One of the living legends of Jamaican ska music, Dandy Livingstone is best known for the classic singles Rudy, A Message To You and Suzanne Beware of the Devil.
In the late 1960s he also became a record producer, helming international hits by Nicky Thomas and Tony Tribe.
Tomorrow he plays at Unity Works in Wakefield with the Neville Staple Band and The Indecision on a bill dubbed 3 Generations of Ska.
You moved to Britain from Jamaica when you were 15 years old. How did you find London and its music scene compared to your home town, Kingston?
The Jamaican music scene back then was just about to make stride. On the radio there were singers like Fats Dominoes, Little Richard, Lloyd Price, etc. The local singers weren’t as popular on the radio at that time. Arriving in Britain I can remember hearing a few American pop singers and also UK singers like Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, Matt Monro and a few skiffle groups.
How did you come to release your early singles, on Carnival Records, in the guise of a duo, Sugar and Dandy?
While going to school, Lee Gopthal who eventually became the head of Trojan Records, had a “record mail order” business. I some how met up with him and began selling a few Jamaican records door to door in my Neighborhood for him. Lee Goptal knew I was interested in becoming a recording artists, so he made an arrangement with Carnival Record boss Dave Crawford, who was also part owner of Radio Caroline which was a pirate radio station. I did an audition for Carnival Records which was successful, and did my first recording session for them in the summer of 1964. The producer at the time said that something was missing from the chorus of the songs, so I double tracked my voice and some how I came up with the name Sugar and Dandy.
What inspired you to write Rudy A Message To You in 1967?
I was inspired to write Rudy A Message To You because of what was happening in Jamaica with the rude boy scene at the time. There were a lot of problem youths in Jamaica at the time, getting into trouble and rebelling on the streets. My song was to reach out and tell them, that was not the way. If they carried on that way, they would probably end up in jail. Obviously, the same lyrics can be just as relevant in any country in any decade since, as the same issues seem to repeat themselves with different political and social unrest and discontent among the youths.
Were you pleased when the song became a 2-Tone anthem – via The Specials’ cover version, which featured Rico Rodriguez, who you worked with – a decade or so later?
There were a lot of problem youths in Jamaica at the time, getting into trouble and rebelling on the streets. My song was to reach out and tell them, that was not the way. If they carried on that way, they would probably end up in jail.
Naturally I was extremely pleased, because it was the first time a popular group recorded one of my songs. To have a top band like the Specials not only covering it, but also putting it out to the bigger World and making it a top chart hit, was fantastic. Bands like that helped to bring Jamaican music to the masses. Then decades later, I think I made some sort of sub-culture music history, when I then performed the song at the Skamouth Weekender, where Neville Staple (of the Specials) joined me on stage. The fans couldn’t stop cheering. They loved it as much as I did. This was my first live appearance in the UK in well over 40 years too! And the brilliant Rico Rodriguez played on the original ‘Rudy, A Message To You’, so it was great news that several years later he played on the Specials version too. That was very cool.
After a spell at Trojan Records, in the 1970s you began producing records for other artists. What do you remember of making Suzanne Beware of the Devil?
I had the title in my head for a while and eventually recorded it in Jamaica in January 1972. I didn’t dream it would be so widely played for decades to come. I guess the lyrics can relate to so many people out there who are having a tough time, with a partner who won’t quite commit and gives you a lot of heartache. Lyrics like that will always be relevant, so put that with a catchy reggae background and I guess it becomes quite timeless.
Who had the idea of doing the Neil Diamond song Red Red Wine in a reggae style?
In 1969 I went into RG Jones recording studio to record three songs, after recording the songs, I looked at the clock and there was 10 minutes studio time remaining. I then had a crazy idea to record Red Red Wine there and then. The thought of doing it was always lingering in my head and in those days, you made the most of every minute, every second that you had paid for studio time. There was no technology like today’s computerised recording, you had to just get on a play it and do it, so I grabbed the opportunity.
You left the music world in the late 1970s yet interest in your records never really went away. Were you surprised when Trojan started reissuing your old material 15 years ago?
Well, as I said earlier, most of this music is timeless and the Trojan people really know their stuff. I was fortunate to ensure my songs were properly registered. So no, to be honest, I wasn’t surprised, they are in the business to make money and making money means I get some royalties, so it’s all good.
Do we have Neville and Christine Staple to thank for persuading you to return to performing after all these years?
Christine ‘Sugary’ Staple contacted me in 2014 to perform at Skamouth 2015, I told her to let me think about it. She contacted me again after 4 months and I still wasn’t sure. She said: “Dandy, people really want to see you, I would love for you to come, but if you don’t want to perform you can just come and do a meet and greet with your fans”. I got to know her over the months and not only did I feel at ease with her approach, she really seemed to know what she was doing and appeared to be respected in the music scene. Lots of other Jamaican artists had performed at Skamouth; and many still want to. We later met up during one of Christine’s regular trips to Jamaica with husband Neville Staple and we all became friends. So I guess I just had to do it and felt honoured to do it. Even more so when I arrived to such a warm, cheering crowd. Some of them went ecstatic! I ended up both performing and doing the meet and greet. Many of the fans knew so much about me and my music. There is so much respect for this music scene in the UK. What an amazing place!
Your UK tour is billed as ‘3 Generations of Ska’. Are you heartened that the music remains very much alive and well 50 years on from that early Blue Beat scene?
I have found it both heartening and at times overwhelmingly pleasing that the ska and reggae scene is still so much alive. I have had fans telling me how they still adore all the artists and the music involved. There are even young people following the scene now. It makes me so proud to think that all these years on, there are bars, festivals, events and venues, like all the 3 Generations of Ska venues, who have crowds of fans coming along to celebrate the original artists, as well as bands who have covered our music and spin-offs since. I have the Paradimes backing me and they are a superb band. There will also be Neville Staple and his Band, who are brilliant plus a very cool local ska band. Yes, I am truly heartened and really looking forward to it.
3 Generations of Ska, Unity Works, Wakefield, Friday April 15, 7pm. http://www.unityworks.co.uk/event/3-generations-of-ska/