ATX Sound System: March 28, 2019

Unearthed Desmond Dekker and the Legacy of Leslie Kong

This week came news that a previously-unreleased album by Desmond Dekker and The Aces had been found in the Trojan vaults and is due for release in April, on Record Store Day. Titled Pretty Africa, some of the tracks here (“Pretty Africa,” “Sweet Music”) have, in fact, appeared previously on a number of different compilations, albeit seemingly earlier versions thereof. “Pretty Africa,” for example, first appeared as a b-side to the “Sabotage” single back in 1967, but that early version sounds a rather more “rustic” (and abbreviated) take compared with the one that appears on this new release. Most other tracks, however, will be seeing daylight for the first time ever, which is pretty exciting. Trojan notes that these recordings date back to the summer of 1973 and were recorded at Chalk Farm Studio in north London. That is, the vocals were laid down by Dekker and the Aces there at that time. The instrumental tracks, however, originated earlier in Jamaica, and here things get a bit cloudy, as there’s been no word on who might have produced those.

This led to some swift speculation here at the ATX Sound System about who could have been behind these instrumental tracks. Our best guess is that they were likely recorded a couple of years earlier by Leslie Kong with his Beverley’s All-Stars Band, which featured Winston Wright and Gladdy Anderson, and had previously backed the likes of Dekker, The Melodians (“Rivers of Babylon”), Toots & The Maytals and even The Wailers (more on which later). In addition to Kong’s house band having already backed Dekker frequently on past hits, Kong had also entered into a licensing agreement with Trojan only a few years prior and was regularly sending tapes of music produced on the island over to London for Trojan to press/distribute. So we’re guessing that it’s entirely likely that Kong and his Beverley’s All-Stars were the ones behind the instrumentals on this newly-discovered album.

But who was Leslie Kong? He was one of reggae’s earliest producers and label owners, and someone with which anyone who’s ever listened to The Harder They Come soundtrack will be familiar. Often overlooked when people talk about the pioneers of Jamaica’s recording industry — and figures such as Coxsone Dodd, Prince Buster, Duke Reid — Kong was not only the first person to record the likes of Bob Marley (as a mere teenager then named Bobby Martell) and Jimmy Cliff, but was also a key figure in the successful export of Jamaican music to the world.

In the 1950s, before starting down his path to becoming a music mogul, Kong ran a combination ice cream parlor, cosmetics counter and record shop with his two brothers (Fats and Cecil) on Kingston’s famed Orange Street, a commercial stretch that would become the beating heart of Jamaica’s music scene in the 1960s-70s.

Unlike some of his peers in the neighborhood (Coxsone, Reid, Buster), Kong did not own or operate a mobile sound system, something which would put him at a seeming disadvantage at the time. But by the start of the 1960s, with ska taking off, that was about to matter less. Along with its musical predecessor mento, ska was one of Jamaica’s first truly indigenous music forms (previously, Jamaican artists had merely covered styles like American R&B and Trinidadian Calypso). That ska’s emergence coincided with Jamaican independence from Great Britain (August 1962) and a period of economic upswing meant that a new record-buying public was also emerging — both on, and beyond, the island. The industry began to undergo a change whereby distributing and selling records could actually make you as much money as running a sound system. So Kong decided to get into the record-making business, spurred on by an aspiring singer and customer named James Chambers (soon to become Jimmy Cliff).

Cliff, nearly as green as Kong at this point when it came to the music biz, introduced him to his friend Derrick Morgan. Morgan had experience making records and Kong had money to spend, so Morgan agreed to help show him the ropes. The first major hit on Kong’s new label (Beverley’s, named after the family ice cream parlor) would be Morgan’s song “Forward March!” in 1962. Unfortunately, the song did not go down well with the big man on the block, Prince Buster. Buster was a local icon and ran arguably the biggest sound system in town, and he felt it ripped-off one his earlier tunes. Buster was also not too pleased that a Chinese-Jamaican ice cream vendor was suddenly making moves into the music biz on his patch. In what might be one of the first-ever diss tracks, Buster swiftly recorded the scathing “Black Head Chinee Man,”challenging Morgan and Kong’s new business partnership and their alleged theft of Buster’s melody. Morgan and Kong would quickly deliver a response track attacking Buster. Called “Blazing Fire,” it amusingly featured an intro spoken in Chinese which translated to “Shut up fool.” This musical battle would continue, like an early-day hip-hop feud, via several more songs over the ensuing months. (For the record, Buster and Morgan both insisted years later that they always remained friends.)

While Kong was not a musical person in the traditional sense — he could not play an instrument, had difficulty communicating with the musicians he brought in to the studio at first and mostly left the initial A&R duties to Morgan and Cliff — he did have good instincts, knowing what made for a good song and recognizing vocal talent when he heard it. Moreover, he had good business acumen. He paid his artists well and, even more importantly, paid them on time. This made him a desirable producer with which to work, as artists were not always treated so well by other producers around town. Perhaps most importantly though was that Kong, like Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, recognized the potential of a growing international market for Jamaica’s new sounds in the UK, America and beyond.

It was around this same time, in 1962, that Blackwell moved to London to pursue the idea in earnest. He began cutting distribution and licensing deals with a number of Jamaican producers including Kong, who was soon funneling exclusive new tracks from Morgan, Cliff, Dekker and others to Blackwell to stock in Britain’s record shops. Kong’s deal with Island proved particularly fruitful — in part because, by the mid-60s, Kong was producing reggae tracks with one eye firmly set on appealing to the British market rather than worrying about the traditional Jamaican success model (i.e. breaking hits via the sound systems, which typically demanded a harder, roots-ier sound than what Kong was producing anyway). To wit, Kong would score the first international number one for a reggae artist when Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” topped the UK charts in 1968.

By the end of the 60s, Kong had been bought out of his deal with Island and was now licensing his tracks in the UK via Trojan Records–and enjoying as much success as ever. So many of his productions from the decade would come to define the sound of this era in Britain: Hits like Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town),” The Maytal’s “Pressure Drop” (later covered by Robert Palmer, The Clash and others), The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” (as featured in The Harder They Come) and The Pioneers’ “Long Shot (Kick de Bucket)” (later covered by The Specials), to name but a few. He also boasted a powerhouse roster of artists that included Joe Higgs, Stranger Cole, The Gaylads, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson. Oh yes, and a band called The Wailers.

Kong’s life would end prematurely–and somewhat bizarrely–in the early 1970s. And it may or may not have had something to do with The Wailers. In the spring of 1970, still struggling to find success, The Wailers went into the studio with Kong, hoping his Midas touch would rub off on them. The tracks they recorded during these sessions were, if not quite stellar, still excellent. Among the highlights, “Soul Shake Down Party” was a bonafide feel-good anthem and Peter Tosh’s “Stop The Train” was a classic in the making that would later resurface on Catch A Fire. But Kong’s decision to release the album with the title “The Best of The Wailers” did not sit well with the band, least of all Bunny Wailer. According to legend, Bunny threatened to put a death curse on Kong if he went forward with the release. In August of 1971, Kong nevertheless decided to go ahead and release The Best of The Wailers on his Beverley’s label. Later that month Kong, only 38 years old, would suddenly drop dead from a heart attack, abruptly ending the career of one of Jamaican music’s most prolific and successful producers.

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Click here to hear all the dub sounds we have been listening to the last few days.