Norris Regal interview – Pt. I : a scientific struggle

March 23, 2014

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Seb Carayol: I was hoping you’d be the right person when I email Anita Witter at the Domino League. Could have been a strange request.
Norris Regal: Well, she contacted me, and asked me if I used to do music business in the ’80s. I said, “How do you know that?” Nobody knew. She said some that guy had been asking if I was the same Norris McKenzie that used to be in the music business in the ’80s. I said “yes, that’s correct.”

When you did that song, was it your first and only song you put out?
Yes. The only one put out on official release. I did some other recordings but they were what we used to call dubplates. I knew a few sound systems and I did them for them in hopes to get a bit of recognition.

Were you in Birmingham back then?
Yes. Birmingham and in Rugby, ’cause I moved to Rugby. There was a sound called Leviticus, named after the book in the Bible, a sound called Champagne, I did some dubplates and some demos for them, really.

Did you start singing from a young age, or?
I used to go around with around system back in the day. You always needed someone to hold the microphone, someone to do the mixing, someone to do the selecting of music, and so I always used to be the one doing the microphone. The sound system was called Scientist, that was in Birmingham.

Was it related to the producer calling himself “Scientist UK”?
No, no. The guy you are thinking of is a producer, this was more of a young street level sound, should we say.

Were you born in the UK?
Yes, North London. Then I moved to Birmingham as a ten year old. Coming from a Jamaican background, obviously music is part of our culture, so there’s quite a strong connection to the original ska music, reggae music. By that time in the 80s naturally there was a mixture of Jamaican roots music, shall we say, and the English roots music starting to come out on the scene. You had bands like Aswad, Matumbi and Cimarons, Steel Pulse. All those bands because the elements of the roots music was really to talk about what’s happening at the time, and obviously the Jamaican roots music was to talk about what’s happening in Jamaica, so you found that a lot of English bands wanted to relate to what’s happening in England.

When was the first time you grabbed a mic with Scientist?
When I was a teenager. I couldn’t tell exactly what age, I was probably 16, 17. In those days, someone would hire a church hall, and you could string up your sound system and play till about 11 o clock at night. Teenage dances. Big sounds back in the day you had Coxsone, Quaker City, Mafia Tone, all those sounds –obviously we wanted to emulate them but on a smaller scale. That would be middle 70s -76, 77

Were you playing a lot of blues parties then?
Yeah, a few. But the more recognized sounds, they get those regular bookings. The small sounds, what you try to do is try to make a name so you have your competitions against other smaller sounds. You needed to have a mixture of everything, a good selector, someone who’s good at mixing, and someone who’s good at the microphone. Those days, they call it modern day rap but you have to do a lot of talking, sometimes over the dub sides of the records. So at school, I used to do a lot of poetry. So I found taking over the mic fairly easy cause sometimes you can recite some of your poetry.

 Who were the selectors and mixers on this sound?
Oh gosh! Now you are testing me! I can’t remember some of the names to be honest. It’s been a while, you see?

Were you deejaying, or kind of singing in the same style you sing on Struggle?
I used to do more deejaying to be honest -the singing was more by chance. One day the selector put on some music, but there weren’t really heavy roots music, and it was more appropriate for singing. So I tried to sing rather than deejay, I found out that they could mix my voice quite good, and it didn’t sound too bad, that sort of made me think I could sing a bit.

What were some styles played? All reggae selection or some soul in the mix too?
It was mostly always reggae. With soul at the time you really didn’t need to do any rapping or so, because the beat was different, it was probably faster. So with the old style of reggae music, the beat was more steady, and slow, you could speed it up either with the mix or the type of deejaying you’d do. By riding the rhythm, people would know how to dance to the tunes because you’d find out they move more to your lyrics or the drum and bass.

What were some of your favorite versions to ride back in these days?
One of the songs that comes back to memory it was a song called Hard Not To Love You I think it was called, and I changed it up to Go Back Home to Zion.

Oh, you were doing roots and culture back then?
Yeah. If I’m honest, that was what I was into at the time. In the ’70s as a teenager, there was a lot happening in England and they came out with these things called “Sus laws” so you found that if you went out to parties and blues and you are coming back late at night, police sometimes would stop you, they had the right to search you on the spot. “Sus” was for “suspect”. Because of that, a high percentage of Black teenagers would be stopped on these Sus Laws.

It must have been pretty heavy in the UK in these times, right?
Well it always is, isn’t it? Especially when you are the minority. It might be the same for anyone. But you can only talk about your own circumstances really. I mean, we used to watch things on the television about in America and they used to go through some serious things you know, but we had our own problems over here I must admit, I’m sure France was about the same.

From there, deejaying that sound, what kind of dubplates did you record, and for who?
Those were just really for the sound, they were really basic. The lyrics would have more to do with the sound system to say your sound was better that the other. But it was good practice, teaching yourself about the trade. That’s how you learn.

From there, how did Struggle happen?
I went to a singing competition, a local one in Birmingham. And I got through to the semi-final. I won the heat, went to the semi-final. I can’t remember exactly, but I didn’t go to the final anyway. But I met some of the judges, and I don’t know if you remember a singer called Carol Thompson?

 Yeah, she wrote that song Babylon Walls for Delroy Pinnock, yeah?
Yeah! One of its producers was one of the judges, so I took the liberty of doing a tape cassette with a couple of tracks on, of me singing over the sound system, and when I went to the final I managed to talk to this producer guy, and said to him, look, I’ve got this tape, and I’d appreciate if you could quickly listen to some of it, and tell me what you think and so on. We were behind stage and found a cassette player, and we played some of it and he said to me, ‘who’s the guy singing?’ And I said, “Actually, it’s me.” He said, “why didn’t come into the singing competition? Why aren’t you here in the final?” I said I got knocked out in the semi-final –there’s a little story to that.

But anyway, h asked if I had more songs. I fast forwarded to another song. He said, “who’s singing this?” I said, “it’s me again.” He added that I would have won the contest but I told him that at the moment I needed some advice on this tape. He gave me his phone number and it turns out that after when he went back to London, he was dealing with a record label called S&G records.

I phoned him up one day, and he told me he had some other projects coming up with Delroy Pinnock, Errol Bellott, and he mentioned a few others. He knew that I wrote my own songs so he sent me a tape of riddim tracks. I had never done it that way but I said I’d give it a go. He did it, I played the track a couple times.

Anyway, to be honest, when I spoke to him on the phone he said, “Do you think you can write a love song to it?” I said, “Yeah… yeah, but I don’t thinks it’s a love song music.” So, I totally ignored what he said, and I wrote what was hitting me at the time. And the vibes at the time, to me, was basically struggle. It fitted the riddim, also at the time I was probably going through one or two things, so that’s where those lyrics came from. When I sent him down the tape he said, “Yeah, I like it, but it’s not what I did ask you for.” I said that to me, it was just a struggle tune, man.

Then obviously, cut a long story short, the next time he contacted me, he said, that there was another guy who’d done something with this tune and that it was the version they were going for. I asked him if he had anything more, because I’m thinking to myself that I probably messed up on this one. Anyway, in the meantime, the guy who had organized the singing competition heard that I was in contact with this producer. So he contacted me now cause he said he always wanted to contact this producer to work with him.

What was his name? The guy organizing the singing contest.
His name was Cecil Morris. In Birmingham, he used to have a couple record shops and run a couple pirate radio stations. He’s been and out the business in various capacities. Now he’s thinking I could be the link for him with these guys. I told Cecil about my non-track for them, so he said to me, “Here’s what we can do : we can drop it properly (remember, this was on cassette), do it with a band, and take it up from there.” I agreed, and it went from there.

Part II coming next week! Hold tight…

(Special thanks to John Eden for the info about Scientist sound.)

 

The search for Norris Regal – pt. III

March 14, 2014

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A couple days went by. No answer. Must have been too random of  a request. Still, I had this feeling… Which was my only hint anyway. I called the Domino Federation.

A very nice lady by the name of Anita picked the phone. Yes, they counted a Norris McKenzie in their ranks, but when asked about the music part, she really didn’t know what to make of my question. “Norris? Music? I can ask, but he never told us anything. I doubt, but I’ll ask him.” She emailed me back shortly after, saying she passed my info to their ace Chairman.

Three days later, on Aug 16th, 2012 (yes, I keep this kind of correspondence), an email from “a” Norris McKenzie, promisingly titled “Struggle,” read exactly what you hope for when you launch into any reissue adventure:

Hi Seb,
thanks for complimenting my song ‘Struggle’ which i wrote/performed over 30 years ago.
I understand you would like to talk to me about the song, which was not too successful but i understand someone has loaded it on ‘u-tube’.

Were we going to be able to reissue it? How? Did he still have tapes? All these questions you wonder about for weeks suddenly don’t matter anymore. You are just happy that half of the journey is over -at least, at “worst,” you will know the story of a record you love.

In the meantime, I had collected info about “this” Norris McKenzie. Off simple web search, the man sounded like a Saint: I knew he ran after school classes for kids in difficult situations and that he was very involved in his community, in the Rugby, UK area. So on top of the million musical questions,  I now had an extra million of life ones. Great. “I hope he likes talking,” I thought, feeling almost bad for how much grilling and brain-racking I was about to impose to this unsuspecting fellow.

A week later, we had completed a two-hour Skype interview thanks to Norris’ daughter Latisha, and, even though some extra-nerdy details had been lost in the 29 years it had been since the song came out, the truth manifested itself. As a bonus satisfaction, Norris was definitely ready to ride again and go ahead with a reissue project. And he did have the master tapes, intact, with him in Rugby -only a low-cost flight away from Marseille.

And so that’s how you end up in an hour-or-so train ride from the Euston station in London, trodding though the UK countryside towards the city that invented the sport that my South of France village so much reveres. Rugby. If I had ever guessed…

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Norris had given me an appointment at the Rugby West Indian Association. A 15-minutes walk later, through typical working class neigborhoods, there I was.

Contrasting with the overly grey skies, the red brick building  stood like a castle. Inside, an older gentleman was cooking jerk chicken, and an empty ballroom bore a two-stack sound system. “This is the place where I’m retiring, ” I promised myself.

While I was day-dreaming about skanking arthritis away trough my ’80s, a jovial, familiar voice asked, in my back, “are you Seb?”

That was him.

With an amused smile on his face, revealing that even he barely could believe what he was about to reminisce about, Norris Regal was standing in front of me. Finally.

In a bi-colored beanie and a dark blue jacket, nonchalantly holding a folder and a master tape box, he invited me to an empty community room, where he had installed a tape cassette player.

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If the audio tapes, with multiple different cuts of Struggle, ended up not really working anymore, we examined the Ampex master tape. It was in perfect condition, and still wrapped in the original aluminium protective sheet that the studio cased it in, back in 1983.

It felt like opening a sacred sarcophagus.

By the look in his eyes, I could tell that Norris hadn’t flipped the cardboard top open since the days he had put all his money into producing his one and only record. His dream. The emotion was palpable. But the reissuing stuff talk would be for later. For now, I had an interview to finish, and a lot of catching up to do.

DSC_8061When Norris’ wife Valerie drove me back to the train station, following a few magical hours in Rugby, I was just happy to have found this friend I had never met before. Plus, now I knew everything about this record I was carrying a brand new copy of -given by Mr.Regal in person.

So, you may ask, what was Struggle‘s story, actually? Well, old friends, this will be the object of our next installment. Norris Regal’s full interview coming in the next post(s)! Hold tight…

(And thanks for the support!)

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The search for Norris Regal – pt.II

March 2, 2014

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 1.26.25 PMAfter 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:

Hello,
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)

The search for Norris Regal -pt.I

February 22, 2014

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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…

And the winner is ….

January 27, 2014

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Next stop : Rugby

September 28, 2013

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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!

The Dub Station

April 16, 2013

Reel-Heavy Music on Reggae France

September 27, 2012

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!

Zen Bow “Impression” 12″ – Out now !

May 28, 2012

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 (vocal)
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!

Zen Bow : “Impression was inspired by a shooting incident that took place in Hartford”

May 15, 2012

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!

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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