I don’t do like a lot of producers and just use the Radics or just use Sly and Robbie. I mix the musicians up and try to come with a different sound.
JR: How does that dynamic work though? Say you have Sly and Robbie but you want to use Lloyd Parks on a track with Sly. You tell Robbie you want to use Lloyd?
DW: Yeah mon.
JR: They don’t get mad or territorial?
DW: No, no (laughing). I do it all de time. I say Sly and Robbie I’m going to use you on the drum and bass, I’ll use Steelie on percussion. There was a guy, a guitarist we call him “Dougie.” He go on tour with Jimmy Cliff. Man, great, great guitar player. On some of the songs him mek it sound like Jimi Hendrix. One of the best.
JR: “Dougie.” Is that Rad Bryan?
DW: Yes, yes him name Radcliffe Bryan. What an amazing lead guitarist. Great guy.
JR: So the first full length album you released on Live & Learn was Ras Michael and Sons of Negus LOVE THY NEIGHBOR?
DW: Yes, that was the first album for Live & Learn but I do so many other recordings before that one. I do a little two tracks here and a little one track there you know.
JR: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR was released on your brother’s label first though right? I think 1978, 1979?
DW: Yes it released first on Jah Life but my brother have nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. It was between me and Ras Michael.
JR: So LOVE THY NEIGHBOR was recorded at the Black Ark in early ’78 I believe. Maybe even the last LP recorded at the Ark? So what happened? How did you come to release the album?
DW: Me and Ras Michael we good friends from long time. Ras Michael had the master tapes and he come to the U.S. and ask me to release the album. So I release it first on Jah Life in 1979 and then in 1982 I release it on Live & Learn.
JR: The mix on your releases is different from the Black Ark mix. And the tracklist also is different.
DW: Yes, I do my own mix to release in America on Jah Life and Live & Learn. I think the Live & Learn release have one less track than the one on Jah Life. Maybe two less track.
DW: Yes I think two less tracks.
JR: So jumping back…When did you establish Live & Learn?
DW: Yeah mon, the label was already established in the early 1970s. Well, actually it get established right around that time. Little bit before. You see because I use to give the stuff to Sonic Sound, that’s Neville Lee on Retirement Crescent. So he would take the little 45 and release it to England. So when the people start buy the records I start dealing direct with Jet Star and Greensleeves.
JR: So you are not even 20 years old and you have your own label. How did you decide on Live & Learn as the name of the label?
DW: (Laughing) A lot of people ask me that. You see I’m a Ras and I wanted to give the label a name that separate it from the others of that time. You had Attack, and Volcano, and the others. To me Live & Learn was something positive and conscious. I want it so when you pick up the record and you look at the record and the artist you know what you are getting. You are getting something that is positive and something that is quality.
JR: It’s funny you say that because in the early 1980s the music took a turn there was a lot of negativity in the music and you and Doc in particular always kept the music positive and forward-looking.
DW: Yeah mon, I never deal with negative. I’ll tell you Mike there were people come to the studio and try to record negativity and I don’t try deal in it.
JR: When did you link with Junjo Lawes?
DW: About 75-76. My brother went Jamaica and spent about a year. I was in NYC at the time, since 1970 actually. Me and my brother and some of my sisters moved there. We moved to the U.S. because politically things were getting hot and we were right in the middle of it in Denham Town. We surrounded by Tivoli Gardens over here, Rema over there, Wellington Street over there, Jungle up here. My sisters came to NYC in like 1968 so they were there.
JR: So this period around 1975-76 who were you working with at that time, who were you recording on your trips to Jamaica?
DW: Mike I was recording so many people man. Little John, Michael Prophet, this is long before they released any records. maybe a one-off or something but not much. You haffe remember not even Bob was big at that time. So by the time Barrington release BOUNTY HUNTER or Little John release him ‘ting, or Michael Prophet release his album these guys have been singing and performing for years mon. They record so many songs that never released you know. Just shelf it. Say you record a song and you think it real nice, you haffe do a lot of leg work just to get it to the street. No UK or US labels want to hear what you recording at that time so I haffe know somebody in the US in NYC or some place and say ‘look i have dis song it nice’ and send them the labels and the stamper and say ‘why you don’t see if you can walk it around to the shops and sell a few.’ It was hard work at that time. Even the Wailers record so many years before breaking you know.
JR: And somebody with some money had to take a chance on them!
DW: Right, right!
JR: So the records you released on Live & Learn in the 80s – starting in say 1982 – when were those recorded?
DW: All a dem in the 70s. Except for a few that I record in the mid-80s like The Mighty Diamonds [JAM SESSION] those albums were recorded in the 70s. Winston Hussey was in the middle of his career when we record THE GIRL I ADORE. We record that one in 1979. Freddie McKay was already established as a singer many years in Jamaica when we do his album [TRIBAL INNA YARD] in the mid-70s.
JR: So say Little John for instance, he recorded REGGAE DANCE for Jah Thomas and GIVE THE YOUTH A TRY for you. He record the album for Jah Thomas first right?
DW: Well, a little bit before. No, no it was basically at the same time you know. Because we were all at Channel One the same time.
JR: So back to Jah Life in Jamaica. This is 1975-’76. So this is when he linked up with Junjo and Barrington Levy?
DW: He linked with Junjo and I meet Junjo through my brother. At the time he [Lawes] was doing some enumerating, how you say, counting people you know.
JR: Like a census counter?
DW: Yeah, yeah mon! (laughing) He wasn’t in the business but he was edging. He was always at the dance, at the sound system, and live shows you know. He was out there. So he start recruiting artists from his neighborhood. Those artists like Little John, Toyan, they come from Junjo’s neighborhood in Oakland. Some of these guys were already on the mic at dances. At the same time my brother linked with Barrington Levy and link him with Junjo too.
JR: So Junjo didn’t discover Barrington?
DW: No, no. Who discover Barrington Levy was ah Trinity. Trinity I record also. He go by the name Junior Brammer you know. Trinity discover him and put him on. They were performing on the sound and Trinity give to Barrington his chain you know…like the chain from his neck and send him on-stage to perform. So during this time my brother record some tracks for Barrington. These are the tracks appear on BOUNTY HUNTER. Released on Jah Life. Yes that the first release with the hand-drawn cover art. I distribute it under Live and Learn. Those tracks were also released on like 2 or 3 other albums with different mixes.
JR: Yes, legendary story. I have the Jah Life pressing and those tracks are very heavy. The music has a lot of weight. I also have HUNTER MAN which I think is on Burning Sounds. The music is not the same, not as heavy.
DW: Yeah, that one no good mon.
JR: So when is this? What year are you talking that Jah Life linked up with Barrington?
DW: I’m talkin’ like 1971-’72.
JR: Wait a minute. But BOUNTY HUNTER didn’t come out until 1979?
DW: It come out on Jah Life in 1979 yes but those tracks were recorded mid-1970s. No, no. Listen. I stocked that BOUNTY HUNTER album at my store on Georgia Avenue when it first come. So it come maybe like ’75. I’m talkin’ the very first one…if you look at the back cover it distribute by Live & Learn. That one come out before 1979 in the mid-70s. Maybe the publishing ting didn’t do until ’79. Sometime back then you release the album, maybe sell it in your store and take it around to all de record shops but you do the publishing ‘ting later. Nah worry ’bout that at de time. There was no written contract back then, it was all word of mouth. Kinda like underground. I open my store on Georgia Avenue in D.C. in like ’74-’75 see…I was first at F Street and then I move up to Georgia Avenue after about a year.