Setting The Scene
11 March 1967, The International Club, Francis Street, Chapeltown, Leeds.
A young American musician leaves the club; he’s just played to one of the toughest audiences of his career. Having a top 30 single in the charts at the time hadn’t helped to improve the resection. Outside the club a man approaches the shy musician. “Hendrix, you’re shit!” he shouts. Jimi Hendrix had perhaps been booked to play at the International Club in Chapeltown because the area was known for its black community. However, the West Indian community of Chapeltown were not Rock fans. In 1967, Ska and Rocksteady were the ruling sounds of Chapeltown. Even Calypso had lost favour with the Chapeltown youths; as local Calypso singer Lord Silkie discovered when he tried performing a few Lord Kitchener songs at the local youth club. The audience there only wanted to hear Rocksteady.
Providing Rocksteady for the local youths was The Bedrocks. Formed as The Bedrock Sunshine Band in 1966, the band played a mix of soul, ska and rocksteady at pubs and clubs across the country including gigs as far as London. The six piece band had a unique style, going from one song to another without stopping. They shortened their name to The Bedrocks in December 1967 and turned professional four months later. The band was spotted by Norman Smith of EMI at a concert at Barnsley Town Hall in the autumn of 1968. The song they had been playing when Norman Smith saw them was a cover of The Beatles’ newly-released album track ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’. Norman Smith invited the band to London to record the song at Abbey Road studios. After borrowing £25 to hire a van, the Bedrocks arrived in London, penniless, in December 1968. The band was signed to Columbia and recorded both sides of their debut single in a four-hour session on 4 December. The single was recorded, mixed, pressed and in the shops within two day, by which time the band had returned to Leeds. The single was a success and peaked at number 17 on the NME chart in January 1969.
The success meant the Bedrocks made several television appearances and even met The Beatles. A follow-up single, ‘The Lovedene Girls’ was released in February. A lack of radio play meant the single didn’t do as well as ‘Ob-la-di,Ob-la-da’ but the Bedrocks proved popular with live audiences and another three singles were released during 1969 and 1970. By their third single, ‘Wonderful World’, the band had evolved from Rocksteady to Reggae. The B-side to their fourth single, ‘Musical Clowns’ showcased an early example of toasting. The Bedrocks continued to perform live until their break-up in 1972. Their bass player, Owen Wisdom, went on to play with the funk band Rokotto who had chart success in the late 70s and early 80s. The Bedrocks’ success in the late 60s and early 70s would go on to inspire a number of Leeds-based Reggae groups. But first came the education of music, roots, culture, spirituality, and engineering that only the sound systems could provide.
In the 1970s, very few venues in the city centre would play Reggae music. One of the few exceptions was the Mecca Locarrno Ballroom, who, in 1972, employed Hunter Smith, a DJ known for playing Soul and Reggae. Hunter Smith ran a mobile disco and had established the record store Jumbo Records in September 1971 as a way to make some money on the side. Originally run from the back of another shop in the Queen’s Arcade, Jumbo Records was one of the few suppliers of Reggae records in the city centre. The store later moved to the Merrion Centre in 1974. In May 1974, Hunter Smith was sacked from the Mecca Ballroom who had now enforced a ‘pop music only’ policy. A number of venues in Chapeltown such as the International Club, Strega Blues Bar, Gaiety pub and Hayfield pub became known for playing Reggae music. House parties and Blues clubs were popular in the Chapeltown and Harehills areas, providing venues were Reggae could be enjoyed all night and into the next morning, long after clubs, bars, and pubs had closed. Blue spot radiograms were common place in West Indian homes and were used to play the latest Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae releases at house parties. Taking their name from the radiograms, these parties became known as Blues. By the end of the 1960s the blue spot radiogram had been replaced by larger and louder sound systems.
Sound Systems in the 70s and 80s not only played at Blues but also played at venues across Chapeltown. Regular venues that featured sound systems included Studley Grange, Potternewton Park, Chapeltown Community Centre, the Mandela Centre, the West Indian Centre, Tower House, the International Club and Roscoe Church. Sound systems used large speaker boxes and turntables to create a heavy bass. The ‘selector’ (DJ) would play the records and a ‘toaster’ (MC) would toast (Rap) over the instrumental version found on the record’s B-side. The first generation of British-born West Indians brought sound systems to the forefront and out into the open. Popular Sound Systems during this era included Maverick, Jungle Warrior, Channel One, Ras Sparta, Genesis,
Blacka Spot, Magnum Force, Screaming Target, Sir Yanks, Dragon Hifi, and Emperor. These sound systems were operated by teams of ‘Sound Bwoys’ who required a number of skills including engineering. Speaker boxes were usually built from scratch, occasionally liberating materials from building sites and homes. The selector’s job involved knowing what to play and when. It was the selector’s job to ‘nice up the dance’ by playing the latest releases and premiering dubplates (test pressings) to ensure the sound system’s title of ‘Champion Sound’. Parties often had themes and different types of Reggae (Rockers, Dub, Lovers Rock, Rub-a-Dub, Roots and Culture) were played. Two or more sound systems would compete in a ‘sound clash’ and sound systems from Leeds battled it out with sound systems from near and far including the famous London sound system Saxon Studio International.
Live And Direct
Sound systems helped young British-born West Indians formed their own identity. Reggae not only gave an education in roots, culture and spirituality but it also acted as a link with the Caribbean. Reggae fans could also see some of the genre’s biggest names live and direct in Leeds. Desmond Dekker, Gregory Isaacs, Linton Kwesi Johnson and even Bob Marley performed in Leeds in the 1970s and early 1980s. Increasing pressure to include Reggae sound systems at Leeds West Indian Carnival led to the first sound systems appearing in Potternewton Park on Carnival day in 1980. Maverick provided sounds in the park that year and Mackie’s Disco became the first sound system at the Carnival Queen Show in 1982. The Rock Against Racism Carnival held at Potternewton Park in July 1981 was the first time a Reggae concert had been held in the park. Headlined by British bands Aswad, Misty In Roots and The Specials, the bill also included local band Black Steel. Free annual Reggae concerts began being held in Potternewton Park in August 1985, attracting international stars such as Burning Spear, Maxi Priest, Mighty Diamonds and Wayne Wonder in the first couple of years. The concerts also acted as a brilliant showcase for local talents including Supa Youth, Enuff Sed, Sister B, Clinton Ire, Stone Roots and Exiles Intact.
Following in the footsteps of The Bedrocks, the 1980s saw the rise of Leeds Reggae bands. Among the best-known were Stone Roots. Formed around 1980, the six-piece Roots Reggae band was managed by Derek Lawrence. As well as performing in their own right, the band was often used to back singers at the Reggae Concerts held in Potternewton Park. Stone Roots continue to perform today and guitarist Chris Campbell has played a key role in a number of other Reggae outfits including Mojah and The Ship-Tones.
Another well-known band, Exiles Intact was formed out of the band Malika in 1984. The band’s members included singing sisters Annette and Paulette Morris who had previously been in the band Black Steel. The band’s drummer was Carl Robinson who also drummed with Stone Roots. Managed by Winston Smith, the band quickly built up a fan base while touring the university circuit. An appearance on the TV show ‘3,2,1’ led to a contract on the Wonderful Musical World of Chris Dixon label and a single, ‘Who Is There’, was released in 1985. Exiles Intact performed at the first annual Reggae Concert in Potternewton Park in 1985 and performed at the concert every year until their break-up in 1989.
After Exiles Intact’s break-up, Annette and Paulette Morris formed the duo Royal Blood in 1989. They made their TV debut on ‘Ebony On The Road’ later in the year performing ‘Things I Would Do’ backed by Stone Roots. Royal Blood were signed to the Ariwa label and in 1990 they travelled to London to record with producer Mad Professor. They recorded their debut single ‘Slipping Away’ in one take. It was a hit on the Reggae chart and was followed by a second single ‘Conscious Love’. A third single ‘I Don’t Wanna Be The One’, released in 1997, was followed by a self-titled album in 1998.
Reggae’s influence on Leeds artists is clear. Even non-Reggae artists have been influenced by the genre. Leeds born singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae references Bob Marley’s 1977 song ‘Three Little Birds’ in her 2006 single ‘Put Your Records On’. Corinne Bailey Rae also displays her love of Reggae in her live shows with her Reggae cover version of the song ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson performed guest lead vocals with the Leeds Reggae-Indie band The Ship-Tones on their 2015 cover of the Kaiser Chiefs’ 2011 song ‘Little Shocks’ (Given a Reggae makeover, The Ship-Tones’ version was title ‘Ickle Shocks’). Formed in 2014, the Ship-Tones’ 2015 debut album ‘Indie Reggae Revolution’ was number one on the Reggae New Releases chart. The band’s members included Lara Rose, Chris Campbell and Paulette Morris. Chris Campbell is also a member of the Reggae band Mojah who have been the resident band at the Sela Bar since 2012. Playing covers of Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Jackie Mitoo, and Bob Marley, the five-piece band’s lead singer is Paulette Morris who is occasionally joined by her sister Annette.
Royal Blood continue to perform today and have toured with Boyzone, Peter Andre, Finley Quaye, and Martha Reeves. Their second album ‘The Journey Pt.1’ was released in 2015. They were one of the acts to perform at the Salute To Reggae concert at Millennium Square, Leeds in 2018. The Salute to Reggae concert was the first outdoor Reggae concert to be held in Leeds City Centre. The concert’s opening act was Empress Imani.
Award-winning Empress Imani is the latest Reggae star to come out of Leeds. She began her recording career in Spain in 2013 when she laid down the track ‘Rasta Love’ in a three-hour-long session. She began performing around the UK and releasing tracks on Soundcloud. Her 2015 single ‘Conscious King’ was produced by the Royal Sounds and released on iTunes. It was featured on BBC Radio 1xtra and became an underground hit. In August 2015 she appeared at the annual Reggae Concert in Potternewton Park which was celebrating its 30 anniversary with a new name – The Black Music Festival. Empress Imani went on to make several appearances on radio including ‘Women in Music’, ‘Journey Through Reggae’ and ‘Live Lounge’. Her 2016 single ‘Falling’ has gained over 45,000 plays on soundcloud. In 2016 she performed at the Legends of Reggae concert in Brixton, sharing the stage with Marcia Griffiths, Freddy McGregor and Junior Reid. She also appeared on the UK Reggae Culturefest Tour in 2016 and in 2017 she performed at the Wembley Arena in London. More singles followed in 2016 including ‘Rocky Road’ and ‘Pull Up Dat Reggae Tune’ which received support from BBC Radio Yorkshire and charted on the Hottest Singles Chart. Her 2017 single ‘What’s Good For The Goose’ has proven to be a crowd favourite and the 2018 music video, shot in Leeds, has had over 15,000 views since its release in July.
Sound systems have remained popular in Leeds and the city is considered by many to have some of the best sound systems in the UK. The Iration Steppas Sound System was founded in Leeds in 1990. Founded by Mark Iration, the sound system took a different direction from the traditional style of Leeds’ other sound systems. Iration Steppas played exclusive unreleased dub mixes. The sound system also used minidiscs and CDs, giving them a wider range of material to pick from. Mark Iration began making his own Dub music in 1993 and Iration Steppas’ debut single ‘Scud Missile’ was released in 1994. A number of singles were released in the following years and their debut album ‘Original Dub D.A.T’ was released in 1996. With unique dubs, Iration Steppas were able to grow extremely popular and have played across Europe, the USA and Japan. They have supported such acts as Burning Spear, Lee ‘Screatch’ Perry, Scientist and Mad Professor. Iration Steppas have also appeared on stage as a live dub outfit at festivals world-wide.
Another live dub band from Leeds is the Gentleman’s Dub Club. Formed in 2006, the band is made up of nine members. They have played to crowds at festivals across Europe including Glastonbury, Bestival, V Festival and Ostroda Reggae Festival. They have made several appearances on BBC Radio and have supported a number of artists such as The Streets, The Wailers, Busy Singnal and U-Roy. Their debut album ‘FOURtyFOUR’ was released in 2013 on the Ranking Records label. Since then the band has released three more albums and a handful of singles.
From Royal Blood and Empress Imani to Iration Steppas and Gentleman’s Dub Club, the Leeds Reggae scene is alive and well in 2018 and has been for the last 50 years. With new artists constantly emerging and bringing fresh ideas and styles with them, there is no doubt that Leeds Reggae will last another 50.
With special thanks to Reggie Challenger, Max Farrar, Hashim Equiano, Claude ‘Hoppa’ Henderickson and Annette Morris.