Hopeton Lewis passed away. What memories came back to you when you heard the news?
The first thing that comes to mind was the night that myself and my partner Mitch [Sam Mitchell] were riding home on a bus, going home and we thought of the arrangement for his first recording which was ‘Music Got Soul’ and we didn’t the arrangement at the back of a bus and so it turned out to be just great. The record was a hit record but there was more to come you know. Followed by ‘Sound and Pressure’. That one was another one also. But the biggest one to come was ‘Take It Easy’. That was recorded I thinking early 1967. You know that one put Hopeton on the map and put rocksteady music on the map also you know? That was the biggest thing man. As a matter of fact, the record that was number one at the time when ‘Take It Easy’ came out was Ken Boothe ‘Puppet On A String’ and ‘Take It Easy’ just kicked it off, off the charts (laughs) and we never saw that any more. ‘Take It Easy’ remained number one for two, maybe three months. You know quite a while?
Many people think that ‘Take It Easy’ was the first genuine rocksteady song. Do you agree with that firstly? Did you think it was different?
No ‘Take It Easy’ was not the first rocksteady song. It was one of three. The very first rocksteady song that comes to mind for me, and I won’t swear to this on my deathbed, but pretty close, was Roy Shirley ‘Hold Them’ for Joe Gibbs. That one was out there already and I think Alton Ellis ‘Rock Steady’ and ‘Take It Easy’. ‘Take It Easy’ is going to be your vying for the second place for rocksteady you know? But I’m almost sure that the Roy Shirley ‘Hold Them’ was number one.
What is your history in the record industry?
Federal Records had a basic modern, uncomfortable recording equipment. We had a pressing plant. We had a mastering plant. And we had the facility to print labels, plus the studio. Now the studio was at that time was A-1. A good engineer, proper equipment, everything. So, Federal Records was the place today in the early days right up to when Dodd got his first studio and West Indies Records [AKA WIRL] was there during the rocksteady time but Federal Records was the place. And that all changed around 1966 when WIRL had multitrack recording and everyone just about started drifting from federal to WIRL like Prince Buster, Sonia Pottinger, Leslie Kong and so on and Joe Gibbs they all left Federal and went to WIRL because WIRL had a new sound that the public loved you know? So things move really rapidly around the 1966 going out to about late 1968 when rocksteady was really hot and was bubbling up in Jamaica and on the charts you know? and the people love this music because rocksteady was so cool man. You didn’t have to be dancing and sweating the way you do to ska music you know? So it was just an awesome time and the groups they have done their homework man, they were much more smooth and tighter now and not only that, producers could listen to the backing track of music and vocals on a separate track and make your decision of how to go about stuff. So rocksteady was unique man and into this day is still very unique.
Hopeton Lewis and myself and my partner Mitch, whose name is on the label, and B.B. Seaton and Max Romeo, all of us, went to the same youth club. We had a youth club that that we used to attend after work you know or after school or whatever to attend. So all of us went to the same youth club and I think Maz Romeo may have been the first one to break away from the club and enter the music business, followed by Hopeton Lewis and that’s how Hopeton Lewis made his debut. Now Hopeton Lewis did not debut with us, he made it for Dodd. He used to be with a group called The Regals. I think the title of his first one was called ‘Shammy Back’ or ‘Shimmy Back’ or something like that. But when he hooked up with us, that put him on the map you know? So it’s a time I remember vividly. We do good things we did great things. Hopeton Lewis was like a one take kind of guy you know, considering he wasn’t that much of a professional yet. We go in the studio and we make a recording, most of the time everything was done in one take, two takes, but not more than three takes.
Are you a founder of Merritone? What was your role at Merritone?
Yes myself and my partner, well first of all, when we start putting records out it wasn’t on the Merritone label it was on the Federal label. ‘Music Got Soul’, ‘Sounds and Pressure’ originally appeared on the Federal label. ‘Music Got Soul’ sold very, very well, but there were other artists on the session and their records didn’t do too well on the Federal label so we decided the public didn’t know or was not attracted to the label Federal. So there was a sound system operator called Merritone, his name was Winston Blake, he owned the Merritone label. So we got in touch with him and we kinda signed a contract with him to lease his name because he was very popular with the uptown crowd you know at that time. So we leased his name to get the Merritone Records going and it worked man. The first record we put on the Merritone label tore up the charts man and after that just was no turning back, not only for Hopeton Lewis, but for the Ethiopians you know and whomever else you see on the Merritone label. And myself and my partner we were the ones that ran those recording sessions at Federal Records with great envy to the other producers because there were so many hit records on the Merritone label and people want to know why we were giving Federal always hit records, we should be producing for ourselves but that’s another story.
When you hear a Merritone recording, it’s so much brighter and clearer than even anything that Dodd was doing or Duke Reid. What do you put that down to?
First of all the recording studio and the producers, meaning myself and my friend Mitch, we were very young, we knew nothing about music, but we knew what the public would react to. So when we go into the studio and record tracks, myself especially, the first thing that would come to mind, okay I can just see the woman in the dancefloor "whining up their bodyline" to this bassline and whatever else. So we say to the bassie, “I want this bassline to be a walking bass and we want this to be a bubbling bass”. Then we go to Lynn Taitt, “we want a sharp ska riff on this one”. Just little tidbits and ideas that we put into these things that worked enormously well you know? You listen to the Merritone stuff, man they’re all completely different from Studio One, Treasure Isle, Randys, Leslie Kong, Joe Gibbs, all those producers. Merritone music stand-up completely different and one of the reasons for that was we had a studio, time was not a factor. Whereas with the other producers, other than Dodd and Duke Reid, you had to lease the studio and so studio time counts. So when they go in the studio, they are rushing like crazy to get as many tracks recorded, you know, because the studio time was not cheap at the time. So with us at Federal because Ken Khoury owned the studio, we have all the time to take to make things right. That is one of the main reasons that the Merritone recordings they stand out so differently.
Can you tell us a bit about what Hopeton Lewis was like as a person?
Hopeton liked to drink you know not too diss him now because he’s not with us anymore, but we all like to drink. Myself and my partner Mitch we drink but controllable, but some people when they get together and good times, but they just drink, drink without stopping and not realise that drinking that much can damage your liver you know? So over a period of time I think that took its toll on Hopeton Lewis. You think you’re on the top of the world, especially when you’re a singer getting all the attention with women flocking around you and whatever, so looking back now that kind of its toll on Hopeton. The drinking was a major factor.
We would sit back after a recording session, we would stop at a bar or we would go home and we would sit on the porch and we would you know elaborate on what we recorded that day, even the day before and we would do some comparison and Hopeton Lewis would say, “you know Keith that idea you came up with for the drum track or talking to Lynn Taitt”. The piano arrangement for ‘Sounds and Pressure’, and that by the way was recorded using a grand piano, I think it may have been a Steinway, I’m not sure. Federal records had just acquired this Steinway in ’66. So, you know, we would sit down and talk about the tracks, we would pat ourselves on the back and say, you know, we were youths who nothing about music, but we were really very smart in the know-how of what the people, the public, would react to in the record shop and the chart and it worked and so it was just green light after that going forward and Hopeton Lewis just came through with it after hit after yet after that.