LINER NOTES FOR TUFF GONG ENCOUNTER
written by Vincent C. Ellis
For years there have been rumors Keith Hudson recorded a batch of tracks with the Wailers Band shortly before his death, the scant documentary record usually attributes these recordings to a session or two in New York in the Fall of 1984. I first became aware of the possibility that these tracks were actually recorded at Tuff Gong in June of 1984 by Keith himself, in my last phone conversation with him in May of 1984. As an ardent follower of his music, I made contact with him that Spring at his shop in Jamaica, Queens, New York. He told me he was heading to Jamaica the following month, and that he was excited to be working on a new album with Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and his brother Carlton, the renowned rhythm section for Bob Marley and the Wailers. As I hung up the phone, my mind reeled at the prospect of what was to come, as Keith’s positive energy and vision of the future had me expecting all sorts of musical adventures from the man who had created the classic “Flesh of My Skin” and “Rasta Communication” LP’s in the seventies. Little did I know that the songs he recorded with the Wailers that summer would be his last work, and that it would take another thirty-one years for them to see the light of day. Here is the story of Keith Hudson and his final trip to Tuff Gong Studios.
Keith Hudson was born on March 18, 1946 at Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, and christened Lloyd Lindberg Hudson by his father Dudley Hudson and his mother Ruth Linton. The middle name Lindberg was a tribute to the famed aviator Charles Lindberg, the first man to cross the Atlantic by airplane in 1927. Dudley was a machinist at the Machado Tobacco Company. Ruth was a Christian Revivalist who traced her lineage back to the Linton Revivalists of Montego Bay. Ruth nicknamed her pride and joy Keith, a name he would officially adopt in 1968. Keith attended Boys Town School in Kingston, and was a paperboy for the Star newspaper. One of his favorite stops was a dental lab run by a Mr. Henry. They struck up a friendship, and Keith was soon working as his apprentice. Henry’s Dental Lab created dentures and artificial teeth, a trade Keith would take up when he started his own lab in 1964 at the age of 18. Keith met a young woman that year named Norma Clarke, she was a dancer along with her brother Aubrey in a group called “The Little Twisters”. Keith and Norma fell in love and moved in together at 24 Cassia Crescent in the Tower Hill area of Kingston. A year later their son Ricky was born, followed by daughters Debbie and Denise in 1966 and 1969 respectively.
It was in 1969 that Keith changed professions and opened his Inbidimts Record Shop on South Parade, the store and record label named after a dental term meaning foundation. Keith had grown restless of the ‘white coat’ business, and was hanging out a lot at the famed Idlers Lane in downtown Kingston where he made the acquaintance of several top musical artists including singer Ken Boothe. Keith approached him with a song called “Old Fashioned Way”, a bouncy rocksteady tune about loving an unfaithful woman. Keith’s own musical lineage is a bit unclear, his great grandfather was in a band in Cuba, but claims he first wrote the tune “Shades of Hudson” for the Skatalites when he was 15 in 1961 appear not to be true. As DJ Dennis Alcapone told me, “Keith would say some things to build himself up a little bit when he first started, just to get his name going.”
“Old Fashioned Way” proved quite popular, and despite no formal training in the musical arts, Keith showed a real knack for creating rhythms, and soon was producing hits for U Roy and John Holt and the aforementioned Dennis Alcapone, with whom he constructed sixteen tracks between 1970 and 1972 including “Marka Version”, “Erotic Touch Of Hot Skin”, and the memorable “Spanish Amigo” recorded on the “Old Fashioned Way” rhythm. He formed a special relationship with Soul Syndicate, a backing band fronted by George ‘Fully’ Fullwood on bass, Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis on drums, Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith on guitar and Tony Chin on rhythm guitar. Fully’s slightly uptempo bass lines were a natural fit for many of Keith’s grandiose and bombastic rhythms, including “Satan Side”, “The Betrayer”, and “S90 Skank”, Hudson’s biggest hit featuring a top notch toast by DJ Big Youth, a tune inspired by a near fatal motorcycle accident. Anxious to get his singing career going, Keith would slip his own vocal tracks on the b-side of many of his records, songs that usually dealt with the pain of love like “Don’t Get Me Confused” and “Love No Doctor Can Cure”.
Fully Fullwood remembers Keith as “a flashy dresser who liked to impress the girls”, and that they would drive around the neighborhood “in his new white Ford Contina (some say Capri) with a blue streak on the hood, going places only Keith could go without trouble”. Keith had a reputation as a ‘ranking bad boy’ in those days, paid tribute to in Alton Ellis’s immortal “Big Bad Boy”, produced by Hudson in 1972. Life in the fast lane took it’s toll on his relationship with Norma, they broke up and she took the children and moved in with her mother.
Hudson’s music began to evolve in 1972, as he started to write songs like “Light of Day” and “True, True To My Heart”, tracks that incorporated elements of melancholy and mystery. His moody “True, True To My Heart” lyrics, “I can’t find, no peace of mind… everyday is not the same, so don’t complain… just explain”, helped established his future reputation as ‘The Dark Prince of Reggae’. Keith was trying to move away from producing other artists, and was intent on creating his own ‘brand’ of albums. He considered long-play records the nexus of the format, despite what it might mean for him financially in terms of the risks involved as a solo artist.
His first album, 1972’s “Furnace”, subtitled “Yes My Bredren, Yes My Companion”, covered some of his best work with Soul Syndicate, including their famous “Riot” instrumental, adapted from a Hugh Masekela single. It also featured a tender, soft spoken vocal by Dennis Alcapone called “Bad Harvest”, about growing up poor on a farm. Keith’s second album, from 1973, originally titled “Strength To Strength”, but released overseas as “Entering The Dragon” two years later to capitalize on the popularity of kung fu movies, mainly showcased his affection for pop standards, including “Don’t Stay Away” and “Oh No, Not My Baby”, as did his third album, also recorded in 1973, called “Class and Subject”. On it, he covered “Never Get To Heaven” by Burt Bacharach and “God Is Standing By” by Al Green, but also pushed some compelling originals like the titular “Class and Subject”, an unusual song about a pensive student teacher relationship, and “Barbican”, a breezy tune about loving a girl who lives “where the atmosphere is not polluting”.
Each of these three albums were pressed in limited quantities, and made little impact on the hometown crowd. To reach a wider audience, Keith knew he had to go global, and thus moved to England in September of 1974 to produce his first masterpiece. Recorded at Chalk Farm Studios in Camden, London, using rhythm tracks he brought with him from Jamaica, the LP titled "The Black Breast Has Produced Her Best, Flesh Of My Skin, Blood Of My Blood" was also reggae’s first concept album, with a deeply existential thought process that no other reggae artist was exploring at the time. Aimed squarely at an overseas audience, it’s themes of black consciousness and matriarchy resonated deeply with the critics in London covering the reggae scene when it was released in December of 1974. It established Hudson as a player on the international front, and allowed him to expand his musical horizons.
Quick to capitalize on being a hot commodity, he returned to Jamaica to record more tracks, including a dub album called “Pick A Dub” with Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett on bass and his brother Carly on drums, who were gaining their own international reputation as Bob Marley’s rhythm makers. Keith had known the Barrett brothers since 1969, and Aston was featured on the title track of Keith’s first LP “Furnace”. They had a strong friendship between them, and Aston was also becoming a producer in his own right. They both chose snake names for their labels, Keith called his Mamba, while Aston dubbed his Cobra. At this time, in the Spring of 1975, Keith and Bob Marley were sharing the same building at 127 King Street, Bob had his shop on the first floor, Keith had a small office on the second floor that served as his apartment at night. The brilliant “Pick A Dub” LP was one of the first dub albums and it, along with the vocal LP “Torch Of Freedom”, possibly the earliest Lovers Rock album despite it’s epochal title track, released that same summer of 1975, solidified Keith’s reputation as an innovative force, so much so he was signed to an eight album contract by Virgin Records in January of 1976.
Keith had met a group of white South Africans in the Fall of 1975 called The Otis Waygood Band that was tearing it up on the local London club scene with a mix of rock, blues, soul and reggae. Together they recorded an unreleased album called “Stepdad” that contains some of Keith’s most beautiful compositions, sweet and soulful tunes with only an offbeat version of “I Broke The Comb” approaching the reggae form. He used The Otis Waygood Band on his first Virgin LP recorded at Chalk Farm in March of 1976, but much to the dismay of Richard Branson’s record company, “Too Expensive” was another radical departure from the roots reggae he pushed with his first UK releases and was instead a funk and reggae crossover affair put out in the summer of 1976 with only limited ad support. A disappointment critically and commercially, it was, however, also the blossoming of Keith as ‘the black morphologist’, a true risk taker who wanted to “prove that I can do anything”, as he told Chris Lane in a Melody Maker interview defending the new direction.
Promptly dropped by Virgin, Keith retreated to New York in 1977, where he was now living with his young wife Jean and their first son Jabula, born in November of 1976. Jean Fletcher was Jamaican born, but she had been living in the United States since her childhood. Keith first met Jean when she was visiting Jamaica in 1970, and he was immediately smitten with the then 16 year old honor student from Philadelphia. They carried on a long distance relationship for three years against her parents wishes, who didn’t care for ‘the dread in the house’, until they were married in Kingston in January of 1973. Two years later, Keith was granted US citizenship and they moved into an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Jean was studying to become an X-Ray technician, and Keith was developing his Disc Disk record company, while starting to work on a new album called “Rasta Communication”.
It took two years to complete, but the landmark album was a return to form that satisfied the critics and public alike. Keith first released it as a dub set called “Brand” in the UK, it was subsequently released with vocals on his own Joint label in the USA in 1978, and then remixed and overdubbed for another release by Greensleeves Records in 1979. “Rasta Communication” was a journey into Keith’s Rastafarian beliefs and identity, with “I Broke The Comb”, his proclamation piece about becoming Rasta, finally finding a proper context. He followed this album with another strong set that varied thematically to and fro, the appropriately titled “From One Extreme To Another” in 1979, which also produced a companion dub album called “Nuh Skin Up Dub”. He then recorded “Playing It Cool” in 1980, an echo heavy collaboration with legendary Bronx producer Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes. It was released in 1981 and showcased several of Hudson’s earlier compositions reworked with the famous Wackies Sound. In 1981, Keith had his son Ricky come up from Jamaica to live with Jean and Jabula at his new place in Jamaica, Queens, from which he operated a storefront record and distribution center called Joint International, within shouting distance of VP Records on Jamaica Avenue.
His next record, 1982’s “Steaming Jungle”, was meant to capture the immigrant experience of relocating to New York and also to express themes of family unity. Keith employed musicians from both New York and Jamaica, including the celebrated Roots Radics Band. The rhythm tracks were recorded in Jamaica, with vocals and other instrumentation added and then mixed at Aviation Studios in Brooklyn by engineer Jan Teller. It truly was a family affair, with both seventeen year old Ricky and six year old Jabula on backing vocals. It featured a rock vibe on guitar and synthesizer, and had several strong tracks, but never came together conceptually as a total package, and did not sell well overseas or in the States, with only a few copies even making it to the shores of Jamaica.
The genesis of Keith’s “Tuff Gong Encounter” started in 1983. While visiting New York sometime in the Fall of that year, Aston Barrett came by Keith’s shop to check with him and smoke some herb, and they discussed recording at Tuff Gong Studio at some point in the near future. Tuff Gong was Bob Marley’s personal studio, built to specification in 1979 with the oversight of the Barrett brothers, at Marley’s house on 56 Hope Road in Kingston. Since Bob’s passing in 1981, his wife Rita was running the studio’s business operations, while Aston and Carly managed the creative and technical side of things. Keith was anxious to reestablish his “roots reggae” credentials, and to have a product he could sell in his homeland as well as abroad, so plans were made for Keith to record there at some point in the new year.
1984 looked to be quite promising for Keith Hudson and his musical endeavors. He was working on two projects, a radical show tunes style LP with a New York based keyboardist named Tim Watts to be called “Spirit Of The Ages”, and the Wailers project called “Rebel Rasta”. “Spirit of The Ages” was done first, in the Spring of 1984 at Aviation Studios, with backing vocals added by the I-Threes in the summer when Keith went to Tuff Gong. This highly experimental and thoroughly entertaining nine track album only survives intact as a heavily worn cassette copy, but several master tracks are in existence waiting to be released someday. While working on this LP, Keith would run rhythm lines for the “Rebel Rasta” LP with his New York players, to get the feel for it in anticipation of recording it properly in Jamaica, and to develop the lyrics for the songs. In June of 1984, he took his wife Jean and sons Ricky and Jabula to Jamaica with him when he went to record “Rebel Rasta”. Jean was three months pregnant at the time.
Oswald Palmer was the resident engineer at Tuff Gong in 1984, at twenty-five he was one of the hottest young engineers working at the time, and he had gained the respect and trust of Aston Barrett after several freelance sessions at the studio. He had an impressive resume, having started out as an electrical engineer for Joe Gibbs in 1977, then becoming his in house recording engineer until 1981. After that, he started freelancing with Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes, producing hits at the start of the dancehall era for Barrington Levy and Sugar Minott. He told me in an interview for this album, “When Tuff Gong came on the scene in 1979, everybody respected Bob Marley and wanted to get in there, particularly to work with the Barrett brothers. Tuff Gong is a sound no other studio ever produce, cause the tone that come from the drum and bass in that room, it’s always close to like you are listening to a Bob Marley track. The Barrett brothers have it locked as a signature sound, and that’s what producers chase when they came to Tuff Gong.”
After Keith got his studio time squared away with Family Man, he lined up the other musicians, Junior Marvin on guitar and Earl ‘Wire’ Lindo on keyboards. Family Man would rehearse the tunes with Keith around the back of the house, bringing the rhythms in line with his style of play, and saving valuable studio time. Rita Marley and the I -Threes would come by, doing the meet and greet and sharing a few jokes with the guys. There was growing tension between the Barrett brothers and Rita over Bob Marley’s music and their contribution to it, but that tension seemed to slip away for awhile when music was being made, according to Oswald.
Keith brought with him five songs he wanted to record that summer. Three of the tracks reaffirm his commitment to Rastafarianism and black liberation. The original title track, “Rebel Rasta”, is about the difficult plight of Rastafarians in a modern society. “I Know My Rights” extends this theme with a stand your ground philosophy toward the government: “I’m a free man, can’t you understand, I know my rights, don’t bother violate it”. “White Africa” deals with black culture being corrupted by the teachings of the white establishment. “Run, Run, Run” changes the mood with a bluesy Keith riffing about living free and being on the run. The fifth track called “Starlight” is an ode to love under the light of a starry night when “the moon will be shining bright”.
As he had done on “Class & Subject”, “Torch Of Freedom” and “Playing It Cool”, Keith was planning a ten track LP, with five vocals and five dubs, the dub track of each tune following the vocal. All the vocals on “Tuff Gong Encounter” are taken from the studio, the original pilot tracks. Oftentimes an artist will overdub the vocals later, but that is not always the case. As Oswald told me, “the artist may not get a chance to do the lines that way again, the feel they have in the studio. Most of the time those pilot vocals are keepers, it happen a lot for John Holt and Dennis Brown, that song “Revolution” by Dennis was a pilot vocal. The feel of the room so good, they don’t want to do it again.”
Oswald estimates it took a week or two in the studio, as both Hudson and Family Man were perfectionists and would lay down several versions to get it right. “For me, what I learned from Keith Hudson as a producer, him have a way about him to get what he want, to relay that to Family Man, and Fams work it out exactly the way him like it. He would come and say, you know, ‘make the tempo a little faster, change a key’, and we would record a tune and then do it again a little slow or a little fast, but save each version as we go along to check it later. Keith was kinda special that way, him have all the patience in the world to work it out, he knew what he wanted for a song. Those songs were special for Keith, and he was excited to work with Carly and Aston again. Keith was an original to me, the way he talked was like a song, in his recording was a song of life.”
Returning to New York, Keith was anxious to get to work on finishing the new album. Oswald had made a one pass cassette copy of the tracks for Keith, and he played the tracks for his good friends, producer Clive Chin and DJ Ras Charles Jones when they stopped by the store. They both thought it was some of the best work Keith had done. Ras Charles Jones noticed something else as well. Keith would take periodic breaks during his visit to go into the back office. He thought it strange, as Keith seemed a bit out of sorts and not his usual social self. Keith was getting sharp pains in his stomach, pains that had been persistent for some months before, but now were not to be ignored. Jean begged him to get checked out, and he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and lungs. Ricky rushed home from Miami, where he was starting to do music of his own, and found his father “weak, like I had never seen him before”. They operated on his stomach to remove the largest tumor, and he was started on chemotherapy. Keith knew the outlook was bleak, but tried to keep things together for Jean and the family. Jabula remembers the living room being turned into a bedroom, to make it easier for Keith to get around. Keith seemed to be hanging in there, but one night in November he cried out in pain. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance. He died a couple of days later, Wednesday the 14th of November at 5am.
There weeks after Keith’s death, Jean gave birth to Keith Hudson, Jr. on December 6th, 1984. She tried to keep the business going, but without Keith, and having to raise a family on her own, life was not easy. She died in August of 1992, from the fatal bleeding disorder known as Hemophilia, under mysterious circumstances. Her two sons with Keith, Jabula and Keith Jr., were sent to California to live with relatives. Ricky Hudson moved to Florida and, fortunately, kept the master tapes of “Rebel Rasta” in a safe place down through the years. Greensleeves Records approached him in 2014 about a possible release of the album. Thanks to the efforts of Chris O’Brien and Chris Chin at Greensleeves and VP Records, that album has finally been restored and mixed from the master tapes for release as “Tuff Gong Encounter”.
Keith was known to take up to a year to release an album, often mixing it several times before it hit the street. With his passing, that could not happen. Fortunately, the veteran producer King Jammy is at the controls on this production, and he decided it to keep it simple. A protege of King Tubby, King Jammy was the producer of the landmark first album by Black Uhuru in 1977 and became a key figure in the dancehall era. He had done remixing for Keith on his “Rasta Communication” LP back in 1979, so he has a strong familiarity with the Hudson sound. For this album, he says, “I wanted it to have the sound of the era, I didn’t want to dress it up too much. That’s what Keith would have wanted, I tried to keep it that way and capture the original sound. On two of the tracks there were damages in a couple of spots, and those spots were not repeated the same way and I needed to fix those spots, so I had to put some backing vocal (see note below) in there to kinda cover some of the damage.You can hear I didn’t bring it right up, you know, I kept it low, cause I didn’t want to change the texture of the whole thing. When I first heard the tracks I was excited because you don’t find tracks like that still around, from that era that have never been released. And on that album he has one track with two different cuts, “I Know My Rights”, so it’s amazing because it’s two different rhythms, two different moods, but it’s the same song. I think Keith would be happy with this album, because nowadays there’s not a lot of engineers who used to record for him from that time, so he would be feeling good to know I am around from that time and I am still here to do that work for him. I think Keith was an unusual producer because his music that he made was sorta different from the rest of producers. He tried to make original stuff, you know.”
This album is mastered by Kevin Metcalfe, who has cut several of Keith’s records including “Rasta Communication” and the Blood & Fire reissue of “Pick A Dub” in 1994. Kevin remembers Keith fondly, “Keith’s sessions were great. He had a sound in his head and knew what he wanted, I tried to achieve that sound. Keith always had a smile on his face, we got along real well, one of the best producers around.”
note: The backing vocal can be heard on “Starlight” and “I Know My Rights Version 2”, provided by King Jammy artist Angel Doolas.