Irie vibrations at Harry JThursday, February 06, 2020
BY KEVIN JACKSON
Five of the albums Bob Marley and The Wailers did for Island Records were recorded at Harry J Studios in Kingston — Catch A Fire and Burnin' (both released in 1973); 1974's Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration (1976) and Exodus ( 1977).
Each made charts in the United Kingdom and United States.
Tara Johnson, daughter of producer Harry “Harry J” Johnson said recording the Marley albums helped raise the facility's profile.
“To have all of five of Bob Marley's albums recorded in the space does speak a lot about the environment and its capabilities. There is a lot of detail that goes into providing a local professional space that is capable of not only international standard technology and state-of-the-art equipment, but also curated for talent locally and from all over the world to be comfortable to record,” she said.
In 1970, Johnson acquired a 16-track mixing console, said to be one of only five in the world. At the time, most studios were recording on four and five-track equipment.
According to Tara, her father, who died in 2013, shared stories of Marley and his team's time at the studio.
“Most of the stories he told me, involved the late hours that they used to work to record the albums. They would start in the late evening, going straight into the morning. As the owner, my father mostly passed through and spoke with Chris Blackwell (Island Records founder), giving advice on the direction of the projects, while he observed Bob's passion and ritualistic way in which he would record his music,” said Johnson.
Located at 10 Roosevelt Avenue (since renamed Herb McKenley Drive), Harry J Studio was established in the early 1970s. The elder Johnson was from Westmoreland and previously worked as an insurance salesman.
He began producing music in 1968 when he launched the Harry J label with the hit song No More Heartaches by The Beltones. He later produced Cuss Cuss, an even bigger hit by singer Lloyd Robinson.
Johnson also released music through a subsidiary label called Jaywax. International success came in 1969 with the instrumental The Liquidator, which was recorded by his session band, The Harry J All Stars. It reached number nine on the British pop chart; its opening lines are sampled for The Staple Singers' monster 1972 hit, I'll Take You There.
Johnson was also responsible for Sheila Hylton's hit song, The Bed's Too Big Without You, originally done by The Police.
Other hits by Johnson included Book of Rules and Country Boy by The Heptones and Bob and Marcia's Young Gifted and Black.
At its peak, Harry J Studio was a “must stop” for famous artistes including The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Grace Jones.
Tara Johnson co-manages the facility with her brother Dane.
“The studio is currently active since it was re-equipped and renovated in 2019. We are accommodating large-scale commercial production and projects. Our newest venture is 'Set List', where we open the studio to the public for emerging acts to showcase their skills with a prepared set list, while the established act for that staging inculcates technical skills to the emerging act through music while the audience watches. We have had three stagings thus far and there is a special Reggae Month Edition of Set List on February 13 at the studio,” she said.
Johnson is aware of the studio's history.
“I have a strong understanding of the timeline of events and growth of the space as well as my father's thought process at the time as he developed his career. With a space filled with so much history since the 1970s to this day time is difficult to reflect on all the great memories that took place,” she said.
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