Winston Riley: Don’t Sweat the Techniques
Behind the Shades, the Techniques, and countless other reggae acts, there was Winston Riley
by David Katz
One of the true survivors of Jamaica’s notoriously cutthroat music scene, Winston Riley has been a consistently forceful element of that island’s music production sphere for more than forty years. Although he was one of the producers who helped give birth to reggae in the late 1960s, he remained untroubled by the dramatic changes that swept Jamaican music during the computerization phase of the mid-1980s, and continued to be an important production force in the years that followed. He has remained involved in Kingston’s general musical landscape and although his record shop and recording studio were recently destroyed by fire, Riley is rebuilding the premises and expanding the space to include an on-site music museum.
Riley is an amiable person whose natural love for the music and keen business instincts form the overriding aspects of his personality. He says that music was something he became involved with early, not only through an obsession with vocal harmony but as a means to escape the poverty of the ghetto. “I grow up in West Kingston,” says Riley. “That is in the ghetto here between Milk Lane and North Street, and in Tivoli Gardens and them place there. I used to sing in singing contests with Vere Johns’s Opportunity Hour and sing on many school concerts at Kingston Senior School. Then we have a concert in the street in our area. Sing on the street and all type of things.”
Riley says the first turning point in his career came around 1964, when he joined a band based out of a youth club opened by future Prime Minister Edward Seaga. “Edward Seaga come to West Kingston and form a club named the Victors, and I come and join the band,” says Riley. “That was based on Wellington Street in West Kingston, nearby Tivoli Gardens. I was in that band as a singer and a bass player, with Slim Smith, Frederick Waite, Franklyn White, and the Richards Brothers. Through the youth club I get to know Alton Ellis, Marcia Griffiths, Stranger Cole, Ken Boothe, and many other singers because we always go on concerts and back them up.”
The Victors band spent time at Chocomo Lawn, the important sound system venue located in the heart of West Kingston. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, it was a focal point for musical activity in the surrounding districts, and Seaga bought the property because he realized its strategic importance; after taking over the building, he used it as a place where his constituents could air grievances to him during the day. In addition to the singers noted above, a number of other vocalists got their start with the Victors, including Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, and Toots Hibbert.
After the departure of the Richards Brothers, the Victors evolved into the Techniques, one of the most important harmony groups in the history of Jamaican popular music. The group formed just in time to be recorded by soul singer Major Lance, who was visiting Jamaica in an attempt to capitalize on the U.S. ska craze. “Our first recording was at Federal Records with Major Lance, and that song was called ‘No One,’” recalls Riley. “Major Lance record the whole group. We get the musicians together but we were just the singers.”
“No One” was included on The Real Jamaica Ska album and released in the U.S. on Epic, but the LP was not particularly successful stateside, despite being endorsed by Curtis Mayfield. “No One” seems to have never been issued in Jamaica, though it may have spun on select sound systems for a time. To achieve greater recognition at home, the group needed to try something new. “Ken Boothe and Stranger Cole carry we to Duke Reid,” remembers Riley. “Then the first recording we did for Duke Reid was ‘Little Did You Know,’ and that was a number one hit.”
The Techniques soon emerged as one of the defining vocal harmony groups of the rocksteady era, but not before significant changes to its membership that saw Riley become the group’s manager and producer. Part of the problem was that Slim Smith had a tendency towards emotional instability, and after he gravitated towards the Rastafari faith he began smoking copious amounts of marijuana. Franklyn White also left, along with Frederick Waite, the latter later migrating to Britain. But during the mid-1960s, despite its ever-changing roster, the Techniques could do no wrong, as each new member to join the group brought significant hits. “Slim and Franklyn White leave the group, then we bring in different persons, like me and Junior Menz sing ‘My Girl’ and a couple more tunes,” says Riley. “Then when Junior Menz leave, we bring in Pat Kelly. So Pat Kelly sing ‘In the Mood for Love,’ ‘You Don’t Care,’ ‘It’s You I Love,’ and a couple other tunes.”
Towards the end of the 1960s, as the rocksteady style was giving way to the startling new sounds of reggae, Riley says his decision to launch himself as a producer met with resistance from the Techniques, forcing him to issue his first productions under the moniker ‘the Shades.’ “I decide to launch on my own, decide to make a move, and I say, ‘Let us get together and do some things for ourselves,’” says Riley. “But everybody refuse. Nobody would help me. So I just start my own thing, because I was the writer for the group at that time and I was the leader of the group. I give the name and everything. I start recording and the first song I did for myself was a tune named, ‘Who You Gonna Run To?’ And that was a big hit in Jamaica. A huge hit but we did it as the Shades, with another member of the group, Bruce Ruffin. Then the first one we did as the Techniques, we did a tune called ‘Place Called Love,’ and it was a big hit also. At that time I was operating from my house on West Street. Then we had another big success, ‘Come Back Darling,’ with Johnny Osbourne. That was one of my biggest hits in Jamaica. He was also around in the neighborhood and I do background vocal in that tune, too.”
At the dawn of the 1970s, Riley entered another league with Dave Barker and Ansell Collins’s international smash hit, “Double Barrel,” and was able to open his own record shop with the proceeds. Collins later provided Riley with an unexpected Jamaican hit in the form of the instrumental “Stalag 17,” which became a platform for further hits by Big Youth and others. “Him was a favorite piano man,” says Riley of Ansel Collins, “because him used to play with the Upsetters. And from a man have this pattern, I always use them. My brother Buster was involved with ‘Double Barrel’ too, but I was the main person. Give them the idea and everything. And my brother was really a singer—he sing with the Sensations and really teach the Sensations harmony.’
Later in the ’70s, Riley scored a series of influential hits with singers and deejays like Alton Ellis, Jackie Paris, and the Viceroys. In the latter part of the decade, he was based at the Channel One studio, using the cream of Jamaica’s crop of session musicians for a band called the Mercenaries. “I used to use [saxophonists] Tommy McCook, Herman Marquis, and Deadley Headley, [trumpeter] Bobby Ellis, and sometimes [trombonist] Trommy,” says Riley. “And I usually use Soljie as my mixer. Sly and Robbie play a lot for me, too.” The Mercenaries’ music can be heard to greatest effect on dub albums like Meditation Dub, Vol. 1, Meditation Dub, Vol. 2, and the rare .357 Magnum Dub.
Riley went on to achieve greater glory with the emergence of dancehall in the early 1980s, with hits like Carlton Livingston’s “You Make Your Mistake” and Lone Ranger’s “Rosemarie.” Further takes on “Stalag” were also issued by DJs like Sister Nancy, General Echo, and Tenor Saw.
“Echo used to operate a sound in Allman Town, and through the sound we get linked, and ‘Arlene’ was a number one record,” Riley recalls. “From you’s a producer, and have success as a producer, you always have a lot of people around you. People come about. That’s the way you find them. Them come around you. As soon as you have a hit, you have a lot of people come around. And you find if it’s suitable having them.”
When dancehall went digital, Riley scored even bigger hits, usually with the rhythm kings Steelie and Clevie, though he is at pains to point out that his creations in this era were only part-digital. “Those times it wasn’t really fully computers,” says Riley, “because I mostly use acoustics too, with live drums. All them tunes is pure acoustics, and even when it was computer, I use live instruments, too. It’s just since the mid-1990s that you have the computers alone.”
In the 1990s, Riley scored hits with Tony Rebel and Tony Curtis, and helped launch the careers of upcoming artists like Bushman. Though his output has slowed over the last decade, Riley emphasizes that he sees his career as a positive progression. “Every tune was a hit,” Riley says with a laugh. “Red Dragon’s ‘Hol’ a Fresh,’ ‘Boops’ with Super Cat, Pinchers’ ‘Agony.’ And you have Sanchez with ‘Loneliness,’ Admiral Tibet’s ‘Leave People Business.’ I was making a lot of hits at that time because I just dedicate myself to the music business—not making no money, but you just dedicate because you love it. If I was a person who was really looking for money at that time, I wouldn’t reach where I reach now. I just know that I’m reaping success off it because the money was coming in. But not really coming, and the money was going as it comes. But I was in production every day and writing and singing so much tunes. It was just fantastic.”
That Riley is rebuilding the Techniques base, complete with museum, is a testament to his dedication to furthering the music, and is in keeping with his broader ambitions to regenerate downtown Kingston’s musical world. Whether he will return to music production remains to be seen, but if the past is anything to go by, chances are we still have more to look forward to from Mr. Riley.
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