The wide vocal range and characterful, complex voice of Keith Poppin seemed to bring the sounds of rural Jamaica and the American soul into one place. A former member of harmony groups Winston And The Robins and The Rocking Horse, the man born Keith Smith enjoyed a string of successful solo singles during the early-to-late-70s.
His first hit as Keith Poppin was the Lloyd Campbell-produced Same Thing For Breakfast in 1973. He then began a fruitful association with Phil Pratt, yielding the song Envious (which Keith had previously recorded with The Robins at Studio One Records) and a 1975 album of the same name. Two more popular Pratt singles followed: Someday Girl and Who Are You, collected on the 1977 UK-issued LP Pop Inn.
Having ventured into self-production for 1979’s More of Keith Poppin album, Keith stepped back from recording for a while to concentrate on stage shows. He migrated to the USA in the early 90s, where he earned a steady living in the care and property industries.
Now retired from his day job, Keith can again sing full time. He is gearing up to release his new album One More River To Cross, recorded in Jamaica at Mixing Lab studio. It features veteran musicians, including keyboardist Ansell Collins, who played on “Same Thing For Breakfast”.
Angus Taylor spoke to Keith in England at last year’s One Love Festival, while he was touring with another US-based 70s hitmaker, Carl Malcolm. Where Malcolm is a venerable, stately presence on stage, Keith is a rabble-rousing one-man revival meeting of voice and showmanship.
That day, Keith kindly granted this impromptu interview where he looked back on some highlights from his career. He shares his insightful memories of fellow Westmoreland-born artist Peter Tosh, to whose Intel Diplo label Keith was briefly signed.
So you were born in Westmoreland?
Born in Westmoreland, Jamaica, grew up in Kingston. Father left, went to migrate to Kingston, leave me with my mum’s parents. And then father and mother, they come and get me from Westmoreland to St. Elizabeth and then after St. Elizabeth to Kingston. So I joined my daddy in Kingston.
In Westmoreland did you know anyone like Ronnie Davis or Peter Tosh? Or were you too young?
No man, I never knew nothing. I didn’t even know when I left Westmoreland. I know I’m born in Westmoreland but I just saw it on my birth papers. But I don’t know anything about Westmoreland.
Where did you spend time in Kingston? Where did you go to school?
We went to school in St. Elizabeth, little time in St. Elizabeth and then we go back to Kingston and go back to like an evening college for a couple of years. Just what you’ll never catch up on back in the day you go catch up on that, you know? I grew up in Allman Town in Kingston. Right there is where I grew up.
Was there music on either your mother or your father’s side?
So it just started you with you?
How did you start singing?
When you grow up staying with your grandmother, you have to go to church. Because when you grow up with Jamaicans as a little boy you must go to church. I grew up in the Baptist church. That’s my religion, Baptist. And the Baptist church now was on my grandmother’s land. So as a little boy with your grandparents you’re going to the Baptist church and then you are starting to go to Sunday school. So I’m singing in the church and when we sing everybody says “Yes. This boy going to be a singer”. Because we used to have some missionaries come down from Canada and the USA, for vacation Bible school every summer. And some of them were impressed with me when I sing, you know? I used to sing (sings) “I was standing by my window… on a cold grey morn…” That tone, that baritone voice captured them.
So what was the first studio that you went to?
I think the first studio I ever went to record is Studio One with two songs. Coxsone Dodd with Leroy Heptones and Jackie Mittoo. So that’s the first studio. And I used to sing as a group called The Robins, just two of us.
And you went down to Brentford Road and you auditioned?
Yeah man. I went down to Brentford Road and auditioned. My audition was with Leroy Heptones. Underneath the big mango tree right at the front of Studio One. And then you go inside and Mr. Dodd listens to the song and Mr. Dodd chooses it, then Jackie Mittoo records it. Along with Winston Grennan. The drummer. So the first Envious that I do, the song that says (sings) “You’re bad mind, you’re grudgeful, they say you’re envious” that recorded on the Studio One label. But they have the song and Coxsone Dodd never put out the song.
He used to sit on a lot of songs.
Yeah! So what happened now was eventually he put it out on an All-Star album and from when we came to the UK I hear a lot of the man say they have it on an All-Star album. [The song came out as Badmind Grudgeful by Winston & Robin on the 1968 LP Rocksteady Coxsone Style]. And I went to Duke Reid. I went to Duke Reid with the Tom Jones song called the Green Green Grass of Home. I sang that song for Gladdy.
Gladstone Anderson who was doing the auditions.
Yeah. And Cuttings. Another guy named Cuttings. So you have to make the cut. If you don’t make that cut you don’t go upstairs in the studio.
Was Cuttings Stranger Cole’s relative?
I don’t know if Stranger Cole and him are relatives but if you don’t pass down there so, you cannot go up in the studio. So when you pass Cuttings and Gladdy that means you go upstairs. When you go upstairs now, Gladdy comes upstairs after the rehearsal and comes to run you down on the piano. Run down the song on the piano and then if they schedule they’re going to record you, Duke Reid comes up. Leave the liquor store and come up. And Duke Reid comes to listen to the songs that Gladdy has run and will choose them to record. And if Duke Reid doesn’t approve it you can’t record.
Did Duke Reid approve your song?
The song the Green Green Grass of Home he approved it for me to record one Monday evening. And then after, me and other singers they select that Sunday, go to record the Monday evening. But something happened with the musicians them. They had some problems so they had to cancel the session. They canceled out the session and I never really go back. Move on. To different sessions.
So what did you record after Envious/Badmind Grudgeful?
So I did that song and another song named Wailing Time. As The Robins. With a guy named Winston Neufil. Two of we, used to sing together as The Robins. Then we leave from The Robins to The Rocking Horse, [Winston Neufil and Junior Green] with [produced by] Ernie Smith. Ernie Smith gave us that name. So we go to the Federal recordings, that’s when Ernie was with the Khouris. At that time the Khouris used to own Federal Records. And we went down there and Ernie Smith recorded two songs with us. We recorded one called Weeping And Wailing and one named Rebel Too Hot. And then we did enter the festival [1971 contest] too. So Ernie Smith recorded the festival song [Festival Bells] and that’s how he gave we the name called The Rocking Horse.
And what happened to Rocking Horse?
We go to Randy’s and we record some tunes there for Randy’s. We record some songs, Righteous Man, [solo single] Some A Dem Ago Shame, and quite a few songs. On the majority of Jimmy London songs, it’s me that sings the backing vocals. And we did have problems with the group so I just left the group. Leave the group and then branch out by myself.
Why did it finish?
Why The Rocking Horse finished is me is a man who takes my talent serious. My career serious. And them boy now, when we went to rehearse, we set aside a couple of evenings to rehearse. At that time I lived in Allman Town and all three of us live in Allman Town. But when I reached the rehearsal spot, and when me waiting upon them to rehearse, they used to have a big yard now where they would go and play the domino and smoke, you know? And that time I waited upon them for rehearsal and I don’t see them turn up. So I did just get fed up of that. I just leave them.
And it says on your website that you sang on Niney’s Blood and Fire?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sing the backing vocals. Me and one guy named Junior Rocking [assume this is Junior Green]. We go down Greenwich Farm and practice the harmony with Niney. And then with the Soul Syndicate band. And so that’s how that song come.
And Niney he had a problem with that song with Bob Marley.
No, well, I don’t know about that.
You just recorded it and gone.
Yeah, just sing the backing (sings) “Blood, blood, blood and fire” that’s it.
Tell me about how you took the name Keith Poppin…
Keith Poppin, well you know at that time we did have Slim Smith, may his soul rest in peace, and so he said “You want a catchy name”. And we just came up with the name, me and Jimmy London because me and Jimmy London we’d hang out and things like that. We just said “What do you think about Keith Poppin?” So that’s how the name come up as Keith Poppin.
So what happened after you left Rocking Horse?
From leave them now, go to Prince Tony. I do a couple of songs. And I did Man Of My Word. I do Long Shot Kick The Bucket. I did a six-in-one for Prince Tony. And I did another song with the Chosen Few. Doing the backing vocals. And then after Prince Tony I leave. I go to Lloyd Campbell, the Spider-Man label. And I am the first singer when Lloyd Campbell come to Jamaica who sing for him. Same Thing for Breakfast Same Thing for Dinner. That’s the first song Lloyd Campbell ever recorded. And then I introduced Lloyd Campbell to all the radio stations, the records. Lloyd Campbell used to live in England and then he migrated to Jamaica. He did have the song and he brought the lyrics and said somebody told him that I can sing the song because I have that deep baritone voice. I hit the song and the song was a hit.
I recorded quite a few good songs for Lloyd Campbell. Then I bring on Jimmy London to Lloyd Campbell, then I bring on Freddie McKay, Joy White and Joy White sang “All them a try to fight down I, just a dread out deh” [Dread Out Deh]. I do the whole Spider-Man label, it’s me it started from. It’s me who bring him because he never knew nobody when he came to Jamaica. He was working with a dry cleaner. A lot of people don’t know that he was working at a dry cleaner.
He had the tracks and he had the lyrics and when he came down to Jamaica now we went to Harry J studio and we get Ansel Collins one Friday night. Ansell Collins came through and put on the keyboards on the song. And then we voiced the song and mixed the song. And so there comes the hit. And then after that now he could give up the cleaner job and all those things there and then that’s how it goes. But it’s me who introduced him and it’s me that bring him come and make him know everybody in Jamaica. So all that never know that they can hear that. It’s me that bring him in it.
Did you stop recording for Spider-Man?
Yeah. After I do the singing and record for him and things like that and he gets to know everybody now in the business, he changed. Like no disrespect, may his soul rest in peace, but he thought he could do without me now. As usual, he is not the only one who stays like that. Then he moves on to different people. But I already make him know everybody, let him in. I introduce him to the radio man, so that’s just how it go, you know? So that’s how it goes with me and him. Then I go to Phil.
I go to Phil Pratt. And then do Envious, the Envious album. And then Phil Pratt did another album marked Pop Inn. And things like that. And I sang the backing vocals on a Pat Kelly song, the one that said [Sings] “It’s hard to build a better nation with different races”…
They Talk About Love.
Talk About Love. And that song I’ve Been Trying too. [Sings] “I’ve been trying” That was me and Al Campbell. At Channel One recording for the Sunshot label, Phil Pratt. I talked to Pat Kelly about a couple of weeks before he passed away. When he was in New York I talked to him.
So why did you stop recording for Phil Pratt?
So that’s learning the music business and then I start one, one track for myself. For the song named Hold Not Thy Peace. It’s my song, it’s me record it, it’s me produce it for myself. And then me and a guy named Charles Reid, did the More Of Keith Poppin album, he is the executive producer on it. He came in with a couple of the dollars, I did have the rhythm and he comes in with a couple of the dollars to do the voicing and things like that. I recorded there and then I start just do one or two things for myself. And then I migrate to America.
Before you migrated didn’t you work with Peter Tosh? You voiced the song Jamdown Festival on his label in 1980.
Oh yeah, yeah. I was the first one on the Peter Tosh label. I think I am the only Jamaican singer on the Peter Tosh label. Intel Diplo. So he distribute, put one of my songs on his label.
What kind of person was Peter Tosh?
Peter, nice man. If him like you, you and him are alright. But if him no like you, the man there militant. Militant! Him no like no kind of wimp people around him. You’ll have to be militant. When you’re around them you can’t be weak. You cannot be weak, you have to be a militant person and that’s who Peter Tosh was.
What did you think when the music changed a bit in the mid 80s? You seemed to step away from the music as the decade went on…
Well, the music in the 80s now, it changed. So you just have to go with it and try and fit into that change. So it never bothered me. You just have to know you have to change with the music. You can’t fight change.
When did you migrate? Why did you decide to relocate?
I migrated to America in 1993. Well, my wife had parents. Her mum lived in the United States. And then her mum did the paperwork to take all of them to America. So my wife come back down to Jamaica and married to me, then file for me for my papers to take me to America. To live in America. I used to live in Connecticut but it was so cold in Connecticut that we moved to North Carolina! So we live in North Carolina now for almost 20 years.
When I first moved to the States I worked. I went to get a day job. Because I couldn’t just come from Jamaica and say “Me a big singer” because nobody knows you. So you have to get a job to keep your manhood. You can’t just sit down and make woman work. You have to just go and look your own food. So I got a job at a retirement home, one of the biggest retirement homes in Hartford, Connecticut.
And then I worked there for about 3 years and then I leave from Hartford in 1997 to North Carolina and I get another day job in North Carolina. And I work at that day job in the apartment business-like when people come and rent apartments. And mostly we go to work and it’s only lately that they know that I was a recording artist. (laughs) I keep it under wraps! I work and work for one of the biggest housing places in America. The second biggest housing people in America. When I leave that’s when everybody didn’t want me to go. I worked for them for almost 19 years and they tell me retire.
But you did keep recording didn’t you? You put out a couple of albums in the States…
Oh yeah, I kept recording. I had to do my working but my name had to be called somewhere. Somewhere in the record business, my name would have to be called somewhere in the recording. So although I was working I was writing songs and keep it until when I retire from my job. So I retired and then I did my music full-time again when I start touring. I toured Brazil with Luddy Pioneers. Luddy Pioneers got me the tour. Do you know Luddy Pioneers?
Sidney Crooks, yeah. So I toured down in Brazil for one month. Brazil is good, Brazil is nice. And we did the song down in Brazil at Sidney Crooks’ recording studio called Ban Yah Belly. Sidney Crooks helped write the song and things like that. We did it in his recording studio and VP have the song and so it’s alright, you know?
Tell me a bit about touring with Carl Malcolm.
Well, Carl Malcolm now, I came to this festival last year. I was on the One Love Festival last year and they requested me back. And then I bring in Malcolm to my promoter and my management team, GI Roadshow, and say “Alright, bring Carl Malcolm on the tour with us”. The tour did really set but I brought in Carl Malcolm and introduced him and it is a pleasure working with them. Carl is laid-back, him cool, so it’s alright.
Thanks very much for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Well, thanks to you to take this interview for me. And it is a pleasure meeting you. And thank you for pressing on with the reggae music vibes. Without you guys spreading the music, people like you and Robert Heilman from Reggae Vibes the music wouldn’t reach this level. It’s guys like you guys. We’re not talking about people who come and just talk. You guys help Jamaica. You and the whole England help Jamaican music. You guys help spread the Jamaican reggae music so we have to give more power to you guys. You as a part of our family. You help spread the reggae business so we have to give thanks. Look what we doing here today and you were here.