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'Liquidator' seeps through catalogue of covers

Published:Sunday | August 10, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Delroy Wilson - File
Alton Ellis - File
Johnny Cash
Music producer Harry J Johnson (centre) with actress Rita Jenrette (left) and Sheila Hylton at the Harry J Recording Studio in 1983. - File

The 1972 gospel-based recording I'll Take You There by The Staple Singers soared to the top of the American Billboard charts that year. It triggered a protest by Jamaican record producer Harry Johnson, now deceased, who claimed the song's introduction was lifted from his instrumental The Liquidator. It was an unusual break in the accustomed pattern of Jamaicans covering foreign recordings.

While there is no denying that the large majority of early Jamaican recordings were original compositions, a significant portion were either copied directly or modified from other songs. In 1964, trombonist extraordinaire Don Drummond modified Johnny Cash's country and western hit Ring of Fire to create the lasting ska instrumental Occupation. The Mexican horns that infiltrated Ring of Fire (something previously unheard of in country and western music) must have inspired Drummond.

Clement 'Sir Coxson' Dodd, owner of the musical enclave Studio 1 and who produced Occupation, employed the practice of covering foreign songs heavily. Many of his early productions by artistes like The Wailers, Delroy Wilson and Ken Boothe were covers, the singers given lyrics to rehearse for recording sessions. Singer Ken Boothe told me in an interview that "He sent me into the studios first to do soul songs. It's like him have good ears. When the whole of us were there, I remember he would bring The Impressions for The Wailers, Lou Rawls for Delroy and he would bring like Jackie Wilson for me. It's like him know which adapted song is suited for each person."

American groups The Tams, The Temptations and The Impressions provided the main ammunition that propelled many Jamaican artistes. Dancing Mood and Riding For a Fall were two Tams' recordings Wilson covered and topped the Jamaican charts in the 1960s. The Tams gave Derrick Harriott three number one songs during the mid to late 1960s, namely, Do I Worry, Close To Me and You Might As Well Forget Him, which Harriott renamed Walk The Streets. The Tams, an R&B group formed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1960, enjoyed chart success in Jamaica with What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am) and Hey Girl Don't Bother Me in 1964.

Alton Ellis had several American covers, including Lou Rawls' Ain't That Lovin You (For More Reasons Than One); You've Made Me So Very Happy by Blood, Sweat and Tears; My Willow Tree, made popular by Chuck Jackson; Let 'em Try, a 1961 ballad by Roscoe Gordon; and Ben E. King's So Much Love, which says in part:

"In the midst of all my darkness baby,

You came along to guide me.

You took pity on a lonely man

When you said you'd stand beside me"

The Wailers lifted words from the Impressions' People Get Ready for the Studio 1 ska anthem One Love, following up with Another Dance and Keep on Moving. John Holt had two powerful cover pieces courtesy of Motown - I Want a Love I Can See by The Temptations and Left With a Broken Heart by The Four Tops in 1964. Then in 1969, Dennis Brown covered the Van Dykes' No Man Is An Island, his first recording and the hit that launched his career.

In 1974, Ken Boothe modified the 1972 David Gates composition Everything I Own, sung by Bread, to register a number one hit on the UK charts. Drawing heavily from The Drifters and Marvin Gaye/Mary Wells hits Feel Good All Over and Once Upon a Time, respectively, Delroy Wilson rode high on the charts with the rocksteady beat. Rocksteady also infused cover versions of You Don't Care and Minstrel and Queen (Queen Majesty) by The Techniques. The Temptations' Born To Love You was successfully covered by Slim Smith, Derrick Harriott and The Sensations, while Phyllis Dillon and Errol Dunkley proved how well Jamaicans can handle foreign songs with their interpretation of Barbara Lynn's You're Gonna Need Me.


But when The Staple Singers recorded I'll Take You There it was a game changer. Johnson, producer and self-acclaimed author of the 1969 instrumental Liquidator by the Harry J All Stars, swore that the opening lines of I'll Take You There were stolen from his song. Liquidator went to number nine on the British charts. Shortly after, Johnson said, he was visited by Al Jackson, who became the drummer in the band Booker T and the MG's, which played on I'll Take You There.

According to Johnson, "He heard the song, liked it, and asked me for a copy, but I had no idea what would happen after that." It wasn't long after Jackson's return to the US that he began working with the Booker T and the MG's and The Staple Singers. One of their first recordings was I'll Take You There. Johnson said he had sought legal advice for compensation for the alleged illegal use of his rhythm, but it proved futile.

However, the bombshell was dropped when Alton Ellis claimed that they were offspring of his early 1960s recording Girl I've Got A Date.