Johnny Clarke was born in Kingston in January 1955 and he grew up in the district between Waltham Park Road and Maxfield Avenue known as Whitfield Town. As a boy he regularly attended church with his mother and it was here as an enthusiastic member of the Sunday school choir that his love for singing first became aroused.
Respecting the wishes of his parents Johnny put aside any ideas of a career in music until he finished his secondary schooling at Kingston College. Only achieving two of the five grades necessary for further education he left school at 16 and found a clerical job at a downtown food processing company. But by now his heart was well and truly set on following in the footsteps of his brother Eric.
‘After school I decide that I knew my aim, cos’ of what I saw my brother was involved with, and I feel like I should be part of that too.’
Johnny initially relieved help from a promoter named Tony Mack. With Mack’s encouragement he started taking part in local talent competitions before progressing to singing in clubs and bars like The Memory Lane and The Pink Lady. Eventually the young singer’s persistence persuaded seasoned producer Clancy Eccles to take him into the studio for the first time. The result was ‘God Made The Sea And The Sun’ – recorded at Harry J. studios and released on a blank label in 1972. Although the record it was a commendable debut it didn’t sell particularly well and Eccles’ decided against any further pressings on a proper imprint.
Undaunted Clarke went in search of another producer. In late ’72 he was selected by Rupie Edwards at one of the producers regular Sunday auditions at Half Way Tree. His recordings for Rupie early in the new year gave him his first taste of success and he scored a significant dancehall hit in Jamaica with ‘Everyday Wondering’ – a tune that is probably far better known for it’s rhythm which the producer was later to use as the foundation for his UK No.1 pop chart hit ‘Ire Feelings’.
‘Everyday Wondering’ was also a big sound system favourite in the UK. Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee, one of reggae’s top hit-makers was on a trip to London when he heard the record playing in a dance. Suitably impressed he decided to check out Johnny Clarke as soon as he returned to Jamaica. Striker was already familiar with the aspiring young singer and had often let him sit in on his sessions.
Once back in Kingston, Lee wasted no time in cutting Johnny on a version of ‘My Desire’ although for the time being it remained unreleased. Around this same time the producer was living in Greenwich Farm where he also ran a small bar by his house on East Avenue. Located between Spanish Town Road and Kingston Harbour the area was a hotbed of musical activity and players and singers would often hang out in the yard behind Striker’s bar. It was here that the producer heard a local rasta youth named Earl Johnson rehearsing one of his song’s, ‘None Shall Escape The Judgement’, with Soul Syndicate guitarist Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith.
The record was released in the spring of 1974 and gave Johnny the kind of break he could only have dreamed about – it also provided Bunny Lee with one of the biggest hits of his long and distinguished career. Capitalising on the young singer’s newfound popularity, Striker issued an avalanche of Johnny Clarke recordings. He was a remarkably versatile singer and his effortlessly smooth tenor was equally as at home on love songs as it was on the heavy roots material that first brought him to fame. For this reason the scope of his repertoire was truly staggering. Roots songs aside he was at his best on his noteworthy cover’s of classics such as the Paragons‘ ‘Left With A Broken Heart’ and Delano Stewart‘s ‘Rock With Me’.
For the five years following ‘None Shall Escape’ Bunny Lee more or less monopolised Tubby’s studio. It was a common sight to see Striker and his entourage arrive early in the evening at Dromilly Avenue with suitcases full of tapes in readiness for an all night voicing and mixing session. In this relatively short period of time Johnny recorded more songs than most other major artists managed in their entire careers. No other singer had ever saturated the market in quite this way.
Although he has sometimes been criticised for making too many records his model was later echoed in the early ’80s dance hall era by the almost equally prolific careers of Sugar Minott, Barrington Levy, Johnny Osbourne and Frankie Paul. And even today it is by no means uncommon for top contemporary Jamaican artists like Capleton, Sizzla and Luciano to issue two or three records in the same week.
Johnny Clarke was the original dancehall/youth singer and if he was guilty of anything it was simply that he just loved to be in Tubby’s studio just a little too much. For many fans it is the many enduring roots songs that constitute the real substance of Johnny’s career. He was always at his most convincing when dealing with more cultural themes and songs such as ‘Enter Into His Gate’s With Praise’, ‘Poor Marcus’, ‘Roots Natty Congo’, ‘Blood Dunza’ and ‘Play Fool Fe Get Wise’ represent his considerable writing and vocal talents at their very best. After four decades and countless plays, his seventies’ recordings still capture the very essence of what is now regarded as the golden age of roots music.