M meets: Dave Barker

Dave Barker is a singer and songwriter from Kingston, Jamaica. His classic rocksteady and ska recordings have made him a cult hero around the world.

In 1971 Dave had a number one hit in the UK with the ska classic Double Barrel as one half of Dave and Ansell Collins. The duo followed this up with Monkey Spanner which was also a top ten hit. Double Barrel remains an enduring classic and has been covered by later Ska acts such as The Selecter and The Specials.

What were you listening to as you were growing up in Jamaica?
I was born and bred in Kingston, Jamaica and as a young boy aged nine or so I used to listen to a soul music radio station called WINC. They had a lot of live shows with people like The Impressions, The Temptations, The Drifters, James Brown, Clyde McPhatter and Jerry Butler. Of course they used to play a lot of English stuff too – Tom Jones, Lulu, Cliff Richard, Dusty Springfield – she was fantastic – and Matt Monroe just to name a few. I would listen to all these songs and be swept away, it was like being bathed in wonderful creative music all around.

Who did you take influence from?
I think I took influence from all of them because I find when I’m singing I can go into others tones, I can change my voice to how I see fit and I take certain styles from other artists as well as creating my own.

Were you known as a musical person from a young age?
At the time my parents weren’t too keen on me being involved in the singing business and said ‘You won’t make any money in that, we want you to become a doctor or lawyer or someone more important than just a singer’. But the music was so much in me that no matter what they said I used to get up and sing, sometimes for the whole day – I sang until I became hoarse and then carried on singing until it cleared itself. My aunty would sometimes come and take me to my gran’s place to see friends and they would ask me to sing. I would lean against the wall in the house and sing while I used my head as a drum against the wall!

How did you start recording?
Myself and two other guys formed a group and we used to practice every day. On this particular day the producer Glen Brown was visiting a house nearby and he heard us practicing. He came over and said ‘Man, how do you sing like that? You sound just like one of those American singers, it’s fantastic. I’d like us to join forces and make some songs together.’ I was glad of the opportunity. Glen was already recording and knew a lot of people like Tommy Cowan of The Jamaicans. So we went to the studio where Tommy worked and sang a few songs for him. Tommy then introduced us to the late Coxsone Dodd of Studio One for who we started recording a couple of songs.

Did you find it difficult to begin writing your own songs?
A bit, at first. I was listening to all these singers like Chuck Jackson and Ben E King who I would mimic. Then one day for some strange reason I said ‘I have to find my own voice, my own style.’ Something clicked. The way I found my style was to sing from the deepest part of me, from my core – whether it is pain or joy, you sing from the depths of your being. I tried it and it worked and from there I wrote what I felt and it became natural and easy. One of the songs I wrote with Glen for Coxsone Dodd called Lady Lovelight. I sat down with the guitarist and although I can’t really play I tuned the guitar in such a way that it made it easy for me to strum. The words and the melody just came because I was singing how I felt. At the time I was living rough, I didn’t have anywhere to stay – I used to sleep in cars and so on because my family went to the States, my Mum left me when I was about five and I was left almost alone in Jamaica. So I just came out with the words ‘Lady with the love light who shines on me..’

Well for some strange reason no matter what I am going through – it can be extremely rough and tough, I have this wonderful joy in me, it dwells in me all the time. At that time even though I was going through rough times I wanted to write a song to soothe others who were going through the same thing. It wasn’t something that I thought about, I just sang what I felt.

What do you remember about working on Double Barrel?
Winston Riley came and found me and asked me to join his group The Techniques after lead singer Pat Kelly left and I did quite quite a few songs with the group. I had started to make my own family and I was with them one day when Winston came over and said there’s a track he had that he wanted me to put a DJ-style voice on it somehow. We went to went to Joe Gibbs’ recording studio and that’s where I voiced Double Barrel. There was two tracks – Monkey Spanner which had already been recorded by Ansell Collins. Sly Dunbar played drums on both tracks. The tracks were made and given to Winston for me to put my voice on.

Double Barrel was put on the tape machine and played. I tried and tried but I couldn’t get into a vibe where the music was concerned. It sounded a bit strange to me as I was used to nice heavy-duty rocksteady stuff. Winston Riley with his brother Buster were in the control room above ground level. Buster Riley said to me: ‘Dave, just imagine you are on the highest mountain in the world and you feel mighty and big. You feel like James Bond.’ And then it came to me immediately, what instantly came into my head was ‘I am the magnificent and I’m backed by the shack of a soul boss most turnin’ stormin’ sound o’soul!’ Boom! And then ‘I am double u o, o, o and I’m still up here again’. I went right through spontaneously, in one take.

Were you surprised by the success of Double Barrel?
I was really surprised. I was paid the sum of $20, I then went and vocalled the track Monkey Spanner, again I got paid $20. The truth is, you do these tracks and you forget about them, they weren’t my real style of work. At the time Winston Riley and his family lived in West Street which is near Bond Street where Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle Studio was located. I used to be there nearly every day rehearsing with The Techniques – Winston Riley and Bruce Ruffin. There were other groups there of course, The Sensations were one. We would be just like a family – we’d eat together and sit on the steps outside to sing and a crowd would gather. We’d grab a big box of Red Stripe beer and do do all these sweet harmonies. This particular evening the phone rang inside the house and one of Winston’s family ran and said ‘There’s a call from London for you.’ Winston went inside and talked on the phone for quite a while. When he came outside he said he had his eyes wide open looking very excited. He sat down ad said: ‘Gentlemen. Stop the singing just for now. This you have to hear. That phone call was from Trojan Records and they said it seems that Double Barel was about to hit the number one spot in England.’ I said to myself ‘Are you crazy?’ I didn’t really like that kind of music personally and now they want us to jump on the first plane and come to England, like now! Everybody looked at each other in shock.

The following day we started to look for our passports. I didn’t have mine and one of the other guys didn’t have his, so it was a couple of days before we made it to the airport. It was during this time I finally got the chance to meet Ansell Collins. We boarded the BOAC plane to fly to London. It was the first time Ansell or I had been on a plane and as it came down the runway Ansell grabbed the armrest on the seat!

We reached London at about 10am in the morning, it was May in 1970. We were met there by some friends and they rushed us to Top Of The Pops. Everything happened so fast, it was like I was in another world which was extremely strange to me. Going to this place called ‘Top Of The Pops’ at the BBC and seeing Cliff Richard, Showaddywaddy and all these other singers I’d heard on the radio in Jamaica. I must admit that when it came for us to do our Double Barrel bit I was extremely nervous. It was like: ‘Take one! Dave, just try not to do so much, just relax yourself’. Relax! I couldn’t relax! I couldn’t even remember the words of the first part but somehow I managed to get through it.

At the time you had these Top Rank clubs in England and we used to do two or three shows a night. When we got to these clubs we found that there were these young people screaming at you and we were running to the car still putting our clothes on and they were trying to tear them back off! I said ‘These people really love our music so much?’.

At these shows we always came across a mass of guys and girls who were dressed in boots, jeans, braces and rude-boy hats with almost clean-shaven heads – some of them would look extremely vicious! I was told that they were the skinheads. Despite their appearance, it was amazing that when we went inside and played the music, the skinheads would dance the place down. It was one massive party. When I left the stage I would sometimes walk through the crowd and these young people would embrace me and pat me on the back, so I tip my hat to the skinheads.

Dave Barker takes to the stage at the O2 Academy Islington on Friday 4 May as part of the London International Ska Festival. The 7? single Phoenix City Allstars featuring Dave Barker – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow will be released at the event.