Of Guyanese parentage, Candy McKenzie spent most of her life in Kilburn, North West London, learning the piano and picking up vocal harmony from her father, a jazz bass player. In her teens she began working as a backing vocalist, joining her brother Bunny on sessions for the first Aswad album. Bunny also found her a job singing on Keith Hudson‘s legendary ‘Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood’ album in 1974.
Three years later, Candy joined Aswad for sessions at Island for Bob Marley under Lee Perry‘s supervision. She remembered in 1989:
‘There were two Marley sessions; one was the first professional recording session I did. The following year or two Bob came back and I got another session with him. That was ‘Punky Reggae Party’.’
Both Island and the producer took an interest in Candy, and the company decided to send her to Jamaica to cut an album. Candy had secret doubts that she was ready for such a step.
‘I’ve had some terrible experiences,’ she confessed. ‘I lost my parents when I was 17; my family were killed in front of me. Grave psychological problems go with a trauma like that; I never felt I was any good. I was getting loads of acceptance from people but I didn’t feel that myself. But cool man… now.’
Despite her reservations, Candy went ahead with the project. But she discovered she wasn’t the only one who wasn’t ready, as she told me in April 1986:
‘I’d worked with Lee Perry and Marley and Aswad in London, and everybody was saying ‘get the girl’. OK, they got the girl, but they didn’t have a clue what to do with her. Not my voice, my image… nothing. And I wasn’t sure myself. But I rode the tide.’
Candy arrived at the Black Ark studio in Kingston in 1977, only to find a situation where Lee Perry‘s life was starting to unravel:
‘If I’d been rational about it, I’d have made enquiries about him,’ she said. ‘I jumped on the plane and when I got there I said, ‘Where’s the studio’? and they said, ‘This is it!’ Back home, I’d worked in the best of studios. Going out there to this studio he built himself in, like, his garage, was a whole different game.’
Perry worked around the clock concocting his musical stew, and called for Candy in the evenings to add her vocals. They’d work deep into the night, and if Perry was demanding of her, he was even more demanding of himself, working, smoking and drinking 24/7, driven to produce at whatever the cost.
Candy threw herself into the collective spirit that prevailed around the Black Ark, singing on ‘Children Crying’ by the Congos and on tracks by The Full Experience alongside Aura Lewis, an ally from the ‘Punky Reggae Party’ sessions. But when it came to her own tracks, Candy was ‘very dissatisfied… When I did the album, Lee Perry only wanted to do material that he considered suitable for me as a woman ‘ but not as Candy McKenzie. Only three songs of mine were done. Two were recorded with Third World and they were fabulous, I really got off on them.’
In fact Candy penned four, including the astonishing ‘When The Big Day’, co-written with Perry, which bore melodic echoes of Barbara Lewis‘s ‘Hello Stranger’ and was one of the tracks cut with Third World. Given more care, it would have been a Perry classic, but the producer’s head was elsewhere at the time.
‘He was going through his Pipecock Jackxon thing, plus he was trying out new equipment,’ recalled Candy. ‘He was pre-recording percussion at seven in the morning, tambourine stuck between his legs, groaning! There was never any question of ‘Are you in favour of this’? I thought, ‘This is what the producer wants,’ because he’d made it clear he was the boss.’
Sessions over, Candy flew back to London. It remains unknown as to whether Scratch mixed the album to his satisfaction, but a quarter-inch master arrived at Island at about the time the producer began to fall out with the company following its rejection of his own ‘Roast Fish, Collie Weed And Corn Bread’ LP.
Candy’s album was shelved, and, she later admitted, ‘all my dreams were shattered’. However, two tracks were heard by an extremely limited public ‘ which did not include Candy.
‘Well, what do you know’? she exclaimed in April 1986 when I handed her a copy of her ‘Breakfast In Bed’ / ‘Disco Fits’ 12′, released in
Candy spent the ’80s and ’90s recording dance singles, and remained an in-demand background singer, with Leonard Cohen, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross calling on skills she learnt at her father’s knee. She came to regard her time at the Black Ark as a learning experience, and was glad she went there.
When Trojan finally released the album on CD and vinyl in 2011, it was clear that there was something strong in Candy’s work with Scratch. ‘When The Big Day’, ‘Ice Cream’, ‘Jah Knows’, ‘Sky At Night’, ‘Someone To Love Me’; these are vital missing parts to Scratch‘s Black Ark jigsaw. Candy was correct to pursue her dream. All the magic of Perry‘s classics are there, had the producer been in a fit state or inclined to put in the polish that marks his greatest work.
Candy passed away in 2003, and it might appear she was an unfulfilled talent. She didn’t see it that way. In February 1989 she told me:
‘I love working in music. It is madness… a lot of the people in it are quite silly, but it’s my creative energy, my release. I am quite happy to say ‘Candy McKenzie, I am, this is what I do.’ If it doesn’t go any further than that I will rest a happy woman.’