By Angus Taylor
Across six decades in music, Jamaican guitarist Dwight Pinkney has been a busy man. In the mid-60s and early 70s, he was a founding member of the groups the Sharks and Zap Pow. His spiky, intricate fretwork became a crowning element of the mighty Roots Radics band during their early 80s session dominance. For the last two decades, he has enjoyed well-deserved success as a solo artist in his own right.
He’s been in such demand as a touring musician that this interview with him had to be conducted in two halves, six years apart. The first part was recorded while he was on tour with the Roots Radics and Israel Vibration in August 2013. The impromptu conversation got as far as his joining the Radics in the early 80s, when the minibus to take him from the hotel lobby to the venue had to whisk him away.
Dwight talks about moving from being self-taught to a formal musician, how Zap Pow was the first progressive reggae band in Jamaica, and the importance of good arranging.
Part 1 – Sardinia (2013)
Your first group was the Sharks. How did that group come together?
Yeah, that was from way in the 60s. As little youths, we used to sing. Like a quartet? But we noticed that the Beatles from England were getting rave reviews because they were singing and they were playing also. So we decided to be the Jamaican counterpart to the Beatles. So each of us took an instrument and started to practise, sing and play. That’s when I really started the guitar.
Did anyone give you guidance in the guitar or did you just pick it up yourself?
We had to make our own instruments all those years ago. (laughs) So it was mostly self-taught. There was a famous music store called Music Mart. So we went there and we bought some beginners’ books and learned the chords.
You did some session work at Studio One as well?
Yeah. With the Sharks. We went there and we did songs like Put It On by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Lady with the Red Dress On by the Gaylads. You’re No Good by Ken Boothe. Quite a number of other songs but all of them went to number one in Jamaica. Because the sound was fresh. Before that, you used to have big bands like the Skatalites, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Carlos Malcom and his Afro Jamaican Rhythms. All these were big bands so our four-piece sound was kind of new and the youngsters gravitated to it. So all the songs that we recorded at Coxsone went to number one including How Could I Live – that was my original song.
That was my next question. You wrote that, and it’s been covered by many people.Do you remember writing that song? Do you remember the situation?
Yeah. I wrote that. Yes, covered by a lot of people. I think Dennis Brown did it. One of the biggest covers. I was in the Bahamas with the Sharks. We got a gig in the Bahamas when we had just started out. We used to play at the hotel. When it was vacation time we decided we would go directly back to the studios in Jamaica. At Coxsone where we had started. We went back to Studio One but knowing that we were going back, I decided to write a song. (laughs) So that I could record it. It took me no more than about 10 minutes. I wrote the song because I got the full inspiration, arrangement and everything. It just came and we went there.
What was the atmosphere at Studio One like in those days, with all these big singers coming in and all these big songs being recorded?
Well, there were hardly many big singers because like all of us, we were just starting out, you know? When we did Put It On with the Wailers, all of us were just youngsters about the place. They had a little name building but the Sharks were totally unknown. But all of us used to play together. We used to go to Trenchtown School where Bunny Wailer and we used to play marbles. I didn’t even know he was in music. And he didn’t even know I was in music! Till we met up at the studio and said “Eh?” (laughs)
How did you go from Sharks to being in Zap Pow?
Well after we did the Bahamas and we returned to Jamaica with the Sharks we did like maybe two years on the North Coast, because in the Bahamas we used to do a lot of hotel work. We were very suitable for the hotel scene on the North Coast. So we did that for about two years and then one member decided to drift and then the Sharks split up. Right as we split up there was a band called Winston Turner and the Untouchables. And he invited me in to play guitar with that band at the Hilton Hotel. That’s where I met Mike Williams. I had known him from Kingston anyway but that’s where we met as musicians.
After doing the hotel gigs for a while we decided that we would like to go back to Kingston to do recording. So he came up with the name Zap Pow. It was just the two of us. And then we came back to Kingston and we scouted around, we got the third member who was David Madden who played the trumpet. He was from camp, a soldier. And his friend Glenn DaCosta from the camp, he eventually drafted him into Zap Pow. And we got a drummer called Danny McFarlane from Kingston. That’s how Zap Pow started.
And the first song we made was Mystic Mood. And that one was unbelievable to the Jamaicans that it was a local record. Everyone including the DJs at the radio station thought it was a foreign song because it was different from the normal trend of songs. Mystic Mood. So that broke us into the Jamaican market as a recording band. Until we developed as a show band. We were like the first Jamaican show band. Zap Pow. Third World members used to come to our concerts. And sit right at the front of the stage. Like they were taking lessons on Zap Pow band! (laughs)
And now they teach lessons to the young bands in Jamaica!
(laughs) Right, right!
And you co-wrote This Is Reggae Music?
Yeah. We used to collaborate. The great thing about Zap Pow was each member was a good songwriter and very creative. We were ahead of our time. That’s when we did songs like Scandal Corner, This Is Reggae Music, and we did an album for Island Records called Zap Pow with a fist. So it was after Zap Pow was defunct in 19… That was after Beres came in.
How did Beres Hammond come in?
Well, Zap Pow was basically an instrumental group. But we have to play Top 40 music to survive! (laughs) We needed an upfront vocalist. We used to juggle vocalists. At one time Bunny Rugs was the vocalist for Zap Pow, at one time Jacob Miller was our vocalist! So we used to just hire vocalists. We needed a vocalist and Beres was available so we hired him and he eventually became a full-fledged member of Zap Pow.
So how did it come that you left recording to attend the Jamaican School of Music?
Well, in about 1978 the financial returns for the band were not encouraging, so people used to drift off. Like Bob Marley used to call the horn section and they’d be gone on tour. Left the rest of the band there. And Beres had his little budding career as Beres Hammond. With One Step Ahead and stuff like that. So it just watered out. Up until then, I hadn’t done any formal music. I decided to formalize my skills, so I went to the Jamaica School of Music. Then. It’s now Edna Manley cultural centre. I did a course in Afro-American Rhythm arrangements, under the tutelage of Melba Liston, a great trombone player. So we were at Zap Pow and School of Music. I did that course at the School of Music and then I started to do a lot of session work.
Tell me about what you learned about arranging? What is the key to great arranging?
The key to great arranging is… arrange to suit the musicians that you have. Don’t arrange egotistically. If you know you have a bass player that isn’t a virtuoso bass player, when you are arranging, you arrange a simple line that he can play comfortably and make everybody comfortable in their execution and you get a great arrangement.
Apart from that the overview of the final product in arranging is very important. I learned that clarity in arrangement is the most important thing. It doesn’t make sense if you have a lot of notes all over the place and it’s complicated so that the person listening can’t follow. You must always have the focal point. Say you are arranging a song with a vocalist, he will be the focal person. You don’t arrange the instruments to cover him down because you’ll lose the whole impact of the message. So I would say it’s like you are painting a picture. You can’t just fling paint all over the place! (laughs) You’re painting a lady in a background, skies and stuff behind her but she is the focal point. That’s the key that I learned in arranging.
You joined the Roots Radics in 1981? Can you remember how that came to be?
The Roots Radics, yes. That’s correct. Yeah, what happened was I had just finished my course at Jamaica School of Music. I was doing a lot of studio sessions and we kept running into each other, myself and the Radics. And at one point they went to England to tour. When Sowell was lead guitarist. But he didn’t come back to Jamaica. And because we kept bucking up on these sessions, they invited me to join the band.
So when you went back into session work, did you feel like the session work took off?
Yeah, definitely. With the Roots Radics, I made a big difference to the whole recording thing. Because the Roots Radics were a powerful gutsy band. But the finer points, tweaking, I contributed that. Tweaking the Roots Radics so a song like Night Nurse with good arrangement would come out. Until eventually they made me the bandleader for the Roots Radics band. Because I was more experienced, I could write out music and stuff like that. Make sure the instruments are in tune. The bass and the guitar, you know?
And did you also get involved in the Festival contest?
When I entered that contest I was always in the top five. I came second but I never won it. David Madden won it once with the worst festival song ever! (laughs) It’s called Stop And Go. But apart from that, I’ve been on many, many number one songs in Jamaica. And all over.
What are your memories of the Night Nurse sessions?
Night Nurse sessions, that was when I hadn’t actually worked tightly with the Roots Radics band. Gregory Isaacs, he was with Charisma Records before. But Island Records, Chris Blackwell, had just signed him. And this was the first album he would be delivering. So we went and we recorded it at Tuff Gong studios. And those sessions weren’t anything special. It was just normal. We went into the studio, the singer would sing, and we’d just find the accompaniment. When I say it wasn’t special it wasn’t anything different from the other sessions. Because the pride we have in the music, we always try to do the best…
Part 2 – Spain/London/Jamaica (2019)
After an abortive attempt to pick up the conversation in London a year later when Dwight was backing Bunny Wailer, an opportunity arose to see him with the Radics and Israel Vibration at Rototom Sunsplash 2019. Dwight remembered the first encounter and was happy to finish the interview, but again had to leave the festival in a hurry. Numbers were exchanged and the discussion was finally completed over the phone between London and Jamaica.
Where some interviews with the other surviving long term member of the Radics, Flabba Holt, were exercises in setting the past straight, Dwight Pinkney seems calm, philosophical, and content.
Where they both agree, is that the musicians were the driving force of the highly creative early 80s period in reggae music.
There was some incorrect information on the internet about you arranging the Astronauts’ Festival Song, Born Jamaican…
Yes, that was incorrect. That was another member of Zap Pow. I think that was David Madden.
In the Roots Radics, your guitar playing style is very distinctive. What do you think you brought to the Roots Radics in terms of your lead guitar playing?
What I think I brought to the Roots Radics was a more orthodox, for want of a better word, aspect to the more raw reggae roots. Because I was just coming out of the Jamaica School of Music. So my function when I entered the Roots Radics band was to kind of formalize certain aspects of the roots expression that they had. Affecting that roots drive, that roots aspect, just to add on that flavour that could connect to a more international market.
And the phrasing now, I tried to add what I have learnt from my experience over the years. Because they had fundamentally a very heavy low end drive. I saw where it could accommodate some of those licks and phrases that would enhance the whole package. That’s where I fit in, I think.
Two of the producers that the Roots Radics worked with a lot were Junjo Lawes and Linval Thompson. How did those sessions differ based on the producer?
Ok, first of all, I want to clarify that although they have the name ‘producers’, they were really just executive producers. The real producers were the band members, the Roots Radics. We were the producers. They just organised the studio for the sessions and then they just brought the artist. They found the artist and just dumped them on the band. So we had to direct the whole arrangement, produce and conduct the whole recording sessions for those guys. They weren’t even in the studio most of the time when the sessions were going on. They just came, saw that the session was started and disappeared. Especially Junjo. Linval would hang around sometimes because he sang also. So that’s the story of the production of all the hit songs you hear from those guys. Junjo Lawes and all those guys who claimed producers’ credit. The credit should really go to the band members of the Roots Radics.
And how about your sessions for Jah Thomas?
(laughs) Of course. Thomas as well. He was a deejay but the Roots Radics was such a powerful and commercial name in that time that most of the stuff that the Roots Radics attached to was produced by Roots Radics band. Even Jah Thomas. To this day Jah Thomas hasn’t finished thanking us for making Jah Thomas, “Jah Thomas”. Because we were responsible for all the arrangements and stuff for those guys.
How big a role did engineers at Channel One and other studios play? Were there any particular engineers that you liked working with a lot?
Yeah, there was a definite chemistry with the band and the engineers. That’s why you have those dubs and those mixes sounding that way. It was raw roots and the engineers were on the same wavelength as the band. They knew what to highlight when we played certain things. So it was a very beautiful chemistry going there. They helped a lot. We would advise them as to certain things that we needed, according to what we had arranged, to be done for the specific songs. Like Souljie, Bunny TomTom, Scientist. Bunny TomTom and Souljie were like the main engineers while I was with the Radics. And the chemistry, as I said, was tight. Locked up. We enjoyed those sessions very much.
Which artists did you enjoy working within that period of time?
Oh wow. We worked with all the artists of the day. All the artists came to us, all the producers and the artists. Because the artist said they wanted the Roots Radics because, apart from Sly and Robbie, we were like: guaranteed hits. If they had a good song, guaranteed hits.
But the artist that I personally enjoyed working with most was a guy like Bunny Wailer who was very musical and knew exactly what he wanted. So we had a very good connection. Apart from all the other artists who just came and left everything to be done to get the rhythm together, Bunny Wailer had ideas as to the direction and the tempo and everything. Full arrangements for his songs. So it was a pleasure working with Bunny Wailer.
Toots knows what he wants but sometimes he stretches it out and comes back to where he started from! (laughs) But he is a very good musician too and inspiring. Any one of the Wailers like Bob Marley. Because earlier on I had worked with the Wailers, Bunny, Peter and Bob for the song Put It On. And the experience, those guys know what they want musically. And they don’t leave everything up to the band. You get something very special coming out of those sessions.
You talking about Coxsone makes me wonder how involved was Coxsone as a producer? Were you dealing with him at all? Or were you dealing with his musical director in the studio?
No, when I worked at Coxsone, myself and my band were musical directors for what we were doing and who we were accompanying. Like I said, Peter and the Wailers, they knew what they wanted and we could communicate. So it was like a 50/50 there. Back in those days the artists and I will give them credit, they knew exactly what they wanted. People like Joe Higgs, the Gaylads, Ken Boothe, well he was kind of young still, but they have an idea of what they wanted the outcome of the recording to sound like.
Coxsone most of the time wasn’t in the studio either. But he had producers around him, like Gladdy [Anderson], musician producers. Even BB Seaton was a producer. He had Scratch [Perry]. He had assigned producers around, who would select the talent and conduct the sessions. But he would have the final word still about the talent. But as far as when I was in the studio recording there, yeah he was outside. He wasn’t even in the studio. He wasn’t hands-on. Maybe he was doing some engineering some of the time or something like that but not a musical director. Nothing like that.
Going back to the 80s, how good a relationship did you have with Sly and Robbie? Because the Radics and the Revolutionaries were once rivals.
I must say I had a very good relationship personally with Sly and Robbie. Up to this day. Because I don’t know if I wasn’t an original member of the Radics. Sowell was the original lead guitar but he had gone to England and didn’t come back with the band. They went on some tour and that’s when they roped me in. I kept showing up on sessions both myself and the band. But as far as myself and Sly and Robbie, they called me when they had something to do, sometimes right up until this day. Personally had a good relationship with them – till now we still have a great relationship.
When the music became more computerised in the mid-80s Flabba told me that the Radics then started to go on more international tours – was that your experience?
Yeah, because one of the main people who helped to computerise the music is Steely. And Steely was the original keyboard player, maybe not from the beginning, but very early in the Roots Radics. The Roots Radics were comprised of Steely, Bingy Bunny on guitar, myself, Flabba and Style Scott. The five of us were the basis of the Roots Radics. We augmented sometimes depending on the occasion with horn section accompaniment for certain stuff.
But then Steely developed a relationship with Clevie and kind of branched off into the computerised thing after Sleng Teng had come and opened another musical door in Jamaica. And then King Jammys would do a whole lot of productions with them, so kind of diverted Steely into that area. That’s when, as you said, the live band became in less demand than the computerised thing. For economic reasons mainly I think, it was because they could get two guys and they’d accompany a recording backing track instead of getting five or six or seven or eight or ten musicians – it was basically to them the same thing. Although it’s not really the same thing. One is synthetic and one is the real thing! (laughs) But that’s the story of that.
We were mainly working with RAS Records, Dr Dread. We were like his main band that he used for recording. And he was doing a lot of productions. Releasing all the artists around. That’s when we started touring extensively. We did some tours before with Michigan and Smiley and some other artists but the main thing came with RAS Records. He had engaged Israel Vibration and had gotten behind them and we were hot. When they started we were like the main act and Israel Vibration, well like… it was the reverse of what it is now. (laughs) It grew because he made a lot of investment in Israel Vibration, he believed in what they had to offer. So that’s the story of that. So we started touring and we used to tour with another of his artists, the Itals, so between Itals and Israel Vibration it kept us very busy on the road back then.
How did you decide at the very end of the twentieth century that you were going to release some solo albums?
Ok, the story goes like this. I was sitting in my home studio and thinking that I have been playing all these years for so many guys and I haven’t got anything to represent me as Dwight Pinkney. (laughs) So I think I should. I started to pick out some songs that I wanted to do and include on instrumentals albums. And just then and there yeah it was like, boy, a miracle. I got a phone call from a very good friend of mine whose name is Keith Francis. He plays the bass and he is the bass player for that band Chalice. And he was thinking the same thing I was thinking “What happen? Why, boy, long time you play this thing and you don’t have nothing for yourself. Make we do an album man”.
So I said “Boy Keith, this is destiny because that day I sit down and I think… as a matter of fact here are some of the tunes them”. And I started listing some of the songs that I was earmarking to record in my home studio. And then it just happened like that. He said “I’m going to come through and we’re gonna mash it up”. And I said “Fine come through tomorrow and I will set it up for you”. So he came the next day with his list and my list. Plus he had been playing reggae music since way back then, like myself. He used to play for dance bands and stuff like that. Like how Zap Pow, we used to play for dance. He was with another band, the Bohemian ban, they have a club named Bohemia Club. And he used to play all these dance music, popular songs, so we knew the songs that touched the hearts of the music fans.
So that’s how we started the first album, it went viral in those days as we would say! The reviews were very, very overwhelming. We got engaged by the Hilton Hotel down in Negril to play the instrumental music there. And we did it for close to 10 years. Riding off that album, plus other albums that we had done. Subsequent to the first one, Jamaican Memories By The Score.
I had actually stopped touring with Israel Vibration during that period but a couple of years ago I got a call from Skelly and they invited me back. They said that the band, the Roots Radics, was missing that ingredient! (laughs) People were kind of getting weary, so I went. And that’s how I got back with the Israel Vibration. I’ve been trying to make my contribution.
You mentioned that because you used to play in dance bands you know a lot about a wide range of music. You released a Bob Marley instrumental album. You contributed to a Bob Dylan album and you worked on a Ventures tribute album. So is this why you’re so adept at combining Jamaican music with popular songs?
I would say that to me, music is music. But you have to live so if you’re in the profession of music, expenses and stuff, you have to have some commercial aspect to the art. You can’t just please yourself alone, you’ll have to play things that people are attracted to and will spend money to acquire what you’re offering. So I would say I have made myself kind of flexible in terms of the selection that I do as instrumentals. I know that not everybody will be dancing to it but it maybe touches certain beautiful memories they had of it in the past. They will pay attention. The whole thing is just spreading the joy of music and spreading the love of music. And enjoying myself doing it, you know?
You mentioned touring again with Israel Vibration but also in the last few years I’ve seen you on stage with Bunny Wailer.
Yes, I was touring with Bunny Wailer before he kind of stopped touring now. Because he’s not up to it as much. But I was there. We never left him when he toured. I can remember when we were doing Cool Runnings, that recording at Harry J. That was like the first recording we did together. Since Put It On days, way back in the 60s. So I said to him “Bunny, I hope this one can turn out to be a next number one like Put It On, you know?” (laughs) That’s what I said to him when he called the session. He said “Yeah man, but we create this thing, you know? Anything Jah want to happen, it will happen. No man can stop what Jah want.” (laughs) And it turned out to be another very big song.
Can you tell me a bit about getting the Order of Distinction in 2014?
Oh, I was so surprised. I don’t push myself into the faces of people! (laughs) For want of a better expression, I’m a kind of laid-back guy. But I guess I was being noted. Because one of the songs I wrote, How Could I Live, I think I did it way back in 1966, but Dennis Brown did a cover of it which took off. So you write a song and time runs along and sometimes you take it for granted. But it’s the biggest song. It’s my biggest composition, you know? So people have been noticing me over the years. And some peers recommended that I be given the honour. I felt very humbled and grateful to their powers that be, that proposed that honour on me. And I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life. A great achievement that I was not expecting. (laughs)
How does it feel to be back touring again with Flabba? Obviously most of the Radics are no longer with us. Also on the stage [at Rototom 2019] you had Steve Golding with you. Another great guitarist.
Yes. It feels great, you know? It’s what keeps us going out there, that chemistry. Between me and Flabba. We have done so much work together. And like I said some producers say “Unnu have the magic, you know?” We always smile when we hear that. And me and Flabba have the magic. To make the history. So it’s a very very great feeling when you’re enjoying something that you’re doing. It wipes away all the negatives from the experience. I must say Steve Golding himself is an excellent guitar player, one of the greatest rhythm guitar out of Jamaica. I actually recommended him to take over from Bingy after Bingy left and I’m very pleased to see that. He’s still there holding the vibe and the chemistry right. Yeah, it’s been great. Wonderful, enjoyable. I love it.
By Angus Taylor