By Angus Taylor
Rocksteady and reggae harmony group The Tennors are best known for their 1967 Studio 1 hit Pressure And Slide, and for 1968’s self-produced smash Ride Your Donkey. But the trio, who used a variety of lead singers, anchored by harmonist and “power behind the throne” Albert George “Clive” Murphy, have many more tunes at their disposal.
At Reggae Geel festival 2019, The Tennors delivered one of the weekend’s most memorable performances. Backed by The Pressure Tenants after just one rehearsal, the group powered through their vast catalogue, to such applause that they were granted an extra 20 minutes’ stage time.
After the show, Angus Taylor caught up with Clive, who kindly invited him to dinner for a discussion of the Tennors’ long, distinguished career. The impromptu interview includes moving memories of sometime Tennors member, Ronnie Davis, who passed on in 2017.
How did you get the name Clive?
I don’t know. My parents gave me that nickname. It’s not my real name. But I liked it because there was a famous cricketer who was the West Indies captain, his name was Clive Lloyd. (laughs)
You’re from St Mary originally. How did you come to Kingston?
I first came to Kingston to go to school. But my heart wasn’t in school at that time. It was just music. That was my forte and that’s what I really wanted to do. I was recognised as a big singer and dancer from when I was about 9 or 10 years old. I was just singing. Singing all the Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, all the American singers. I could sing them perfectly.
And you were a dancer as well?
I was a big dancer. I still do a little dancing! (laughs)
This was the time of the legs men? Did you have challenges from other dancers?
Yes. I was a big legs man. When I was young there were few guys who wanted to compete with me. I was too good! I still dance but when I was younger I was splitting and all kinds of stuff and they wouldn’t want to compete with me. They were very afraid of me. When you’d go to dance they would stay, they would watch all night. They would wait for me to go on the floor and I would have them sweat it out until two in the morning. Then I’m just ready to go out and everybody is waiting to see me dance! (laughs)
What about singing competitions?
I sang in the country of course. Again it was a big competition between me and other guys. Some of the guys after I beat them out, they joined up with me and we did maybe two recordings together. (laughs) One of their names was Lloyd and I forget the other name. I did them in Kingston because the only recording studios were in Kingston. At that time it was Federal.
Did you do some backing singing for Owen Gray?
What happened was Owen was playing the piano and he and Millie Small were singing a slow song, a ballad. I was singing the ballad and doing harmony because I’m a harmony singer. I love to sing harmony. They said “It sounds good” but I didn’t record a song with them. Because they told me, he got a little edgy about it, because I was singing and sounding like Owen Gray with Millie. He said very sarcastically “Do you want to lead that song?” I said “No, no. I’m ok, I have my partner over there!” (laughs)
And you recorded some songs for Treasure Isle as the duo Tennor Twins?
My very first recording was with Skatalites for Treasure Isle. And that was Little Girl Over There, a ska. After that I came back about 9 months to a year after, and I don’t know, maybe the song wasn’t good enough. They had wax then. They would keep it on wax and play on their sound system. So when I came back they said “Clive I don’t think I’m ready for you. Maybe you need to look around and do something else”. So he didn’t record me again at that time. I went on to do Hit You Let You Feel It and I Still Love It, a slow ballad and those were pretty good. They didn’t do much, they didn’t go far but at least I was recording some stuff.
How did you meet your then duo partner Alvin Cheng Cheng? And why did he leave?
Well Cheng is the first guy who recorded with me. I recorded Little Girl Over There with Cheng.
Cheng and myself came from the same place. And it’s not a matter that Cheng left. I went to live in Kingston. Because I went to go to school. But I hung around the record places. I wanted to sing, that’s all I wanted to do. So I left Cheng in the country and I came to Kingston. And that’s how I started to sing in Kingston.
And after that I went to the Bahamas. I was still pretty young. I went to the Bahamas and I sang with Lennie Hibbert. The Lennie Hibbert Orchestra at the Lucaya Hotel I was there for some months but I wanted to go back home. I’d just met a beautiful girl and I wanted to marry her. We’ve stayed married for 52 years now! And she’s pretty. And so I went back home. I was hanging out at her parents’ business place and I was singing and a guy said “You know, I know a guy who’s looking for somebody who sounds good like you. A guy who wants to get in the music business and he’s a good singer”. So I said “Alright bring him come, let me meet him”. And so at that point I met Maurice Johnston.
We decided how we were going to dress and we met. And we went to the big park, the racecourse which is Heroes Park. We started to sing and he liked me and I liked him too. I liked how he sounded and we were undecided who is going to lead. But I’m not a guy with egos. We started to do little gigs around the place. Here and there and I would lead and he would lead. And after that we entered the Festival. Both of us. That was 1966. We were doing excellently as amateurs. But then a singer who knows me well, she told them “That guy is no amateur, that guy recorded songs before”. So they disqualified me! (laughs)
Tell me how you wrote Pressure And Slide.
After we were disqualified, Prof and myself, Maurice, still started to do gigs. I was in Half Way Tree which is one of the little towns in Kingston. And I saw Jackie [Mittoo] because Jackie knew me because I recorded with the original Skatalites. With Don Drummond and all the big guys them. I saw him walking and I said “Hey Jackie, how are you doing? “What’s up, man?” Where are you going?” He said, “I’m going home”. I said, “You need a ride?” He said, “Yeah I’ll take a ride home”.
So he jumped in my car and we drove along by the stadium. As we were going along I said to him “Jackie I have a song. I’d like to record something”. He said “Sing it”. And I started to sing “Feel no pain, I’ll be back again, have no fear, I’ll be right there”. And he said “Hey hold it! Pull up! Go to the store and get a piece of paper” so I got a bit of paper. And Jackie Mittoo for all those people who really know Jackie, Jackie travelled with a pencil in his pocket. A yellow lead pencil. Take my word for it. We started to drive and he said “Sing the song” and he was writing and I said “What the hell is this guy doing? He’s making notes”. When I reached his house he said “Come to the studio on Tuesday”. And when I went there on Tuesday he’d already made the soundtrack for that song perfect. Perfect, perfect. Couldn’t be more perfect. And so we recorded Pressure And Slide.
And how did Norman Davis join so you became a trio?
Now Norman came that evening because I said to Maurice “We’re recording, Prof we need a third person with the group. Because there were only two of us”. Maurice was pretty young. He’s younger than I am. I was always the oldest person in the group. And Maurice brought this guy and said “Hey Clive, this guy can sing you know? You say you need another person”. I said “Let me hear him”. So we started to sing and he was harmonising good. That was Norman Davis. And so he recorded Pressure And Slide with us. And we went on after that to record Gee Whiz, Give Me Bread, Play A Fool and Simply Fine Girl. Gee Whiz and Give Me Bread were two hit songs that came right between Pressure And Slide and Ride Your Donkey.
What inspired the words to Pressure And Slide?
Actually, we went to a dance and they were dancing and we were just using gimmicks. Now any little thing we use in Jamaica. We use every little thing to make a song. I guy looked at me at the bank and said “Hey Murphy I like those bow leg girls” I said, “I like that”. He said, “You’re going to write a song?”. I said “I am!” (laughs) You know that one Reggae Girl? And that’s one of our most popular songs among the skinheads. Everywhere you go they love that song. So we use all kinds of little things to make songs in Jamaica. And so that’s how Pressure And Slide came.
Why did you stop recording for Coxsone?
We only recorded one song for Coxsone. After we did that song, it was the biggest hit in Jamaica. Fortunately, there were very few groups where their first song became a hit. It didn’t just become a hit, it became the biggest hit in Jamaica for the year. And they created a dance on the TV and that’s the song they were using. So while the song was out there I went to see him and say “Well Mr. Dodd, I need to speak with you”. He said “About what?” I said “About the song Pressure And Slide”. He said, “I have nothing to talk with you about”. I said, “What are you saying to me? That’s my song”. He said, “No, I have nothing to talk with you about. I didn’t have no arrangement with you”.
Well, I couldn’t fight him. Because I didn’t make any proper arrangement. I said “OK give me three copies of the record for me and the guys”. He said “I don’t give away records, I sell records”. And his wife was in the store and the wife said “Come on Clement give the guys a couple of records”. So she took up three copies of the record and gave them to us. That’s it. The first time I collected $200 was about 5 years ago. The song was the biggest hit. So many versions came after that. That song about coming up Orange Street came about 2-years after [according to Roots Knotty Roots – it came out the year before]. Sugar Minott, Beres Hammond, everybody ride the rhythm. But the original was Pressure And Slide. So I never got paid. But you know what? I just said to myself “That’s how the world works. Don’t worry about it”.
You moved on to sing for Sonia Pottinger? How did you get on with her?
She’s ok. We recorded two songs for her after Pressure And Slide. Because since Coxsone wasn’t paying us they approached us and said they would like to do something with us. And they liked how we sounded so I recorded Gee Whiz and Give Me Bread with her. And Chris Blackwell came to the session and he liked me and he wanted to take me out of the group now. He told her “I like that one”. I think maybe because I sounded like Wilfred Jackie Edwards? He wanted to pull me because Jackie was one of his boys. But I’m very patriotic to my group. I love my group. These two guys, we had our differences but I love them. Without them, I can’t perform the way I perform. So I love them too. Chris wanted to take me from the group and record me alone. I said “No, I’m going to stick with the group!” (laughs)
After Pressure And Slide and the Mrs. Potttinger sessions the lineup changed again.
After Pressure And Slide, we were on the programme for the Christmas morning. In Jamaica, in those days we had Christmas morning shows just up the road from where we were coming from. So we were lining up to work on two of the shows but Maurice crashed and died. I said “Oh my gosh!” When Maurice died we were supposed to sing at a college where they asked us to come and sing. And I told them “Hey, I’m not going to come”. So he said, “I’m going to go with Norman and we can sing the song without you, Clive”. I said, “Ok, go and sing the song. I’m ok with that”. So he went and sang the song and on his way home the car crashed and he died. Anyway we went to one of the theatres and we sang but it wasn’t the same.
Most people thought the group was dead or finished. But we came back the next year now with Ride Your Donkey. Which was a bigger hit. And Cleopatra which was the B-side, was also a BBC chart song. So we had two super hits now. And from there I was singing.
How did you recruit Nehemiah Reid?
Nehemiah Reid was a guy who came in at the same time that Ronnie Davis was supposed to come in. But Ronnie wasn’t around so I used Nehemiah Reid and Norman Davis to do backup on Ride Your Donkey and Cleopatra.
And how did you come up with Ride Your Donkey?
We went to the country and my in-laws have a donkey. And Maurice was with me then. And he was trying to ride the donkey and I said “Hey you don’t know how to ride a donkey, let me show you how to ride a donkey”. And I thought “Ride Your Donkey” and he said, “Clive that sounds interesting. Yeah, Ride Your Donkey”. And we both started to just hum little stuff. And before we reached Kingston the song was more or less in place. We were just singing, we sang for about 50 miles, just singing that and putting words together. And my wife was there, and we were just singing, singing and that’s how we came up with Ride Your Donkey.
And didn’t you start your own label?
Yeah, I recorded a lot of guys. Because I started my own label. After we came with the song I went to several producers with Ride Your Donkey. And nobody would record the song. I went to about four producers and the last person I went to was Derrick Morgan who is a very close friend of mine. We’re still very close friends.
So I heard he was having a recording session so I went to him and I said “Hey Derrick” we weren’t friends then. He just knew who I am. I said “I have a song you know?” And he said “How it go?” I started to sing. And he gave me something that was so important. Because he said to me “Clive, I love the song but the session is filled already”. You know you always budget a certain amount of money? But he said “Don’t sing the song like that. He said “When you sing the song say “Ride your donkey, none such for me”. That’s how you need to sing that song”. I was singing “Ride ride ride your donkey”. And he said “No. Don’t do that”.
So I changed it to get the punchline and it’s after the song came out so many people regretted that they didn’t record the song. Such a huge hit! (laughs) I mean we had the biggest hit in ‘67 and we came back in ‘68 with the biggest hit. And the B-side was a hit song also. What more could you ask for? So I produced the song myself and I took it and gave it to someone to distribute. I won’t talk about that. That’s history, that’s history!
Why did Norman Davis and Nehemiah Reid leave?
Well, I only recorded two songs with Nehemiah Reid. And Norman Davis was from Pressure And Slide to those two songs. Norman wasn’t even with me, more or less, he just heard I was having a session and showed up. And since he sang good harmony I let him record. Nehemiah migrated afterward. He started producing his own stuff. I think it was named the Slickers or something. And Ronnie Davis just came right and fit in place.
How did Ronnie Davis join the group?
I’d been changing guys, and I met Ronnie Davis the same time that we were going to do Pressure And Slide. I met him right there. And I liked him because the other guy was having some attitude. He was cocky. Maurice. So I said to Ronnie Davis, at that time he wasn’t Ronnie Davis, his real name was Romey, Jerome Ballin. I said to him “I kind of like you”.
I was telling the engineer “You know what? We’ve done a few songs now Gee Whiz and Give Me Bread and Pressure and Slide. I’m going to break away from the group”. He said “Why?” I said “Too cocky, I can’t take this guy”. He said “I have a guy outside and that guy sounds good, Clive. You’re going to love him”. So he told me what he looks like and I went out and I talked with the guy. I said “Come next year I’m going to break away from the group. So I think I can use you”. When I was ready to record Ride Your Donkey I couldn’t find the kid. The kid went back to his country, Westmoreland. He was down there and he heard Ride Your Donkey mashing down the place! (laughs) Mashing down the place! And he came back to Kingston and he found me.
I brought him in and he sang his first backup. He sang backup on a few songs. You know Massie Massa? He was doing background on that. And maybe a couple more songs. But his real recording that he did was The World Is A Stage. I liked how he sounded. He wasn’t a very good harmony singer at the time. and everybody wanted to sound like the group named the Paragons. So I said to him “I want you to lead sing”. He said “Me?” I said “Yes. I want you to be the lead singer on some of the songs. Because I want to do the harmony because I know I can sing good harmony”. So his first song was the World Is A Stage and I’m singing harmony. And so he did lead on a lot of the songs after that. And I didn’t mind. It’s fine with me. It’s my group. So that’s alright! (laughs) It’s a group. It’s not me alone, you know? A lot of people are on the impression that Ronnie Davis was original. Ronnie was not original. Norman Davis was the original. He’s still alive. He’s in New York.
And didn’t George Dekker get involved in the group at one point?
It was Ronnie Davis and myself for a while. And George Dekker was singing solo. I liked him. He liked me so I asked him to come and join me. And he agreed but then the Pioneers did a song named Long Shot Kick The Bucket and he joined them. He is the one who is the lead singer on that song. But he still intended to come and sing with me.
But then Leslie Kong and Chris Blackwell, they were in business. Leslie Kong produced Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff and so he [George Dekker] came to me and said “Clive, they’re going to take Pioneers to England and they want me to come. What do you want me to do?” I said “No, you need to go there’s an opportunity for you there”. He said “Really?” I said “Yeah”.
And he said “I don’t have a passport or birth certificate”. I said “Really? Meet me tomorrow morning”. And I took him to the place where they prepare the birth certificate and I go back door and give a guy little money and got his birth certificate. And I know one of the ladies at the passport office because I’m an insurance man. I’m still an insurance man. I sell life insurance. So I drove there and said “Miss Moore ,I need to get a passport today”. She said “It’s impossible”. I said “I need it today”. I took out that birth certificate that morning at about 10:30 and by 3 o’clock I got this passport! (laughs) And he flew out.
You also went back to Duke Reid with the group and recorded Hopeful Village in 1970.
I was kind of being smart too, I wasn’t getting a hit song for a little while, and I said “Duke has a big name”. And I went to him and said “Duke, I want to enter the Festival so do you want to produce my song?” And he said, “Clive, I already have Hopeton [Lewis] doing a song”. I said, “It doesn’t matter if you have two songs”. So he said, “Alright, look what I’ll do. You pay the musicians and I’ll give you the studio and I’ll put out the song”.
So Hopeful Village was a bigger seller than [Hopeton Lewis] Boom Shacka Lacka. He told me that. He called me one day and said “Clive, I have some money for you”. I said “Really?” He said “Yeah”. And he said “Let me tell you what Hopeful Village sold much more than Boom Shacka Lacka”. The group, we were the ones who did the background in Boom Shacka Lacka. So I played a part there. Hopeful Village didn’t win [the Festival] but we came out to be the best performers. We were the top performers on stage because that’s my forte, right? (laughs) So I was fortunate because they said we came third with our song but we got Best Performance.
How did you end up doing Weather Report in 1973? It’s inspired by The Only Living Boy In New York by Paul Simon but it’s not really a cover version, it’s more of a do-over because it’s partly your own thing.
It’s a cover version but we do it in our own way. We heard it on the radio, we liked it and I went to Duke, Treasure Isle.
Why did you stop the group for a while, and why did you bring the group back in 2013?
Well, actually I attempted many times to give up the group and stop singing. But Derrick Morgan is a friend of mine and he said “Hey Clive, stop stupidness! You need to go and sing. Come on man, go and sing”. After 1998 I was still touring as Clive Tennors. But I gave my life to the Lord. And I’m still a Christian. What I’m doing here is clean music so I’m still a Christian and I’m active in my church right now. I play a major part in my church. And in 2013 I was dormant for about 13 years. I was in my church and I just didn’t want anything to come and interfere with me. I just wanted to concentrate on the spirit of the Lord and praise him. I was active and they respect me and love me. And I’m still in my church.
So it was Jamaica’s 50th year anniversary, I wrote a song. One of the biggest songs. If you go on the internet you’ll see a song named Jamaica 50 by The Tennors. It’s the only song they put up on The Ministry Of Culture And Sports [website] – that’s the only song of all the songs they put up there. So I wrote that song and I had a guy who was a booking agent. So at like one in the night we were mixing down the song. Ronnie Davis was with me then. And he said, “You know what? I’m going to put up the Tennors online and see if anybody wants to book you”. I said, “I’m not interested”. He said, “Clive, I’m going to put you”.
This was Thursday night. Friday morning at about 11 he got an email. There is a guy in LA who wanted to book us! (laughs) We were in the back and the guy called him and said “I saw you put up the Tennors, are they available?” He said “Yes”. And the guy said to him “Is Clive going to be there?” He said “Yes”. He said “Are you sure?” He said “I’m sure Clive is going to be there”. so he said “Where is he?” He said “Clive is here with me”. He said “Put him on”. So the guy, Mark Morales, talked to me. And he said “Clive, this guy says you’re going to be coming. If I book you will you come?” I said “Sure. I’ll come”. So that’s how I came back in 2013. And since that time it’s history. We’ve been doing a lot of little gigs. We’ve been to Germany about three times. LA. Folkstone Skabour. We do a lot. We’ve been to Jamaica doing some shows.
Tell me about the current lineup of the Tennors.
The current lineup is Howard Spencer, he has been with me for about 30 years. The other one he came on about 5 years ago, Hal Anthony. Ronnie Davis would always fill in when I needed him. But there were times when he wasn’t available because he was with Itals and he did solo also. So I decided I might as well get someone who could be available when I want them. So even before he passed away Hal Anthony was with the group.
Tonight’s performance you played for nearly half an hour more than was originally planned. The people wanted more. Is that normally what happens?
Well, most of the sets that we do like an hour and a half. Or an hour and 20-minutes. So we prepare ourselves for like an hour and 20-minutes. They say we went on for 2-hours but I don’t know! (laughs) I didn’t think so but they say “That’s it”. But the people were enjoying it. So what can I say? (laughs). But we always do a set where the minimum is an hour and 20 minutes. When we’ve been in Germany we’ve done an hour and 45 minutes straight.
And we are just the tip of the iceberg. We have so many songs. We didn’t touch Massie Massa which is one of our big big songs. Gee Whiz we didn’t touch those. A lot of songs we didn’t really didn’t touch.
Could you just say a few words about Ronnie Davis since he has passed away? I interviewed him and he seemed very humble and mellow. Very talented but not a big ego.
Sure. He was a very humble guy. Very humble but a great singer. He was like my little brother. Because when I brought him in he’d been to every producer and no one would record him. So he was like my little brother. He would come to my house and have dinner with us at Christmas. He was like a part of my family. And even when he broke off. Because I was an insurance man. I was the manager at the insurance company but I would still produce my songs but not as frequently as it was. And he said “Clive, I’m going to go solo” and I said, “That’s alright. Nothing is wrong with that. You can go solo”.
So even when he went solo he would always communicate with me wherever I am. And when I came back to sing again I would call him and say “Romey, I’m going to do some stuff”. He’d say “Clive, I’m ready”. And even until the last bit when he died he said that his group is the Tennors. He told his daughter. I was in Jamaica in February and she came and she cried and she said “My daddy talks about you. He said ‘He’s so good to me’”. I said “Listen he’s my brother”. If I get funds from anybody – because we have been robbed in the early days – any time I get funds I would call him “Hey Ronnie, what’s up man? You have a bank account?” “No, but you can Western Union”. I say “Alright, go Western Union tomorrow” and I sent him some money. He didn’t have to know but I have a conscience. I have a heart. That I should be honest with people and take care of people. So I would always send him some money.