JUNIOR BRAITHWAITE phone interview with Roger Steffens, 5 May 1985
Roger Steffens: Let's start at the very beginning. Where were you born, and when?
Junior Braithwaite: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica on April 4, 1949, on Third St. and West Road. That is in the heart of the ghetto. People now know it as Rema, the Jungle. I was living on Third St. and Bob Marley was living on Second St.
RS: Where was Joe Higgs living at that time?
JB: Joe Higgs was also on Third St.
RS: Was he a neighbor?
JB: Yes, somewhat. You know, my grandmother raised a youth named Roy Wilson, and Roy Wilson and Joe Higgs were the number one best harmonizing group in Jamaica at that time, and they used to rehearse in the back of our yard. So we as kids hang out around them, cuz we had something in common, Bob, Bunny, Peter and myself, along with a sister Beverley Kelso, as an early Wailer.
RS: So when we speak of the original Wailers then, are we really speaking about five people?
JB: Yes, the five people are really Bunny, Bob, Peter, Beverley and myself. And the Wailers was like just a singing group, a harmonizing group. We had nothing to do with instruments. So the commercial Wailers that you had touring with Bob was like a group of musicians that he needed to back him up and he called the Wailers. But they aren't the original Wailers.
RS: Let's talk about those early days, prior to those first recording sessions. How did you decide to come together and form a group?
JB: Well, I'll tell you, we as children had something in common because we loved singing, and it so happened that Higgs & Wilson, the number one harmonizing group at the time, used to rehearse behind the houses in the back of our yard, between Third St. and Second St. Just being around them was inspiring. My grandmother raised Wilson, and we were like brothers. He's here in Chicago with me today .
RS: So those early days with the five of you, how long were you rehearsing with Joe Higgs before you went to Coxson?
JB: Well it didn't take us long, because growing up in Jamaica where people are more conscious - we grew up in roots and culture, we was born in it, and we as a people then were closely knitted in a social atmosphere. To do anything, whatever projects at any time that we would undertake, would be easy, because it was just a vibe of oneness, and people were very much alive in Jamaica.
RS: I spoke with Ray Charles earlier this week, and something he said I think is appropriate here. He said, "Affluence, richness, separates people; poverty drives them together." Would you say that was true of Trench Town?
JB: True. That explains what I'm saying in so few words, that is correct. We weren't so nclinging to material things, you know, we were like everything seemed so easily done, so nnatural to us, in that spiritually we were at our highest level, and we could so easily do nanything. Singing was a natural gift, because I understand that Jacob had twelve sons and each son is ordained for special works. Like the prophet would come from the tribe Gad, the priests from out of Levi, the judges, the musicians, physicians. And I know that I was nordained to be a musician.
RS: Are you a Levi?
JB: I'm from the House of Judah, because there is just one house, and that's Judah. In fact, I think tribalism tends to separate us and brings conflict and stuff. I think I'm from Reuben, okay, the son of Jacob, but I never let that bother me in any way, whether it's good or bad. Some people say Reuben shall not excel because of such-and-such, but I don't get it.
RS: No ism a riddim.
JB: True, no ism at all, man.
RS: Tell me please about the first time you went to Coxson's studio to audition for him.What was going through you head before you went there?
JB: Well, the first tune we did together was "Simmer Down." Singing it come so natural nto us that it was a thill just to go and to audition. And at the first appearance in that audition, well, Coxson couldn't believe whether I was a teenager or an adult, because I nwas so bold, I was short, I was only 13 years old at the time, and we did the tune pretty well, we was all like professionals, even though it was the first time and we were youths, amateurs, and we had done it so perfect. So it was really upfront, man. It was a thrill, man! The session was even easier.
RS: Do you remember what other songs you cut at that first session?
JB: We did "Lonesome Feeling," we did a lot of tunes like "Straight and Narrow Way," we did so many tunes, man.
RS: Did you sing lead on "Simmer Down"?
JB: No, Bob did. I'm with the high pitch, my voice is the first tenor, I'm the very high pitched voice there.
RS: And on "Lonesome Feeling" what did you do?
JB: Background. See, I was only 13 years old at the time, I didn't take anything serious, some of the tunes I don't even remember. At the age of 13 the mind is so preoccupied withother things, we was just in and out of the studio. Plus we had ball to play, we had school to go. It was just a pastime thing for me. Who would expect that Bob would become the great King of Reggae and all this? To us, it was just fun, and we didn't even expect - you know something? At the time, a musician or a singer, well, the people in society it was like a shame if you didn't have a trade. If you was a singer, you couldn't make no money, man. And the people would discourage us, telling us to go look a trade.
RS: You never expected that 20 years later people would still be singing your songs that you made when you were 13?
JB: No, plus I wanted to be a doctor or something, too. I think singing was just something that everybody needed to do, had to do. And it so happened that we were in a situation, we got a chance of recording. Because around us everybody sang, in churches everyone sang, and dance and sing, it's just a part of the culture. It wasn't like something special that no one else couldn't have done, you know. I know I did several tunes with the Wailers, and I was in school at the time. We didn't have no problem in recording either, it was the one cut, and it was only two-track studio too. I mean, everything playing on one track, one cut, just like that. It's not like it is today, sophisticated, and more studio techniques.
RS: Do you think in some ways that that primitive kind of recording situation actually helped create stronger music, because everybody had to get it right at the same time?
JB: No, what it proved was that we were more rootically based, like we were stronger.When you're living in a deeply rooted cultural environment, then everything flowso easily. We were stronger then, because we didn't have any problem, we hadn't journeyed out and had to counteract and encounter racism or anything. I didn't know anything about the color barrier until I journeyed out of Jamaica. We didn't know anything about that, man. So it goes to show them that we were like a people firm, stable, we had stability, and at our best at all times...I only lead sung on "It Hurts To Be Alone." And that was the day [28 August 1964] just before I flew out of Jamaica. Because they had to have me do a solo just before I left, and so it only took a few hours to learn this new tune, and one take. We were that tough, man. (laughs)
RS: Did you write any of those early songs?
JB: "It Hurts To Be Alone," and for the main part we all assisted in the recordings, in all the other tunes, too. We had to do what we felt, we worked together. But then, surprisingly, most of the tunes didn't come out written by the Wailin' Wailers, but like Bob and the Wailers, and so on and so forth. But, at the time we really hadn't expected no fortune and fame either, all this.
RS: So in effect you are co-writer of several of the early songs that are still selling after 20 years.
JB: Well, we all participated in that as a group.
RS: Have you ever participated in any of the royalties from the Coxson material?
JB: No, not a dime of it, man, I haven't seen a dime after all these years.
RS: How do you feel about that?
JB: Well, I don't know, I think everything just comes in its due season. I'm waiting and anticipating those, yes, payoffs. The payday.
RS: What songs are you proudest of having been part of from that period?
JB: Well, to tell the truth, all of them have their own characteristics, all the tunes. They have different things to say, and a new inspiration come each day, and so I'm saying all of them is appreciated. I consider all of them a blessing or gifts from the Most High, Jah Rastafari.
RS: Do you play any of those at home anymore. Do you ever sit down and listen to "The Best of the Wailers," or -
JB: Occassionally I do.
RS: What goes through your head when you hear that stuff. Do you laugh? Do you have a tear in your eye sometimes?
JB: Well, maybe the tear would come from the fact that there is no moral support now. It seems like the people closest to me would stick with me and see the importance and the nature of the work. But my family is so busy working that they don't even know what's happening. So when I would sit down and play a tune like this, I mean, it just make me realize how sad it is to know that they don't realize the potential that I have, and if I only have a bit a financial help, I could make a million dollars overnight, man. Because I really know that Jah has blessed me, because I now play all the instruments, keyboards, guitar, bass, everything, and I write songs daily. But I don't even have a tape player to tape it, or to record any of my tunes. I had one, but it went bad, you know. And it's very frustrating for me, man. Some of the times when I hardly listen to those early recordings anymore, I mostly spend time with - I mean I would play tunes of the day, strictly '80s tunes, and from that create or improvise. I write a lot and I have a lot of things to sing about too, an inner expression of one's soul. I'm a very spiritual person, because my train of thought, I've been a vegetarian for four or five years. I start eating fish again, but I meditate, I exercise. I pray a lot.