March 2nd, 2014- NORRIS REGAL ‘STRUGGLE” 12” REISSUE ! Yes, finally, it’s out! Ask your local shop about it… Thanks again for the support!
Worldwide distribution by Control Tower records: email@example.com
March 2nd, 2014- NORRIS REGAL ‘STRUGGLE” 12” REISSUE ! Yes, finally, it’s out! Ask your local shop about it… Thanks again for the support!
Of course, it would have been too easy: trying to contact the mastermind behind Regal Music Center led to a dead end, and “my” Regal had nothing to do with “this” Regal. Back to square one, and on to the next thing I knew about this record: its label, Sirron Music.
What could “Sirron” mean? I didn’t recall ever hearing of any other tune coming out on it, so it didn’t take a specifically seasoned detective to assume that Struggle was a self-production, by owner of said Sirron imprint. Easy, logical.
Could it be a Sir Ron, perhaps? You know, I was imagining a sound system owner in the great tradition of all the “Sirs” in the UK -such as Sir Coxsone, or Sir Fanso The Tropical Downbeat, at the turntables of whom a youthful Fatman once got his start.
Anyway, call me lazy, but I wasn’t ready, at all, to try and remember, nor track down, all the sounds that bore the honorific title in the UK–I might still be looking today.
These initial possibilities soon abandoned, I turned to the almost inevitable Youtube videos in hopes to find any name associated to this 12″. My only prayers were the usual “please, please, please, make it that it’s not all ‘John Smithes’ on there, and that any ‘uncommon-enough-to-be-searchable name is readable, or that the spinning record pauses at some point, for a long enough time.” Thank God, this video by a certain “Rocksteadymartini” showed just a photo of the record.
Under the singer’s name, what looked like a producer’s name appeared. “N.McKenzie.” Norris McKenzie, I imagined. That was it. Not much, but now at least, I had a name.
The real fun could begin.
After a quick Google search, that assured me there was only one Norris McKenzie in the UK -without giving me any contact info, thanks for nothing!- the second page of searches led me to a potentially interesting link: over at the Anglo-Carribean Domino League, the Assistant Chair’s name was Norris McKenzie. On his photo on the site, the smiling gentleman in a tie looked like he was in the right age range -somebody who could have very much sang a tune in 1983.
Why not? It’s at this point usually that any tip is worth pursuing, and, after all, nothing would ever beat the awkardness of getting hung up on by Zen Bow’s ex-wife. And so I clicked the “Contact Us” form, heart beating, with this nervous feeling of anticipation -wondering where to start not to sound like some crazily random French person. Which you kind of are to launch into reissuing 30-year old obscure 12″s anyway. But, oh well. I started typing:
It might sound strange, but my name is Seb Carayol, and I’m trying to reach Mr. Norris McKenzie (Asst. Chair) regarding his possible involvement in the music scene in the mid-’80s I believe -the only way I found to reach out was through your club…
Etc, etc, and so forth. Let’s see how that goes…
(Continued on pt. III)
People had warned me. Beware of the siren’s song, they said. Take heed, for once you reissued one record, you might develop a strange addiction: you will start lists (I had one going on, for a then-imaginary label, for years before I did the Zen Bow, btw), they prophesied, you will fevereshly spend hours on the web squinting at undecipherable names off decades-old record labels spinning on Youtube…
Well, guess what ? They all were right.
After the unexpected gift from the great Zenbar Bennett asking me to put take Impression for a fresh spin by sending me, dead sea scrolls-style, his original master tapes, the amazing adventure it was and the tremendous welcome the reissue got, I just knew that this first project was all but be the last one.
And so, here I come again-but which one would be next?
High on my list was one amazing 12″ I had heard a few times off Jah Shaka tapes from the beginning-mid ’80s. Not a typical “end of night” steppers tune, but one of these subtle heavyweight, one-away slow tracks that make it clear that the dance is started.
And every time, Struggle got me.
Past what I identified as typical UK-style intro, Norris Regal’s almost murmur was magnified by a majestic horns line, only to be followed by the most moving, heart-dropping female backing vocal chorus: “Oh, we a Struggle, oohh-ohh”. You could feel that a lot of heart went into penning this. This track was obviously NOT a rush job by a prolific mic mercenary. It was crafted to perfection, the mixing was impeccable.
Should it be the next one? Of course. Plus, it made sense for me to go and give back to the UK roots scene -after all, it gave me so much when I was writing my “UK scene” section in Natty Dread mag… it only felt normal.
Adding to the already heavy mystique of the tune itself was the fact that Norris Regal fully disappeared from all the radars after this debut tour de force. After a quick check with the usual suspects within the London scene, it became apparent that nobody had had any news since, let alone ever seen him in person at the time, or even knew where he might have been from or about. Full-blown, Sugarman-style mystery (minus the “star in South Africa part,” I reckon). The man came, sang, and vanished away for ever.
Anyway. Some time in the Fall of 2012, I innocently opened my “fantasy reissue list” Word doc. Norris Regal: Struggle – no other tune known. Check if UK, my notes only said. “Regal, Regal…” What an unusual stage name, I thought. Not unknown, though: during my London adventures, I did cross a few times a legend of sorts in the reggae fraternity, somebody who’d go by the name “Regal”: Regal Music Center, run by a certain Ossie… I had his number off an old flyer he gave me in 2006. Let’s call him and see if his “Regal” had anything to do with the Norris in question…
The train below had to stop some day, right? It did, in the most random place. This is where I ended up finding the singer/producer of the next 12″ put out by Reel-Heavy Music– deh yah, in Rugby (the city), aka the birthplace of rugby (the sport). A very interesting path for a top tune, and an actual Shaka classic from the early ’80s… Be back with more info soon!
Pardon our French, but there’s a really nice article summing up perfectly the whole Impression adventure on the Reagge France website -as stated, it’s all in français, though. Article to be found on this link.
Thanks, Seb Jobart!
The end of a long, interesting and just overall great journey, period: Reel-Heavy Music’s first reissue, Impression, is reaching shops worldwide by the end of the week! Goes like this:
A Side :
Impression (clean instrumental) -Never-heard before cut! Sorry collectors, but you might have to get this one too, ha!
AA Side :
Impression (dub mix)
Wholesale: This record is available through Control Tower Distribution : dub@controltower.Fr
A few samples… Play them loud!
As the Impression reissue should hit the shops within a week or two, here’s Zen Bow’s interview regarding his childhood in Jamaica, his musical experiences and, well, how he got that name… Enjoy!
Zenbar, where are you from in Jamaica?
ZB : I grew up in Falmouth, parish of Trelawny, Jamaica.
Same place than the Twinkle Brothers…
Exactly. We’re from the same block. I used to listen to them, Ralston, Norman… But they were older than us.
Were you already singing as a youth?
I was singing back in Jamaica among a group called Righteous Roots, small local band. But then moved to the US in my early twenties and did I some work -then I went back into the singing.
Why did you pick Zen Bow for a name? I thought that was after the book Zen Bow, Zen Arrow.
OK. Zen Bow was given me by my teacher. I used to love writing, I love to write. I had a pen pal back in Jamaica that instead of putting ‘Zenbar’ on his envelopes, he put ‘Zenbow’, so my class started calling me Zen Bow.
So how did Zen Bow got his break in the reggae scene in the US?
First thing I did in 1985 was to attend a talent shows where I lived, in Hartford CT. It was for reggae artists in town, I can’t remember exactly its name, it wasn’t broadcast. It was just a little thing to bring out the artists in Hartford. It was more of a talent search. I came second but caught the ear of the people in that band called Crucial, and they asked me to join. At first I said, “not really”’cause I didn’t want to take away the leadership of the band. But I went listen to them and I liked what I heard, and they liked what they heard from me.
So I joined, and we started to play around, you know, in places like in NYC, Rhode Island, Boston, year round. Jimmy Swing played lead guitar. There was a big bass player called Jimmy Rankin, “Big Bassie”. And you have Snow White on drums. We didn’t do no recording. We did live shows, that was they used to do before, cover songs, but since I joined the band, I always do the writing so I’d bring forward new material to the band.
So Impression was pretty much the first tune you recorded?
Yes. Now this song was inspired by an incident that took place in Hartford on a Sunday afternoon. Something went down and they started to say, you know, ‘rastaman did that, and Jamaicans did that’, and so, it kind of put a damper on the surrounding of dreadlocks and Jamaicans. So I became aware of the impression that we’re bad. And that was all how the song came about. It was an incident that I don’t wanna talk about -a shooting incident. Certain people did it and certain group of people did it. That was it so I decided to pen it into a song.
You recorded its instrumental with Crucial?
Yeah they’re the same band, Crucial.
And then you called your label Gramps, why is that?
Gramps was the lead singer for the group I was in back in Jamaica, Righteous Roots. His real name is David Robinson, he has a band in Milwaukee now called Road Damage. So for me to pay him tribute, I used his name, Gramps.
The other recorded tune of yours I know is Black and Beautiful with King Culture.
King Culture, yeah ! Someone told me about him for distribution in Canada. We spoke on the phone and we did some transaction and he distributed for me, then he proposed me to record, but I did my own production on this one too. I did another tune called Auction Block, but that didn’t go nowhere. That tune is saying that I’ve seen my stock rise and I’ve seen my stock fall cause I was a slave. And in America it seemed like I was controlled by a remote. I released it but it didn’t go nowhere. And I just did it for myself. I mean it came out but it didn’t go nowhere, I sold maybe 100 copies of it.
How many copies of Impression did you press?
I mean, over a thousand only. Cause it was underground, independent.
Did you stop producing after that?
No, I was still producing but for myself. Cause it takes money. Not time, cause I had time but I didn’t have the money. At that time when my kind of songs was coming out, people weren’t that much into the culture rasta music, they were more in the punaany business. So I kind of got stuck in mid-stream. Mid-80s was a different kind of music coming about.
What have you been up to these days?
Well after my divorce, I moved to Atlanta in about 2006. I do work for a Japanese company. I still sing, and I would love to come up with something new pretty soon.
To contact Zen Bow for dubplates, recording or shows, please visit his Facebook page
Where were we? Sorry, it took me a minute to get to this one… Ah, yes : John Stroher at Penguin recording. Had the tape machine not been defective at the first studio I went to, I would have probably regretted it, as nobody seemed to have used it for a while…
The second I met John Stroher, though, I knew. For once, all the meager research I had been able to gather about the art of tape restoring sounded more than familiar to his ears: he was an expert at it. Restoring reels, to John, is far from being the annoying chore performed on outdated, space-consuming machinery it seemed to be for the other studios : it’s his life. That’s what he has always done -he even came up, after many years of meticulous trial-and-error procedures, with his own secret to baking the reels so they deliver their well-kept secrets in an optimal way (takes two days, but they’re worth it). Once I pushed the door of his Japanese-Zen-style home in the heart of LA’s tough area called Highland Park, I knew I had arrived. Impression‘s journey was reaching its end. What finished convincing me was the half-dozen reel tapes piled up on his desk (sorry for being a looky-loo… Remember I’m a journalist, right?) : vintage Motown reels, late 80s Def jam ones, all waiting to be resurrected.
The next few days felt like a dream. Before you go through this process, you have no clue how raw the straight studio recording sounds, pre-mix. I got really worried. That made the dudes laugh, a little bit. They tried to reassure me, sounding almost like, I don’t know, obstetricians talking to a chain-smoking dad-to-be at the maternity? “It’s OK, Seb. The tape’s in excellent shape, it was well-stored and taken care of.” Maybe, but why is that keyboard line running through the WHOLE tune? Why is it sounding so messy? Why is Zen Bow’s voice so loud? Why this and that?
I did underestimate the power of two pairs of classically-trained ears, I suppose. Two days later, John and Chris Doremus had done it. The vocal, the dub, one surprise cut. In the end, Impression sounded exactly like it did right before Zen Bow shipped it to the pressing plant in 1986.
This saga could go on and on, next came the whole adventure consistng of finding a pressing plant, distributors. But, hey, this is not Business Weekly over here, right? And there are more intersting things to post. For instance, as the Impression reissue will ship in two weeks, I thought it’d be nice if next posts were Zen Bow’s and Linell’s self-biography. so, that is coming. Hold tight!
Second-to-last part (I promise!) of the Impression reissue saga…
It only took one sentence in our conversation to flip the script –or at least take it to an unexpected place.
When Zenbar asked me if I had a copy of Impression, I had to admit I never did, my obsession for this particular 12’’ being based on hearing it once at a dance, and a million times off the two same videos on Youtube. « I’ll get you some sent, » he promised. To which I felt free to note: « You really should consider reissuing that tune… It goes for crazy money on Ebay, and you see none of it. » He kept silent for a sec, and nodded, I imagine. “Yeah, that’s a good idea”… The next day, Zen’s childhood friend Linell Hilton was emailing me, asking for my address. Two weeks later, a package showed up at my door. It was unusually big for just containing a couple 12’’, I thought. And heavy, too.
Linell had done it: following Zen Bow’s instructions from Atlanta, he had gone to Zen’s ex-wife’s place (Linell still lives in CT) and after a reportedly heated negociation process, had found the records to send me, on the same shelf in Zen’s former living room than where he put them 25 years ago.
But wait, there was more… When I opened the package, I understood what was anchoring it : besides a few brand new copies of Impression, and a couple of Zen Bow’s other 12’’ (Big, Black and Beautiful, King Culture label), it contained a 2-inch reel tape. The. Original. Impression. Tape. Wow.
I called Linell. « Zen told me to send it to you, so I just did, » he confessed. May next phone call was to Zen.
– « Well big man, you said it should be reissued, right ? » Zenbar laughed, amused by my puzzlement.
– « Well, yeah, but… by you ? »
-« If you found me all the way from France and knew that song, I thought you wanted to do it yourself, » he continued. « Do what you gotta do. Keep on trucking, Sebastien ! »
At this point, it was really hard not to see it as a sign. The sign. The one that pushes you on the other side of the line, the one that parts the fantasy reissue label you’ve been dreaming of for years, and the reality of daring to make it happen.
How to follow up, once you manage to pass the initial shock, and honor, of such a gift?
It took me a minute to learn the process. It might be common knowledge amongst studio people, but there are basic things I didn’t know. Such as : did you know a 2-inch reel has to be baked before being legible again ? I sure didn’t. And finding a proper baking machine in Southern California in 2011 wasn’t the easiest of the processes. I even ended up calling Ampex’s headquarters to help me find one –I know, I should have searched on Facebook, rah rah rah. Ampex still had a « baker » dude on file in the Bay Area, a legend of sorts who happened to not really know -or really care at all, let’s be fair- what he was doing (long story).
When I brought the baked tape to the studio I had found in the LA area, their reel machine, I got informed as I reached, just crashed the night before, we-re-so-sorry-but-it’s-gonna-take-months-before-we-get-it-fixed. Back to square one, once again. As I was going to wonder if «the sign» was maybe one of doom, finally something good happened out of the mishap. The people at this studio knew of somebody specializing in tape restoration and transfers. A real man of passion for this kind of thing, who charged decent rates. “He works with Motown, vintage Def jam rissues, has amazing ears and equipment,” they said. That was the sun ray I had hoped for. And that’s how I met John Stroher at Penguin Studios…
(Continued in Part V aka “the last episode”. Stay tuned!)