Dennis Brown interviews: Roger Steffens

Hail Up RAWsters,

Herein are excerpts from two interviews I did in the early '80s in L.A. with Dennis Brown. Hope you find them useful for this weekend's tribute shows.

One Heart to all,
Ras RoJah

DENNIS BROWN interviews with Roger Steffens

excerpts from L.A. interview 22 Oct 80

DENNIS BROWN: I used to work with a band called the Falcons...At the time, we used to have a girl called Cynthia Richards, and you had Noel Brown, and there was another brother called Scotty who was a DJ at the time [on "Draw Your Brakes"]...We used to all be in the Falcons.

I was born [1 Feb 1957] in Kingston right at the corner of Orange Street and North Street, you have a big tenement yard, that was where I grew up, really...Slim Smith and the Techniques used to come in my yard and rehearse...I didn't record as the Falcons. You see, each of us recorded separately. Like Noel Brown and Scotty, they
recorded as the Chosen Few, and I recorded as Dennis Brown then...Well, the first record was a song called "Love Grows" which wasn't relased until after the second record I did for Coxson, which was "No Man Is An Island" was the second song made, but the first to release. and since then we just kept making records and doing backup harmonies on various songs. Like we worked with Alton Ellis, Larry marshall, we did harmony and songs
with Alton Ellis like "Sunday Coming" and "Your Heart Will Pay."

ROGER STEFFENS: What was it like to record in the Coxson Studios in the early days? You were very young when you first went in. Were you really nervous, or did you have a lot of confidence?

DB: I had a lot of confidence for the main reason that I was established as a "boy wonder" then, at that time, and like I used to have a lot of people who loved to hear me sing, like the engineer, and meself and the musicians would get on well. Not only with the musicians, but with other artists like Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson, and all the others, like groove! You know, we had that groove; I didn't feel no way. You just went right in and just recorded songs and listened them, and if there were any mistakes, then we would correct them and just went take or two take. Usually, first I would run down the song then I would just take one take, and after that I wouldn't need another one. I wasn't thinking of competing with any artists as such, I was more thinking of being among them, and sharing thoughts with them; like sharing views, ideas, etc. I wasn't like competing with Tom, Dick or Harry. To be with them was so much that - you find that most artists who come in the business and try to complete against other artists never last long because they exalt themselves too much; because when one thinks that their feet are getting too big for their shoes, you find that 90% of the people don't really dig that artist because he's trying to hang his hat where he can't reach it. It's like belittling others.

RS: How did you get mixed up with Byron Lee? Did he discover you?

DB: Actually, I was working with Byron for around a year or two, and Ken Lazarus was like the musical director of the band at that time...It wasn't until 1968 that I played with Byron, around the first time Johnny Nash came to Jamaica. Like when Miriam Makeba and Adam Wade were there, they played in Arena, and I sang with Byron and the
band, coming onto Christmas time and thing. Every year West Kingston used to have some charity balls at the Arena.

RS: Did anybody make money out of music in those days, except the producers?

DB: Only the producers.

LARRY MACDONALD: Or someone who walked with his machete to collect his portion.

KEN LAZARUS: You know I can't name you an artist that wasn't exploited.


Excerpts from interview for "L.A. Reggae" cable tv show with Roger Steffens L.A. 11 Nov 1982

The background to this rather rambling interview is amusing. On each of the two days leading to this program, I received phone calls from Jamaica from Dennis's long-time producer Joe Gibbs. He told me that Dennis was working in L.A. and had specifically requested to talk with me, so that he could dispel the rumors. "Exactly what rumors are
they?" I asked. "That he is gay, and that he has only one lung. So make sure you ask him about those things, okay?"

When I did bring these topics up, rather gingerly, there was an evident millisecond of surprise that registered on his open face, masked quickly by his inherent professionalism. After the cameras were turned off, though, he asked me why I had brought up such controversial subjects, in what had otherwise been an affable and loose conversation.
"Gosh," I stammered, "I thought you WANTED to speak about those things, that that was the purpose of this whole interview." "What?," he shot back, "Where would you get an idea like that?" Perplexed now I told him that "Joe Gibbs called me and said he was calling on your behalf, because you wanted to dispel certain behind-the-scenes whisperings about you." The light dawned in Dennis's deep eyes as he realized the elaborate trick Gibbs was playing on him. Over the years, whenever we would meet somewhere, we always laughed about the incident.

The interview was conducted in the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood, just off Sunset Strip. He had a smallish room which, along with the gaggle of young female admirers hanging out there, and our cumbersome video-recording equipment, made for a most cramped experience. In fact, I sat on the side of the bed with him as we spoke.
Perhaps the most memorable personal moment came when he reminisced about some of the earliest songs he heard back in the '50s, and he and I actually ended up singing "Misty" together. (Listening back, I find it's one of my more shameless moments, although much laughter ensued at the time.)

So - here are some of the more useful excerpts from a very casual conversation with the Crown Prince of Reggae, one chilly fall evening inna Hell A.

ROGER STEFFENS: A lot of people contend that Rasta and reggae have nothing to do with each other. Is that true?


RS: Why not?

DB: Because, you see, through Rasta a certain amount of inspiration comes out in the music, and with that, that helps to elevate the music, take the music to another level, another dimension, and that is what soothes people's souls, their mind, the body and soul. So that is not true what they say. They're crazy...But I am not a gimmick

RS: What do you listen to at home?

DB: (laughs) Almost everyting.

RS: Give me an idea of what might find its way onto your turntable on a typical evening.

DB: Well, I might listen to some jazz, or some new wave American stuff [like]a group called Human League, they sing a song (sings) "Don't you want me baby, don't you want me now, don't you want me baby, don't you want me now..." And I might be listening to some Peabo Bryson or some Natalie Cole or some Rose Royce, or Aretha
Franklin. And then on a reggae level I might be listening to some Gregory Isaacs, some Bunny Wailer.

RS: Joe called yesterday and today and he seemed very anxious for me to talk to you and I'm wondering if there was a specific reason that he wanted that to happen.

DB: Well, maybe it's because of the rumors they had going around, you know, they had some rumors about Dennis Brown was in the hospital and all that. Well, that is all bull!

RS: Why did you miss Sunsplash?

DB: Well, we had disagreements with the promoters there. The way in which they were looking after their business - in other words, the way that they were treating Dennis Brown as being secondary. And I thought that was an insult. So I stayed on in England and I didn't think about Sunsplash.

RS: So you weren't dying in a hospital over there?

DB: That's all bull.

RS: Glad to know that. How many lungs do you have?

DB: Two!

RS: Are they both working?

DB: Very much so. (laughs) Very much so! Some of them people are crazy though, you know, because like I've noticed over the years that I have been involved in the business, whenever you find an artist reach to a level wherein a lot of people is getting to know of him, you find they always come up with some crazy rumors. But give praises still that they are saying rumors that aren't so, but facts still remain - some rumors are very killing. And
I'm thankful they never did say certain rumors about me, because that woulda been killing. Like being a homosexual, which I'm not still. (begins to laugh, as he looks around a room packed with beautiful young women)

RS: This room doesn't look like you're a homosexual (everyone erupts in prolonged laughter)

DB: So with all that rumor you can still laugh. (laughter throughout)

RS: (In a sober announcer's voice) Ladies and gentlemen, we're talking today with Dennis Brown, a one-lunged homosexual black man from Kingston, and our subject today... (more laughter) It doesn't sound right.

DB: No, that is not right (laughs) But then again, let's get serious now. The bottom line is that Dennis Brown is alive and well, and he's got two lungs and they're kicking and I'm still spitting out them notes.

RS: Did you ever sing in the bathroom as a kid?

DB: Oh sure, when I'm taking a bath. You always will be singing a song or humming a line or a melody. Sometimes that is why you might even stay in the bathroom for even half an hour, making that water running all over, just singing.

RS: What would you sing in the bathtub when you were a kid?

DB: The songs that would be happening then at that time. Like Adam Wade had "Judy on My Mind" and [sings the song] "What a Difference A Day Makes." And "Misty" [sings verse]

[After a lengthy digression on the beliefs of the 12 Tribes movement of Rasta...]

DB: We don't come to fight skin, flesh and blood, but spiritual wickedness in high and low places.

RS: Does that mean you're a revolutionary?

DB: Not necessarily so. I sing a lot about love. Love represents Jah. Jah is love, or God, whichever way you might accept it.

RS: Occassionally we get a militant person who calls the Reggae Beat radio show here in L.A. - this has happened more than once - and says, "Why do you play love songs? Reggae means militancy. Reggae means revolution, and love songs have absolutely no place on your show, and you shouldn't play them again. What's wrong with you,
you're being counter revolutionary!" What would you say if they told that to you?

DB: They're crazy! You know, they have a one track mind, their mind, or their taste for music is very narrow. They're narrow-minded. I think I have a more wider scope for music, I have more taste for music. And I try and accept all kind of music, and I love ballads, funk, soul, jazz, even calypso music I enjoy sometimes.

RS: Sparrow?

DB: Sparrow, yeah mon, he's the greatest.

RS: What about African music, are you listening to any of that these days?

DB: Well, I heard of Sunny Ade, and looks as if his music is gonna be big on a global level, because I was in London the other day and some people asked me to review the album. And even though this type of music was sort of new, I tried to accept it.

RS: What did you like about it?

DB: The flavoring, the various instruments and all that. Because his type of African music is something that is very much new, comparing to older records that has been done there, it is more westernized, with all that string instuments, keyboards, clavinet and synthesizer and all that. So it's good.

RS: Where would you like to be two years from now?

DB: (laughs) In Africa.

RS: Permanently?

DB: If I can.

RS:...Ethiopia, I presume, is where you want to go.

DB: True. I want to be among the brothers there.

RS: Have you ever been to Africa?

DB: No, not yet...But now I'm getting that spiritual motivation to visit Africa. And I think that that should be inspiring, so I'm looking forward to that.

RS: Will you bring your family.

DB: Sure!

RS: How many kids do you have?

DB: Seven.

[A brief discussion followed of how to help bring children's musical talents to fruition. Dennis recommended a tutor, especially for reading music.]

RS: Can you read music?

DB: Partially

RS: But you started so young, why didn't you ever learn to read music?

DB: Well, until this very day, I'm still learning. You see, that is it with music, you never stop learning. Every day you learn something new. You keep learning, you keep advancing, and you never stop learning, don't care how great a musician might be, or a singer or artist.

RS: Robbie Shakespeare said when he went to school he could read and write music, but he couldn't play. When he grew up, he started to play, but now he can't read or write.

DB: (laughs)

RS: I'm not a musician, so how does that happen? How do you forget that stuff?

DB: Well, you see, it's simply because you might be away from that environment, you see, you are not constantly -

RS: - it's not like riding a bicycle, then, you never forget?

DB: Or like driving a car. It's very much different. But when you have to deal with notes, and to be able to make a full definition of what a sound is - if you are not around that environment, then you'll find you lose that feel, that momentum, you lose all that.

RS: Do you come from a musical family?

DB: Not really. I'd say a more drama - my father is more a dramatist. [Dennis speaks about the "Come Home to Jamaica" current 1982 tv ad campaign for the Jamaica Tourist Board, which features an old man with a long white beard, walking a donkey, and surrounded by children.] Yeah, that's my father, Arthur Brown.

RS: I understand he's a famous Jamaican actor.

DB: Yeah, he does drama shows. He used to be involved in pantomime, musical shows.

RS: Did he want you to be an actor?

DB: No, well I think that is where some of my musical influence came from. Because I used to go and watch him rehearsing for pantomime, and I have adopted some of those principles, like try to be on time, learn your script, how he approach it, etc. But all the little things that go with it to make it professional. Because that is it now, you see, to be a successful musician now, a singer or an artist, you have to deal with it on a professional level. You can't be dealing with it on a secondary level or a mediocre level where you'd be hustling and all that.

RS: What do you miss most when you're touring?

DB: My kids. Miss my kids. I love them.

RS: And when you're home with the kids, what do you miss most about being on the road?

DB: (big long laugh)

RS: You don't have to answer that.

DB: I don't. We'll pass that.

(c) 1999 Roger Steffens Reggae Archives

Posted: Thu -
January 8, 2004 at 11:53 AM