We met the legendary “Johnny Dollar” singer Roland Burrell in the yard of Soundwave Studio
(Interview: Gardy Stein, Photos: China Hopson):
Blessed Greetings! Could you start by introducing yourself?
Well, this is Roland Burrell, the original, the man who sing a song like “Johnny Dollar”, “Stormy Night” and all those tunes. I was born on April 3rd, 1951, in Clarendon, I go to school there. Then I leave come to Kingston and started recording from when I was 14 years old. I met Toots and Bob Marley and all those singers while I used to move around there.
Then, we form a group, it was four of us, and we did a tune named “Nuggets For The Needy”, the four of us do that. From deh so now the group split up, and then me deh on my own. I buk [= meet] this guy named Stanley [Beckford], from Stanley and the Turbines one time deh in Kingston, and he said “Let me get a work for you.” So then I start to work in New Kingston and I buk pon a youth named Trevor, and me and him start to move now from Allman Town. Him never was singing, we just move as a friend, you know, like a family.
And then now I buk this guy named Conroy Brown in Jones Town and me an him start to sing. Our name was The Shades and we have a tune called Lonely Man [produced by Harry Nicholson on the Action label]. And then from deh so now we go and on and on for a good while.
Then I buk this guy named Prince Huntley, he said he want jam with me, a group to sing, so we form this group now, me, Prince Huntley and Hugh Griffiths, and we do a song named Step It In Ballet. It was number 2 in the charts out here!
What was the name of the group?
Ebonies Brothers. From deh so again it’s like the group just mash up.
How did you record your hit song, Johnny Dollar?
So, I did one song for this guy Ansel Collins who used to play with Sly and Robbie, the tune used to play in the radio. He introduced me now to a guy named Tanka from New York. And Tanka said “Sing a song fi me now!” and me woulda sing this song, “Johnny Dollar”. And he liked this one and said “Sing a next song fi me!”, so me sing a next song and he say him want me fi come a studio on Monday fi voice. So that was in Channel One. I was waiting on some other man but him never come, so the promoter said “Better you voice the song alone and we get the harmonies put on after.” So what we do, I come lay the riddim with Sly and Robbie and I voice the song and they get it mixed and everything, right… Tanka, well, artists like Junior Moore, Derrick Lara, Earl 16, and one next singer, he was in the team. Me and one next group named Black Crucial, cause Black Crucial used to sing fi him first, and never make a hit. While me was the first artists who come ina di team right now who make a first hit fi him! Cause ina dem time deh, him have di song sidung pon a New York and him nah release di song. But the people dem said to him when him play di song “Mek di people dem hear!” cause it was cut pon Dub here about three years before it was released on ’45! It go number one pon Dub in Jamaica here… I never know seh a song could a go number one pon Dub! Cause the guy who cut the Dub, him say “Your song sell number one on Dub!” , and I say “Are you serious?” and him carry me go a studio and him show me the book, and it was full in Dubplate selling!
Anyway, people said when dis song release pon ’45 it a go shell again. So, Tanka come and fly down back in Jamaica, and him say “Well, you know, everybody is talking bout your song, so me sidung pon di number one song?” so him say to me seh “Roland, I’m a go release the song now!” So he come down and release it and it just a sell, nothing coulda stop it, it was a top tune in every record shop in Jamaica! That song sell it way up to number one. Three months in the charts and couldn’t come off, so the song bad. From deh so now, Tanka say him wanna do an album [Johnny Dollar on Tanka Productions, 1982], and after that him say we supposed to go England and sign with a company, cause my song it was a hit in England, like “Stormy Night” and the same one, “Johnny Dollar”. But me stop di thing cause me no want everybody fi sign cause me a di number one singer ina di team. But otherwise, me did other tune for other producer, like Sir Tommy, singles, tunes and whatever.
Did you ever play an instrument as well?
I used to play guitar, that’s how me compose. Even when I made “Johnny Dollar”, it’s me arrange my thing cause I never liked the riddim him give me. And so me just take me guitar and play and tell the bredrin who play lead guitar seh that’s how me want it. And him said it sound funny but me tell him that’s how me want it! (laughs) And it becomes a monster hit, you see, everyone start lick di riddim! Yellowman deh pon di riddim, Wickerman, Michael Palmer, a whole heap a artist is my riddim di whole a dem lick! Michigan & Smiley weh yuh see have “Diseases”, is my riddim! So Junjo Lawes lick the riddim cause him never want me fi sing a tune fe him, so him lick the riddim behind me and put Michigan and Smiley pon it, named “Diseases”. But it’s not the original that, cause my riddim a di original! So, many people de pon di riddim.
Did you ever receive revenues from the song? As you said it was a hit and often sold and played, so did you get cash from it?
Now, well, you see, ina dem time now, we didn’t too much check pon dat, undastand? We just know se we do tune and the tune go hit. So when it comes to mek the bigga money now, it’s like the producer get drop out. Ina dem time we no get no pay, we just sing! Because sometime we don’t want to make a name like you watch your money. It’s like we just sing and it pay off after a time!
So, after a time you still get paid?
Yes, copyright. Like you got PRS, and I sign up with a new company now, SoundExchange in America, and am supposed to get some royalties this month, every three months dem pay.
The royalties you get, is it enough to make a living?
Yeah man, it’s just music! Because, you see, we no do no other work but just music, that is our work. We live off a music. Special voice tune and stage show. You see, we nah get no money from the producer, and PRS is a company, a long time me nah hear from them, and me get no money from them longtime. Cause me used to get money from them like every two months. But since this company come in now, SoundEchange, they collect from all over the world and pay you.
Are you still active today?
Me still singing, yes! Caa you know we alive same way! Mi did voice 14 tune a Tuff Gong fi me cousin in New York, mixing now fi come a road. And di song dem a go shat, me know dat! [see most recent video below]
I have a likkle daughter weh my cousin do some combination wid, a foreign, I don’t even know her name right now, trust me, but otherwise we work pon stage and dem ting de, but we work on combination. Me have a likkle nephew weh just me and him do a combination de other day, and it come out very good. Him name Chevaughn Burrell.
And do you still perform as well?
Yes! Just the other day I go California and kill down di place, and then go LA and kill dung di place… and then last time me go to Brazil, thousand of people, like a whole city of people! Me, Big Youth…
Was it the Rockers Show?
Yes, The Rockers! With Kush Art, Kiddus-I and all a dem.
What did you sing?
(sings) “Anywhere you go, it’s the same cry, money worries, money worries…” and everybody just a rock so in a di crowd, the people dem love it!
So, you are still available for tours and shows?
Yes, I’m ready to travel any minute, any time! I’m fit and ready!
Thank you so much Mr. Burrell!
Contact: Roland Burrell on Facebook