Here’s a much older one for the archive. Bob Andy was first known to me as part of the Bob & Marcia duo who had a big hit in the UK with the Nina Simone song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. What I hadn’t realised was just how important Bob was as one of the great songwriters in Jamaican music. We talked backstage before his show at a reggae festival in Osaka in 1994 and he impressed enormously with his intelligent and thoughtful answers to my occasionally naïve questions.
Jamaica conferred its Order of Distinction on him in 2006 for his contribution to the development of reggae music and in 2011 the Jamaican musical community honoured him with a tribute concert.
Jamaica’s ambassador of reggae music, Bob Andy, took ‘time out’ before a recent show in Osaka to talk to John Potter
Ask anyone over a certain age if they remember the song ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ and their eyes should sparkle. They may also recall that this 1970 international hit was recorded by Bob and Marcia. Now known by their full names – Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths – they are two of the most important early stars of Jamaican music. Marcia was to find fame as a member of Bob Marley’s female trio, the I Threes and later as a solo artist. The other half of the duo, Bob Andy, after producing one of the early classics from the legendary Studio One with his album Songbook, then worked briefly with rock steady group the Paragons and since then as both solo artist and songwriter. Now based in Florida, where he also operates his own record company, he headlined the 10th Anniversary Reggae Japansplash tour earlier this year.
What started your interest in music?
I was always interested in all kinds of music. Growing up in Jamaica and getting exposed to early radio was a thrill. In those days we were able to tune in to short wave radio and we could listen to Cuba and Haiti and get different musical influences. I had an idea that I would be doing something in the field of entertainment when I was about 13 years old and I found out that I had some kind of musical talent when I sang in the church choir for a while.
You partnered Marcia Griffiths in the early days of reggae music. What was this period like?
I met Marcia at Studio One. We were sweethearts for ten years but we never actually married. Our joining into a musical duo was purely convenient. It was most surprising when it paid such handsome results. The interaction and dynamics that prevailed in the mid-60s at Studio One were very exciting. They were such intense, talented, forceful, aggressive people coming together. It was a very competitive but also cooperative spirit – more often than not another singer or singers would enjoy your project and extend themselves to be a part of it. They might offer you an alternative phrase to make your song better, and help you with some harmony. So I have to say the sixties, my early adolescent years, were some of the richest, having shared companionship with the Marleys, the Toshs, the Heptones. And when we started we never imagined how this thing would permeate the planet and we didn’t have a clue that we were creating history. I can say that today I’m a very proud person having gone about doing what I love – with a lot of struggle – and getting the kind of appreciation and recognition that we have is making it all worthwhile.
To what extent do you see yourself as a representative of Jamaican culture?
Even if you go out into the world thinking that you’re just going to be an artist, because of the demands that are placed on you by the media, your fans, promoters, government officials… you find yourself playing a much wider role than being just a singer or entertainer. In our case, the kind of music we have – the ethnicity and African associations – requires much more energy than just being a singer. So I’d say it is expected of us to be truly representative of the culture.
Reggae has a surprisingly large following in Japan. Why is this?
Well, it surprises me too and as this is my third trip here I’ve had time to think about it quite often. It’s the vast contrast. It’s almost as if the generation that has responded to Jamaican music is looking for some kind of new culture or art. Accomplished as they are in today’s world, in all aspects of technology and industry, the Japanese people seem to have retained the common touch. And as much as they are being bombarded with Western influences and goods, they are still pretty much firm in their own culture. Having that firm culture they have then become interested in a culture like ours which does not have the First World or great exposure… ours is a moving culture so to speak. Japanese culture has paid off in industry and technology, ours has paid off in the arts. Anyway, they love coffee and we have the best coffee. So that starts the relationship!
What do you think of some of the newer bands that play a kind of reggae, such as UB40?
One could hardly call UB40 a new band. I’d say they have become the acceptable face of reggae music – for obvious purposes and reasons. And that doesn’t mean that they don’t represent reggae music very well. You are speaking to someone at the moment who has a different outlook. I don’t call myself a reggae singer. Because I was singing before there was ska. I went through the ska, the rock steady, and the reggae phases and now I’m surviving the dancehall stage. So I would call myself an exponent of Jamaican music, because reggae is just one facet of Jamaican music – the one that Bob Marley internationalized so successfully. Of course UB40 are very good, but I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘proper reggae’… or proper pop. One comes across a good melody, a good hook line, music to go with it. People who love it respond by buying. I’m here to tell you that this is what matters and so I say, let UB40 live for ever! I’d rather have UB40 playing our music than hear what some DJs and rap stars do to it.
You have your own record label now.
Yes, I’ve had my own label, I-Anka, for ten years. I’m based in Florida now and the records are distributed in Japan through Alpha Enterprises. My work wasn’t being picked up by any of the major labels and I want to make records. I couldn’t just sit and wait so I moved myself. Being a small company it seems to be working out. But it’s a lot of hard work, trying to be both the artist and the businessman.
Do you have any plans for the immediate future?
Well, I have a new album coming out, which I call Spectrum. The new album moves away from music that people have associated me with and has ventured into new areas. Living in America I have exposed myself to ‘adult contemporary’. When it was called ‘middle of the road’ I always wanted to have a look inside those doors, and now I’m giving myself that opportunity. My whole attitude towards writing has changed. What people call reggae music is a music that requires a certain kind of attitude. The kind of voice I have requires a little different kind of measure to get the full effects. I wanted rather more sophisticated arrangements because I seem to have been stuck in a particular idiom all my artistic life. I’m bursting at the seams with excitement to see how the critics will respond to my work. Anyway, it’s already made. If they like or dislike it, it’s my work and I’m still growing. I’m not denying myself the privilege of trying something new just in order to hang on to a small set of devotees. I’m taking a risk with audiences.
(Kansai Time Out, No.208, June 1994)
Footnote: Spectrum, the new album that Bob Andy mentions in the interview, did not in fact materialize. Instead he released the album Hanging Tough (1997, Heavy Beat Records) which was produced by Willie Lindo.