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Skinhead Reggae Legend, Harry J (Johnson) dies

Jamaican producer and musician Harry Zephaniah Johnson, 67, credited with producing what is widely considered the first reggae single “No More Heartaches” by the vocal harmony trio The Beltones, passed away on Wednesday, April 3 in his Westmoreland, Jamaica birthplace, succumbing to complications from diabetes; Johnson leaves four children and three grandchildren.

Born on July 6th, 1945, Johnson, better known as Harry J, initially entered the music business as a bass player with The Virtues prior to becoming the group’s manager. Shortly thereafter, he took a job as an insurance salesman but his love for music continually beckoned. He booked time at producer/sound system owner Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One in 1968 and recorded The Beltones. The resultant debut release on Johnson’s Harry J label, “No More Heartaches,” is considered a defining record heralding the emergence of the reggae beat as distinctive from its rock steady predecessor. (“Nanny Goat”, a 1968 song produced by the better-known Coxsone Dodd and sung by the duo Larry and Alvin is also cited as a transformative record, moving the rock steady tempo into a reggae rhythm).

“At the time we were under contract with Coxsone Dodd but he wasn’t doing anything for us so a member of a popular group The Cables took us to Harry J; Harry was new to the business and happy to record us so we broke away from Coxsone and went with him,” recalled The Beltones’ former lead singer Trevor Shields told “The driving sound on “No More Heartache” was totally different; we were like outsiders starting something new but didn’t know it at the time. The song was No. 1 on the Jamaican charts for about four weeks, which was no easy feat in those days.”

Harry J’s next big hit “Cuss Cuss” by Lloyd Robinson, released in 1969, boasts one of the most recycled reggae rhythms in the voluminous Jamaican music canon. The same year Harry J released a succession of reggae instrumentals credited to the Harry J All Stars, a revolving cast of musicians that included pianist Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson, keyboardist Winston Wright, bassist Jackie Jackson, drummer Winston Grennan and guitarist Hux Brown. “Smashville,” “Je T’Aime” and “Srpyone” an assortment of Jamaican originals and reggae adaptations of international hits, are just three of the Harry J All Stars’ instrumentals that garnered steady play from Kingston’s sound system selectors.

Their most successful was “Liquidator,” led by Winston Wright’s spirited keyboard solos, which peaked at no. 9 on the UK Singles chart and became an unlikely skinhead anthem there. The song’s opening bassline was subsequently featured on the introduction to The Staple Singers’ 1972 Hot 100 chart topper “Ill Take You There” (Stax Records). According to an April 7 report in the Jamaica Observer newspaper by Howard Campbell, based on a 2000 Observer interview with Johnson, drummer Al Jackson (of Booker T and the MGs, Stax’s in-house band) visited Kingston in 1969 and met Harry J who gave him a copy of “Liquidator”; Johnson was shocked to hear the song used in the Staple Singers’ hit and took aggressive steps to collect royalties from Stax but made little progress.

Following “Liquidator’s” UK success, British reggae label Trojan gave Johnson his own Harry J imprint; his instrumental productions never again reaped the popularity of “Liquidator” but Johnson triumphed working with several of the island’s vocalists commencing with Marcia Griffiths and Bob Andy: their 1970 duets covering Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black” and Crispian St. Peters’ “The Pied Piper” reached the upper tiers of the UK singles charts.

In 1972 Johnson opened a sixteen-track studio at 10 Roosevelt Avenue, Kingston, which revolutionized the reggae capital’s recording industry. “Back then, we were recording two-track and four-track sessions so it took great foresight for someone to go all the way to 16-tracks, which brought us on par with the rest of the world,” engineer/musician/producer Stephen Stewart told at Harry J studios; there Stewart learned audio engineering in the 1970s while still a teenager, working alongside the late Sylvan Morris. “Because he had the latest in technology Harry J attracted the best artists of the day,” Stewart noted.

A sampling of the classic 1970s roots reggae recordings done at Harry J studios includes: The Heptones’ “Book of Rules,” The Melodians’ “Sweet Sensation,” Toots and the Maytals’ “Reggae Got Soul,” Burning Spear’s “Days of Slavery” and Dennis Brown’s “So Long Rastafari.” Bob Marley and The Wailers also recorded their first four albums for Island Records at Harry J (“Catch a Fire,” “Burnin,” featuring Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, “Natty Dread,” and “Rastaman Vibration” with the I-Threes); presently, framed gold copies of those Wailers albums adorn the walls of the studio’s main room.

Harry J Studios are featured in the 1978 film “Rockers” (directed by Theodoros Bafaloukos and starring Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Gregory Isaacs and Jacob Miller) in a scene that spotlights singer Kiddus I recording “Graduation In Zion” there.

Although the 1970s were Harry J’s production heyday he continued to produce and release hit singles throughout the 1980s including Sheila Hylton’s cover of The Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You”, which reached no. 38 on the UK singles chart. Harry J responded to the massive “Sleng Teng” rhythm released by the King Jammys label in 1984, which jumpstarted Jamaican music’s digital revolution, with his aptly titled “Computer Rule” rhythm that spawned numerous hits for various singers and toasters including Daddy Freddy, Charlie Chaplin, Uglyman, and Little John.

Following a seven-year dormancy during the 1990s, Harry J studios reopened in 2000, under the management of Stephen Stewart who refurbished and re-equipped the facility, with Johnson retaining ownership of the premises. “Harry J pushed the business aspect of the industry, putting deals together and cataloguing his songs (including releases on the Jaywax, Roosevelt, 10 Roosevelt Avenue and Sunset subsidiaries), which were separate from the studio operations,” Stewart offered.

Countless reggae veterans including Toots Hibbert, Burning Spear, Sly and Robbie and Luciano have recorded at Harry J studios in recent years while upstart Jamaican groups Raging Fyah and Di Blueprint Band and an abundance of European reggae acts have each sought out its authentic roots reggae sound. “People come here to capture that live session chemistry where recording is more than just one person using a computer program,” observes Stewart. “The legacy of the musicianship that has come through here makes Harry J studios really special, it’s part of the vision Harry brought to Jamaican music.”