When I was first made aware of the Reggae Powerhouse Band, I was intrigued by the idea of a band that was not just a band but a concept. To find out more about the band I had to talk to Leroy Scarlet, the man behind the magic.
Leroy Scarlet has been in the music business since back in the 1970s. He was born and raised in the parish of St Andrew in Jamaica. Growing up Leroy was exposed to music by the local sound systems and singers who lived in the area. He remembers seeing George Nooks, who had to pass his yard going to and from school, singing and chanting while walking the seven or so miles to his home. Wherever there was music Leroy could be found, both in school and in the community. At the age of twelve, Leroy became a box lifter for a sound system called Killaphonic and eventually was given a chance to sing. The first time he tried he didn’t even have a microphone, they had to reverse the sound back through a speaker. DJ Big Joe had a sound system called Rebel Tone in the community and Leroy began to chant on it regularly. Whenever Leroy heard that a big sound system was coming to town, he would be at the spot way before they arrived because he didn’t want to miss anything and by this time he was performing at every opportunity he could get.
Leroy’s High School graduation was coming up and as the festivities finished early Leroy had the vision to hold a dance for the graduation. At the time Leroy’s father worked on road construction so Leroy went to work with him to pay for this dream, although his pay was only $50. Leroy’s neighbor was Noel Harper whose father had a large grocery store and bar. Noel would play music in the bar area on Friday and Saturday nights. Noel decided he wanted to build a sound system so he and the boys went around the community buying up all the cedar boards they could find and he made an 18 box system. This was the birth of the now famous Killamanjaro sound system. After Leroy received his paycheck for working on the roads, he went to Noel Harper and asked how much it would cost to have Killamanjaro play at the graduation dance. Noel said it would be $250 but Leroy only had $50. When Leroy told him this he said “Boy, you are ambitious. I charge $250 and you only have $50. I will take that as a deposit but how are you going to pay for the goat and the drinks etc?” Leroy replied, “I don’t know how but I’ve got to do it”. As was stated earlier, Noel Harper’s father owned a big grocery store, so somehow they persuaded him to let Leroy have the provisions he needed on consignment. With help from his parents, his father on the gate and his mother running the bar, Leroy put on the biggest dance in the community with everyone from the school in attendance. The dance was such a success that Leroy had enough money to pay Mr. Harper and Killamanjaro and had money left over.
By this time, Leroy’s cousin Chris Stanley had returned from the US and was living about 20 miles from Leroy’s home. After graduation Leroy went to live with him. Chris had a grand piano in his house so one day Leroy decided he was going to teach himself to play it. He took a record player and put it by the piano and played a record over and over until he picked out a note in the bassline, then the whole bassline, and then he started to sing along with it. When his cousin came in he was impressed by his singing and playing and from then on he didn’t look back. Leroy met Tyrone Downie from Bob Marley &The Wailers and told him he was a singer, Tyrone listened to him and sent him to Bob’s Hope Road Studio for an audition. Leroy was disappointed that he didn’t get to meet Bob while he was there. Leroy was becoming increasingly frustrated for as hard as he tried he wasn’t getting any results from the producers he was reaching out to.
Chris Stanley had decided to build a studio on the large piece of property he lived on. While Chris was traveling and collecting the equipment he needed for the studio, Leroy was singing 7 days a week at dances. At the return of his cousin, they worked day and night until Music Mountain Studio was finished. Jimi Cliff attended the grand opening of the studio and as most of the recording studios in Jamaica at that time were located in Kingston, artists began pouring into Music Mountain Studio because of the proximity to where they lived. Some of the earliest recordings at the studio were Boris Gardner’s “I Want To Wake Up With You”, Sophia George’s “Too Girlie Girlie” and Black Uhuru’s “Solidarity” album. Although Leroy wasn’t being paid he was always in the background helping out and running errands. He met big artists like Toots and The Maytals, Marcia Griffiths, Glen Ricks and many more. Around this time Sly and Robbie started to use the studio and Leroy closely studied the recording process. One day he commented to Sly Dunbar that he really liked the track they were working on so Sly told him to take a shot at it. With David Roy as the engineer, Leroy recorded his first single “Murder”. The single was released just before Christmas 1987 and was quite successful. He was paid $100J for the single which was a lot of money at that time. After Christmas when Sly and Robbie returned to the studio, Leroy told them he didn’t want to sing anymore. This was a big surprise to them as the single had done well but Leroy explained to them that he loved the producer’s lifestyle. Producers were making more money than the artists and without the stress of having to perform every night. It was obvious then that Leroy was very ambitious and driven. He produced his first track with instrumental help from Tyrone Downie of The Wailers and Trapper John from The Bloodfire Posse and the first artist to voice on it was Super Glen, following that he produced an album for Melvin Irie. Gregory Isaacs was passing through so Leroy had him voice a track, then Anthony Red Rose and Linval Thompson both voiced a couple of songs. Leroy was on his way up.
Leroy Scarlet later produced and released several albums including “Reggae Train” series one and two, Frankie Paul “It’s My Time”, Easy B “Prophecy”, Anthony B “Judgement Time” and “Dimensions In Music” containing tracks by Glen Washington, Luciano Messenjah, Frankie Paul, General Pecos, Easy B, Anthony B, Sizzla, and Beres Hammond plus a fourteen track album called “Four The Hardway” featuring Capleton, Sizzla, Luciano, and Anthony B. Most of the well-known artists of the 1990s have recorded something with Leroy Scarlet.
In the late ’90s, reggae music sales plummeted. Singles that had up until then sold from 70,000 to 80,000 copies for a hit single suddenly were selling on an average 1,000 copies. The artists were making money from shows but the producer was no longer making as much money and Leroy realized the tables had turned. Although he loved making music, he wondered how he was going to continue to make a living.
With a heavy heart, Leroy switched from making music to Real Estate. He had some building skills and he learned tiling and painting and decorating then he bought some old properties, fixed them up into apartments and sold them. This brought him in a decent amount of money so he left the music and concentrated on the Real Estate business. Unfortunately, after some time Leroy started to feel ill. He went to the doctor who told him the dust from construction had given him severe asthma. With this in mind, he took some time off from construction.
During his break from construction, Leroy was talking with his longtime friend Duckie Simpson from Black Uhuru about the state of the reggae industry and about how he had a lot of music that had never been released. Duckie suggested he formed a band and use the band in combination with some of his catalog of unreleased music to get the music out there. Leroy liked this idea so he set about putting together a band. Leroy had always liked the idea of being part of something meaningful and he believed that a band could contribute a lot with the unity of ideas, energy, and methods. A band relies on teamwork so unity is the key to success. Meanwhile, a producer of the movie “One Love” flew into Jamaica from the UK to meet with the late Gregory Isaacs wife to get permission to create a movie of the life story of Gregory but permission wasn’t given so the idea was dropped. Leroy thought this was a travesty as he believed Gregory’s legacy should be recorded. He talked to Sly and Robbie about this and Sly said: “The story doesn’t have to just be the life of Gregory Isaacs, call it The Powerhouse of Reggae or something similar and make it the life of all the reggae powerhouses.” The idea seemed like a good one but it still has a long way to go, although when forming the band Leroy adopted the name Reggae Powerhouse Band.
When putting together the band, Leroy didn’t want to stick with solely Jamaican singers and musicians so, still with the theme of unity in mind, he traveled to other Caribbean islands in search of talent. He was producing a show in Antigua with Sanchez and the late Frankie Paul using local artists to start the show. It was there where he found his first lead vocalist, Cordel Dunnah. He immediately signed him and then going on from there signed Pernal Winchester from Trinidad and Tobago and Kobla Mentor from Guyana. The backbone of the musicians in the Reggae Powerhouse Band is drummer Joslyn McKenzie aka Speckles, drummer for Sanchez, who has played for many artists including Luciano and Culture. The musicians of the Reggae Powerhouse Band change up from time to time, showcasing talents during recording but there is a set lineup for performances. Each of the lead vocalists has his own song on each track but they all know each other’s songs so no show would ever have to be canceled due to illness. In theory, the Reggae Powerhouse Band could be playing in three different countries at the same time. As they are a relatively new band they have only performed at a few shows so far. They were invited by Tuff Gong to play at the Bob Marley Earthstrong Show at the Bob Marley Museum and in turn, invited double platinum South African artist Don Dada to perform with them. Don Dada’s single “Jah Is Good” was produced by Leroy Scarlet. Since then they have also performed in 2 shows in the Jamaica Live Concert series.
The debut album “Reggae Powerhouse Band and Friends” which contains collaborations with Richie Spice, Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs and, Don Dada, Luciano and Sizzla, has ended up with 20 tracks, so is being released in two volumes, the first going out in early 2020, distributed by Tuff Gong. Some of the tracks have been released as singles but there are still some epic tracks that haven’t been heard. Life has turned full circle for Leroy Scarlett as he has 5 songs on the album himself and he also joins the band sometimes on stage. “Tribute To The Legends Past and Present” is another album being recorded at this time by the Reggae Powerhouse Band.
A six-city tour of the UK is pending for the band in 2020.
There is a saying “You can’t keep an old dog down”, well the “old dog”, Leroy Scarlet, is proving that to be true. Leroy Scarlet and the Reggae Powerhouse Band are names we will be hearing a lot about in the years to come. A little bird has also told me that a book of memories of his life in the music industry is also in the works for Leroy Scarlet. Having heard some of the stories, this could be very entertaining.
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First published in Island Stage Magazine.