A Message to You from Dandy Livingstone!

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On January 7th, I had the honor of interviewing one of Jamaican music’s biggest legends, Dandy Livingstone, perhaps known best for this classic song, “Rudy, A Message to You,” recorded in 1967 for the Ska Beat label, which was subsequently covered by The Specials during the 2Tone era. Livingstone has built a career of his own, recording for a number of labels including Ska Beat and Trojan, as well as producing countless other artists throughout the 1960s and 1970s including The Cimarons, The Marvels, Owen Gray, and Tony Tribe on his classic, “Red Red Wine.”

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Robert Livingstone Thompson was born on December 14, 1943 and he lived in the Kencot neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica. “I had a small family. I’m an only child. My mom was a seamstress, draperies and things like that. My father, he worked with the railway corporation. My mother migrated to London before me in 1958 and I joined her in ’59. I finished school in London,” he says. His love for music started as a child. “Music was always around me. My father used to play 78 records, mainly jazz and ballads. From then I’ve always been a rhythm and blues jazz man. My collection of jazz music is strong.” Livingston is also a first cousin to Ansel Collins, though the two weren’t close growing up. He explains, “My mom was a very independent woman. She wasn’t into too much mixing with relatives, not selfish or anything, just private, like myself. But I used to see other kids around the place and we didn’t think of music then and I didn’t know he [Ansel Collins] was a musician until 1969. I found out that he played keyboard.”

Livingstone says that it was when he was in school that he developed this love for music even further. “I was going to school in London, technical college. I learned engineering and toolmaking. While in school, all of these Jamaican songs were abundant. As a teenager, it was music. That was all I wanted to do.”

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It was during these school years that Livingstone made a friend that would change the rest of his life—Lee Gopthal, founder of Trojan Records. Livingstone explains, “Lee Gopthal was an accountant by profession. He got involved in those days in mail order records. He had this mail order thing going. One day I went down to visit a friend of mine who was a professional musician. He had a group that was rehearsing and I was listening and at a certain point I said, ‘I could do that! (laughs)’ I went back a second time and met Lee Gopthal and we started talking and he asked me where I lived because he wanted to get his records all over London, not just in the shops but to guys who would buy these records, so I told him I’m interested in selling records for him on the weekends or whenever, so he trusted me. I remember the first batch of records I got there was 25. There was an assortment of 45s, four or five different songs—Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster and these people. Within two days, I sold them all. That weekend (laughs). I was selling to people, go knock on their doors, people I knew. I would play it for them and they’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ It saved them from going to the record shops because on a Friday or Saturday, the record shops were filled because records were selling then (laughs)! So I sold it all, went back and he gave me 50. I did well.”

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Livingstone says that he had a passion for more than selling music—he wanted to sing! “Then one day I got a phone call from him [Lee Gopthal] because he knew that I was interested in singing as well. He told me of this record company, Carnival Records, Mr. Crawford owned it. Actually it was Cross-Bow Records was the mother company and Carnival was the subsidiary label. At that time he owned one of the early pirate radio stations, Radio Caroline. So he said I should get in touch with Mr. Crawford because he wants to get in touch with the Jamaican music scene, and that is where I did my first recording. That was in 1964.”

But Livingstone didn’t just go to sing the song solo. According to G. Cooksey in his encyclopedia entry on Dandy Livingstone, “Carnival, in search of West Indian acts, had expressed a desire to record a duo, which Livingstone accommodated easily by tracking over his own voice on tape, for a two-record deal. The tracks were released, and credited to an imaginary pair called Sugar and Dandy, their names chosen to capture the persona of Livingstone’s sweet voice and impeccable dress.” I asked Livingstone about this and he laughed, “You heard about that huh? That was the time they wanted a duo but back then I was a brave lad. I turned up alone and he said to me where is the guy to do the track? And I gave him an excuse or something because I double tracked my voice. And from there things started to roll.” As for the name Sugar and Dandy, Livingstone explains, “It was just a name. I tell you this, you know names stick on people, right? So I didn’t want to be called Sugar (laughs)! So I took the Dandy bit! We did three songs on that session. ‘One Man Went to Mow,’ was one and the other two were ‘Time and Tide’ and ‘What a Life.’ Sugar and Dandy was never really a duo as such. Roy Smith was a friend who used to hang around with me, I taught him the little I knew…yeah the first session for Carnival he didn’t show, that’s when I found out about double tracking one own’s voice. Roy Smith sang on three songs after that first session at Advision Studio Bond Street London 1964. Tito Simon had his own thing going ,but he sat in on one session with me, ‘Only Heaven Knows’ b/w ‘Let’s Ska.'”

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After the success of “What a Life,” Livingston says that he focused on his schooling, but always kept one foot firmly planted in music. “From there on, things didn’t work with Carnival Records so I moved on to Rita King, Ska Beat label. By this time I’ve known Rita from her original shop in Stratford, London. Stratford Market was where I met Rita and Benny King. Their record shop was the prime shop for Jamaican music. I went there one afternoon and she asked me what I’m doing now. After ‘What a Life,’ she said she hadn’t heard anything. I said, ‘Well I’m concentrating on my schooling.’ And she said, ‘Come and see me, maybe we can do something.’ Another month or so after, I went back to see her and we arranged a recording session and did a few songs and compiled the album ‘Rock Steady with Dandy.’”

dandy livingstone rock steady with front coverIt was during this time that Livingstone recorded his iconic hit, “Rudy A Message to You.” He explains, “At that time the rude boy scene in Jamaica was very strong with the rudie records, everyone was singing rude boy songs, speaking of the rude boys and telling them to cool it. This idea came to me, ‘Rudy, A Message to You,’ and the idea came and the song was finished in about 10 minutes. It was very simple. I remember calling Rita [King of Ska Beat records] on the phone and saying, ‘Look, I have a song,’ and she said okay. She didn’t want to hear nothing, just gave me the studio and I went in and recorded it, just like that.” I asked Livingstone how the song was written and he replied, “It was just a couple of words—my brain was good then, young (laughs). It was just a few lines and we went and did it, did the song on Old Kent Road. Vic Keary was the engineer. He was the engineer who did my early recordings and I did this track and in those days we did two track recordings. I went in a week after and I remember calling up a few people, how could I find Rico Rodriguez? Everybody knows Rico where he hangs out and I was told he was hard to get on with. Now I’m a likkle youth so I was saying to myself, I wonder? So I got in touch with Rico. I was told he wouldn’t show, but he did, of course. He did, right? He did the recording and I was so glad. He said to me, ‘Wha yuh wan me play?’ And I’m just a likkle youth, nobody knows me and so I say, ‘Just play the melody line,’ and that was it! I told him to play the melody, (sings) ‘Stop your runnin’ around,’ and he plays the same melody. He says, ‘I’m going to play it in the intro and play it in the solo.’ And that was it. And you know what happened to that song after that (laughs)! It was like The Specials signature song and it is an anthem. That song is amazing over the years, people keep repeating it, in so many adverts and movies. It’s uncanny in the sense that it is just a special song (laughs) and it had a cult following. I was just telling people to cool it, cool it.”

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After this recording session, Livingston says that a familiar face came knocking at his door. “It was a 360 thing because Lee [Gopthal] by this time acquired a building in East End, London to start Trojan Records. By 1968, four years after meeting Lee, this guy start his own company. As it works out, he calls on me, so it was a 360 thing, you know? I remember the morning when I went down to see Lee for him to show me this building, an old warehouse type place. Bunny Lee, Striker Lee was present and Lee [Gopthal] was there, he said he want a name for this company and he’s been juggling around and he said, ‘Guys, what about Trojan Records?’ and Bunny looked at me and I looked at Bunny and we said, ‘Yeah!’ Because all the early Jamaicans in London know of Trojan, Duke Reid, it’s a good idea, a good idea. He probably thought of it before he saw us but he came up with it this morning and that was it. I remember him calling Dave Betteridge and they were in some partnership as well, Dave Betteridge at Island Records and Chris Blackwell and obviously they said yes, and that is how Trojan was born.”

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Livingstone went on to produce a number of artists over the years, including Tony Tribe with “Red Red Wine.” Livingstone says, and I can almost see the twinkle in his eye through the phone line, “Tony Tribe. God bless his soul.” But Livingstone says that it was his own version of “Suzanne Beware of the Devil” that was more successful than the one recorded by Nicky Thomas. “Nicky had his thing going before but ‘Suzanne Beware of the Devil,’ I recorded that song three times, twice in London, once in Jamaica. There was something about this song. It was simple and it was just bugging me. I put ‘Suzanne Beware of the Devil’ on tape and in those days you had B sides, right? Remember? So I had this song, I can’t remember the title, on the A side and this company wanted to rush this particular song and I didn’t have a B side and something came to me and I said, ‘Hey, I have this song called Suzanne Beware of the Devil, so let me put it on the B side,’ not thinking about anything, they just needed a B side, so it went as a B side. The record was released, distributed all of the place, and there was a disc jockey, I think his name was Emperor Roscoe, he started playing the B side in the clubs and the kids really went for it and he called Trojan and he said, ‘Hey, you guys have a hit recording,’ and they said, ‘Which one?’ He said, ‘Which one? Suzanne Beware of the Devil!’ and Lee said to him, ‘The B side?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, the B side, that’s what the kids want.’”

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“Lee asked me how about Nicky Thomas doing it and Nicky had ‘Love of the Common People,’ right? And he had about two songs after that and nothing happened so they needed Nicky to have another hit record so Nicky did it, they put a lot of brass and thing over the track which didn’t work. The same disc jockey called him up one day and said to Lee, ‘You guys are a bunch of you know what! The kids want Dandy Livingstone! That raw ethnic version (laughs).’ Two or three weeks after that I was on Top of the Pops, just like that. Amazing isn’t it? What must be will be. That is how I got my first national hit because ‘Rudy’ was an underground hit at the time. ‘Suzanne’ was really the first national hit, and then ‘Big City’ of course was the follow up.”

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He says that his songs have appeared on a number of albums over the years, though not through his direction. “There were some tracks the company just kept compiling. There wasn’t a set thing. I wasn’t too much in the everyday scene of music, so when I went around they put these tracks together and some of them I didn’t like, of course. Some of the compiling things, some tracks I didn’t like, as a musician. You just like that track and don’t like that one, but that’s how that went. They did their thing when I didn’t come forward,” he says.

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And so after a time, Livingstone says that he decided to heed the call to head back home. “I started thinking about Jamaica when The Specials hit with ‘Rudy.’ My family and I always thought about going back to Jamaica and it was about 1979 I started thinking about going back home and that was it, we came home. I went back [to London] a couple of times, but it took me 20 years before I went back and not to live.”

Today, Livingston has what he calls “a small family again (laughs)! One daughter. Everybody is healthy. She is not in the music business.” His mother lived in New York for nearly 50 years, leaving London for the Big Apple in 1969. She has resided in Jamaica since 2013.

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When asked if he still performs, Livingstone chuckles. “You’ve heard of the three-day music festival called Skamouth? Well I was there last March. It went down great. And I’m going back this April. I am one of the most peculiar recording artists. Production was my thing mainly. And when I did Skamouth last March, it was the first time in 42 years that I went on a stage. I just wasn’t interested in performing. When ‘Suzanne Beware of the Devil’ happened I did a few shows and in the 70s, but I did not have to live on music. I did just producing.” When I tell him that he has fans the world over who adore his music, including myself, this charming man on the other side of the phone humbly responds, “That’s what I realize!”

Enjoy a few of Dandy’s tunes below:

Rudy, A Message to You

Suzanne Beware of the Devil

Big City

Reggae In Your Jeggae

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