Bob Marley Magazine: When did reggae music first get your attention?
Ron Rhoades: What attracted me to reggae music back in 1968 was the beat. It wasn’t called reggae back then. It was “rock steady” as reggae was being born. The first reggae songs that I remember were “HOLD ME TIGHT” by Johnny Nash and “THE ISRAELITES” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. I didn’t know it was reggae or Jamaican or anything other than they had great beats that I had neverheard. I bought the “Hold Me Tight” single and played it to death. Next I bought the Hold Me Tight album and noticed that it was recorded in Jamaica. Also at that time there was an article in Rolling Stone magazine about the Jamaican rude boys and the scene in general and it had a lot of answers for me about the music. I can’t tell you how happy I was to have “discovered” a new beat, lifestyle etc. Another discovery back then was I found out the Jamaicans smoked herb, they called them “spliffs”, we called them “reefers” but got the same results.
I didn’t try playing the new beats (no one else to play with) until the best movie of all time “THE HARDER THEY COME” was released. I don’t recall how many times I saw that film, with and without subtitles, but it changed my life forever. Not only me but many of my friends and musicians at the time. Everyone was stoked with this film and a reggae “scene” started to emerge in Berkeley. With the release of the Wailers’ first album “CATCH A FIRE” in 1972 the “scene” began to grow. Also Johnny Nash released an album called “I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW” that had a lot of cool reggae songs on it (including songs by Bob and Rita Marley) and an explanation of the music itself which was way cool. I still love those records and play them often. In 1973 The Wailers came to San Francisco and played 5 nights at a club called The Matrix in North Beach to promote “CATCH A FIRE” and I got to go to 3 of the shows. It was the first “live” reggae music I had heard or seen and I got to get close to the small stage and observe the techniques the musicians used to play this music. I was blown away. Music was never the same for me after those shows. I went on stage after one of the shows and checked out the drums and bass amp to get an idea how to make this wonderful music.
Joe Higgs had replaced Bunny Wailer on percussion and also sang a few of his songs which were great too. Now there’s a real buzz going around about this “new” music from Jamaica. What an exciting time it was (now I’m beginning to feel my age!!). I began looking for musicians who felt about this music as I did. All the musicians I knew were rock and roll guys and for a time I thought I would never find people to try and play this new music. My rock and roll friends thought I was crazy (some still do!) and would have nothing to do with the new sound. A few guys liked reggae but would never comit to playing it. I finally convinced some of the guys I was playing r&b with to listen to some of my Jamaican recordings and before long we were trying our hand at reggae. We convinced a local club owner (Malcolm Williams at the Longbranch Saloon in Berkeley) that reggae was going to be the next big thing and to give us a night to make it happen which he did.
God bless you Malcolm wherever you are. We changed our name from KNEE DEEP to THE TITANS and began promoting every Sunday night as reggae night. We failed at first, for a number of reasons, but built the night into a monster. A lot of people thought we had made up this beat and so we began to tell the crowds about the Wailers, Johnny Nash and anything Jamaican that we knew of.There were no reggae sections in the record stores at that time. Reggae could only be found in the import section under West Indies or Carribean music. Most were Trojan records and cost about $4.99 at the time. I bought as many of these recordings as I could find and shared them with whoever wanted to listen. I still have most of these old records. About this time I met a Jamaican student, Tony Wright (Moses) who took me under his wing and began to tell me the “real” story of Jamaican music. He was very excited that we were trying to play reggae and introduced me to records by Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown etc. the old school stuff. He also introduced me to the Jamaican single with the dub version on the b-side and dub music just sent me to the moon.
The greatest sound I ever heard. King Tubby became an instant hero to me. Thank you Tony!! In 1974 a rocker friend brought me (I was the reggae freak) an album by a band named G.T. Moore and the Reggae Guitars. It was an English import and some of the musicians were white guys which made it ok for me to be playing reggae as a non Jamaican. Plus I had Tony’s blessing. I have always been made to feel uncomfortable playing black music for no other reason than I’m white. I soon began meeting the “purists” and felt a little confused. You see, I never became a rastafarian or talked with a phony Jamaican patois or any of that stuff. Reggae to me was, and will always be, the beat, the singers, the songs and the dubs. I’m not Jamaican. I’m an American musician who loves reggae. I have heard my share of “you can’t play reggae ’cause your not Jamaican”. In 1974, THE SHAKERS were born out of all this madness.
We continued to play Sundays at the Longbranch and packed people in. It was the greatest time. We were not only playing reggae live but educating people as well to this great music.”Our next song is “Better Must Come” by Delroy Wilson. Go and buy his records”. Tony Wright started spinning records and “dj-ing” on our breaks and even though the crowd couldn’t understand his patois they went nuts. It was like,”what the heck is this”? In 1975, TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS, DENNIS BROWN and INNER CIRCLE all came to the bay area to do 3 shows at Bill Graham’s Winterland ballroom. The promoter hired a local soul band to open the shows and I felt it should’ve been us so I sent a telegram to Toots Hibbert at Winterland on the first night telling him who we were and that we would like to open their shows. He was on it and had the promoter hire us for the next two shows on Saturday and Sunday, July 12 and 13 1975. I will never forget that.
Toots became a good friend and brought the show to “our house” the Longbranch the next week where we of course got to open again. Remember, we were the only reggae act around at that time. After seeing us at Winterland, Toots called us “yankee reggae” and seemed to love us and want to help us get the beat. They all came to a dinner party held at a friends house where we got to know them all and talk reggae music. That’s when I realized that reggae would be my life. We played Sunday nights at the Longbranch for more than a year, packing them in, and were signed to Elektra/Asylum records in November ’75 (the first American reggae band to do so) after sending demo’s to every record label that we could find. Many labels were interested. The local papers were writing great articles about us, and reggae, and we were off on our careers. The record was called “YANKEE REGGAE” and was released on April first 1976. We toured all over the U.S. that year and got to play with groups like THIRD WORLD, TOOTS again, (many times over the years) and a bunch of rock bands that had hits at the time. Except for the reggae shows no one had a clue what we were doing and crowds would yell “rock and roll” at us and stuff.
We decided not to play with rock groups any more after that!! “YANKEE REGGAE” had two singles that did well for us “SOME GUYS HAVE ALL THE LUCK” and the Equals’ (Eddie Grant) “BABY COME BACK”. After touring, we came back home and began recording demo’s for our second album. The talk was we were to go out again with BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS as we were signed to the same booking agency, ABC. We sent our manager to find Bob Marley and ask if he would produce our next record. Bob agreed, if we would do some of his songs. This was, to us, the stamp of approval that we felt we needed to become a serious reggae band. For people to take us seriously even though we were white kids.We went to L.A. to meet with the president of Elektra records and pitch the Marley as producer scenario.We had so much confidence because Bob Marley was huge to us. Joe Smith, president of Elektra, flat out turned us down. We (I should say our producer, Chuck Plotkin) had spent too much money on the production of “Yankee reggae” and he actually said to us, “how many hit records does Bob Marley have”? Now remember this was before Bob became the “king of reggae” and we said “well, he’s Jamaican and we could learn so much from him” and we were turned down flat and dropped from the label a few weeks later. “What is this reggae music anyway. Kids wanna rock out”. It was the saddest day yet for THE SHAKERS.
BMM: And then…?
RR: After the Joe Smith rejection and eventual drop from the label, we became depressed at the reality of the “industry”, we were confused. We all loved reggae as musicians but the rest of the world didn’t have the same enthusiasm. Reggae was not going to be the “next big thing”. The radio stations, record companies and club owners didn’t get behind the music and promote it. They just let it go. Very sad. From our perspective, we never thought reggae would “take over” the industry. We come from the school of “a good song, is a good song” no matter what style of riddim it has. We were hoping that radio would feel the same way. Not a chance. It felt like reggae would just slip away. At around this time, something, very strange to us, happened to reggae. Chris Blackwell and Island Records began a massive promotion of the red, gold and green Rastafarian movement with Bob Marley as its spokesman.
Gone were the Delroy Wilsons and Ken Boothes. Why weren’t these guys being signed to major labels? I know the reason now, but I didn’t then. Bob Marley had a kind of magical, hypnotic way of telling his story. He was a great rhythm guitar player in one of the best, most influential bands ever. I just couldn’t let go of my “pop” tunes. That’s the music I was brought up on. Besides, I wasn’t Jamaican or black. So many great Bob Marley songs I can’t sing because I’m not a rastafarian. I am not an imitator. People would laugh at me if I sang “Slave driver” or “400 years” etc. I have sang “Stir it up” “Soul rebel” “Nice time” and some others though. The Shakers began making reggae versions of all kinds of songs. We sort of prided ourselves on our Beatles covers and reggae covers of hit songs from the past and present. We still do. During the winter of ’76/’77 the original Shakers broke up. One of the guys in the band got real disilusioned and quit and moved to Hawaii. We lost both guitar players and our keyboard player all at once. The bass player and myself set out to reform the band.
Now there seemed to be reggae bands poping up all over the place and there were musicians around that wanted to play reggae.We auditioned a bunch of guys and picked up two guitarists and another keyboard player and returned to performing live shows. Well, it wasn’t all that easy, I had to teach the keyboard player all the reggae riddims. It took him a while to get the “bubble” down. It’s not easy. I taught myself all the parts back when there were no reggae musicians. I set my drums up in my bedroom and muffled them with towels and stuff so I wouldn’t drive the neighbors nuts or risk bodily harm and “woodsheded” untill I thought I had some beats down. The “one drop” (prominent in those days) was so hard. I was used to a completely different style of drumming but I got it. I have had a lot of great Jamaican teachers over the years. Guys like “Tinlegs” Adams, Santa Davis, Sly Dunbar, Hux Brown, Tony Chin, Chinna Smith, Earl Zero and George “Fully” Fulwood. Roger Steffans is a good friend and has always set me straight on the Marley connection, but also understands where I’m coming from.
The beat. The “new” Shakers began playing a lot of gigs but we never recaptured what the original band had done. The reggae “spark” was gone. We sure weren’t The Wailers. Club owners and promotors were reluctant to hire us because we were white, but we still had some lingering hype from the major label connection and were able to book some shows around the Bay Area. A friend of mine owned a small recording studio called Tewksbury Recorders (the Jamaicans called it “channel two”) and we began recording as much as we could. We didn’t have money and recorded late nights. Midnight to as long as we could still get work done. Often untill 8 or 9 am. We have some great recordings from those days. When we tried to “shop” some of these tapes in L.A. we were told “no thanks, it’s reggae”. It wasn’t just music. It was reggae music and they weren’t interested whether the songs were good or not. Reggae was becoming a negative thing of the past, except for Bob Marley and Island Records.
BMM: What are your musical roots? What types of music most influenced you as a youth?
RR: My mother taught me to sing as a small child. She also was musically inclined and taught me what she knew on the instruments we had around the house. An old guitar, a wheezing old electric keyboard. I used to bang on rubbish cans and sing for the neighbors on a hill behind our house so mom bought me a set of drums which I thrashed on untill all the drum heads were busted and the cymbals bent up, but I really loved playing those drums. I also loved to sing. The music that most influenced me as a teenager was THE BEACH BOYS and THE BEATLES. I knew that I wanted to be like them. I wanted girls swarming all over me telling me how great I was. I wanted to have long hair and be rebelious and make parents and teachers cringe when they saw me coming. I wanted to write the songs the whole world listened to.
I got a real set of drums when my school grades came up and eventually joined a teen group called “The motley crew “and moved to Berkeley to become a pop star. Of course that didn’t happen (the pop star bit) but I did hook up with some older guys who taught me how to be a musician. Stuff like dynamics, songwriting, when to go big and when to lay back. One of the most important things they taught me was “there’s only ten slots in the Billboard top ten and we aint gonna be one of them”. The lesson was, even though we most likely won’t be “superstars” that doesn’t mean we can’t be a band and have fun playing music. Another thing they taught me was the importance of rehearsing which we did on a daily basis. Music gigs was the only form of income any of us had. Some of the guys had girl friends that worked during the day to pay for things like food and rent so they were ok but the other guys depended solely on live gigs to provide these things. Guess what? WE STARVED IF WE WEREN’T WORKING!!! I later learned this was called “paying your dues”. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like paying my dues. I was hungry and homeless and tried to have as many girl friends as I could just to be able to stay alive and not sleep in a park somewhere.
BMM: What is your favourite song of Bob Marley and why? RR: “African Herbsman” from the Trojan album of the same name. Why?
Because it had such a great influence on my adult musical career. It is one of the greatest reggae records of all time to me. I had never heard anything like that kind of music before.
BMM: What do you think about Rasta faith, Rasta religion?
RR: Faith and religion have everything to do with our lives but nothing to do with our music. We have a lot of rasta friends because they’re great people, not because they’re rastas or anything else.
BMM: What’s the future of Reggae music?
RR: I’m hoping that kids that aren’t even born yet will get a hold of grandpas old King Tubby recordings and want to play that kind of music. I hope they go on a search to find the “roots” of this music and re-discover THE WAILERS, KEN BOOTHE, DELROY WILSON ecc… and so many great artists whose music will never be heard by the masses unless someone comes along who can “faithfully translate” these old recordings into something that can be made to be popular by everyone. I guess that’s what THE SHAKERS and UB-40 have always tried to do. It’s so hard to capture that old sound in this digital age. We don’t have the instruments and mics and recording equipment that the originals were made on and I feel that those “sounds” are gone forever. I can’t see any of us going back to recording on four tracks but maybe that’s exactly what we need to do. Someone will, I just don’t think they’re born yet. So I hope the future of reggae somehow includes the past. I hope we all learn to enjoy reggae music and not care what color or what religion the musicians and singers are and I hope the “industry” plays a song because it’s a good song no matter what kind of beat it has.
BMM: And what is the future of THE SHAKERS?
RR: As for THE SHAKERS’ future, we live on the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands.We have lived and performed here for ten years. We have two cd’s, “Strictly Pleasure” on the Hi-Town label out of Honolulu and “Good Days Ahead” on our own Koloa Dub Lab label. We are now recording our third cd to be released in the spring of 2001 and featuring the songs of Ron and Ronnie Rhoades who continue to be THE SHAKERS. We take great pride in being the FIRST American reggae band to be signed by a major label. No one else can say that. Bob Marley and The Wailers were, and will always be, a huge influence not only on us, but all of reggae music. The sound of the century.
BMM: Thank you very much for the interview
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