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Rhythm King

Coxsone Dodd

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/29/2004

Simply put, no Coxsone, no Bob Marley. No reggae music as we know it, really. Which is not to say that the world-famous singers, songwriters, and producers Clement Seymour Dodd discovered, recorded, and released records by wouldn’t have found an outlet elsewhere in the fledgling Jamaican music industry, or that the island nation’s homegrown pop music wouldn’t have evolved from imitative forms to ska, then rock steady, then reggae, winning over the world in the process. But trying to imagine the rise of Jamaican music without Dodd, who died May 4 of a
heart attack at the age of 72, is all but impossible.

Born in Kingston in 1932, Dodd grew up in a Jamaica that imported most of its pop music from the United States, mostly jazz and R&B. An avid cricketer—the nickname “Coxsone” came from a famed British batsman—Dodd didn’t play any musical instruments himself, but as a youth he reportedly entertained customers at his mother’s bar with a primitive turntable setup he used to spin bebop records his father bought from American sailors at the docks. A brief sojourn in the States in the early ’50s had two important effects: While working as a sugarcane cutter in Florida, young Dodd attended raucous—and profitable—block parties; and during a short stay in New York City he scrounged up a collection of records that outstripped anyone’s back home.

Back in Kingtson in 1954, he formed his own “sound system,” a traveling DJ setup that held open-air dances. Armed with huge speakers, his collection, and a sidekick named Count Machuki—perhaps the first to speak, or “toast,” over a record for an audience—Dodd did well, but competition was so fierce that DJs scratched the labels off their records so rivals wouldn’t steal their hot tunes. Before long, Dodd and other sound-system owners began commissioning their own tracks from local musicians. In 1959, Dodd started his own label and record store/distributorship to meet the demand for the unexpectedly popular homegrown music he was fostering. In 1963, he opened Jamaica Recording and Publishing Studio—aka Studio One, the first black-owned studio on the island.

Dodd’s personal impact is difficult to measure. One story from the murky and often contradictory history of Jamaican music features him inspiring his house band to create the rhythm that would come to be known as ska, the first important evolution in Jamaican pop, by humming to them. But the list of future legends he spotted when they were just weedy wannabes is staggering. Prince Buster and Lee “Scratch” Perry both got their start with Dodd. His house band in the early ’60s not only had instrumental hits on its own as the Skatalites but also backed multitudes of singers—including Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, and some young slum toughs who called themselves the Wailing Wailers.

Dodd saw enough promise in the group, especially in a slight kid named Bob Marley, to sign them to an exclusive five-year deal. Dodd groomed them and helped them refine their sound; he served as a mentor for the fatherless Marley and even let him live at the studio for a while. Dodd’s efforts paid off when the Wailers’ Marley-penned “Simmer Down” became a huge hit in 1964. Dodd and the Wailers enjoyed several more years of success together before parting ways, and as the slower reggae rhythm came to dominate the island’s sound in the early ’70s, Dodd and Studio One continued to crank out tracks for the likes of the Heptones, Dennis Brown, and Marcia Griffiths.

By the end of the ’70s, Jamaican music, and increasingly Jamaica, were not to Dodd’s liking. Laid-back roots reggae was under siege from the electronic grooves and roughneck vibe of dancehall, and Dodd found himself literally under siege when armed men stormed his studio on Brentford Road in 1979. In the mid-’80s, Dodd packed up and moved his operation to Brooklyn, N.Y.

The exceptional attention Dodd paid to Marley notwithstanding, most artists who recorded for Studio One were paid a small fee up-front and never saw a penny in royalties, even if their tune was a smash. Dodd spent most of the ’80s and ’90s hunting down artists and producers who had recorded knockoffs of Studio One tracks to demand payment, and licensing those same tracks—more than 6,000 songs by some estimates—for numberless compilations and reissues. He finally returned to Jamaica and reopened Studio One in 1998, but more as a cultural elder statesman than a serious player. On April 30, 2004, Brentford Road was renamed Studio One Boulevard. Four days later Dodd died at work.

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