Beres Hammond: Soul Survivor

Even as a pre-teen Beres Hammond had the voice. But it was his involvement with the business side of the recording industry that brought him financial success. A profile by David Katz

Lee Perry (right) with author David Katz. Photograph by Maggie ApostoluNicky Tucker at work in the Beres Hammond studio. Photograph by David KatzPhotograph by Tim BarrowPhotograph by Tim BarrowPhotograph by Tim BarrowPhotograph by Tim BarrowPhotograph by Tim Barrow

He has maintained a healthy chart presence for many years, building a steady following through captivating live performances. He is currently one of Jamaica’s most in-demand singers. Beres Hammond’s reputation is built largely on tales of romance, with rapturous, soulful reggae delivered in smooth, smoky tones.

But Hammond is more than a ladies’ man. Though a crooner of internationally popular love songs, much of his work addresses social injustice, and he’s long been involved with experimental and unconventional sounds. His sensitive musical arrangements have earned him broad respect as a producer on the fiercely competitive Jamaican music scene. So what exactly lies behind the many faces of Hugh Beresford Hammond?

Hammond’s base of operations is the small Sileckshan studio, which he owns and operates, in the basement of his home in the isolated district of Stony Hill. The tranquil hillside is littered with ferns and is free of traffic, though it is close to the outskirts of Kingston. Hammond brings some freshly cut sugar cane and makes sure I am comfortable before relating the particulars of a long and varied career.

“I was born in a little community called Annotto Bay,” he begins quietly, speaking with a faraway look in his eyes.  “My father was a councillor for the area; my mother, I never knew her as anything else but a person around the house, because she had ten children. I am the ninth.”

It was in Jamaica’s bustling capital that Beres first became fascinated with singing.  “From since I was about nine I used to come to Kingston on the weekends. I had sisters scattered all over, so I used to just go between all of them. Then I took the opportunity to go downtown and see the different record stores and studios.  I really wanted to be a singer at the time, so I was just checking out what the whole vibe felt like.”

Local balladeers gave him great inspiration, as did the overseas stars of pop and soul. “The voices I really used to like were Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe. I thought they were exceptional. The Heptones, Melodians, I used to love their harmonies. Then on the radio stations here, we were flooded with foreign music: the Beatles, Engelbert Humperdinck, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and I used to try to imitate them. Marvin Gaye stood out in my mind, and Stevie Wonder. I thought he was brilliant. My American inspiration was shared too between Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. I used them to test out how well I could sing”.

 

Hammond’s singing career began in earnest when he moved to town. “I did one recording when I was about 11 or 12 with Clancy Eccles [called Wanderer] because Clancy was a friend of the family, but it was never released until a few years ago.”  A more substantial break came through Winston Blake, a nightclub DJ and operator of the Merritone sound system.  “One day when I was passing on Eastwood Park Road, an audition was taking place. Merritone, he was running an amateur talent series, and my brethren forced me to write my name down.  I did four ballads, and he asked me if I knew any reggae, and at the time Delroy Wilson had Rain From The Skies. I did that one, and he said ‘Yeah, everything all right.’  Wednesday night, the crowd was with me. This was VIP, a club in Half Way Tree. The response was overwhelming.”

About two years later, in 1975, Hammond was drawn into Zap Pow, an experimental group with a vibrant horn section that based their sound on progressive jazz. At the time Hammond was known as a soul and pop balladeer. “I was performing as a solo person, still doing amateur shows. And then there was Cynthia Schloss. We teamed up as a duet, went right up to Jamaica House quite often. I was also a member of a group called Tuesday’s Children. One night, when the group got a gig in one of the hotels, Zap Pow was the backing band. After the show, [guitarist] Dwight Pinkney checked me and said, ‘Youth, you can sing. Come join we.’”

Beres’s rich timbre and expressive delivery brought Zap Pow a whole new scope, freeing its members to concentrate on their instruments, while injecting an essence of soul to the group’s intriguing combination of roots reggae and jazz. (Those curious about his days with the group can check Beres Hammond And Friends: Timeless Roots Rock Reggae, released by ERC in 2001.)

In 1978 Zap Pow secured a contract with Island Records. “I wanted to get a feel of what outside of Jamaica was, so Zap Pow provided that, as we went up to the USA and Canada,” he explains. “Chris Blackwell signed us, but I thought if we got signed we’d be on billboards. I thought we would have been in Australia and New Zealand, Malaysia, but that didn’t work out, so that’s when I thought to myself that I should be doing something else.”

He pauses momentarily to consider the dual nature of his career. “Zap Pow was some political motivated kind of music. Zap Pow would just tell it like it is, different issues from my love thing. I had some songs that were burning up inside me, which was more a line between people and family type of thing.”

Hammond left the group in 1979, after the success of his solo album Soul Reggae, recorded with guitarist and arranger Willie Lindo, at the well-equipped Aquarius studio. “When  my album came out, it took less than a month for it to blow out all over the place. I released a single, One Step Ahead. It went like a bolt to number one, stayed there for three-and-a-half months, stayed on the chart itself for maybe two years.”

 

As a fully fledged solo artist in the early 1980s, Hammond shifted to the stable of Joe Gibbs, at the time Jamaica’s most commercially successful producer. He received an offer from a major-league American company, but remained independent. “I went to Joe Gibbs on the advice of Willie Lindo. We did an album called Just A Man, with two number-one songs from it, I’m Gonna Burn In The Morning Sun, a wonderful ballad, and another one called Yes, I’m In Love With You Without Control, which was number one also for about nine weeks. That’s when A & M records made an approach to Joe Gibbs, wanting this singer and Dennis Brown, but there were problems with what I’m seeing on the contract.”

Beres sought a better understanding of the business side of the industry. “Willie Lindo and myself decided to go to Dynamic Sounds. We did an album called Coming At You, and it did well also, but the financial side of it was still a struggle and still a mystery. I couldn’t figure out, how come I’m doing all the right things, but the right things not happening to me? I never collected any royalties. For me it was hustling, and at this point I was seeing a career, so hustling was out of it. I put my heart into it, hoping for something to happen for me, and the name was growing, but the pocket was slowing, so I decided to do something for myself.

“I did some harmonies for Aquarius, and as payment for the harmonies I took studio time, and I started my album Let’s Make A Song. When I had nearly completed it, I figured that I knew about the music, but I didn’t know anything about the business part, so I brought in a friend to make sure that everything was all right on that side, but it never worked out either! When I wanted to collect some dollars, he was nowhere around. At this point I decided to put out a reggae single for myself, cause all along I was concentrating more on R&B, so I mixed down a song called Groovy Little Thing and it shaped up nicely.”

This became a real turning point for Hammond. He produced the song himself, and gained significant financial reward. The song became one of the top hits of 1985, surpassed only by Hammond’s extremely catchy tale of temptation What One Dance Can Do, another collaboration with Willie Lindo.

“I cannot tell you how good that felt.” Hammond grins as he recalls the first cheque sent by his overseas distributor for Groovy Little Thing. “Then What One Dance Can Do took off as a reggae song also. Here I am, a balladeer, breaking into a different area, and it’s the area that all the other entertainers were afraid of me entering. What One Dance Can Do overtook Groovy Little Thing and they both entered the British charts.”

What One Dance Can Do inspired a number of “answer” tunes, the most successful being Audrey Hall’s One Dance Won’t Do, produced by Donovan Germain. Audrey Hall’s song reached number two in the British charts. For Hammond: “That was a beautiful sort of turn of the tables for me. That was when I start seeing some financial compensation.”

 

As Hammond continued to produce work on his Harmony House label, the future looked increasingly bright. Then came a shocking incident. Says Hammond, with a visible shudder: “In the late 1980s some guys came into the house and just tied up everybody and rolled us in sheets. They wanted to kill me, and I had to talk myself out of it. The guy put a pillow over my head, and I had to find something quick to distract them. I told them that police was living next door, and they were trigger-happy; if they hear any noise in the night, they would come and kill everybody. . . It was horrible. That kind of took toll on me for about three years. Matter of fact, I just slipped out of the business for a while. I was afraid to do anything because I was wondering, what could have caused this? Why me? I was in New York most of the time until 1990, when I decided I’m going to sing again.”

A chance meeting with Donovan Germain at Penthouse Studio brought Hammond back to the top of the charts, a space he’s seldom left since. “I was trying to get some studio time, but they were all booked up, so I checked Germain and he says he’s all booked up too, but he could work out a deal with me. He had a rhythm, and if I could produce something on that rhythm for him, then he would give me his time.

“Some little girl passed by, I think it was Patra before she broke out, and an idea struck me, ‘Hey little girl, each time you pass my way I’m tempted to touch,’ and I just took it from there. Three weeks later that song was mashing up New York, but because this thing was done so fast, I didn’t even remember the name of the song. By the next week it was number one there, blasted the place down here too. Virgin has it, and Tempted To Touch was the most-played rhythm for quite some time.”

Though further hits led to another deal with a major label, circumstances saw the 1994 Full Control album suffering from lack of promotion. “After Tempted To Touch, I had about eight big chart hits in two years, and it went on like that until Elektra came in. But the week of my album release, they merged with East West records, and then everything was chaos. All the crew that was supposed to be responsible for my career was either transferred, fired, or made redundant; the album got lost in the shuffle. Then I was supposed to take care of this next album, but I wanted to go back to who Beres really was, and they were slowing me down. Their process was too slow for the kind of life I knew, so we parted, and then everything started going up for me again, until Harmony House set up an office and started to go into full-time production.”

Founding his studio was a natural step, and Beres’s reputation was such that veterans and contemporaries flocked to its premises to record a number of notable works, such as those on the compilation Harmony House Volume 1.  “When we started out, we had Dennis Brown, Luciano, Sizzla. I had some Sizzla songs long before Sizzla even start, from as far as six years ago, because him used to stick around with me a lot. Now I have an album for Richie Stephens, Nicky Tucker, Jimmy Riley. Half Pint was down here doing some things. Pint’s got a good voice, and dances miss this kind of vibe.”

I wondered if Hammond found it hard to shift from singer to producer, since he makes the entire recording process sound like second nature. “When I started voicing, I was doing a lot of assistance in the studio with other people. I never thought of it as being a producer. I thought of it as a good idea, so I don’t know if it’s a transition. It just feels normal. In other words, from then until this time, it’s the same thing that I’m doing.”

Unlike many of his peers, Hammond does not rush himself, nor flood the market with mediocre material. This assures that releases from Harmony House bear the hallmark of quality, and Hammond’s future solo work is bound to be strong. His latest album Music Is Life has topped half-a-dozen charts since its release by VP records last year, and the sentimental Rock Away continues to rule the Eastern Caribbean dancehalls; Dance 4 Me, an earlier hit with guest appearance by Wyclef Jean, brought Hammond’s style to new audiences abroad.

Like Gregory Isaacs before him, Music Is Life is evenly split between love ballads and songs of reality. The anti-violence Ain’t It Good To Know and the poignant African People are among the hardest-hitting of any contemporary reggae releases. Hammond continues to deliver wisdom along with his pillow talk. “There’s a couple of love songs in there,” says he, “but to me, it’s a Beres that’s grown, a Beres who’s taking life more seriously.  Beres as a person wants to say make a change with the youths, any change from what’s happening now.  These are the thing I try to address with my songs.”

David Katz is the author of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee Scratch Perry, published by Canongate books (www.canongate.net) 

 

Album discography

• Soul Reggae, 1977

• Just A Man, 1981

• Let’s Make A Song, 1982

• Coming At You, 1983

• Beres Hammond, 1986

• Have A Nice Weekend, 1987

• Live & Learn Present Beres Hammond, 1988

• Putting Up Resistance, 1989

• Just A Vibes, 1990

• A Love Affair, 1992

• Full Attention, 1993

• Sweetness, 1993

• In Control, 1994

• Love From A Distance, 1996

• Lifetime Guarantee, 1997

• Music Is Life, 2001

 

African People

We African people

oh we’ve come a long long way

still survive through the storm

and if we make it this far

we can go all the way

back to the life we once shared

but shame oh shame

how we start pumping drugs in the brain

shame oh shame

how we turn on each other again and again

when oh when

do we stop finding someone to blame?

Oh maybe we’re lost but let’s not lose ourselves

let’s live again

African people

we’ve travelled oceans and seas

time to rise now from our knees

teach our children the way

so they no longer stray

away from the life that we once shared

it’s up to you and me

to rebuild the family

it’s up to you and me

to regain that old time respectability

when oh when

do we stop finding someone to blame?

maybe we’re lost but let’s not lose ourselves

let’s live again

shame oh shame

how we start pumping drugs in the brain

shame oh shame

how we turn on each other again and again

when oh when

do we stop finding someone to blame?

oh maybe we’re lost but let’s not lose ourselves

let’s live again

get the family back together

African people.

 

Rock Away

Oh yeah

oh I miss those days yes

I miss those days yeah

Remember the songs

used to make you rock away

those were the days

when love used to reign, hey

we danced all night

to the songs they played

weekend come again

do it just the same, hey

now I feel it to my heart

being such a golden time had to part, yes

now there’s hardly any safe place left to go

someone’s bound to come and try to spoil the show, oh oh

Remember the songs

used to make you rock away

those were the days

when love used to reign, hey

we danced all night

to the songs they played

weekend come again

do it just the same, hey

hail John Holt, Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Dennis Brown, hey hey

Big Youth, Josey Wales, Daddy Roy would wake the town, yeah

and you hold your woman real close

when Smokey starts to sing

Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Spinners all the way

Aretha Franklin

Patti LaBelle used to make me drift away

play Stevie play

Sam Cooke any day, yeah

we danced all night

to the songs they played

weekend come again

do it just the same, hey

right now we need a brand new start

people everywhere need more music from the heart

and there remains such a place that I can go

will someone tell me, tell me, I want to know

Remember the songs

used to make you rock away

those were the days

when love used to reign, hey

we danced all night

to the songs they played

weekend come again

do it just the same, hey.