Perfect Sound Forever


Roots reggae endures
by Eric Doumerc
(June 2020)

Albert Griffiths was born in 1946 in the Jamaican parish of St Elizabeth and grew up in a Christian household. His uncle taught him to play the guitar, but he was schooled by other local guitarists too. In 1960, he moved to Kingston to further his prospects and found employment as a mason. Working on various building sites, he became friends with Leonard Dillon, who was to form The Ethiopians later. Dillon and Griffiths convinced their employer, one Leebert Robinson, to finance their first recording, "You Are The Girl," which was released in 1966 as the flipside of The Ethiopians' "Train To Skaville." After releasing that single, Griffiths recruited David Webber and Errol Grandison and they formed a band a called The Gladiators. That early incarnation of the band recorded two tracks, "Sweet Soul Music" and "Live Wire," at Treasure Isle, and then moved to Studio One where they recorded "Free Reggae" and "Soul Music." In December 1968, The Gladiators recorded "Hello Carol" at Studio One, and this was their first major hit.

By the early 1970's, David Webber had been replaced by Clinton Fearon, who was playing the guitar originally. That second incarnation of the band recorded "Freedom Train" and "Rockaman Soul" (1971) for the producer Lloyd Daley. Errol Grandison then left the band because of the lack of financial rewards and was replaced by Gallimore Sutherland, a friend of Griffiths'. The Gladiators became session musicians at Studio One, and backed many artists like Burning Spear and Stranger Cole among others. They worked with session players like the bassist Earl "Bagga" Walker, the keyboardist Pablove Black, the drummer Benbow Creary and the keyboard player Robbie Lynn to craft the famous Studio One sound. Between 1968 and 1974, they backed many artists at Studio One and also released a raft of singles ("Hello Carol," "Fling it Gimme," "Mr Baldwin," "Bongo Red") which caught the public's attention. After 1974, they concentrated on solo work.

By the mid-1970's, the band was struggling and was ready to give up when Albert Griffiths accidentally hooked up with the producer Tony Robisnon at Channel One. Robinson had been a fan of the group for many years and had always liked their thoughtful lyrics. One day, at Channel One, Griffiths was singing a track, and Robinson asked the following question: "Who really writes for The Gladiators?" When Griffiths identified himself as the main songwriter, Robinson looked surprised, but the two men immediately got along, which led to Robinson producing the band's next recordings.

Working at Joe Gibbs' with a team of crack session musicians including Lloyd Parks and Sly Dunbar, The Gladiators actually recorded their first album for Tony Robinson, which was released in 1976 on the Virgin label in England, and on the Groovemaster label in Jamaica. Entitled TrenchTown Mixup (after a headline about the rising political violence in Jamaica's ghettoes), the album contained songs which had been previously recorded at Studio One (the title track and "Hello Carol"), two Marley covers ("Soul Rebel," "Rude Boy Ska"), a song originally recorded by The Mellowlads ("Chatty Chatty Mouth") and new tracks like "Looks is Deceiving," "Hearsay," "Know Yourself Mankind" and "Bellyful." These songs are all based on the resort to folk wisdom and always end with a moral. They sound like Biblical parables (Griffiths' nickname was the "parable man") or old proverbs strung together seamlessly. The song entitled "Looks is Deceiving" is a good example of such an approach:

"Old-time people used to say:
When short mouth tell you, you can't hear
So when long mouth tell you , you must feel it, feel it.
You talk too much, you will pay for what you don't eat
Cow never know the use of him tail till the butcher cut it off
Looks is deceiving, man!
Don't underrate no man!"

In this excerpt, the use of well-known Jamaican aphorisms like "Cow never know the use of him tail till the butcher cut it off" testifies to the survival in mid-1970's Jamaica of the oral tradition which could still be relevant in an urban context.

In another song, "Hearsay," the band deals with a well-known human foible: the tendency to listen to the latest rumour and to believe everything people say:

"You'd better come straight if you a-come
The greatest card in this game, is I who got it
But remember that bush have ears
Now, bush don't have ears, my friend
But someone may be in it,
Hearing what you have said about your brother,
Hearing what you have said about your sister,
Hearing how you have made your own confession,
‘Cause every secret it must reveal,
So keep your mouth shut and don't you say a word yah."

The singer's stern advice is to "keep your mouth shut" as someone will inevitably be around to hear what you say and spread false rumours about you. In this song, the proverbs "every secret it must reveal" (every secret must be revealed) and "bush have ears" are used to drive the singer's point home. "Know Yourself Mankind" (from the same album) lamented the political violence which was engulfing Jamaica then and was a plea for peace and naional unity ("This is 1976 : we don't want no more war").

In 1977, Virgin put out a twelve-inch single with two very good tunes, "Pocket Money" and "Evil Doers," which featured outstanding dub mixes and made the band very popular in England. "Pocket Money" illustrated the group's debt to the Jamaican oral tradition with the proverb "A good friend is better than pocket money" providing the main inspiration here.

The Gladiators' style, with its numerous references to folk wisdom, and the ample use it makes of proverbs and "parables" was in fact a throwback to a Mento-like approach to songwriting epitomised by the songs recorded by the Ethiopians and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes in the late 1960's.

They put that traditional approach to good use on their next album, appropriately entitled Proverbial Reggae (1978), which was released on the Virgin label in Europe. The LP featured liner notes by no other than the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who drew attention to the poetic nature of the group's lyrics. Johnson wrote that the group "combine the best of the Jamaican folk/oral tradition with the best in popular music. Their songs combine intelligent, poetic lyrics with majestic melodies, enchanting harmonies, producing inspired, entertaining, meaningful music." The album contained a new version of their Studio One single "Roots Natty," entitled "Dreadlocks The Time Is Now," and a driving, highly entertaining tune entitled "Stick A Bush," which demonstrated Grifftths' mastery of the Jamaican oral tradition. The song is based on the Jamaican proverb "Every hoe have dem stick a bush" ("Every hoe has their own thicket of bushes," found at Clinton Fearon, who was the band's bass player, contributed two songs ("Fly Away" and "Can You Imagine How I Feel?").

1979 saw the release of Naturality, an album that was characterised by a more sustained Rastafarian orientation (as indicated by the title), and more socially conscious lyrics (as in the rocking "Struggle"). The album also contained an inspired rendition of Bob Marley's "Exodus," with a more traditional accompaniment this time.

The Gladiators' success and international profile may have urged Clement "Coxsone" Dodd to release the group's first LP on the Studio One label, entitled Presenting The Gladiators. It was certainly a welcome, if late, recognition of the work the group had done for Studio One in the late 1960's and early to mid-1970's. Indeed, The Gladiators had had quite a few singles released on the Studio One label in the 1970's, and these singles had been a good illustration of the Mento roots of their music. Songs like "Fling It Gimme" (1969), "Sonia" (1972), and "Boy In Long Pants" were reminiscent of traditional Jamaican songs and showcased the group's rural origins. But The Gladiators were also one of the first bands at Studio One to sing about Rastafrian themes in songs like "Roots Natty" and "Bongo Red." Their Studio One twelve-inches like "Pretending," "Don't Fool The Young Girls," and "Happy" had also proved very popular with Jamaican communities in England at the time and had contributed to enhancing their profile. Their Studio One album was a clever blend of love songs ("Hello Carol"), American soul (their cover of Tony Joe White's "Rainy Night in Georgia"), Garveyite themes ("Jah Jah Go Before Us"), Rastafarian roots ("Roots Natty Roots"), and socially conscious lyrics ("Easy Squeeze," "Down Town Rebel") which nicely showcased the different facets of the group's talent.

Their next album for Virgin was entitled Sweet So Till and came out in 1979, concurrently with the Studio One LP ,which may have caused a glut of Gladiators material on the market. It featured tracks like "Let Jah Be Praised," "Red Gree nand Gold" and "A Day We A Go," which continued the approach established in their previous albums, and identified the group as a Rasta outfit in the Bob Marley tradition.

The 1980's found the group struggling to adapt to the changes sweeping through Jamaican music then. Their 1980 album, entitled The Gladiators, was their last album on the Virgin label, as poor sales led to the end of their contract with Richard Branson's label.

In 1982, they released Back To Roots on a French label (L'Escargot) which was indeed a return to form at a time when roots reggae was no longer fashionable in Jamaica and England. The new dancehall style was taking Jamaica by storm and all of a sudden roots reggae outfits like The Mighty Diamonds, Culture, and The Abyssinians were no longer in demand. Like so many other reggae bands, The Gladiators turned to Europe and to the USA to adapt to this massive change. The 1982 Back To Roots album was an attempt at continuing the roots reggae tradition, with tracks like "Marcus Garvey Time" (actually a reworking of their Studio One hit "Jah Jah Go Before Us"), "No Wrong Ideas," "Guts," and "The Rainbow."

The Gladiators then started a collaboration with the American Nighthawk label, founded by Robert Schoenfield, a blues and reggae enthusiast, and Leroy Pierson, who contributed many articles to the Beat magazine in the 1990's. The Nighthawk label had been set up to revive roots reggae and even keep it alive at a time when it was being seriously threatened. Schoenfield and Pierson went out of their way to record Jamaican harmony trios like The Itals or Justin Hinds and the Dominoes at Jamaican studios and took great care to maintain certain production values.

The Gladiators recorded three albums for that label between 1982 and 1984: Symbol of Reality (1982), Serious Thing (1984), and Full Time (1992), which came out a few years after the songs were recorded. These three albums sold extremely well in France, where a new generation of record-buyers was heavily into reggae, and led to extensive touring there. These albums did well in the USA too where The Gladiators were pretty much in demand and they contained a mixture of old Studio One songs done over in a more modern style, and new songs, with a few Marley covers thrown in.

In 1987, Clinton Fearon left the band to pursue a solo career and settled down in Seattle after the band's North American tour. He founded a band called The Defenders, and then another one called The Boogie Brown Band, and has continued to release albums and to tour to this day.

1991 saw the release of the Gladiators' Valley of Decision, an album that included a great remake of "Bongo Red," together with tracks like "Take Heed" and "Consciousness" which showed that Albert Griffiths could style write biting parables, as he had done in the 1970's.

In 1992, the band released A True Rastaman, and in 1994, an album entitled The Storm came out. By then, The Gladiators had practically been reduced to a solo act, but The Storm featured some outstanding tracks like "Cuss Cuss" and "Fools Rush In" and was graced by the musicianship of Errol Flabba Holt, Leroy Horsemouth Wallace, and Brian Silverman, the brilliant guitarist who toured with the band in the 1990's.

In 2000, the album entitled Something A Gwaan came out in France, and was given an American release one year later on the RAS label. It included both roots reggae tracks like the title track, and up-tempo, fast-paced tunes like "Head to My Toe" and "Hug Me Up."

The Gladiators continued to release albums and to tour until 2004, when Albert Griffiths announced that he was retiring from the music business, presumably for health reasons. He is said to be living in Saint Elizabeth parish. The band's last album (Fathers and Sons) as The Gladiators was released in 2004 and his son, Al Griffiths, was supposed to pick up the baton from his father and to continue his legacy.

Hopefully, The Gladiators' rich heritage of folk wisdom will be maintained and preserved by Albert Griffiths' band, and also by Clinton Fearon's own Boogie Brown Band which has been touring ceaselessly in Europe over the last few years.

Katz, David. Solid Foundation : An Oral History of Reggae. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae. Guinness Publishing : Enfield, 1994.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER