Jazz Warrior, Junglist, Educator, Innovator… Hackney born ‘n’ bred… Cleveland Watkiss returns to his roots and the music that shaped his youth…
It has to said that whenever I hear that a friend, or anyone else for that matter, is poised to do over a brace of reggae classics from the Seventies and early Eighties I’m struck with a serious bout of trepidation. So, when my good friend and collaborator, Cleveland Watkiss, declared he was set to rework a host of tunes, live and in the studio, that I’ve played in their original format hundreds of times, I was like… “Awoahhh!”
I deejayed at the very first “The Great Jamaican Songbook’ gig and got a solid idea of where Cleveland was heading with this project and he was clearly intent on hitting up classics from Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Delroy Wilson, Junior Byles, Prince Lincoln, Bobby Melody and Burning Spear. Yes, that’s right, the warrior was poised to step into the shoes of some of the greatest singers ever… and he was loving the idea.
Cleveland grew up in Hackney. This is the music of his teens… the music that he and his bredren would have listened to at Brooke House school and would have picked up shops like R&B in Stamford Hill, Count Shelley’s on the High Road, Regal records on Lower Clapton Road or Music City in Ridley Road – where the outside speakers would punch these tunes out to shoppers engaged in the hustle and bustle of the market on a Saturday.
Similarly these were the tunes he would have heard via Fatman Hi Fi or Sir George or the sound men playing clubs like Four Aces, Phebes or Noreik. It was therefore natural for Cleveland, as an aspiring singer to find himself in studios like Easy Street dropping vocals on lovers tunes, sharing the mic with singers like Carol Thompson.
I punched The Great Jamaican Songbook cd into the player as I was cooking and pretty quickly found myself rocking along to the fat, solid bass lines and rewinding tunes to re-listen to the harmonies or the way Cleve had negotiated a particular melody. The thing is, Cleveland is a great singer. He has spent decades honing his craft. He has invested years studying the vocalese of the jazz masters – male and female – plus he has done backing vocals with the Who, Bjork and Stevie Wonder as well singing in operas! He is a master improvisor, he loves his technology and he knows how to listen.
The one thing about Jamaica is it has produced a flood of truly unique voices. Rock steady produced an array of vocal groups schooled on R&B and doo-wop from the States… the spirit of Curtis Mayfied and the Impressions loomed large! Harmonies… you have to love the harmonies of the Techniques, the Uniques, the Paragons… think Slim Smith, Pat Kelly, John Holt… and then you have the rootical combinations like the Wailers, Gladiators, Congos, Israel Vibration, Mighty Diamonds, Earth and Stone… the list goes on. Voices.. unique voices … nobody sounds like Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown at their peak… and definitely not like Burning Spear.
From the opening salvo of Gregory’s ‘If I Don’t Have You’ with its guitar licks, wikkid horns, edgy rockers drumbeat, rolling bass line and female harmonies you immediately recognise you’re in for a treat. Cleveland is clearly relaxed. This music… these songs are in his DNA and you feel instantly he’s enjoying the session. Jamaica provided him with the template and as with other UK reggae artists before him he’s totally at home gently extending that template, investing the skills that he and his his fellow musicians have honed in the decades that have elapsed since this music first hit the street.
His take on Junior Byles’ Scratch produced classic ‘Curly Locks’ is delivered as a sweet, minimalist lovers rock with nice keys from Phil Ramacon and I’ve always loved the line “your daddy is a pork chop”! I was thrilled that he’s taken on Bobby Melody’s always uplifting ‘Jah Bring I Joy In The Morning’ and his vocal range is more than a match for the original. Delroy Wilson’s ‘What Is A Man’ originally came out a Count Shelley 7″ and has great horns… Ray Carless (the don), Byron Wallen (trumpet /mystic) , James Wade (trombone). The horn arrangement (courtesy of Jason Yarde – another don!) seems to offer a bridge to New Orleans while Cleve’s sing-jay style meets U Roy. It’s followed by another Delroy classic,… ‘Cool Operator’… and as with ‘Only A Smile’ Cleveland is totally convincing as the penniless singer looking for love.
‘Babyon Too Rough’ offers up some lovely vibraphone courtesy of his long time spar Orphy Robinson and on the back of this album I can’t wait for Orphy to revisit the music on Lennie Hibbert’s Studio One LPs. D. Brown’s ‘Only A Smile’ features a languid bass line from Delroy Murray and some deft touches on guitar from Alan Weekes. Prince Lincoln of the Royal Rasses was another unique singer and ‘Humanity’ is given a new lease of life here. Before finishing the set with a smoking, hot stepping version of Burning Spear’s ‘Red Gold And Green’… respect to the bass-man and drummer Carl Robinson… Cleveland slides into Gregory’s ‘Night Nurse’ accompanied by some lovely trombone from James Wade.
Of all the singers who delivered the original songs on the album only the majestic Burning Spear is still with us. All in all, Cleveland’s homage to the Great Jamaican Songbook has just added another classic to the cannon of reggae music produced in the UK that boasts not only consistently great vocal performances but some wikkid musical touches, This is an album he can be deeply proud off.