Ron Vester’s photos of vintage Jamaican reggae stars offer a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of one of the world’s most successful recording studios
When Ron Vester first visited 13 Brentford Rd in Kingston, home of the famous Studio One recording studios, he couldn’t help noticing that it could do with a lick of paint.
‘It looked pretty awful – just raw concrete, the sort of building that you would normally pass by quickly,’ he recalls smiling.
Then a friendly looking chap dressed in tatty shorts and a cheap T shirt and sandals came limping over to introduce himself.
He was the millionaire record mogul Clement “Coxsone’ Dodd’, the man who had turned the studios into a non-stop hit factory and launched the careers of almost every reggae star of note.
And lounging under the shade of the lignum vitae tree in the yard were some of the vintage singers who helped make Studio One in the Jamaican Motown.
The year was 1992 and Vester, a film maker and photographer, had been taken to the studios by ska balladeer Chandley Duffus, whom he’d met in a rum bar in the north of the island while working on a tourism brochure.
‘We got to talking and when I told him about my interest in ska he was keen to take me down there.’ It was to be the first of several visits he made with Duffus, who’d had a number of hits with Studio One back in the day.
‘I was completely bowled over,’ says Vester, 63. ‘It was awesome meeting the guys I used to listen to on record and watching great music being cut.
‘Dodd was very approachable and one day I asked if I could take photographs. He said “what’s in it for me?” I said “nothing”. He laughed and said “aw’right”. But a few weeks later he asked me if he could use one of my photos for an album cover.’
This marked the beginning of Vester’s 12- year association with Studio One as the label’s photographer, an arrangement that was only ended by Dodd’s sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 72.
‘I was the unofficial photographer – there was never ever any contract but I had the run of the studio – people couldn’t just walk around the place without permission. Every so often Dodd would pull out a wad of bills from his back pocket and hand me some.’
For Vester, an award winning filmmaker who had spent most of his working life jet setting round the world on behalf of Rank’s advertising division, this marked a clear career departure but one which he embraced with passion.
‘It was the best 12 years of my life,’ he declares. ‘I met some amazing characters, and had the privilege of seeing Jamaica’s Motown in action. I felt I was the luckiest man alive.’
He adds, ‘I was stunned that these guys who looked so poor and raggedy could produce a record in two takes – around an hour.
In idle moments, Vester had a chance to explore the studio buildings, which included storage space and an old vinyl pressing plant where records and dub plates gathered dust on the floor. ‘I would spend hours sifting through barrels of old 45s, finding gems. Once I had a pile of oldies including Jack and Jill by Theo Beckford. Coxsone took a look. “Mi backside”, he declared. “Where yuh find dis?” He kindly gave me the whole lot.’
Dodd had clearly taken a shine to Vester: ‘We liked each other. It was not always great being white in Jamaica but Coxsone would say, “Ron Vester is the Studio One photographer and if you don’t like it you can leave”.’
Most though were only too happy to have their photos taken. ‘The guys loved the camera and were always ready to pose.’ Vester would limit himself to two shots per subject, this being the pre-digital age. Even so, he ended up with hundreds of photos of the singers and musicians at work, rest and play.
A selection of his work can be seen at a fascinating exhibition in London that was opened by the Jamaican High Commissioner Burchell Whiteman in July. Although Studio One Love features some big names like Lee Perry and Lone Ranger, it is mostly of the lesser known musicians and singers, whose recordings are nevertheless collector’s items.
They include the man credited with making the first ska record Easy Snappin, in 1956. Theophillius Beckford. ‘It turned out to be the only one I ever took of him,’ says Vester. ‘When I went down to the studios the following week I asked where he was only to be told he had been murdered.’
Another image is of early dancehall star Barry Brown, whom Vester photographed for his last album Roots and Culture. ‘Barry was a really cool guy but he had a drug problem and Studio One did not always let him through the gates.
‘But one time he was allowed in, even though he had to be supported by two session men. The track was recorded one line at a time and Courtney, Coxsone’s son, then edited the lines and mixed the song.’
Brown was to die a few months after Coxsone in 2004m aged only 42. Guitarist Eric Frater and Vester’s friend Chandley Duffus were also to meet untimely deaths.
A picture of Winston Sparkes, aka King Stitt, brings back happier memories. Stitt, who began deejaying with Coxsone’s sound system in the mid-1950s, is a hugely popular figure in Jamaica. ‘He was born with a facial deformity but doesn’t give a damn – he calls himself “the Ugly One”, Vester says smiling. jk
‘He’s such a great character and you could spend days listening to his stories about Studio One. His knowledge and memory of events and songs is incredible.’
Dodd himself features in the exhibition more than once. ‘Coxsone was a lovely man,’ Vester remembers fondly. ‘I never saw him get angry. If he did ever raise his voice he would immediately laugh it off.
‘Singers would audition for him and even if they were not very good he would never tell them to “go ‘way” – instead he would smile and say “Come back next week and maybe we’ll try something different”. But he could tell in an instant whether he had a hit on his hands.’
Vester was always struck by his humble ways. ‘Meeting him you would never have guessed what he was. He always he drove this battered old truck into the yard – he could have easily been behind the wheel of a Lexus. He wasn’t interested in the high life, he just loved being in his studio.’
These days Brentford Rd has been named Studio One Boulevard in honour of its place in Jamaican musical history, while Dodd himself was posthumously awarded the Order of Distinction, one of the country’s highest honours. ‘When I took all those photographs, I didn’t really realise the importance of what I was doing. I was just enjoying myself,’ explains Vester. ‘But with so many of those I photographed already dead, I regard the exhibition as a small contribution to the amazing story of Studio One.’
During the 1960s, a musical revolution was taking place in Jamaica led by record producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. His ramshackle Studio One studios in downtown Kingston attracted the island’s best musical talents to produce an avalanche of pop hits.
By the early 1990s Dodd had achieved legendary status and global record companies like Island had begun to take note. Bob Marley, who saw his song Simmer Down rush to the top of the Jamaican charts in 1964 after being signed by Dodd as part of the Wailing Wailers, led a posse of international stars that had started out with Studio One, including Dennis Brown, Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney and Marcia Griffiths.
Meanwhile, Studio One was championing dub and the new dancehall sound with artists like Sugar Minott, Lone Ranger and Johnny Osbourne.
Dodd had entered the Jamaican music business in the 1950s spinning the discs for Arthur “Duke” Reid, who ran the island’s biggest sound system.
But armed with his extensive collection of jazz and R&B, he decided to go it alone with his Sir Coxsone’s Downbeat sound system, named after the famous Yorkshire cricketer of the day.
In 1956, he began recording local artists to satisfy the demand for R&B but along the way threw in a new beat that came to be known as ska. In 1963, with hits by Toots and the Maytals, Don Drummond, Alton Ellis and the Skatallites under his belt, Dodd opened up Studio One on the site of a former nightclub. Ska had evolved into rock steady, which quickly became supplanted by a new rhythm called reggae. There was no looking back.
Black History 365/October 2008/ www.black-history-month.co.uk