Like his cousin, Barrington Levy, Jamaican singer Roland Burrell is blessed with a powerful mellifluous voice. It’s a voice that should have carried him to the uppermost echelons of dancehall singing. He exploded onto the scene in 1981-2 with a cover of Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters’ A Quiet Place, renamed Johnny Dollar. Produced by imposing Jamaican-born New Yorker, Lowell “Tanka” Hill, and recorded at Kingston 13’s famous Channel One studio, Johnny Dollar was such a big hit that it rechristened its rhythm, originally Alton Ellis’ Mad Mad, as Johnny Dollar forevermore.
A second hit from the session, Stormy Night, was released by Channel One. A Tanka-issued LP followed, and a bigger distribution deal in New York beckoned. Yet, just as Roland was about to take his steps into dancehall immortality as his cousin was doing, his beloved friend and mentor Tanka, died suddenly. This seemed to throw Roland off trajectory, and while he continued to record many impressive singles, such as 1986’s Rip Off, he would move from producer to producer, leaving only a sporadic output of albums that belied his talent.
Angus Taylor met Roland at the residence of reggae singer I Kong in St Elizabeth, where Mr Burrell was visiting from his adopted home in Montego Bay. The interview was conducted at short notice, and the questioning less reactive than usual, consisting mainly of reading out the names of some of Roland’s singles. This was because the interviewer had contracted food poisoning a few days earlier (due to the necessity of consuming US style fast food at the only available vendor before an imminent boat trip – local food would never have caused such an upset!).
After the conversation, Roland moved to I Kong’s son Skunga’s Tabernacle studio, where the quality of the jingles he voiced strongly supported his confidence in his live shows. Since the interview was recorded, Roland has found better representation in the US, and is working on several exciting projects with his grandson Jahvel, with France’s Abendigo Records, and Netherlands’ producer/melodica player Asher E, all coming soon…
You were born in Clarendon?
Yes, in Clarendon. I used to go to Hayes Primary school. I left from there and went to Kingston when I was 14 years old.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father used to cut cane, oranges and those things. My stepfather used to cut cane for a living and sometimes when I used to go to school, he used to ask me to come and help him weed out cane and things like that.
Was there music on either side of your family?
Yeah, my father was a singer. He’d sing at Nine Nights but he never sang on record. (laughs) He was a man who used to love dance but Nine Nights he would sing. He was a man who would always hold some nice notes. I used to listen to him. He had the music in him. So it was like we got the music from him. As a father.
Did you sing in school or in church?
I used to sing at school. And the thing is how I get to love music, I used to see Ernest and Peter from the Clarendonians sing and I would say “I have to be a singer one day”, you know? Because it would always sweet me when Peter would come to my school. The two of them would arrive and they would start singing and as soon as the music started people started dancing. I said “Oh my God, one day I have to have music play on the radio just like that”.
Clarendon is a very musical parish. So many big artists have come from there that it must have been very inspiring.
Yes. I have a brethren named Carlton. Carlton said to me “Make we go to town, we’ll go to Kingston”. And we took off and went to Kingston. I never knew anyone at Kingston at that time. But through him knowing the place we went downtown where he had some little ghetto place until one day a lady said “You look nice little boy, you shouldn’t be here” and she carried me up to her yard to a big house. Because she took me in like her son.
I stayed there because she had to go away. And we lived there until everything mix up and things. So I started to move to Allman Town and buck a little brethren named Trevor and he carried me up to his yard. And when his sister named Del saw me she said “Trevor, he can take my room” because she had a next room. So we went in there and we started staying. So we lived like one family.
And then when I was around there I buck this singer named Stanley and the Turbines [Stanley Beckford]. He said to me “I can see you are a quiet little youth, I can get work for you. I don’t want you to get out like the rest!” So he carried me to Kingston and we went to a little work at a restaurant in New Kingston.
And then me and Trevor started to sing. So while I worked I would go and practise. I had a group with around four of us that used to sing together. Me and the brother named Gilly, we used to sing together and then one, next one and two. So we’d go and sing and sing. We had a tune named Nuggets For The Needy until the group mashed up.
What was the group’s name?
(laughs) I don’t remember the name of the group! Because it was so long. So it just mashed up and then I used to go around Bob Marley and Roy Shirley. I used to go to Roy Shirley when me and them used to sing. I used to go amongst Bob Marley when he used to sing for the Upsetters like Scratch Perry. I used to go down there like to have them rehearsed and things. I went into the studio with them when they played at Dynamic Sounds. I watched them live and was the first man to see them lay down and play music. I know I said “Oh my God, that great! I’m going and go on into Randy’s”.
After that I found the next brethren who was named Conroy Brown. Me and Conroy Brown started singing and we did a tune named Lonely Man. We used to be named the Shades. So we did a couple of tunes like Lonely Man and some other tunes. So we went on and on and on until he did outgrow it too. It did mash up too. And then I found a next brethren called Prince Huntley. We were called the Ebony Brothers, did a tune named Step It In Ballet and You Will Miss Me and Prince Huntley and we go on and on and on. Then I did one song for Ansell Collins too.
What was the song with Ansell and did you record it as a solo singer?Tell you the truth I don’t remember the name of the song right now because it was so long. [Back and Belly Rat – credited to The Rolands] Yes, that was me on my own now. Because the group now Prince Huntley and Hugh [Griffiths] used to go behind me and we went to a show on South Camp Road. The show was so nice and we deal with the show crabbit and they did want us at Skateland. But a brother named Jingles wanted to do a show and Hugh just left away and went by himself. And when he arrived they said “What happened? Three did say? What happened to the other two man?” So he alone did the show and after that the group just mashed up.
Can you tell me about a next solo tune credited as Roland Burrell that came out in 1977 on the Fair Play label – Dog Tek The Pot?
Dog Tek The Pot! (laughs) I think what I saw happen, how I got to build the song, was there was a lady had a pot on the fire and the dog looked at her like he wanted to take the pot off the fire. I said “If a dog wants to take the pot off the fire” and that kind of way and the pot hot! (laughs) It’s not a nice dog, you see? So I just jump with ideas…
It’s like a parable…
Right, and I sing that song there. I forgot about that song until a brethren from California saw and said “Roland, the dog take the pot off the fire man – you don’t remember that song?” And I tried to get a copy of it! (laughs)
Who was the producer of that song?
I think it was a brother named Harry. But I didn’t see that man again. For a long time I didn’t see him. Because he used to go across Half Way Tree there…
It says on the record “produced by K. Less”…
Cayless, I think he did have it. Harry. But I didn’t see the man from a long time since we put out that song there.
Then there was another song that came out in 1978 called Belinda for Lloyd Campbell…
“Belinda, you have to reach over yonder”. That song Belinda is about a little daughter I knew. Really my girlfriend! But I wanted the daughter to know my name there, so I said I wanted to build a song about her, you know? All the while she always troubled me. Every time I saw her I said “You know I’ll sing a song for you” and she laughed. And we just started working with it and a man gave me a rhythm and said “Listen to the rhythm” and I just started singing. I said “Boy, I love that rhythm there you know?” And they said “We love that song there you know?” And he just carried me to the studio and went to voice it. Lloyd Campbell. And from when I voiced it, I never heard it back. (laughs) I never heard it back, so I forgot about it.
So how did you link with Tanka and record your huge hit Johnny Dollar in 1981?
I was there [singing] on my own now so I decided “You know what? It’s better me alone, just go on and do my thing”. So Ansell Collins recommended me to this brother called Tanka and he said “Sing a tune, let me hear it”. Because Ansell Collins said I was a singer and I am bad. The first tune [I sang] to him was Johnny Dollar, you know? I started to sing the song and said “Lady Lady Lady why do you holler…” and he said “Alright I love that song”. Then he said “Sing a next one”. And when I sang the next one he said “Alright, here, what we’re going to do now, I’m going to tell you the song to sing” and he told me the song and I did study the song and we went to voice it.
Because he had a group to voice too. I went and one man came then the other one didn’t come and he said “I can’t stay because I want to leave Jamaica and live in New York, you know?” So he said “Roland, I’m going to make you voice the tune and we’re going to put on harmony. And through the man didn’t come now we’re just going to lay the rhythm”.
But I never too liked the rhythm. So I said “I don’t like that rhythm”. But because I am a man who used to rehearse with my guitar, I kind of took the guitar and dubbed it on. So I take the guitar and I start to play and when I play, Sly play and Robbie play and Ranchie, Ansell Collins and them play. And they said “The rhythm sounds funny” and they give Dougie [Bryan] the guitar and they start playing it like how I want it now. So they say “The rhythm sounds funny” so I said “Yeah but that’s how I want it!” So they play it the same way now and Tanka said “Yeah man, that rhythm is bad”. So after the rhythm was laid I go to voice it. So we voiced it, then me and Junior Tamlins put on the harmony for the song.
What inspired you to cover Johnny Dollar?
Alright, one time when I lived in Trench Town I went down to my yard. And sometimes, because through me is a man who loves playing my guitar, I would rehearse because sometimes you’re trying to build a song, seen? Sometimes ideas come to you and some people next to me everyday they say “Look for work. Everyday you sit down but you saying you don’t reach anywhere”. But I don’t listen to them and I turned up the radio to get me on key for what I’m doing. You understand? So I just said “That won’t stop me, you know?” I had this one idea but through the whole heap of noise I couldn’t get to penetrate what they’re doing, you can’t get the real idea that you want.
So one day I heard the man and the woman – the man beat her. The man beat the woman and the woman pulled out for “Help, help, help, help!” That’s what you get if you fight people. You’ll see she was the one who told me to go and look for work and I would not reach anywhere. But I’m going to show her that I’m going to reach somewhere. So I get up after everything is done I just rehearse and start singing and I just start to say “Lady, lady, why do you holler?” So I can make sure she knows that I see her because she’s crying because she got beaten. Because you know sometimes when you build a tune and you just see some things and you see some things. But I remember every little thing so when I’m done I just pick out what’s relevant. I’m putting what’s necessary.
So through me wanting to build it so long I just put in saying “Lady, lady, why do you holler? Somebody seen your face, Johnny Dollar”. And my name is Johnny Dollar because I see your face. “The man next door has a radio and he played it all through the night. There’s a couple in the apartment above my head, that do nothing but fuss and fight. Through the night I can’t get any sleep. It’s a noisy room so I said I’ve got to move. I’ve got to find me a quiet place”. (laughs) So every time the woman would see me and tell her friends “Me he build that song there for!” So Tanka had it before and then a whole heap of people came and released it and sang…
So it was Tanka that put out your version the first time… [Originally titled Quiet Place and credited to the Rolands]
Tanka was the first producer. Because when he went to New York with it and when he released the tune every man said “But Tanka why do you have the number one song and sit down on it but not release it, man? This is a song you have to release, man!” So people said to me “Roland, why do you have the number one tune and no one releases it, let me put it out because that’s sold up on number one from dubplate alone already”. I never knew a song could sell on dubplate. But it was number one upon dub. Because the brother that cut the dub, I said “A lie you tell me” and he said “I’ll show you the book, man. One book full of Johnny Dollar upon dub. People buy and it would play play downtown”.
I said “Boy, where can you get a song made of Johnny Dollar?” They said “You have to go to Channel One”. So you can imagine when this song kicked. So Tanka came and released the tune on 45 and when he released it on 45 people said “It’s not going to sell so again because it’s sold on number one on dub – at that time it was ready to kick”. The song just kicked everything in the record shop – kicked it away! All the way right back to the top chart! To number one. Three months it was at number one for. And nothing could move it. And one song came and moved it and it was when Juno Lawes came and put out the song named Gypsy Girl. After that it had been number one for three months and nothing could move it. Everything that came up there had to go back down. Gypsy Girl was the only tune that could move it.
So it was recorded at Channel One…
Yes, Channel One. And it was released on Taxi label. That’s Sly’s label. And on Tanka’s label.
So it was released two years later on the Taxi label? [credited to Roland Burrell as Johnny Dollar]
Yeah, after Tanka. Same version.
And Sly and Robbie played on it?
So when it came out they renamed the rhythm Johnny Dollar. Because before it was Alton Ellis Mad Mad… So you renamed the rhythm…
Yes, yes, yes! (laughs) Johnny Dollar. Yeah, because it looked in a different light now.
That’s probably only a few rhythms that ever happened – Lone Ranger The Answer, which was Never Let Me Go and you Johnny Dollar…
Yeah! (laughs) And then we did the tune Stormy Night after. And Sly did lick the Stormy Night rhythm. He called Steely and Steely did lick the Stormy Night rhythm. Channel One [the Hookim brothers] they now asked Tanka, they wanted one of the hit tunes with Roland you know? So Tanka said “Alright, Roland they want one of the tunes.” I said “What do I do?” and he said “Give them Stormy Night”. Because Sly already asked Tanka for the Johnny Dollar rhythm to put upon a female on the Taxi label. So he said “Johnny Dollar is a tune to run the Taxi label big time!”
So Channel one asked for Stormy Night from Tanka and it was released on one of Channel One’s labels Hitbound…
So that was the song where I told Tanka to do it with them because they wanted a hit song. Tanka said if we don’t give it they would be vexed with him so I said “You know what? You should do it to make it easier. Give him Stormy Night”. So Tanka gave them Stormy Night and it went on the Hitbound label. And it released in England and what I get to understand is it is a household song. I bucked a little daughter in New York and when my cousin said to her “This is Roland Burrell, he sings a song named Johnny Dollar” she jumped up “Oh my God and you have a song name Stormy Night? When I was going to school I used my lunch money to buy it. Oh my God, I’m gonna tell my father that I got to meet the artist”. (laughs) She said this song just released and it jumped off like a storm. This kicked in England. It just came from nowhere and it came and stormed the place. Trust me.
What inspired Stormy Night?
Well, a rain storm. You understand? Because let me tell you something too. I was at a house in Kingston and a storm came. I think it was the storm before [Hurricane] Gilbert and it blew off one man’s house top. And I stood up on my veranda and then I felt the veranda go up and come down with me! (laughs) Because the old house was made stronger than the new one. So when I went on the veranda and felt the veranda go up and come back down I said “Father, don’t make it move” and then I looked and the next door man’s house top was gone. And one whole set of rooms gone. Only one room and he’s in there and he didn’t realise the housetop is gone. I had to call him and say “Hey big man, did you see your house top is gone?” And when he came out, pure water in the house and in the sky he looked to see his house top fly over so! (laughs)
So I said “Boy, here is a storm that you have to build a song about”. And so there I started to build. So I imagined the man in the rain and I said “Have you ever been outside when the rain is falling? The rain cold and stormy night”. Because I remember the weather when the storm time would get cold and you’re wet up in your house with no roof over your head Because even the bird has its nest, you know? A roof off, a man don’t have no home! (laughs)
So what happened next after these two hits?
Stormy Night ran away big time in England and in enough places mashed up the place – so two number ones straight! Also the next song named Hey Mama too was number one in Chicago. I never knew! Someone let me know that. A white man bucked up and said “You have three number one songs”. I said “Which part?” “You have three number one songs in Chicago man. Johnny Dollar, Stormy Night and Hey Mama”. I said “What? And I felt good now. So then Tanka said “Okay” and did an album. When Tanka carried Johnny Dollar to New York he released one group named Black Crucials, he released Derrick Lara, he released Junior Tamlins and Earl 16 and another brother. I can’t remember his name or if he lives in New York or England.
So my song hit in a way where we were going to get signed with a big company in England. Million, million dollars! And then [just when] I would go next week the man dropped out [Tanka died] that week. And the man did have a big plan for me and they were going to make everybody get signed through that. I know I was the only man in the camp where I made the first number one for them. So I have to hit them, you understand? And then Tanka dropped out, so I was frightened. Because I was ready to handle the place terrible, you know? Hits upon hits upon hits upon hits. We were going to finish up a next album. And the next album we never got to do.
So Tanka died suddenly and that was the end of Tanka Records and your plans?
Yeah and what the man [Channel One] do, they had the man’s tapes and everything. When we went and asked them what happened to Tanka’s work, the tapes, [they said] Tanka’s brother did come for it. They didn’t want to give it to me. They didn’t want to give me Tanka’s tapes. So they said Tanka’s brother did come for it.
This was your Johnny Dollar album?
Yeah and Tanka’s brother was never involved in music. So they had the thing and they told lies and they said it was Tanka’s brother.
Did the album ever get released?
They had it and they released it in some places. One next brethren now named Larry, I had a copy of the album. One time he did take the album from me and he was going to release it with Prestige Records company. I knew Prestige Records because they wanted me for a show now but I couldn’t take the deal because sometimes someone feels like someone is not going to get anything out of the deal. But they checked wrong because I said to the brother named Keith “So what happened to what me ago get?” And the man said “You just tell me and you will get xyz” because he wanted most of the artists and certain artists to come there and do a show.
But now the man has my song and released it in Canada and England. Every year they released my song! They released my album. Every two years. In different places they lease out the album and when they lease out the album at lease it to different person. So I can’t get any money. But I don’t bother to watch nothing because that can’t stop me from singing. I just go and voice same way.
Yes, you’ve still got the voice…
So yeah, I just go and voice.
In 1981 you did No Other But Marcus for Jah Guidance label… produced by Junjo Lawes.
Oh Junjo! I’m going to give you a joke about him now too. Barrington Levy now is my cousin. Barrington looked upon him and said “I want you to voice Roland my cousin, you know he is my family?” After me having a leading song in the dance and mash up the dance and he was crazy about it, seen? Johnny Dollar was the top tune in the dance anywhere. So he was going to the dance with his bag of money and he never knew it was me. So Barrington said “Why you don’t voice Roland? He’s my cousin you know?” Some producers would say like how when Tanka did see me and say “Sing”. He looked on me from my head to my foot and said I was not ready. And didn’t voice me.
So I’m going to tell you what happened to him now! He went to the dance and he heard that tune rip up the place! Pure salute and top-of-the-line tune in the dancehall. The baddest tune in the dance! One day I think I’d gone out on the road and when I came back up somebody told me that the producer named Junjo Lawes came to check me. I said “Junjo Lawes? The man who looked upon me and said I was not ready yet!” So I said “Alright, I’ll go and check him” and I went down there and he said to me “Boy, a long time you should have my bag! I want you to do an album! When it’s time to do the album, carry around my house and tell me!” (laughs)
I said “Yeah man, call Channel One right away, we want some time!” Steely and them they would use. He called Channel One and told them he wanted some time to go and they said “Alright”. So he carried me up to the studio and when he carried me up to the studio he saw the band string up. I was gone up the road and I went over to one of my brethrens and sat down. And he started going up and down to my place looking for me and couldn’t find me.
Because you hear what he wanted me to do? He wanted me to lick back Johnny Dollar for him. Just like how I did it. So I went up there and stayed up there till the time was done. When the time was done the whole time he was running up and down asking “You do not see the artist? You see Roland Burrell?” And everybody said “No, we don’t see him. We don’t know where he is”. So when the time was done I went back but the time was done now you know? The man is vexed. About two years he didn’t talk to me. Through that, you know? So he couldn’t get the rhythm he wanted so he just cut it short and then he put Michigan and Smiley on it and made it Diseases. You see? Shortcut they take! (laughs)
They wanted it licked the original way so anyway he was vexed with me for about two years. But then he saw me again. He saw me at the studio and I came to see him and he said “You have to voice a tune for me today, you know?” So I went in there and did that tune there for him. And then he put it out. He wanted me to do some more tunes but I didn’t do it. You understand because he was a general, I cuss a bad word to him! So I just did the one tune there for him.
He also died just when things were really getting big for him…
Yeah! That’s why Barrington got rich now because he robbed Barrington and after he died Barrington got back everything. All of his money Barrington got rich and built a radio station.
Your cousin was on the [Jamaican TV] news just now talking about his radio station, talking about how the government needs to fix the roads…
Yeah! A real thing, man. Enough roads they want to fix. And they do nothing.
So then you did a tune called Lost My Love on Bebo International label?
Yeah, I Lost My Love. Because we always build songs off of inspiration, you know? Just like I had a daughter and I just lost her and she’s gone. Like my baby mother and just lose her. Same thing happened with the same people like I was just telling you, they set up man, set up to fight me. And she did something and gone. Took away my things and gone. (laughs) So when I came back I saw that everything had come out of my house. Except for the bed. Because the bed was upstairs and can’t come out! But everything gone, table and everything downstairs (laughs)
So I guess now I start thinking “I have to build a tune about that”. Then I start to sing. “Lost my love”. And I start sitting down and think about it. So I met this brethren and he said “Sing a tune”. I did have the song in me, so I sang the song and he said “I like that song”. Right away he said “Go to the mic and go voice”. Because in those times we did not think about money. We just think about the voice. Have my name and have the thing going. (laughs) You understand? Sometimes you can’t watch, you just voice. Because at the end of the day it’s just Jah you understand? So we really deal with it also.
You did a tune called Fatty Fay. On the Arrival label.
But it wasn’t a cover version of the Heptones Fatty Fatty…
No, it’s an original. (Sings) “I say I like how you dance. Me like how you romance. I say me like how you dance. Fatty fatty fatty fatty. The man they say you too loud.” Original tune man. (laughs) Because you have some woman out there that is loud. You hear some hooligan woman, they’re just brawling and loud and cuss! (laughs) So you just pure build tune off of them! And so it go. Because every little thing gives inspiration. Every little thing I see. Gives I inspiration for how to build the thing.
And Junjo also put out Belinda on a 12 inch.
Yeah, with Freddie McGregor on the other side.
Did you know about that?
No, I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know that he put the song out. Maybe someone gave it to him. Someone gave it to him and he went and put it with Freddie McGregor and I didn’t know about it. Something I did at Gussie upon an album with Bob Marley, John Holt, Delroy Wilson, you have Anthony Johnson and a couple of artists upon it too. And I saw on the album that there was a tune called Suzette on it. Somebody did it. I don’t know. Don’t know who.
Then there was Running Around on the GOG label.
Running Around? That must be a GG label. [It was produced by Greg Gordon, for GOG not distributor GG Ranglin] Because I did do some songs for GG. Stop Your Running Up and Down. Because you know sometimes you have a daughter who could be with me or could be with anybody. Sometimes people run up and down.
And then you talked a bit already about Hey Mama.
(sings) “Hey Mama, Hey Papa”. That’s another Tanka tune. That was the tune I was telling you about that went to number one.
And then there’s another Junjo one in 1983. Bloodshot Eyes.
Right, I know who I did that song for now. For real one brother named Clivey. Him I did that tune for Bloodshot Eyes. He used to be down by Tuff Gong.
Do you remember him giving it to Junjo?
No, but I remember him and Junjo Lawes were friends.
And then you did the tune Trying for Laza Beam label in 1983…
I think that thing I did for Clivey because two or three I did for Clivey.
And then you did a tune called Intelligence…
(sings) “Intelligency.” Well Intelligency now, Keith [Wignall] was who I do that tune for.
You did a tune called Cut Eye Cut Eye on Gorgon…
Gorgon label. Same Keith I did it. Because he had the Gorgon label.
And then there is a tune I really wanted to ask about because this is a tune where a lot of people in Europe really love this tune. It came out in 1986. Rip Off. Tell me about what inspired that.
Yes, Rip Off. (sings) “Them a rip off, rip off”. One time I had a tape [machine] which Tanka brought down and gave me. I wasn’t at home that day. Nice tape upon a Sonic, you know? Because Sly and them did love the tape too. They never did see a tape like that. I don’t know which country he went and got that. And I left the tape in my house. When I came back, no tape in my house! I shout that the boy next door to me broke in my house and took the tape from me. Couldn’t find back my tape. But I did see back the tape about a couple of years after and a man said to me say “You know what? I can give you back your tape but a whole heap of things on it are spoiled”.
And that was put out by a New York label, Paradise? Who is the producer?
Yeah. This brother, I can’t remember his name from New York. But he used to come voice me. His name was Dill something or other.
Was it a 2-inch tape?
No, it was like a tape that you can tape anything on. Not studio tape, ordinary tape. But I want to show you something too. Stormy Night they string it up and mix it on the machine and bounce it off of the tape so the tape bad. The boy just took up my tape and go sell it. And when he goes sell my tape. I can’t find the tape and it just hurt me, hurt me, hurt me.
Was it the cassette or the machine that was stolen?
They thief the machine. Stole the machine itself. So that caused me now to build the song Rip Off. “Them a rip-off, rip-off!” (laughs)
Listen to Roland Burrell: