[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Pete and I got the chance to do an interview with the Jamaican originator Stranger Cole at the Ruhrpott Ska Explosion festival in early 2013, it was an offer much too good to refuse. In recent years the Jamaican singer and songwriter also gained some fame as the narrator in the film “Rocksteady – The Roots Of Reggae.” It turned out his talk is not only pleasant on film, but also in real life. As a humble person, he answered even our nerdy-est questions with lots of patience and friendliness. Now if you ever wondered, who or what a “Bangarang” is, if you want newbie tips for the beginning Rocksteady player, or if you wondered why Duke Reid always had a gun with him: It’s all here.
RSS: You entered the music business at a school dance, is that right?
Stranger Cole: It was end of the term in school, and my friends used to hear me sing, so they put my name on a list. When I was there, the teacher said: “Wilburn Cole is going to sing.” That’s my real name. I looked around if there were any more Wilburn Coles. And they said: “No, it’s you.” So, I went up and I sang a song called “Tell Me, Darling”, that was originally by Wilfred “Jackie” Edwards. He was one of my favourite artists. And they gave me a clap. And I should sing another song. So I sang another song by Wilfred “Jackie” Edwards, called “I Know”. And at the end of the day they gave me two ice creams. And that is where it started.
RSS: You started earning money right away, then?
Stranger Cole: Yeah, earning ice cream.
RSS: What happened after that?
Stranger Cole: After that my friends encouraged me. They thought I could sing very well. And they said I should try to make a record. My brother was the number one disc jockey for Duke Reid. So I went to Mr. Reid and told him that I would love to sing some songs. He told me he wanted to hear what I have. So I sang a few songs. He selected one called: “In And Out The Window.” But he said I didn’t have the quality like some artists that he had at the time, people like Eric “Monty” Morris.
That’s why he asked me if I could give him the song for Eric “Monty” Morris, and he would put my name on the record as the writer. Well, I said, it’s my first opportunity, so I better take it. And that record went number one. Following that he said, since I can write such a good song, I may have the quality to sing my song. He set up the next recording and wanted me to sing two songs, one with a lady called Patsy, because he thought that I had a voice like Derrick Morgan. And he wanted me to do one by myself. So at that session I wrote: “When You Call My Name” with Patsy, and I did “Rough And Tough” for myself. As a result, I had three number one hits!
RSS: What was it like to be number one in Jamaica at such a young age?
Stranger Cole: It felt really good. I was happy that these things were happening to me. And there were a lot of girls, I was a teenage boy. It was a good moment for me.
RSS: And were you paid?
Stranger Cole: In the business you never get paid when you are at the start. But I think I’m getting paid now. [laughs
RSS: It only took 50 years for that to happen … There are lots of stories about Duke Reid, for example that he was wearing a gun in the studio. Is that right?
Stranger Cole: Duke Reid was a man who had a liquor store, so he used to carry around his gun, mainly for protecting his stuff.
RSS: He didn’t frighten you …
Stranger Cole: No, he didn’t frighten me.
RSS: Why did you leave Duke Reid at the beginning of the Rocksteady era? Because he is considered to be one of the most successful Rocksteady producers that seems like a strange thing to do.
Stranger Cole: I never really left. I just did other things for other promoters, because I was in demand in that time. And all the producers at that time wanted me to do something for them. So I started to do things for other people.
RSS: So you were really independent?
Stranger Cole: Yes, you could say so. I was working mostly with Bunny Lee. I had a lot of things come out on the PAMA label, Jet Star.
RSS: You did a lot of songs with other artists, not only with Patsy, but also with Ken Boothe …
Stranger Cole: … Gladstone Anderson, and I do quite a few background singing. Things with many artists that didn’t appear on record like Slim Smith, Errol Dunkley, Alton Ellis.
RSS: Was that something you wanted to do?
Stranger Cole: I would say yes, because in the early days in Jamaican music we always supported each other. And if you are doing something and you think you need some help with some backing vocal, we all would go in and help.
RSS: You started as a songwriter. Did the writing process change during the time? Do you also write together with other people?
Stranger Cole: I write on my own, 99% of my songs really.
RSS: Do you still write today?
Stranger Cole: Oh, I never stop writing, still doing it today.
RSS: Is there any chance that this music is being released?
Stranger Cole: Yes, my latest CD is called “Treasure Island”. Most of the riddims are from older Treasure Island music. I have another CD called “Riding High” and I have quite a few CDs that I produced for myself. Later this year you can get some of my CDs. I may be back in Germany for the summer tour and then I’ll have them with me.
RSS: We saw on the poster downstairs that you will appear together with Patsy Todd. Are still in touch?
Stranger Cole: Yes, we are. She’s living in Florida, I’m living in Jamaica.
RSS: When was the last time you played together?
Stranger Cole: We played together eight months ago in New York.
RSS: How did you team up with the Steadytones? Who arranged this? And how does that work?
Stranger Cole: It was arranged by the people from Grover/Moskito. I go all over the world, playing with different bands, Japan, France, you name it. As long as the musicians can play the music, it’s very good.
RSS: When someone gets in touch with you, how do you agree on the songs to play?
Stranger Cole: Most of the time when a band plays with me they know my music. And they say something like: “There are 25 songs that we have rehearsed. You can take out what you want and we keep what you want.” So, when I came to the rehearsal they gave me that list and I said: “Not this one, not this one.”
RSS: What tips can you give the young musicians who like to play Rocksteady, and want to play the music the right way?
Stranger Cole: The tip I can give the musicians is to listen to the stuff that has already been done, and try to get that groove, you know? And then it becomes easy.
RSS: Of all the bands you played with, which sounded the best?
Stranger Cole: Over all I would say The Skatalites, I toured with so many bands, I can’t even find the names to say, but I played with many great bands, in Japan, France, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Australia. All over the world.
RSS: A few weeks ago, The Skatalites played in Cologne, and we had the chance to talk to Lester Sterling. He said that “Bangarang” is his all-time favourite song. What about you?
Stranger Cole: “Bangarang” is known in Jamaica to be the first Reggae song. At first I thought it was just a simple song. It’s just one line. I didn’t do too much in it. After a while it became one of my greatest hits.
RSS: And we were wondering what it means.
Stranger Cole: “Bangarang” means problem. I sing: “Woman don’t want no problem”, Anyone don’t want no problem.
RSS: Talking about the lyrics. We had the impression that some of your songs are about morals, people behaving the right way, or the wrong way. Is that something that is important to you?
Stranger Cole: I think it’s important not only to me, but to the whole world. To try to make music that people can uplift from. Up and not down. And I always want to write songs in that way.
RSS: At the beginning of the 70s you relocated to England, is that right?
Stranger Cole: No, I relocated to Canada. I was living in Toronto for about ten years. During that period it was very hard in Canada it was very hard, because there was not much music happening there. So, I had to take care of my family and got a job working in a place where they made toys for kids. It was fun for me. And a few years later I opened my own record store in Downtown Toronto, it was doing very well, and then I decided to go back to Jamaica.
RSS: Have you got an explanation why Jamaica has produced so many musical styles that attract music lovers all over the world?
Stranger Cole: I think the Jamaican musicians are so blessed that we have our own sound and our style. But the music always changes over a period of time. From the days of Ska, and then it came to Rocksteady and Reggae, which is like Rocksteady. And now you have the Dancehall. But it’s all about Jamaica, and I think it’s all good.
RSS: There must be a special creativity about the place.
Stranger Cole: I think so, too, because we have the fastest runners in the world.
RSS: Let’s talk about the documentary “Rocksteady –The Roots Of Reggae.” You play a central role in it…
Stranger Cole: I think I am the star of the film [laughs!]
RSS: How did this come about?
Stranger Cole: It all came out of Canada, somewhere around Montreal. These people were in the filming business and the music business. So, it’s their thing. They decided to make a film about that. They came to Jamaica to meet the people who they wanted to perform in this movie. Luckily I was one of them.
RSS: Was it planned that you became something like the narrator?
Stranger Cole: It didn’t happen at the first time. But after a while the people that promoted the film thought maybe I would be the right person. And they recruited me in Montreal to do the narration of the movie.
RSS: You do a great job.
Stranger Cole: I thank myself and all of that, you know? [smiles]
RSS: Many famous people met there in a recording studio. It seemed that many of them hadn’t met for many years. Did you keep in touch afterwards?
Stranger Cole: Some of us keep in touch, but not seeing each other for a good period. Many of us live in different parts of the world. Being together was something that was great for all of us.
RSS: Whom of those musicians would you consider close friends?
Stranger Cole: Of course many of them. Derrick Morgan, Skully and Bunnie, Gladstone Anderson, Sly. Quite a few of them live in Jamaica also.
RSS: Do you feel that you get the right kind of recognition in Jamaica as a musician today?
Stranger Cole: Oh, yes, Stranger Cole is a household name in Jamaica. So I think that alone is very good for me. I am known in Jamaica. All the kids grow up on my music.
Speaking of kids, I couldn’t do an interview without mentioning my own son: His name is Squidly Cole. He’s the drummer for the Marleys. He’s been with the Marleys for over 20 years now. He played with Jimmy Cliff, all the Marleys, many big stars. So my son is a professional drummer. And we do a lot of things together.
RSS: Was he here with Stephen Marley this summer?
Stranger Cole: At the moment he is working with Stephen Marley. I can’t do an interview without mentioning my son, because he is a great person. He came up and started to do the things that I loved to do: which is music. So I have to give him a hand anywhere I go.
RSS: So, it’s a good feeling to pass it on. …
Stranger Cole: Yes, for sure. We always say the music is like a relay race. You have to pass on the baton. So, he is the one to take my baton.
RSS: Thanks very much. It was an honour and a pleasure to talk to you.
Find a playlist with an hour of youtube videos that accompany the Stranger Cole article.
Essential listening and watching:
Stranger Cole – Banagarang (1962-1972) (Amazon Affiliate link)
Rocksteady – The Roots Of Reggae DVD (Amazon Affiliate link)