Had Ken Boothe been born in Birmingham, Alabama or Memphis, Tennessee there is no doubt he would today be heralded as one of the finest Soul singers of all time. Often compared to Otis Redding, he possesses one of the most soulful and distinctive voices in popular music and if there were any justice in this world, his astounding vocal dexterity would have brought him fame and fortune beyond his imaginings. But of course life is not fair and despite creating some of the most timeless music ever to emanate from Jamaica’s golden shores, the financial rewards have been relatively modest.
Born in Denham Town, Kingston on March 22nd 1946, Ken was raised in an atmosphere where music provided an almost constant backdrop to every day daily life. His mother was a keen gospel singer, while his eldest sister, Hyacinth Clover was a well-known vocalist who appeared with popular comedy duo, Bim & Bam. Bearing in mind his background, it was hardly surprising Ken developed a deep love of music from an early age and while still only a small child, he began developing dance routines with another of his sisters, the pair later performing as Jack & Jill at local talent contests. During his formative years, he also began entering singing competitions at his local school, Denham Primary Elementary School, usually facing stern opposition from a certain Winston Delano Stewart, who would later make his name with The Gaylads.
Ken's big break came in the early sixties when he overheard singers Stranger Cole and Roy Panton practising their harmonies while on his way home from school. The following day, the teenager he decided to throw caution to the wind and join their rehearsal, adding his voice to theirs. The duo were suitably impressed by Ken's precocious talent and asked the teenager to perform with them on a regular basis. Ken jumped at the opportunity, although the trio proved short-lived following Panton's decision to record with Millie Small of "My Boy Lollipop" fame.
Undaunted by Panton's departure, Stranger and Ken continued to perform, making their debut as a duo with leading local producer, Arthur 'Duke' Reid, cutting "Mo Sen Wa", around the close of 1962. This, along with subsequent releases, most notably "Uno Dos Tres", "I Want To Go Home" (both for Reid) and "Hush Baby" (produced by Mike Shadeed) brought the pair to the attention of Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, who over the next few months had them record half a dozen or so sides, including "Thick In Your Love", "All Your Friends", "My Marie" and "I'm So In Love".
The popularity of their material for Dodd led to the pair becoming increasingly in demand by local producers and in 1964, Stranger & Ken were asked by Byron Lee to record "What A Day" and "Suzie" for a collection of Jamaican Ska sides issued by the major US record company, Atlantic. Other songs recorded around this time were "Blessed Be" for Richard Khouri's Federal Records and an embryonic version of "Home, Home, Home", entitled "I'll Be Home", which saw issue on Vincent Chin's Randy's label.
Throughout this time, Cole had also regularly recorded both as a solo artist and half of the duo, Stranger & Patsy and perhaps prompted by this, Ken began performing with another local singer, Roy Shirley. Roy & Ken went on to record a handful of sides for Linden and Sonia Pottinger (most notably "Lollipop Tonight" and "Paradise") and also teamed up with another duo, Joe White and Chuck Berry to perform as the Leaders. The quartet went on to record a handful of songs, including "Fire", "I Don't Want To Cry" (both issued on the Anderson label) and a Ska version of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", produced by respected band leader, Granville Williams (see CDTRL 364), but disbanded soon after. Meanwhile, Ken resumed his partnership with Cole to cut a number of impressive singles for Coxsone Dodd, with the original version of "Artibella" and "World's Fair" among their most popular releases from this period.
In October 1965, a violent fracas resulted in Ken being shot by a policeman although fortunately, the injury did not prove life threatening and by the close of the year, Ken was back making music. By now, he had been convinced by Dodd to embark full-time on a solo career, some two years after recording his first song alone. B. B. Seaton recently recollected Ken's first solo attempt as being around 1963:
"The first song I did was a song called 'Only You, Patricia Can Make My Dreams Come True' for Coxsone. Ken Boothe recorded 'Prevention', at the same time - that was the first song he ever recorded [alone]. It was never released, but in the studio when he did it, it was a massive thing - the musicians went crazy…Ken's song was a hit in the studio, but mine was a hit on the street."
Contrary to Seaton's comments, "Prevention" was issued at the time, although for reasons best known to Dodd, the single mysteriously credited Ken as the Dragonaire. Some two years on, the producer made no attempt to conceal Ken's identity, with one of the first singles to bear the singer's name being the superb self-penned driving Ska number "You're No Good", a song revived to great effect by the singer in the late seventies. Other recordings from Ken's early solo career included renderings of two Soul ballads, "Oo-Wee Baby" and "Lonely Teardrops", both of which sold in large numbers, convincing him he was right to go it alone.
In the summer of 1966, Jamaican music began to undergo a major change, with Ska slowly supplanted by the slower rhythms of Rocksteady and this development finally enabled Ken to express himself fully as a singer. With Ken finally beginning to realize his potential as a performer, the hits began to come thick and fast, with "Danger Zone", "The Train Is Coming", "(Don't Fight It) Feel It", "The Girl I Left Behind" and "I Don't Want To See You Cry" all selling in vast numbers during the latter half of 1966.
Around the beginning of the following year, Ken strayed from the confines of Dodd's Studio One set-up to attend a recording session supervised by George Phillips (aka Phil Pratt) for former Skatalites' road manager, Blondel Calnek (aka Ken Lack). The afternoon's work resulted in the soulful "The One I Love" and an impressive version of Barbara Lynn's R&B hit, "You Left the Water Running", both of which saw issue on the short-lived Star imprint. But the hiatus with Calnek proved short-lived and Ken was soon back with Dodd, recording such notable hits as "My Heart Is Gone", "Puppet On A String", "The Girl I Left Behind" and an updated version of "Home, Home, Home", all of which were gathered on his aptly titled debut album, "Mr Rocksteady".
Following his participation in a UK tour with fellow Studio one acts, Alton Ellis and the Soul Vendors, Ken cut a number of sides for Sonia Pottinger, finding the Jamaican charts again with "Say You", and "Lady With The Starlight", the melody of which was adapted from Nat 'King' Cole's 1963 pop hit, "Those Lazy, Hazy Crazy Days Of Summer". He then resumed recording for Coxsone Dodd, providing the producer with hits such as "When I Fall In Love", "Moving Away", "Tomorrow" and "Live Good", but later in 1968, he left once again to join up with a number of fellow performers in the formation of the Links label. B. B. Seaton later recalled the brief history of the project:
"Links was an organization formed by The Melodians, The Gaylads, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson because of the dissatisfaction with the producers at the time. We said we'd like to do our own stuff so we could learn and see what the business is all about. We started recording ourselves at W.I.R.L., using Lyn Taitt [& The Jets] and we did 'It Comes And Goes' [The Melodians], a track called 'Give Love A Try', by Delroy Wilson, backed with "Soul Resolution", both of which I wrote. And we [The Gaylads] did a song called "Looking For A Girl" and Ken Boothe did 'Can't You See' and 'Bright Eyes' [aka 'I Remember Someone']. Once we had a hit with 'It Comes And Goes' [by the Melodians], there was a bit of a problem in the camp with The Melodians. They said that because it was their song that was a hit, they wanted more money than everybody else. We said no, that wasn't the idea. It was all our money, like a pool, so if it's a hit, we should all benefit from it and build the thing up until it works. But as well as that we were also getting a fight from the system, although we didn't realize it until about ten years after when Neville Lee [from Dynamic Records organization] said to me, 'We gave you guys a fight because we didn't want you to come through'. And I said, 'Why are you telling me this? It was me and my kids you were fighting and all I was trying to do was live like anyone else'. But anyway, we had to scrap the whole thing and Ken started singing for Coxsone when we weren't supposed to be recording for anybody else."
Prior to Ken's decision to renew his association with Dodd, he also performed as an organist in an instrumental group that included Seaton and Delano Stewart of the Gaylads, along with Lloyd Charmers, as the latter recalled in an interview for Black Music in 1974:
"I had a band…me, B.B. Seaton, Winston Stewart and Ken Boothe. We got together as a little band and played at the Baby Grand club in Crossroads, Kingston. Then we went to the studio and made 'Watch This Sound' [voiced by the Uniques]."
In July 1968, Ken was approached by Embassy Cigarettes to advertise their product for two months, with the deal leading to the formation of the Swinging Kings [named after the brand of cigarette by the company], a group that featured Ken, along with Leroy Sibbles, Phil Callender, Robert Lyn and Eric Frater. The ensemble made numerous appearances around Jamaica and scored a best selling single with the Coxsone Dodd-produced, "Without Love" before disbanding in the autumn. Later in the year, Ken joined fellow Studio One acts, the Heptones, Delroy Wilson and the Soul Vendors on a tour of Nassau and upon his return home, re-united with his former Links stable mates who had signed for Sonia Pottinger's Gay Feet operation. Although the liaison with Gay Feet resulted in a fine new version of "Live Good" and the equally impressive "Somewhere", Ken decided resume recording for Coxsone Dodd and over the next few months cut a number of popular singles that were later included on his second album, "More Of Ken Boothe".
Early in 1969, Ken once again parted company with Dodd, cutting "Can't Fight Me Down" and "I'm Not For Sale" for Phil Pratt, followed soon after by "Old Fashioned Way" and a version of Bob Dylan's "Mr Tambourine Man", produced by Keith Hudson. Despite the popularity of these sides, Ken was yet again lured back into the fold at Studio One, recording "Pleading" and his 1969 Festival Song entry, "Be Yourself", prior to embarking on a tour of Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana with Prince Buster, the Gaylets, Hortense Ellis and the Sound Dimension.
When he returned home, Ken finally severed all ties with Dodd, deciding to join his former Links associates who by now formed a sizeable part of the increasingly impressive roster of artistes at Leslie Kong's Beverley's label. Since the latter half of 1969, Ken's close friend B. B. Seaton had played a key role in Kong's success, with the multi-talented singer acting as the producer's arranger and talent scout, as well as performing with his group, the Gaylads on a multitude of Beverley's releases, both as a main act and as backing vocalists. In addition, Seaton penned songs for many of the label's acts, with Ken particularly benefiting from the arrangement. Among the Seaton compositions he recorded at this time were "Why Baby Why", "Love And Unity" and a song co-written by Ken himself, entitled "Freedom Street". The latter, which went on to top the Trinidad charts for six weeks and was voted by leading Jamaican radio station, RJR as the 'Best Song Of 1970' has been often quoted as being Ken's all-time favourite song.
In the early summer months of '70, Ken maintained his remarkably high success rate, cutting a popular remake of his old Ska hit "Artibella" (which charted in Guyana) for Phil Pratt and further popular singles for Beverley's, most notably "Now I Know", "Drums Of Freedom" and a superb interpretation of the Royalettes R&B hit, "It's Gonna Take A Miracle". These, along with the aforementioned titles for Kong were gathered on Ken's next album, "Freedom Street", issued in Jamaica later that year and finally by Trojan in the UK in 1974.
In July, he left Jamaican shores once again, touring Canada and New York with leading Kingston-based show band, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, but quickly resumed his hit-making ways upon returning to Jamaica. Further sessions with Phil Pratt resulted in "Why", "Morning", "Give To Me" and later, an updated version of one of his lesser-known Rocksteady sides, "Winey Winey", re-titled "Miss Wine-E-Wine-E". Also around this time he cut the soulful ballad, "Good To Be Black", which saw issue on Howard McGraw and Wayne Jones' Howaynes label.
Ken also became involved in the creation of the Conscious Minds, a group that quickly made their mark on the local music scene, as B.B. Seaton recalled:
"That was me on guitar, with Ken Boothe on organ, Joe White on piano, Maurice [Roberts] on bass and a guy called Derrick Stewart on drums - we took him out of the military band. We recorded 'My Jamaican Girl' and 'People Crying' which we gave to Beverley's to distribute. We also did other things like 'Lollipop Girl' for Derrick Harriott and 'Don't Get Weary' with Tony Brevett."
Assisted financially by producer Pete Weston, the Conscious Minds went on to launch their own Soul Beat and Splash labels, a development that allowed Ken the opportunity to produce a number of his own sides, such as the excellent "Hallelujah", "Trying To Reach" and "Stop Your Crying". The group also leased a number of recordings to Leslie Kong, including the aforementioned 'My Jamaican Girl' and 'People Crying', along with Ken's own "I Wish It Could Be Peaceful Again" and "Your Feeling And Mine".
Following Kong's sudden death from heart failure in August 1971, Ken and Seaton began strengthening their ties with Lloyd Charmers, who by this time was firmly established as one of Jamaica's leading producers. Charmers preferred to maintain a small roster of artists and for the next year or so, the majority of singles issued by the producer featured one, two or the entire trio, as he explained in 1974:
"I started producing Ken Boothe, B. B. Seaton and [singer] Busty Brown, so we decided to form a group as the Messengers. Me and Ken would make a recording, then me and B. B., then Busty and B. B., then Busty and Ken. But you know, we go under different names. Any one sell, we split it. It was a four-man thing. Hits? We had 'Lean On Me' with B. B., 'Ain't No Sunshine' with Ken".
Ken also enjoyed local success with his fine re-make of "Thinking" (re-titled "So Nice"), a medley of old hits entitled "Six In One" and one of the first overtly Rastafarian songs to top the Jamaican charts - the magnificent "Rasta Never Fails", on which he was accompanied vocally by Charmers. Around this time, Charmers also gave a number of recordings to music entrepreneur, Pete Weston, who issued the album, "The Great Ken Boothe Meets The Gaylads".
In 1972, Ken attended a one-off session for Winston 'Niney' Holness that spawned the Jamaican chart-topper, "Silver Words", while among his finest efforts with Charmers was the aforementioned "Ain't No Sunshine" a sublime version of the Manhattans' R&B ballad, "I'm The One Love Forgot" (aka "Out Of Love") and a magnificent rendering of Al Green's "Look What You've Done To Me", all of which appeared on his next collection, "Black, Gold And Green".
The Boothe/Charmers partnership paid dividends throughout the following year, the pair producing some of the most sophisticated Soul-Reggae ever to be created. Among the sides to receive the special Ken Boothe treatment in 1973 were a number of songs previously recorded by American acts, with Syl Johnson's "Is It Because I'm Black", Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and the Fleetwoods "Come Softly To Me" all being seemingly effortlessly transformed into Reggae masterpieces. Later that year, Charmers released another superb collection of Ken's work entitled "Let's Get It On", but despite the commercial potential of the material, mainstream success outside his native Jamaica proved elusive.
Thankfully, international recognition of Ken's outstanding vocal abilities finally came in the autumn of 1974, when his beautiful interpretation of Bread's "Everything I Own" climbed into the UK Pop chart. In an interview with Jamaican Swing magazine in 1975, Ken explained his decision to immediately travel to Britain as soon as the record broke:
"When I heard that the record had made it in the charts, I decided to go to England to be available for live performances and such, because I had exploitation at the hands of various local and UK producers before and I knew that my presence would help push the record and at the same time, protect my interests."
On October 26th, "Everything I Own" hit the number one spot, remaining there for three weeks before finally being toppled by "Gonna Make You A Star" by British teen-idol, David Essex. For the follow-up, Trojan selected Charmers' own composition, "Crying Over You", which subsequently reached a respectable number eleven on the British listings early the following year.
Meanwhile, Ken had remained in Britain, making seven appearances on BBC's popular chart show "Top Of The Pops", as well as performing in front of the cameras for ITV's music programme, "Forty Five". He also toured extensively, performing to twenty packed venues around the country and recording a number of sides for Trojan under the supervision of in-house producer, Webster Shrowder. These subsequently appeared on a hastily put-together collection of his sides entitled "Everything I Own" that Trojan issued in the autumn of 1974. Meanwhile, Ken signed a five-year contract with the company, securing the services of London-based booking agent Tony King to look after his interests and arrange appearances in Britain. With the weight of Trojan's publicity machine behind him, it seemed Ken's future as a major international performer was assured, but unfortunately the timing could not have been worse. Not long after the ink had dried on the contract, Trojan went into liquidation and while it was soon back in business again as part of the Saga Music group, the company would never succeed in recapturing its share of the Jamaican music market.
In 1987, Ken gave an interview for British black music magazine, Echoes in which he recalled his frustration at this development:
"I didn't know there was going to be a bankruptcy at Trojan, I thought this was my lift off into the business. After 'Everything I Own' went to number one and I went back to Jamaica after the tour, I thought this was going to be a long-lasting thing. But no royalty statements returned to the island. [I only learned] later on that the new company was bankrupt. The new company, Saga, who bought out the assets wouldn't sign any other artist unless I signed. Now, at that time, another contract was being negotiated for me in Germany with Phonogram and I was going to get a million pounds to sign it. But instead of leaving the others suffering, I decided to go with them [Trojan]".
Sadly, it soon became evident Saga lacked any real experience or enthusiasm for Jamaican music and over the next few years, the company did little to effectively promote its Reggae acts. Although Ken went on to record a number of wonderful recordings with Charmers, many of which were included on his 1976 album, "Blood Brothers", the disappointment of his situation with Trojan resulted in his decision to cease recording to concentrate on his live work. Two years passed before he was finally coaxed back into the studio to record a showcase album for Neville Lee's Sonic Sounds Records. The popularity of the LP prompted Ken to resume his recording career in earnest and over the next year or so, he recorded material for Phil Pratt and Bunny Lee that later appeared on the albums "Who Gets Your Love", "Disco Rockers" and "I'm Just A Man". Sadly, by now Ken had become increasingly dependent on drugs, a problem that led to both emotional and financial difficulties and had it not been for the support of his new manager, Olivia 'Babsy' Grange, Ken may well have gone the way of many other celebrities.
In 1980, a self-produced collection, "Reggae For Lovers" indicated Ken was back to his best and over the next years, recordings for a variety of producers, including Delroy Francis, Jack Ruby, Sly & Robbie, Dean Fraser and Tappa Zukie ensured he remained at the forefront of the Jamaican music scene. January 1986 saw the release of Ken's impressive "Imagine" album, while later that year the double header 45, "Oh What A Smile Can Do" b/w "Open The Door' saw Ken back near the top of the reggae chart. There was also renewed interest in his back catalogue following Boy George's 1987 hit version of "Everything I Own", the arrangements of which owed much to Ken's own rendering of the song.
Three years later, British Reggae band, UB40 also paid tribute to the singer with their version of "Just Another Girl" featuring on their best-selling LP, "Labour Of Love 2", while further proof of their reverence for the great man was illustrated in their interpretations of "Crying Over You" and "Train Is Coming" that appeared on their third "Labour Of Love" volume.
During the early nineties, Ken worked with a number of leading producers, including Lloyd 'King Jammy' James, Hugh 'Redman' James, Bobby Digital and Earl 'Chinna' Smith, while in 1995, he united with deejay Shaggy to re-cut "The Train Is Coming". Used in soundtrack for the film, "Money Train", the recording finally returned him to the international charts, after an absence of over twenty years.
In the years since, Ken has eased off somewhat from performing and while he may no longer be at the cutting edge of the Jamaican music scene, he remains a revered and popular figure in the industry, with hopefully many more years of music making ahead.