Photo: Don Carlos w/ Jim Fox, Washington, DC, August 2012
HOW A SMALL WASHINGTON DC RECORDING STUDIO MADE REGGAE HISTORY
by MIDNIGHT RAVER
The fact that they even agreed to reunite to record an album seemed an impossibility.
Three gifted Jamaican vocalists, Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin, Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig, and Cecil “Skelly” Spence, had overcome the crushing poverty of Kingston and the crippling effects of polio to become one of the most celebrated roots reggae acts of the late 1970s. This ‘holy trinity’ of Rasta street preachers mysteriously disbanded in 1981, just when they were on the verge of picking up right where the recently deceased Bob Marley had left off.
However, it is Washington, D.C.-based radio disc jockey Doctor Dread, AKA Gary Himelfarb, who approaches the trio, now living in New York, with a proposition. With a goal of bringing classic roots reggae to the masses, Doctor Dread launches a record label from his D.C. home called RAS (Real Authentic Sound) Records. By the mid-1980s, he managed to create a network of roots reggae artists, many of whom he signed to the label, including Black Uhuru and Inner Circle. While each individual member of Israel Vibration is pushing Doctor Dread for a solo album, Himelfarb is only interested in uniting the ‘holy trinity’ once again.
Instead of offering each member a solo contract, he offers each of them a train ticket to Washington, D.C. to record a reunion album. Fast-forward to 1988. Israel Vibration arrive in the lobby of Lion and Fox Recording Studios at 1905 Fairview NE, Washington, DC. Their legendary backing band Roots Radics were already sound-checked and ready. The trinity have arrived to record their tracks with the Radics. Engineer Jim Fox had the 24 track and monitors all set and ready. Fox recalls:
“I swear I felt this levitation thing going on. I hadn’t even met them or seen them yet, but just the fact that they were out in the lounge. I wasn’t aware of the gravity of the situation that Israel Vibration was coming in. So we’re kind of all waiting around and then somebody says ‘They’re here!’. They didn’t come in to the studio through the control room, they went in directly from the lounge. I had the microphones set up already, everything was there, the Radics were there and Wiss comes walking up to the mic and he sings the first verse of “Cool And Calm”:
“Standing on the corner,
Reasonin’ with your bredren,
You never mean no trouble,
You never do no harm,
Takin’ it cool and calm,
And a so we a gwaan,
gwaan, gwaan, gwaan”
Hal Lion, an electronics and radio engineer by trade, got his start with Hearst Metrotone News covering the White House and providing most of ABCâ€™s prime time news features in the early 60′s. In the mid 60′s the networks began forming their own crews using a new medium called video.
Knowing that the future of broadcast media was in film and video, Hal Lion, along with several of Washington, D.C.’s film industry players, formed Associated Producers. Associated Producers consisted of the best film producer, writer, cameraman, electrician, and of course sound man the region had to offer. They moved into 1905 Fairview Ave NE, Washington, D.C., which had been the home of Capitol Film Labs for the prior 20 years. Soon after, Hal and Sally Lion formed Lion Recording Services, Inc.
Lion Recording Services became a full service industrial recording studio in 1967. Continuing in the tradition of film-crew audio, Lion provided services for location recording for synchronous film and radio, and began providing services for film mixing.
It came to Jim Fox as an epiphany while attending college. He is playing drums in a local band and studying to become an electrical engineer when he comes to the realization that he needs to plot a course for a successful career – but in what?
“I was like what am I going to do? After the late night gigs, school was pretty tough. I was in an electrical engineering program. So I’m listening to Jethro Tull. It’s a Friday night. I had a couple glasses of wine and I’m listening to the Benefit album and Time for Everything is playing and Martin Barre is on the guitar performing a solo and I’m sitting there with my head between the speakers like ‘I wish I was there when this happened so I could be a witness to what was done. I just wanted to be a witness.’”
Fox got the opportunity he was looking for when he was hired by Hal Lion in 1973 as chief engineer in charge of production and maintenance while Hal concentrated on expanding cassette duplication. At Lion Recording Services, Fox managed all production of audio visual slide shows, voice-overs, location audio, and mixing. Fox also began expanding the studio to accommodate live musicians, which lead the two to form Lion and Fox Recording, Inc. in 1979.
Fox was then fortunate enough to record a young reggae band out of Philadelphia called Black Sheep. Recalls Fox:
“As far as reggae goes, there was a group called Black Sheep from Philadelphia that was doing some shows in DC at some coffee houses that were near the old studio. So they came in and wanted to do some recordings. We did a little demo thing and then they decided they wanted to record an album. I wasn’t familiar with reggae at all. He laughs, “I remember they said they wanted to do some dubs, so I told them we could make some copies for them!”
Fox recorded the album Gathering for Black Sheep in 1981. He also makes calls and sends letters to whoever he could, attempting to get distribution and promotion for the new release.
1982 was a big year for Reggae Sunsplash. Beginning in 1981 the festivals were filmed and recorded for release, the first being Reggae Sunsplash ’81: Tribute to Bob Marley on Elektra Records. Since the recording of the event required synchronizing the audio with the video, the producers looked to Lion and Fox, who specialized in location radio and film recording. Jim Fox was tapped to go down to Jarrett Park, Montego Bay, Jamaica in July 1982 to capture the event. He talks about this being a pivotal event in his recording career:
“We did a lot of film and video work here. In early 1982, KSR Group (Kulberg, Reed and Stark) got together and they wanted to film 1982 Sunsplash. So they called me up because after my recording with Black Sheep, supposedly I knew something about reggae. They were bringing in video trucks from England and needed me to help hire the audio truck, to record, and to make sure everything synchronized with the video, so they called me to do that.
It was a major break for me because I was in Jarrett Park for 10 days, working on 2 hours sleep every day. We recorded 94 rolls of 2-inch tape. The experience was just awesome, it was really great.”
For the Jamaican artists, it was now acceptable to record with Jim Fox and Lion and Fox Studios. This was underscored by the fact that Dr. Dread’s D.C.-based RAS Records was signing some serious acts to the new label – acts like The Melodians, Don Carlos, Peter Broggs, Freddie McGregor, and the Grammy Award-winning Black Uhuru.
Upon his return from Jamaica, Jim Fox found himself back in the studio editing the master for the new Peter Broggs album for Dr. Dread’s Ras Records.
“That’s really where my relationship with Dr. Dread started. The album was recorded by Soji, mixed by Scientist, and it is a classic sounding Kingston, Jamaica reggae album. Soon after that he brought me the new Melodians album and I mixed that album for him.”
It’s 1983 and Live and learn Records brings Jim Fox a single that they want to release. they needed Jim’s help in editing and cross-fading the vocal version to the dub version. Fox recalls:
“It’s this guy singing ‘Here I come again, wah-oy,’ you know? I was just like ‘who is this?’
“He says, ‘This is Don Carlos, he’s a classic Jamaican singer with a lot of history. This is the new single. He’s just now going solo.”
“‘Here I Come Again” was the single.’ As soon as I heard that I had to go find out everything about this guy. Next I discovered him singing ‘Harvest Time.’”
Fox describes the feeling he got when he listened to these now-classic Don Carlos songs:
“I got this feeling, you know, inside the body. It was like a spiritual thing that just took over. And that’s when I really started to get it – this vibe – that everyone talks about.”
The “Here I Come Again”/”Here I Come (Version)” 7″ produced by Delroy Wright was issued by Live and Learn Records in 1983 and jump-started the solo career of perhaps the greatest living singer ever to come from Jamaica.
But this was only the beginning.
Soon after, Doctor Dread schedules studio time to record vocals. Fox is thrilled to meet Don Carlos. The tracks were recorded by Errol Brown at Tuff Gong Studios, Hope Road, Kingston. Yet in 1984 Carlos arrives in Washington, DC to voice and mix Just A Passing Glance.
I spoke with Don Carlos recently regarding his decision to work with Jim Fox:
“Yeah, mon Jim Fox one of my favorites, you know? He one of my favorite people me ever work with. Jim Fox is a professional. Him is a good man, you know? Working with Jim was like magic. I wish those days, I mean to get those feeling again. Yeah mon. Jim Fox him the best! Whenever him mix an album that album well mix! It is the best mix you can get!”
Carlos would go on to record four albums in total with Jim Fox over the next 10 years, including the classic albums Deeply Concerned, 7 Days A Week, and Ease Up. The legendary singer even moved to Washington, DC for several years during this period.
“Me live in DC in like the 80s. I want to tell you ‘bout 3 or 4 of my youth in DC and Maryland.”
When I asked him to sum up his experience recording with Fox while on RAS Records, Carlos had this to say:
“I will tell you, Jim Fox will always be my Number 1. There is a group in California now called Rebelution. Them love Jim Fox. I don’t think they will do another album unless Jim Fox is involved. There is this other band. Dem called Groundation. Them love Jim Fox so much. He did some tour wit dem too. I saw dem on tour couple times. Dem want Jim Fox to travel with dem. But Jim, that’s not his style, you know? Jim need to be in the studio working on those sounds. That’s his passion. That’s his love. That’s his life.”
It’s 1986 and Dr. Dread has signed the mighty Black Uhuru to RAS Records after they broke away from Island Records. Interestingly, this is the same Black Uhuru that Don Carlos co-founded in the early 1970′s in Jamaica. By 1986 the group consists of founder Duckie Simpson, American singing sensation Puma Jones, and brand new singer Junior Reid, who replaces the recently departed Michael Rose.
“I finally proposed to my wife and we set a date of January 4 to get married. So on December 5th I get a call from Doctor Dread and he says ‘Fox! Great news! I just signed Black Uhuru and we want to schedule studio time! We want to come in on January 4th!’
So I’m like, uhhh, let me get back to you on that. I asked my wife and of course it was out of the question. So RAS did a couple days in New York on the album. Well, I couldn’t have a honeymoon. A few days later we were voicing and mixing the Black Uhuru album.
It was Junior Reid, Puma Jones, Duckie Simpson. “Fit You Haffe Fit” and “Conviction Or A Fine” were done in Jamaica with Steven Stanley. “Great Train Robbery” and “Brutal” were done in New York on January 4th with Arthur Baker, and the rest was done here at Lion and Fox.
I distinctly remember when Puma Jones voiced her tracks at Lion and Fox. She has such a mysterious voice.”
Black Uhuru are backed by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare AKA “the riddim twins” on the album. The duo are responsible for introducing the “Rockers” sound into reggae in the late 1970s, which all but replaces the classic “one drop’ riddim. Rockers is best described as a more mechanical and aggressive style of playing reggae with a greater use of syncopated drum patterns. This style defined the sound of Black Uhuru for much of their career.
Sadly, Puma Jones eventually leaves the group when she is taken ill with cancer a few years later. She succumbs to the disease in 1990, leaving the roots reggae world without that strong, modern voice that she had.
The result of those sessions is the Brutal album, which finds Black Uhuru taking a new direction as it includes several tracks aimed directly at the burgeoning dancehall crowd. The dub version of the album titled Brutal Dub is released soon after and brings in another Grammy nod for best reggae album in 1986. As fate would have it, after the announcement of this nomination, Brutal DUB is pulled from the lists when the Grammy committee learns that this album is not a vocal release but merely a “so-called” instrumental release, clear evidence that the industry had no understanding of the phenomenon called DUB.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2: ISRAEL VIBRATION AND THE STRENGTH OF MY LIFE