Gentle-voiced singer-songwriter Carl Malcolm is beloved in Jamaica for his trio of 70s Randy’s-produced lovers’ hits – No Jestering, Miss Wire Waist and Fattie Bum Bum. The latter song was an international smash that reached number 8 in the British pop charts in 1975.
By Angus Taylor
But Carl is also a singer of fervent cultural and reality songs. His earliest recording was Father Free Us, cut at Studio 1 records, and collectors of late 70s roots reggae will be familiar with his heartfelt stepper Repatriation. Even No Jestering had a vein of social commentary running through it – the story of a poor boy asking a rich father for his permission to see his daughter.
These days Carl lives in Maryland – having relocated from Jamaica to the USA in the late 70s. He is currently on the comeback trail. In 2018 he released the popular Willie Lindo-produced single Life Sweet and this year performed at Rebel Salute.
Angus Taylor met Carl and his wife Aneeta at last year’s One Love Festival in England. He agreed to this short, off the cuff interview about his life, why he left Jamaica, and why he’s been smart with his publishing through the years. He also dispels a long-standing confusion for some of his fans concerning the deejay cut to Repatriation.
Thank you for taking the time to do this. You were born in St. Elizabeth?
You’re welcome anytime, man. I was born in Black River, St Elizabeth. I grew up between Black River, Mountainside and a place called Hodges Land.
And what did your parents do for a living?
My father was a district constable. Like local police. And my mother was a seamstress. She sewed clothes. But I grew up with my auntie and she was a seamstress also.
Was there music on either your mother or your father’s side?
No, nobody. But my aunt had an organ in the house and we used to sing in the night, like church songs every Sunday. She wanted me to learn the keyboard but for some reason, I just didn’t find a great interest in learning the keyboards. I just liked to see when she was playing. That was my training from the early days without realizing.
Then I went to join in going to church with her all the time and got involved with the Sunday school program. I became one of the Sunday school greeters. And then I learned to play the organ by ear. But I just can’t read music.
And back when I was living in Hodges Land at the early stage, my people had a little shop and every Friday night little people from around the area would come with a little banjo and a little self-made guitar and stuff. I think I had an interest from that time without realising it too.
Where did you start singing?
Singing, I started as a child. I can remember when they used to send me out to the pastures to cut grass to feed the goats I would be in the treetops singing. The cows would come around every evening because they were used to my singing. That was my first audience – animals!
What brought you to Kingston?
I had the scholarship to go to school in Kingston. I came to take the interview but I didn’t get through. But the country had nothing to do down there. So I just decided to come and stay with my sister and then I started living up there. When I became popular with the music I started touring and then later I decided to stay in America.
When you moved to Kingston, what kind of work did you do before you became a singer?
I used to work at a shoe factory. A place called Bata on Spanish Town Road. I used to make shoes for about four and a half years. Then I was also in the army, the reserve army at the time. The JDF. Between those times I started singing with the reggae band Skin Flesh And Bones at the Tit-For-Tat club. That’s where I started really.
And that’s where you met Al Brown? What was your first group?
Yeah, he was the lead singer for the group Skin Flesh and Bones. But in the early stages, I started a band called Tumpy Lee. It was a band in Hermitage, a little backyard band and they had a lot of self-made instruments and stuff like that. And then the next band was the Volcanoes. Then I went to Skin Flesh And Bones. Then I worked with Big Relation Band.
And it went like that until I went to Coxsone. I met Coxsone and I asked him several times about recording because I am a songwriter. I write a lot of songs and I said I wanted to start recording. So I asked him and he said: “Come down to the studio.” I went down to the studio for the auditions.
So before you went to Coxsone had you done any recording?
No, before I went to Coxsone, that was the first.
You hadn’t done any recording as part of a group?
And did Coxsone audition you himself or was it somebody else?
He auditioned me himself. He liked what I had and he recorded three songs. I was so nervous. The first song was Father Free Us but that song didn’t come out as Father Free Us because it was on the flip side of Satta Massagana. And just because Satta Massagana was a great hit, people didn’t really play the flip side. So they didn’t know I had a record around there. And from that, I went to Rupie Edwards and did a song Make It When You Try and that wasn’t too great either.
As well as singing for Rupie Edwards, didn’t you also work for him?
I worked for Rupie Edwards selling records on the street. And then he had a branch where he wanted a branch manager. I gave myself a title called “branch manager” but I was just a shopkeeper working a shop! (laughs) But yeah I was running the branch in Half Way Tree Square. Then after a time, I met Clive Chin from Randy’s and he took me and we started working together. The first song I did was No Jestering.
Who was the band who played on No Jestering?
The band was Skin Flesh And Bones. It was Sly Dunbar, Lloydie Parks, Ansel Collins, Ranchie McLean, Dougie Bryan. Then I did Miss Wire Waist. Then Fattie Bum Bum. And up-to-date, that is the biggest record for Randy’s Records, Fattie Bum Bum. Yeah, that took me to the British chart up here and I went and did Top Of The Pops. And from that, I got really big and popular.
And what inspired No Jestering, Miss Waist and Fattie Bum Bum?
Well, it’s just a situation where you live in one part of the city and, for instance, you live downtown and they live uptown. There is a difference between uptown and downtown in those days because uptown was like top-ranking and down you’re just… you know, a local boy. So it was hard to date a girl uptown. They wouldn’t agree with it. There would be a lot of resentment from the family. It never happened to me personally but I saw it happen and being a songwriter you’re thinking about it, imagining it and I used it.
Miss Wire Waist, I saw a slim girl that was working at a razor blade factory. I saw this girl passing my window and I teased her every day. She said “You can’t even sing” and I said “Oh yeah? I’m going to sing a song about you”. So it was like a bet that went around “Miss Wire Waist, though your little botty tallawah” and that became a big hit.
And then a big fat lady approached me one day and said: “Are you the boy who sings about little slim girls like you don’t like the fat woman?” So I said, “I can do a song for you too, you know?” So writing Fattie Bum-Bum was like a gimmick because I only wrote two verses to it and then I decided I would go back and put in a third verse.
But when I voiced those two verses there was a guy in the studio called Peppy Rush who was a technician. We used to record on 8 tracks and he came down with a 16 track mixing board to transfer everything over to the 16 track. He heard the dubplate and he was a part of the group Diversions in England. And so he copied the track, he sent it to them and they practiced it, recorded it over there and by the end of the week, it was on the British charts. So my record company decided that “No, we can’t let that happen” and rushed me to make people know that “Hey this is the artist”.
And so I went on Top Of The Pops and I didn’t do too good because I wasn’t prepared, you know? I was singing and I didn’t know I had to move my thing, my little bum bum you know? I didn’t realize that and so no I didn’t get a big bust from that show. And of course, the record company was not a managing company so they didn’t know how to manage an artist. They were just interested in record sales. And so that’s why I didn’t get to go further from that Fattie Bum Bum. But it’s been a great seller and I’ve got a lot of royalties from it.
That was my next question. As a songwriter did you register your songs from early?
Yes from early. I learned from the early days. Somebody told me “You need to publish your songs” but I didn’t understand what publishing was. So I went with Ted Powder who was the owner of Woodwater Publishing Company in Jamaica. I published a number of songs with them including No Jestering and Miss Wire Waist. Then when I went to England I got hooked up with the PRS and I got hooked up with ASCAP in New York. So I published all my songs.
So you’ve done OK out of those hits?
Yes I have.
And as a songwriter did you write any songs for any other artists?
I wrote a lot of songs and as a matter of fact, Bette Midler sang one of my songs, you know? No Jestering, she sang that song. On an album called Songs For The New Depression. Fattie Bum Bum was done over by several different artists. Miss Wire Waist was done over by several different artists. So many names, I don’t remember all the names.
So tell me a bit about the song Repatriation in 1977 – a very different type of song.
Repatriation yes. Well, I’ve done quite a few songs like that. Like Father Free Us was more like a cultural song “Oh Father free us from the chains of Babylon. Let us free to walk in Zion. Oh, we are pressurized just like the Israelites. And discrimination is killing our nation”. It’s like I started in a cultural stream but when I got to lovers rock later with No Jestering that’s when I took off. So I kept doing that but Repatriation was a song that I did down at Channel One with Sly and the same group that I told you about. With a different feeling…
What inspired those Rasta lyrics?
Well, I am a cultural person deep down, and we black people always have this repatriation deep into our culture. Where we are from Africa and sooner or later we are going to go back. And then I would sit down and watch how the Rastaman was treated in Jamaica. In the early days of Rastafari, it was like they were the outcasts. And people didn’t understand where Rasta is.
So I started to say where Rasta is: “Him trod with his locks well dread and his eyeballs them fire red. Babylon don’t like this man, although the man has done no wrong. Babylon won’t make him strive, him find it hard to stay alive because he’s a Rastaman. A true born African. Because he’s the Rastaman awaiting repatriation”. So it’s just paying homage to Rastafari and just teaching people what to look out for. He’s not a harmful man. He’s a peaceful one just looking for the days where he can go back to where his heart is. Whether his heart is in Africa or if he wants to go back to Jamaica, wherever your heart is your home.
This is a question I have always wanted to ask about that song Repatriation. The deejay cut on the 12 inch, it’s been credited to Ranking Trevor and also to Barnabas – who did it?
It’s Barnabas. Because I remember the day at Channel One, the two of them were there, him and Joe Hookim. But Barnabas was the one who talked on it. I was surprised to see Ranking Trevor’s name but they got it mixed up on the label.
Was Barnabas the engineer for the song as well?
No. It was JoJo.
Shortly after that song came out in 1977, you decided to relocate to the United States.
Yes, I came in the 70s because politics got rough in my area. I decided it was the best thing for me to getaway. Because my record company was JLP and I lived in a PNP area. So I would leave and go down to Seaga House and that area, like when they took me down one day to do a party for Seaga. And when uptown people heard they were saying “Carl Malcolm, you better find yourself some corner, you can’t be going to and forth” and people started dying and running because of politics. So I decided “I’m getting out of here!” (laughs) So that’s what forced me to leave and come to the States.
Are you happy where you are now?
I’m very happy where I am. Jamaica is still in my heart but it’s not the Jamaica that I used to know. The Jamaica I used to know, people used to look out for people, not people killing people. Now people are killing people and robbing people and envy people and back-bite. And the whole thing is just not my speed. I’m not going, not because I’m unpatriotic but I don’t want to live in a place where I have to look behind me every five minutes. I don’t want to live like that. So if they clean up the country I’ll go back but if not I’ll stay where I am.
What are you working on musically at the moment?
I’ve got a new song with Willie Lindo from Heavybeat, he has been sending me tracks and I’ve got the latest one I’ve done for him called Life Sweet and it’s on the Jacob Miller All Day All Night rhythm track. And that song if I sing it, people seem to like it so I’m just compiling and I’m going to put some of the tracks on an album. I just got some more tracks he sent me that I’m working on. I’ve got three tracks I’m working on right now and the management there, Andrew sent me two tracks, Treasure Isle tracks that I’m going to work on writing some songs. I write all the time. That’s what I like to do.
Final question: you’ve been touring with Keith Poppin – tell me about your relationship with him?
Well, I know Poppin from years back. We used to hang out at Randy’s and hang out at Idler’s Corner down there on Chancery Lane, with Freddie McKay. A lot of them are gone. But it’s just him and me and our friendship has gone on. So I know him from long time but we never get the chance to do anything because he lives in North Carolina and we never got the chance to bond. We talk every day on the phone but this is the first time we are touring together now. He is a lot of fun. It’s a good experience.
By Angus Taylor
Pictures by Veronique Skelsey