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Artist Hall of Fame

Harry ‘Harry J’ JohnsonText by Harry Hawks

One of the first Jamaican record producers to enjoy overseas hits Harry J went on to make the most of his international connections. His state of the art recording complex on Roosevelt Avenue was the studio of choice throughout the seventies for the musicians and artists who followed his lead in taking reggae music out of Kingston’s ghettos and onto the worldwide stage.
Date Added: Apr 11, 2013, Date Updated: Apr 12, 2013 Copyright (C) 2018 Dub Store Sound Inc.
Real Name: Harry Zephaniah Johnson
Jul 6, 1945 - Apr 6, 2013
Place of Birth: Westmoreland
Jamaica
Related Artist(s):
Bob Andy
Marcia Griffiths
Heptones
Joe Higgs
Lloyd Robinson
Lorna Bennett
Sheila Hylton
King Kong
Red Dragon
Screw Driver
Cocoa Tea
Harry Zephaniah Johnson(Harry Johnson), born 6th July 1945 in the parish of Westmoreland, started a band named The Virtues in which he played bass guitar after watching Byron Lee & The Dragonaires perform on stage in the early sixties. The band never released any records and soon got into financial difficulties so, as well as his then full time job as a warehouse manager, Harry became the band's manager. His next job was as an insurance salesman for a Canadian company called Confederation Life. As the decade drew to a close the rock steady beat started to speed up, faster reggae rhythms began to take over, and Harry J became one of the first to record this new style of music.

"'For them to dance like that you have to have the music going like that.' And I saw my big opportunity there and I produce about three songs..." Harry J

The second of those three songs, 'No More Heartaches' by The Beltones, eventually became a massive hit. The Beltones had already hit for Mr Dodd(CS Dodd) with 'Dancing Time' and 'Smile Like An Angel' and, making use of his experience gained from selling insurance to move his music, Harry travelled around Kingston's record shops and distributors trying to sell his record with the brand new beat. 'No More Heartaches' was driven by a fabulous, frantic rhythm and eventually caught on with the record buying public. He recalled the first time he heard his record played on the radio.

"Then one day somebody said they were going to play the record at the radio station and I was passing Half Way Tree at the bus stop so I stopped like the car break down and turn up the radio and there was this record playing... The Beltones." Harry J

In late 1968 'No More Heartaches' reached the Number One spot in Jamaica and was also a sizable underground hit in the UK where it was released on the Trojan label. Harry recorded the follow up, 'Cuss Cuss' by Lloyd Robinson, at Studio One with the unmistakable backing of Coxsone's house band The Sound Dimension. This dense, churning song went on to become one of the most popular, and most versioned, rhythms in the history of Jamaican music. And so, after only a handful of releases to his credit, Harry J was rapidly recognised as a seriously significant up and coming record producer.

His 'Liquidator', an organ instrumental over the rhythm of a minor hit, 'What Am I To Do Now' by Tony Scott featuring the inimitable keyboard talents of Winston Wright, became one of the first Jamaican records to cross over into the UK National Charts when it hit the Number Nine position in Autumn 1969. Released on his own London based Harry J subsidiary label the record was credited to The Harry J All Stars who included, as well as the aforementioned Winston Wright, session luminaries Hux Brown and Boris Gardiner. Its haunting Hammond organ refrain has ensured its status as a 'golden oldie' still regularly played on UK radio. It was also adopted by Chelsea Football Club fans as the club's unofficial anthem and its popularity at Stamford Bridge has never diminished. The distinctive introduction and bass line from 'Liquidator' became the subject of a legal battle when USA Gospel based group, The Staple Singers, used it for 'I'll Take You There' in 1972.

"We tried in court but we just didn't get through because he claimed he didn't know anything about it. He said it was just a coincidence." Harry J

In March 1970 Harry J's upbeat version of Nina Simone's anthemic 'Young, Gifted And Black' by Bob (Bob Andy) and Marcia (Marcia Griffiths), with a string arrangement by Johnny Arthey, soared to Number Five in the UK National Charts. They followed this up the following year with a version to 'Pied Piper' which reached a respectable Number Eleven in the UK National Charts.

Harry J then set up the Harry J Record Shop in the Kingston Arcade at 79 King Street. He decided to sell the shop when "somebody made me an offer" to open up a jewellery store on the premises. His next venture was to open his own state of the art recording studio at 10 Roosevelt Avenue in Kingston 6 with the assistance of Island Records' Chris Blackwell in 1972.

"And I was thinking of getting an eight track and then he said 'Boy, why not get a sixteen track?' and he could get credit for me, he said, and that's where it started." Harry J

The electronics were installed by Bill Garnett and the first studio engineer was Sid Bucknor and, when Sid moved to London in 1974, Sylvan Morris took over the controls. Sylvan had begun working in the recording business at WIRL with Graeme Goodall and, at the age of nineteen, had succeeded Sid Bucknor at Studio One where he stayed for six years until he moved on to Roosevelt Avenue.

"Sylvan Morris was at Coxsone's studio before moving to Harry J. Plenty of people don't talk about that engineer. And Sylvan Morris was an engineer and technician all in one. You understand? Is he teach Errol Thompson..." Bunny Striker Lee

The combination of Sylvan Morris' proven prowess on the board and the some of the best equipment on the island ensured Harry J's premier role in Kingston's recording studio hierarchy.

"It might use more sophisticated recording techniques... but the same basic feel remains." Harry J

Countless classic and internationally successful Jamaican albums, including Bob Marley & The Wailers' 'Burnin'' and 'Natty Dread' and Bunny Wailer's 'Protest', were recorded and mixed at 10 Roosevelt Avenue but he never lost sight of the roots of the music either and Harry also rented out the studio to local hit makers including Bunny Striker Lee and Roy Cousins of The Royals. Harry J continued to produce his own classic releases too and recorded two of Bob Andy's greatest ever tunes, 'Life' and 'You Don't Know', and Joe Higgs' almighty 'Wave Of War'. Island Records enjoyed great success in the UK with his productions including the moving 'This Is Reggae Music' from Zap Pow featuring an uncredited Beres Hammond, two albums from The Heptones, 'Book Of Rules' and 'Night Food', and Lorna Bennett's sultry version of 'Breakfast In Bed'. This release was coupled with a superb and extremely witty deejay version from Dave 'Scotty' Scott, entitled 'Skank In Bed', which stopped two thirds of the way through for some studio banter before Scotty orders "Rhythm come forward!".

In the early eighties Harry hit again with Sheila Hylton's interpretation of 'The Bed's Too Big Without You', which featured Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare(Sly & Robbie), and as the dance hall boom got under way he came forward with an unstoppable series of seven inch releases on his Sunset and 10 Roosevelt Ave labels. Featuring name brand deejays such as Yellowman and Welton Irie and a multitude of not so well known names these records proved hugely popular in Jamaica and all around the Caribbean.

"It's from a pride thing.... I'm back in the business big and strong." Harry J

Following a number of years of relative inactivity in the nineties, Stephen Stewart refurbished, re-equipped and re-opened the legendary Harry J Studio in 2000. Stephen was not only a recording engineer who trained under Sylvan Morris but also a producer and musician and, under his auspices, the studio became extremely busy in the New Millennium with an array of local and international talent including Burning Spear, Luciano, Shaggy, Sizzla and Shakira.
"He had the vision to step up the technology of his studio. To record on sixteen track was a big thing back then..." Stephen Stewart
With his characteristic business like approach to making music Harry J produced countless hits and crossover hits and facilitated the making of thousands more for other producers. His forward thinking, groundbreaking production techniques and the wealth of music that emanated from his Roosevelt Avenue studio were critical to the development of Jamaican music and are an everlasting legacy to Harry '\label|Harry J|||' Johnson that will never be forgotten.

Harry's daughter, Tara Johnson, told the Jamaica Observer that, after a long battle with diabetes, her father had died at the Savanna-la-Mar Hospital in his native Westmoreland on 6th April 2013. He is survived by four children and three grandchildren. All at Dub Store extend their sincere condolences to Harry Johnson's family and friends at this very sad time.

Sources:
Beth Lesser: Harry J Reggae Quarterly Volume One Number Six 1985
Apr 11, 2013 (Apr 12, 2013 Update) Text by Harry Hawks
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