2021 marks the 40th anniversary of Carroll Thompson’s era-defining first album Hopelessly In Love. Co-produced by Carroll, Bertie Grant, and executive-produced by Anthony “Chips” Richards, Hopelessly In Love is a landmark record of the hugely popular yet criminally under-valued subgenre Lovers Rock. It struck a winning formula of dreamy, precise vocals, tasteful arrangements, and – unusually in a music associated with soul covers – songs written or co-written by Thompson herself.
Born and raised in the UK, by her Jamaican grandparents, Carroll Thompson studied classical piano and then accountancy, trying out as a pop singer before joining the burgeoning Lovers Rock scene in London. After breakout singles for Jamaican producer Leonard “Santic” Chin, she cut Hopelessly in Love and then her self-titled second album, at London reggae hub Easy Street studios, using musicians including members of Black Slate, Cimarons and Roots Radics.
The success of Hopelessly In Love, with its striking cover art, showing Carroll looking enigmatic in a fur coat on the bonnet of a car, made her one of British romantic reggae’s legacy names. But following her two albums, she segued into the worlds of soul, funk, jazz and pop, becoming an sought-after session singer for the likes of Billy Ocean, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Courtney Pine. In the 1990s, Carroll began making reggae albums again – starting with The Other Side of Love, for Mad Professor – and has continued ever since.
To celebrate four decades of Hopelessly In Love, Trojan (BMG) have released a special remastered anniversary edition of the album. It’s been augmented with four bonus 12 inch mixes – including Carroll’s duet with Sugar Minott, Make It With You.
Angus Taylor spoke to Carroll via video call from her home about her early life and the making of a classic LP whose reputation continues to grow.
Congratulations on the 40th anniversary of your album. When you play concerts, do you often see people holding up that album and do people come and ask you to sign it afterwards quite a lot?
(laughs) They do. I’m amazed at how people have decided so many things in their lives but they’ve managed to hold onto that piece of vinyl. It’s amazing. It really is. Heartwarming really.
You grew up in Letchworth. Did it have much Jamaican community there when you were growing up?
There was. Apart from my family, there was a lot in Luton, Bedford and in Hitchin. Not so many in Letchworth but definitely in Hitchin. We all knew each other and what brought us together was the church in the area. So they’d all sort of commute in on a Sunday. That’s how the community started, really. At somebody’s house for the church.
Which denomination of church was it?
It was Pentecostal New Testament. I mean we started off as Baptist but that was very difficult. So everyone moved the New Testament and created a church in their house and from a house, they went to a church hall and then it moved from there. That’s the way the community got together so we didn’t feel so lonely! (laughs)
When did your family come over?
I grew up with my grandparents. My grandfather came over in the early 50s. He probably came in ’49 for work. He didn’t actually come on Windrush but he was in the Air Force. They have a base in Hertfordshire near Henlow. That’s why we ended up at that end really. So we kind of followed him.
And were your grandparents musical?
Yeah, my grandmother was a singer. They used to call her the Bell of Trelawny. She had an amazing voice. Angus, I can’t even begin to tell you. Just a wonderful musician. And my grandfather loved music. He used to run a little blues and shebeen.
So, your family have roots in Trelawny?
Yeah, they were Trelawny-based. And she was known in the parish as a wonderful singer. And we used to sing together even from [when I was]… maybe two? Two and a half? We would be singing together. And then she became a minister of religion herself. She was an interesting woman. And there was a lot of music with my grandfather, all the blues and the jazz and the rocksteady and the bluebeat, and my grandmother with the gospel so it was a good mix. My grandfather loved Desmond Dekker. He was such a fan of that whole Trojan thing actually! (laughs)
You learnt the piano as a child. Did that help you with your arranging later in your career?
Yes, she got me on the piano as early as she could. So I was on the piano from about six or seven. I did a lot of classical stuff from a very early age. Definitely. I think it really helped with the song writing. To be able to just sit at the piano and just make-up songs from an early age. I used to always write a lot of poetry and then put that to the music. The chords that I would discover. So definitely that classical training – as much as I didn’t like it! – it really helped! (laughs)
When did you start writing songs?
I think I wrote my first song when I was about nine or ten. The first song I wrote was a religious song. There was a competition at church and so I decided that I wanted to win and maybe if I wrote a song I could pip everybody to the post! So the first song I ever wrote was a song called I Know He Is With Me and it was a gospel spiritual type song.
But it sounds like in your home it was ok to listen to secular music as well?
Yeah, my grandfather wouldn’t have it any other way! You couldn’t tell my grandfather that he couldn’t listen to Desmond Dekker – are you joking? And my grandmother loved it still, even though she was in the church. It was so joyous and for them, that generation, to have that music in the home, gave them a sense of Jamaica. And so the music was very important in many aspects.
So who would you say were your favourite singers growing up?
I think the first singer who absolutely captivated me was Ella Fitzgerald. And I’ll tell you why. It’s because she looks like my grandmother. And that was the first album that I put onto my grandfather’s big Grundig gram. That was so huge, like a piece of furniture! I remember putting that on and the first song I heard her sing was A Tisket A Tasket and I was like “Oh my gosh” she sounded like a bird! She was so beautiful and she looked like my grandma. I was in love with Ella Fitzgerald from that moment and I still am. Ella Fitzgerald is my first in terms of a soprano, beautiful chilled sounding tone. So my first real musical love affair was with Ella Fitzgerald.
She had quite a difficult life. She was homeless before her first audition as a singer. She literally walked in from the streets and started her career.
Exactly. It wasn’t easy. Her life, we see this whole glamorous thing but she was scrapping about.
And who else did you really like as you grew older?
I also fell in love with Dennis Brown. Absolutely adore Dennis Brown. I still do, really seriously. There isn’t a Dennis Brown song that I don’t like. I could listen to Dennis Brown all day. And the thing about Dennis Brown? You could have a whole party and just play Dennis Brown. Do you know what I mean?
In Jamaica on his birthday at Kingston Dub Club they play a whole night of his music and you don’t feel like you’re missing anything… but I guess you must have met Dennis Brown a few times? He had a reputation for being a very nice person.
I have met him a few times. Lovely man. Loved music. Loved people. Loved life. He was just very joyous. He had a really special spirit that was infectious. And he was so in love with the fact that he had this voice and people liked it and he had an opportunity to sing and make music – he was really just happy at that. So yeah I had many wonderful conversations with Dennis Brown and being on stage with him. I did a small UK tour with him. It was Dennis, Aswad and myself. And it was wonderful. We’re talking maybe ’84. Rehearsal was like a party I’ve got to tell you! (laughs)
And what about Phyllis Dillon? You recorded a Phyllis Dillon tribute album in 2018.
Phyllis Dillon is one of those artists where it wasn’t until I started joining all the dots that I realised this is the same woman singing all these songs that my grandmother used to love and I used to hear as a young child. And my mum too. Especially at parties and christenings and stuff like that. And when I realised “Oh gosh, that’s Phyllis Dillon! Oh, that’s another!” I thought “I’ve got to do something and pay homage and tribute to this woman who is a fantastic singer, interpreter of songs, beautiful tone”. So I made that album in tribute to what I feel is the foundation woman in reggae music. And I did a show and her family came to see me and told me how happy they were that I had done that.
So when was the first time that you actually entered a studio? And when did you first go on a stage that wasn’t a church or school concert?
The first time I went to the studio… I was going to be a pop singer – before I became a lovers rock singer. And I auditioned for Frank Farian who did people like [Eruption] I Can’t Stand the Rain, Amii Stewart, Boney M and all those people. He wanted to do a UK young poppy kind of thing. He wanted to call us Hot Sugar or Brown Sugar or something like…
Sugar Cane! Something like that, yeah. So that was the first time I went into the studio. And I had to sing Hot Stuff by Donna Summer and that was the first time I heard my voice recorded and it was just amazing. That experience of just hearing yourself back like that and being in a recording studio. It was on Bond Street. So that was my first ever studio experience. And the first time that I actually sang on stage was after I had done two songs for Leonard Chin. So there was a little show that he dragged me along to go and sing at. We did a cover called Lead Me On and then I did I’m So Sorry.
What happened to Sugar Cane in the end?
I don’t quite remember. It all just fizzled out. It wasn’t sweet enough, I don’t know! (laughs). I don’t know what it was, it just didn’t come together. And then by the time they called me again I’d already started recording. I think they kind of had this hiatus and when they called me and tried to get me back… it’s not like these days where we have mobile phones. I’d moved out of the house and moved somewhere else… I think they called my grandma’s house. And she said “Who are you?” and put the phone down probably! And so they never got through to me.
So you went from Sugar Cane straight into singing reggae?
All the reggae stuff. It could have even been in the same year.
When you were auditioning for Sugar Cane, did you feel something different was happening at the time in UK reggae? As Lovers Rock was starting up?
Yeah, I was. I was aware that when I heard Louisa Mark sing Caught You In A Lie, I just knew that “Ok this is a British sound. This is a British thing. I get it’s not a Jamaican import. It’s not coming from anywhere else. This could be my next door neighbour”. Do you know what I mean? I heard it and I instantly recognised it as a British sound. And her voice, I just knew she was British. And then of course when Janet [Kay] hit with Silly Games just sort of sealed it for me. “I really would love to do that”. I felt that I could do that. It felt attainable.
Up until that point I’d been listening to Three Degrees and the American Philly sound and Motown, which was very remote. Everyone who was on TV was very American, very beautiful, very polished and they were not British, you know? We had a few British singers, maybe. We have people like Joan Armatrading and Linda Lewis possibly. But Janet was the first female vocalist that I saw on TV. I heard Louisa and knew that that was a British thing and that really inspired me and then I saw Janet on TV and I was like “Wow, it’s possible! You don’t have to be American” – do you know what I mean?
Aside from it being more British, one of the other reasons Lovers Rock stood out is that some of the music coming over from Jamaica didn’t appeal to women so much? Is that your memory as well?
I think it was very male-dominated. We were still deep in the roots, we were still deep in the red, gold and green and the Rasta movement. And the only females that were coming from Jamaica at that time were I Threes – Marcia and Judy and Rita. And their style was very rootsy, which we all respected and loved but it didn’t resonate our story here. In the UK our lives were a little softer and they weren’t so rugged, so our experiences were slightly different. We would, as young girls of second-generation, have been listening to Philly, Motown, to a lot of soul music and a lot of pop music. A lot of our references were very much people like Minnie Riperton, so we would be listening to that stuff, in terms of the female singers.
In terms of the Jamaican stuff, we loved it because Bob Marley was huge as well by then. And as I said I was into Dennis Brown, Abyssinians, Burning Spear, Culture, Twinkle Brothers, Augustus Pablo, it was all that kind of thing. It was more the roots thing which I loved and still do but the females there weren’t that many, there wasn’t a lot to hold onto, for us at that time. Prior to that you did have your Phyllis Dillons, Doreen Shaffer. But that was like the generation before. And of course Alton Ellis’ sister [Hortense Ellis] and all of that. So we kind of grew up watching the I Threes and then we were listening more to love songs and very sophisticated arrangements in terms of the soul music that was coming from America. So that’s true. It was a true statement to say that in terms of females there wasn’t a lot to latch onto.
It’s interesting that you mention Augustus Pablo because I believe the term Lovers Rock came from a song of his called Lovers Rock.
Did it really? Well there you go. Lovers Rock has many owners. (laughs)
How did you meet Leonard Santic Chin?
I was working as a trainee accountant in Knightsbridge. It was at the back of Hans Crescent and they had one of those buildings where every floor had a different company. So I was working for a fine wines distributor and underneath me there was this exclusive top-of-the-range travel agent who takes people skiing and all that kind of stuff. And the receptionist on that floor and myself really clicked. And we would go and have lunch together and stuff like that. Because I was always singing and she said “Oh Carroll, I really like your voice. My uncle’s from Jamaica and he’s looking for some young black English voices. I’m sure he’d love your voice”.
So I sang into the answering machine of the office – those small little cassette things. So she took the cassette and took it home and played it to him. And he said “Yeah man, yeah man, that’s exactly the sound I’m looking for”. And that’s when we got together and first we did a cover. Because he liked the British sound and he loved soul arrangements, he left Jamaica because he wanted to make that kind of music. He just felt that he didn’t want to make roots and he liked the softness and the soulfulness of the British sound. So that’s how we met. Via a cassette! (laughs)
He was one of several people that moved here like Jackie Mittoo, Sugar Minott, Dennis Brown. There was definitely a sense that London was the place to be.
They loved the sound, Angus. They really did. Dennis went on about it. Sugar was in our camp, as you know. And he just loved it. Sugar loved Nat King Cole, that was his thing. He styled himself off of Nat King Cole. He liked the way Nat King Cole’s voice resonated. He liked Barry White and that kind of thing. So he was drawn to the UK. And also Gregory to some degree as well. So those singers who really grew up on American R&B felt they could get a natural home for their love songs in this country and still do their roots from Jamaica.
So when you wrote and recorded for Santic – did you register your songs with the appropriate people to look after your publishing?
Yes. I have a proper split with Leonard Chin on I’m So Sorry and Simply In Love. I got that bit right! (laughs)
I ask because not everyone did at the time. Was that something you were very aware you needed to do, having written your own songs from quite a young age?
I can’t quite work out how I knew this but I knew. I knew that because I remember the first time we did something and he just put his name on it and I said “That can’t work”. Because I said “I wrote this song and all you did was put a little bit of guitar to it”. I already had the chords. I had obviously written it right? But we were arranging it together right? I knew that because I had studied music. And he goes “Yeah man, it’s true, it’s true, it’s true!” (laughs) So I made sure. I think there might even be one pressing that had his name alone on it. But it was rectified very quickly. By the time we went to the second press it did have my name on.
So when those two songs, I’m So Sorry and Simply In Love, blew up, did your life change at all?
It didn’t change a lot because it was still homegrown, wasn’t it? It was still quite a grassroots type of thing. It wasn’t a major concern. And quite frankly as much as my name was on the thing I didn’t really know how many records were being sold so I didn’t know how much money was being made. I was proud that my name was there but I didn’t know anything about royalties pressings and how much you get. That all came much later.
So the only thing that changed was, after those two songs blew up, I got together with Bertie Grant, my co-producer in C&B productions. That’s Carroll and Bertie. And we then hooked up with Chips Richards from Carib Gems and he desperately wanted to make an album with me. He felt very good about the team – myself and Bertie as a team. Because Bertie was an engineer as well and Bertie knew everybody in terms of musicians, so it was a good production team. He invested in us. So in terms of my life changing, the only thing that changed was that I gave up my job in Knightsbridge and I became a full-time musician and was in the studio from day till night time. So my life became the studio.
How did you meet Bertie Grant?
I met Bertie through a friend. Do you know what, I can’t even remember? I’m sure if I asked him he’ll tell me because he doesn’t forget anything. So he probably remembers more than I would. I spoke to him today actually.
Generally speaking Lovers Rock is often associated with covers. But you were a different quantity because you wrote all your own songs. So were people saying at the time that you were slightly different?
Yeah. I really thank Leonard for saying to me at the beginning “Carroll, do you have anything original?” Because not many producers were asking these girls that were coming into their studios whether or not they wrote music. There was no care or attention for a lot of the female singers. So I was really pleased that he asked that question. I think because he knew I played the piano he said “Do you write?” I was a bit of an anomaly in that. Because most of the songs in the chart were covers. Apart from myself and Jean Adebambo. And a few others. Sandra Cross wrote a few songs as well. And Janet did write a few but they were always album considerations more so. But not an entire body of work where they are all original. That was not the case. I didn’t have any covers on my album.
So how did you decide you were going to make the album Hopelessly In Love?
Well, Chips wanted it to happen. He put up the capital and created an environment for us to just make music. It was unheard of and it was such an unbelievable experience for me, for which I will forever be grateful. Because we were just like little teenagers let loose in a state-of-the-art recording studio. Because Easy Street was a really good rock studio. Because Eddie used to be in Hawkwind, the guy who ran the studio, he was the drummer. So he made a bit of money and made the studio. So this is a proper rock studio and all of a sudden he was completely overwhelmed by all these mad Jamaicans, right? He didn’t know what hit him! He was quite happy because there was so much weed in the place. (laughs)
Hawkwind used to live in Ladbroke Grove, so he could have had some prior interaction with the culture.
Yeah. So that’s how that came about. Chips said “Listen, make an album. Go and make an album”. So that’s what we did and we delivered.
Again the Lovers Rock coming out of Britain at the time was more singles-based so it must have been a bit of a risk to say “Let’s do an album with all original material?”
Yeah, it was. The thing with Chips is that he said “All your hits have been your own songs. So just write more”. I hadn’t started out having hits with covers of other people’s songs. So to me it wasn’t even risky. I was writing more songs.
We need to talk about the now famous cover photograph of the album shot by Des Bailey – the location of which has since been photographed in the book Covers by Alex Bartsch.
Well, that cover was shot in Harlesden outside one of Chips Richards’ properties. The coat wasn’t even mine. It could have been Chips’ girlfriend or the photographer’s girlfriend’s but they just draped this thing around me. I’m looking very sheepish and kind of weird in the middle of the back end of Harlesden in a fur coat on the car. I just felt really weird and uncomfortable. Self-conscious. Because I’d never had a photoshoot before. So just the whole idea of a photoshoot was really kind of weird for me. I just did what I was told. I just sat down and they put this coat around me and they went click click click click. There was no conceptual thing about it but it turned out to be a real sort of ghetto fabulous, back end of Harlesden and that was it – do you know what I mean? I never thought I’d still be talking about it 40 years later quite frankly. It was just a shot.
Part of the reason it works is because the songs on the album are about being so in love that you’re almost in another place and you have quite a distant look in your eyes as if you’re wanting to be somewhere else!
It was exactly that! (laughs) I did look kind of spaced out. I just felt so self-conscious. I have to tell you this story. There was a little girl looking out of the window at me. It was the end of the terrace and she was just looking out the window at me and I was thinking “Just hurry up and take this photo please!” And a couple of years ago this woman came up to me and she said “I’ve been wanting to meet you all my life. I was that little girl who was looking out of the window the day when you were taking that photo”. I forgot the name of the terrace. And she said “I always wondered who you were and what that was all about. I’ve always wanted to let you know that I was the little girl staring at you”. (laughs)
Where in London were you based at the time – was that your neck of the woods?
I moved around so much. First I was living in Elephant and Castle and Camberwell. At that point I might have been living in Turnpike Lane.
So it wasn’t like it was your area. You were there because that’s where the music was happening.
It’s true. As you know, Harlesden was the centre of the universe for a little while, in terms of reggae music. Jetstar and Starlight and Hawkeye were all in that area. It was an amazingly exciting place. All the Jamaican artists passed through to Jetstar or Hawkeye on that Harlesden High Road. You would see everybody. It was incredible, all the cars lined up.
It was like downtown Kingston, Jamaica with all the record shops in one place.
Yeah. Records and food. That always goes well. (laughs)
Can you tell me about the band that you formed for the album? There are some amazing musicians on there. The credits say Jah Bunny, Alan Weekes, Ras Elroy Bailey, Vin Gordon, Desmond Mahoney, Cleveland Watkiss, Noel Salmon…
Yeah, I had to give credit to Bertie for that. Bertie was a people person. Everyone knew Bertie. So all the Jamaican artists would come through. The musicians on I’m So Sorry, the original version, were mostly from Black Slate. So I still had that kind of connection with Desmond Mahoney, and Elroy Bailey was instrumental and integral in my thing. Then Bertie would just find the musicians or they would find you. Because in keeping with Jamaican tradition, if you find a studio that’s happening, everybody who is a musician finds themselves there. They would gravitate to that studio. They would be hanging around wanting to work. Wanting to have an opportunity to be on a record. So it wasn’t hard to find great musicians because they would just find you.
So we would try them out. Some of the musicians we already knew like Jah Bunny from Cimarons – we knew his calibre. Elroy, we already knew his calibre and Desmond Mahoney, the same. And then some of the young ones. So when Bertie put me together with Alan Weekes that’s when it really all started to click. Because he was somebody who knew more chords than I did. Alan was studying jazz at college. So he was able to bring in all these chords that I loved. I could just concentrate on melody and not trying to find the chords that I wanted. He would somehow just find all the chords that I liked and we liked the same kind of music. We grew up on the same types of music from jazz through to reggae to pop through to Motown and Philly. So we kind of had the same musical palate. So for me it was so easy to write with Alan. He just found all these wonderful chords and we were able to construct some wonderful songs together.
And then the Jamaican artists would be coming through like Sowell, Jackie Mittoo came in, he lived at my house with me and Bertie for about a year and a half. There were so many that passed through, you had Vin Gordon, then we had young horn players like Matics Henry and Patrick who had been studying music too and were fantastic. And then you had someone like Timmie Blacksmith – a fantastic drummer who had been playing with the Boys Brigade and with the army, the young army people, I don’t know what you call them. So he knew all these intricate drumming patterns which he brought in just a little bit and stuff like that. A bit like Drummie Zeb. That touch. And then I had Drummie Zeb as well.
So everybody passed through, all of us wanted to work with each other and it was an incredible and exciting time. Everybody wants to give and everybody wants to use their talents and have an opportunity. This was an opportunity and we all took it and we were just engrossed in music. Just like they would do at Channel One or Studio One, just bashing it out because there’s no other place you’d want to be! Jackie would tell me how it used to be for him when he was back in Jamaica and it was the same kind of vibe and he loved it. He’d be in the studio all night too. Session after session after session after session. So it was the same principle that we adopted at Easy Street.
You’ve mentioned quite a few people who weren’t credited on the album. Did all those people play on the album? Or are you just generally talking about what was happening at Easy Street?
They played on the second album. People like Drummie Zeb were on the second album, Timmie Blacksmith was on the second album, Vin Gordon, Bammy, Matics Henry and Patrick. I think they might have been on Merry-Go-Round on the first album. And I think Sowell came in and played on I’m So Sorry and Simply In Love because we had to redo it for the album. I think they came in and played on that to make it different because Bertie wanted the new version, the album version, to not be a total replica of the single.
So Sowell from Roots Radics played on the album?
Who did the harmonies on the album?
I did them with Cleveland Watkiss.
You mentioned Merry-Go-Round which has got this beautiful trombone by Vin Gordon but the drumming is also amazing. Was that Jah Bunny?
Good question. I could find out for you but I cannot remember. (laughs) I know Jah Bunny played on Hopelessly In Love but I have a feeling on Merry-Go-Round it was Timmie. Because he’s got the hi-hat thing, that is something that Timmie would do because of his Boys Brigade training. All those quadruples and stuff.
The words of the song give life advice “one minute you’re up, one minute you’re down” – it could even be advice about surviving the music business!
It was quite philosophical for a little kid, I know! But because I grew up with my grandparents and they had this old head and I’d hear all of those little anecdotes that always came up. You know Jamaicans always have sayings.
Proverbs! They’d always have “if it’s a big tree, I’m a small axe” – they’ve always got some anecdotal thing or proverb for everything. I grew up in that environment of being quite philosophical and looking at life like that. So it came from that and also I’ve always been a people watcher. I’m quite reclusive really, so I do sit and watch and listen a lot. And as I said, I always wrote lots of poetry, so I think it came from just observation of life, observation from a young age. I became a mother at a very young age. I became a mother at 17 with a lot of responsibilities. But I had very supportive parents and grandparents so I was still able to pursue my goals but I was always quite aware of life and its journey, already at that age.
As an interviewer, sometimes it’s presumptuous to assume a songwriter is writing about their own experience… but it sounds like the song No You Don’t Know about a young mum was drawing on your own life?
Yeah, that was definitely autobiographical. Being in love so young and having a child so young with your very first boyfriend. And you are parents but you haven’t even lived any life. (laughs) And my son’s father was young and he had to live his life. He just wasn’t ready for that. And neither was I really. So you’re left with a lot of heartbreak and a lot of disappointment at that age because you’re not really sure what life is, you’re not really sure what love is. Is love attraction? Or is it something else? When you’re 17, love is just attraction.
What is the song What Colour about? It’s only because we were talking about roots and Rasta earlier and in the lyrics you talk about choosing the colours red, yellow and green. Was that just coincidence?
No, it wasn’t. I wrote that with Elroy Bailey from Black Slate. He was such a flirt. And he was always flirting with me. And I said “Listen you know I’m going out with Bertie, it can’t work”. So he said “Yeah, let’s write a tune then, let’s write a song!” So it was like that. We wrote this sort of flirty song. It was like if it could ever happen this is how I’d like it to be. What colour would you like? Red? He was so funny. Elroy was fantastic. He would say “Are we going to go on a first date? What colour would you wear?” It was like that. It was such a fun song. I really enjoyed writing that with Elroy. Wicked bassline on there which is his, of course. Some bass players are great bass players and some bass players are really great at writing lines. And he was one of these bass players who could write really great bass lines. Like Flabba, like Tony Gad, just write fantastic basslines. Elroy was like that.
For the 40th anniversary edition there are some bonus 12-inch mixes of other songs included. How did you decide which ones you were going to include?
It was very difficult to choose. But I think we came down to a shortlist and then between myself and Trojan, I said “You take the last decision” so they took the last decision. Because it’s very difficult knowing what to choose or refuse. There was a pot of songs and they chose and I was happy. I said “Any one of those is fine with me”. But it’s nice to have the Sugar tune. It brings back memories.
I was going to ask about the song Make It With You featuring Sugar Minott. What are your memories of working with Sugar? Because as we were saying he is hugely important as part of that movement towards London from Jamaica.
Yeah, Sugar was a friend of Bertie’s. And we instantly became friends. And we kept wanting to do a duet but he would be going back and forth because he was quite big in America as well. He was moving around quite a bit. And what happened is, myself and Bertie were in Jamaica and Sugar happened to be in Jamaica at the same time. So we said “Well this is it”. We went to Channel One and recorded that song in just one take. And he had this sort of project called Black Roots where he would look after a lot of the impoverished youths in his area and try and give something back, try and give them a chance. And one or two of them who had any musical leaning he would try and bring them in and bring them up, you know?
So he brought in the best of his… I don’t even know their names and it’s such a shame but he brought in a drummer and one or two of them to come in and play and they actually played that rhythm in the studio. And he was so proud of them. I’ll always remember that. He was like a chuffed father. So we recorded that song in Jamaica at Channel One. And Sugar’s wonderful. You know, a lot of that stuff like Penny For My Song was done at Easy Street. With Alan arranging, didn’t really get the credit for it that he was due, but Alan did a lot of stuff with Sugar. All those little guitar licks that are very memorable and distinctive. A lot of that was Alan and those UK musicians. As you say, a lot of it isn’t credited but we all know. If Sugar was alive he would talk about it because he loved the vibe.
Did you find your life changed after this album came out?
Yeah, it did. I was recognised a lot more, that kind of stuff. But the actual business around the album was very difficult. I was finding that the business was… you know how it is… a bit tricky and it was like “Oh God, this is so stressful”. But apart from that it did change me. It made me determined that I was going to be a musician and I was not going to go back and study accountancy. I wasn’t going to be an accountant. I was going to be a musician. And in that way it was good for me because someone like Billy Ocean just plucked me out of obscurity and he was a fan of the album. He was blowing up and he got somebody to find me and invited me to do his world tour. Had I not done that album then I would never have started my trajectory in this industry the way I did, working with so many fantastic musicians in many genres.
After Hopelessly In Love and your self-titled second album you expanded into other genres. Was that something you wanted to do or did you just go with the flow?
It just presented itself. I didn’t go seeking it. It sort of presented itself and I rose to the challenge of it and got on with it. Because the thing about Lovers Rock is that there wasn’t a defined roadmap for it. So there was a road map for roots music, as you know, but for Lovers Rock it was a bit of an anomaly. Even though it was selling bags and bags and bags and Janet had a number one hit, none of the major record companies took it on. Which they should have done. They didn’t take it on and they didn’t make it a thing. Had they taken Janet, myself and maybe Louisa and really treated us as real artists, they could have developed and created a proper genre.
Because up until that point as you so rightly said it was all single-based so they just used to find a voice they liked, get a cover, drop a girl’s voice on it and you didn’t even know who the artist was half the time. Unless they’d had quite a few. So people like Janet myself and Louisa and Sandra, because Mad Professor made an album with her, everybody else was just single-led. It was just lots and lots of singles. So I found that even though I had this album that was selling across all the demographics and age groups and cultures and whatever, there was no roadmap for it. It wasn’t soul, it wasn’t going with the roots and it kind of got lost in the cracks in terms of where do you take it? How do you do your shows? It’s too soft to do with the roots people and it’s not quite soul. So what do I do? Where do I go? Who is going to promote it? The promoters just wanted to do the Jamaican artists and the roots thing so I had to find something else to do.
And that is the crux of what happened to Lovers Rock. It just wasn’t handled with the same amount of care that all the other genres like the roots, the UK soul, the Brit funk. Everything had some investment that was unified but Lovers Rock was always a very independent producer-led type of thing where the female artists were not treated properly, were not groomed and were not nurtured as artists. So that’s why I had to find something else to make my money.
You mentioned Billy Ocean. You’ve also worked with Stevie Wonder. That must have been quite something.
That was something. What happened was I became a very in demand session singer. And because I had the training and could read music and I had a fairly good command of my voice, as a vocalist I was quite unique. There were only very few of us so I got a lot of work that way. Stevie Wonder was fantastic. That was recorded here, he recorded his Square Circle album at Metropolis. That was a wonderful moment that I’ll never forget. Then I did a live show with him at Wembley. That was great. And also Michael Jackson, we recorded here in the UK as well. At the time he was out of his deal and he was being sponsored by a sheikh to make an album. I got called in with a couple of other vocalists to do that. So I got to work with lots of interesting and iconic musicians that I have a lot of respect for.
You also did quite a lot of work with blues artists such as B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Gary Moore. You mentioned that your grandad listened to blues – so did you have a special affinity with that music?
I understood it because I grew up listening to it. Singing along with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. It was wonderful. I already had an ear for it. Gary Moore was great. I enjoyed his stuff and B.B. King was great too. It was interesting because I hadn’t really thought about it. Because I already had the sort of muscle memory for it, it wasn’t hard for me to find the harmonies and do it – blam blam blam. But it’s because I grew up listening to it and via osmosis it was in my psyche, so I was able to cross a lot of genres. I worked with Art Blakey. It was incredible. My uncle used to listen to Coltrane. Things like Giant Steps which I used to hear him on. It was really strange to be able to use that stuff – but God is good.
You talked about how Lovers Rock wasn’t handled properly at the time and perhaps didn’t get the same respect in the mainstream as roots. Would you say that today people do seem to be fully on board with it and understand it more?
They do because most of the biggest hits in terms of reggae are all Lovers Rock. From Aswad through to John Holt, it’s all Lovers Rock. It’s all a form of beautiful romantic reggae music, arranged beautifully. Which is what it always was! I think people understand romantic reggae now and they get the Lovers Rock for what it was. How gentle and how different it is but it’s all part of the reggae tree. It’s just a different approach but good songs, good arrangement, lovely beat. I mean you can’t beat that, can you? (laughs).