I was shocked to learn of the death of Apple Gabriel at the end of March. I hadn’t heard from him in some time, but that wasn’t unusual. Sometimes Apple would hit a rough patch and go silent. His health, his bouts with homelessness, his transient lifestyle all made keeping in regular touch difficult. But this, I did not expect. You see, Apple was always tough–one of the toughest people I have had the pleasure of knowing. I guess I thought, in a way, he was invincible. I was wrong. Apple Gabriel was human and vulnerable and emotional and such a beautiful creature. I am really going to miss him.
As a tribute to Apple Gabriel, I post here the chapter I wrote for Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music. As Apple would tell me all the time, this is just a small slice of his life. “We could have a whole book! Two books, man!” he would regularly say at the end of some particularly fascinating story. And he was full of stories–so many of them that one wondered, could this be real? Could this be true? It’s unbelievable! But they always checked out. They were real. He was a conqueror fi true. Walk good, Apple.
Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig
Under the cover of darkness, the field slaves, house slaves, children, gathered with their sticks and torches, set the cane on fire and retreated into the mountains where the bush gave them refuge. Here they ambushed their attackers, warning their brothers and sisters across the mountain with the call of the abeng. They were warriors—fierce, ruthless, organized, and smart. They were undefeatable and today their most zealous leaders are national heroes. These are the Maroons, and their blood runs thick in the veins of Apple Gabriel, descendant of this rebellious and conquering people.
Apple Gabriel is, like his Maroon ancestors, a fighter, defensive against attack, but as he will also tell you, he was made to be this way. He has had a hard life. He has been a sufferer in many ways, including during his days at Alpha, about which he does not mince words. Apple Gabriel’s days on this earth have been tough. But despite his warrior shell and words he throws like stones at his foe, Apple Gabriel is a kind and strong man, a funny and smart man, a creative and productive man, and he is a hell of a musician.
Apple Gabriel was born as Albert Craig, the youngest of 10 children. “My great grandparents were white. My great grandfather was General Brumfield, a British military officer in Jamaica in 1906. I was raised by my mother and my grand aunt Kate, a white woman. My mother used to have a big grocery shop and a bar and was doing good. My mother’s white grandparents were wealthy and they had acres and acres of land in Clarendon and they produce a lot of stuff with dozens and dozens of workers with trucks coming in to chop the cane and pick the ackee and the fruits and everything,” he says. But soon, the promise of a bountiful life changed when Craig was just a toddler. “That’s when I got the polio, when I reach 3 ½ years, I got the polio.”
The Jamaica Gleaner on December 21, 2014 reported on the polio outbreak in Jamaica, saying, “It’s a part of Jamaican history which is not often recalled…. The outbreak in the 1950s was severe…. For most children around the island it was very difficult to access treatment because they didn’t know what it was; vaccines were not available. It was new to the island and there were no symptoms. People were simply fine one day, and by the next morning they couldn’t walk or they couldn’t breathe.” There were two outbreaks—one in 1954 and one in 1957. Craig contracted polio during the second outbreak in 1958 after playing in a nearby river. Polio is a waterborne virus. “I was playing in the river and that’s how I got polio. My mom take me to the river and I’m playing in the water, looking at the tadpoles swimming and we went back home. In the morning, I get sick overnight. I always wake up early, but in the morning I couldn’t wake up when the cock crow. She keep shaking me to get up and when I woke up, I start crying but I couldn’t move. When she lift me up to make me stand up, I fell on the floor, and that’s when she realized something was wrong with me. She put me back on the bed and took off all of my clothes to check my body and that’s when she saw my right leg was shorter and smaller than the left one. She said when she touch it, it feel ice cold. All this happen at night when I was sleeping, it shrink down my muscle,” he says.
Though his mother tried a variety of bush remedies, his leg continued to get smaller. When nothing worked, two weeks later she took him to one of the island’s three hospitals where the doctor diagnosed him with polio. Apple was quarantined at the hospital and then sent with other patients to Mona Rehabilitation Center until Jamaica received Jonas Salk’s vaccine and the virus disappeared. “They were testing the vaccine on us. They sweat us out with heated blankets like fire on us on aluminum tables. I was a guinea pig. I was only 3 ½ but I can see it like it was yesterday. There were babies dying all around me, but God keep me alive,” he says. It was here, as one of the first shipments of patients to Mona Rehab, that Apple met two other victims of the polio epidemic, Cecil “Skelly” Spence, and Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin after they arrived months later. Apple would go on to form the group Israel Vibration with Skelly and Wiss. Other notable musicians who contracted the polio virus throughout the world during the outbreaks of the late ‘40s and ‘50s include Ian Dury, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Donovan, Neil Young, Steve Harley, and Gene Simmons.
Craig took the name Apple early in his life, but Gabriel came later and was given to him by Haile Selassie’s grandson. Both have biblical significance, and the Bible was an important part of Apple’s life at Mona, though he says he was always a spiritual person. “My mother told me I was born as a prophet. After a while she became a spiritual healer and had a church and did spiritual healing. She was very powerful and she was called a “Mother,” which means spiritual healer. My mother told me I have the spirit of a leader. I asked her to read me and she told me I am going to be a great leader in the world and that millions of people are going to follow me as a prophet.” Such a maternal expectation on a child may cause anxiety or feelings of inadequacy in others, but not for Apple Gabriel who wears his mother’s premonition as a badge of honor, a revelation of love, a blessing. He knows it will be fulfilled, and in many ways, it already has.
While at Mona, Apple’s grandfather died and the family became embroiled in estate disputes, leaving his mother fighting for her share of 16 acres of bauxite land worth millions of dollars that was left to her in her grandfather’s will. Apple says that his mother was cheated from her inheritance, it was stolen from her by a greedy family, and as a result she became depressed and she lost her businesses. Apple’s father disowned Apple when he was just six years old, unable to accept his son’s handicap and blamed Apple’s mother for the misfortune.
After a few years at Mona Rehab, Apple was transferred to the Salvation Army children’s home called The Nest which sent him to an able-bodied school called Swallowfield School where he nurtured his love for music, teaching himself to play piano by watching his teacher perform at lunchtime. He wrote his first song for his childhood love when he was just 10 years old. But Apple says he was also teased relentlessly by the able-bodied children, and so he fought back. “They made my life a living hell.” The Salvation Army administration at The Nest punished him for fighting back by withholding food and putting him in isolation. They didn’t investigate why Apple fought back—to retaliate being bullied because of his handicap. “The students hit me on lunchbreak in the school yard. When the bell rang and everybody went back to their classes, I asked to use the bathroom and instead of going, I went into their classes and hit them over the head. The woman who was in charge of The Nest, the brigadier, never investigated why these fights took place in school. Instead she put baking soda in my wound to punish me and it turned black after months. She was an evil Dutch woman from Holland. She sent me to walk three miles to the clinic after it get so bad. She didn’t want to use the children’s home van so the medical people at the clinic could not identify where I was coming from and who was doing this to me. She was covering up the abuse. The doctor said, ‘Oh my God, what happen to your leg,’ and I told him the woman at the Salvation Army childrens’ home put baking soda on my sore,’ and he said, ‘You don’t put baking soda on a sore.’” Out of the brigadier’s fear of being investigated, she transferred Apple to Alpha Boys’ School. “This is how I end up at Alpha. It was a youth detention center for bad and runaway children. They send me there in 1967 in the middle of the year. I was 12 ½ going on 13. It’s a prison for kids. They have jail there, they lock us up, with bars on the windows and you have to sleep on the concrete. It was cold at night,” Apple says.
He says that he rejected the nun’s attempts at indoctrination, which frustrated administrators, and so he was denied his requests. “They have trade shops in there including the printery shop, that is what I love, and the music class. I wanted to join the band and play keyboard. The bandmaster said I was brilliant and he want me in the band, but the nun wouldn’t allow me to be a part of the band, so I wanted to learn printery and they reject me again. They put me in the damn tile shop. I said hell no, the hell with this shit, so I quit going. Then they put me in the woodworking shop and I curse out the teacher and I leave. I am very sensitive to dust. It’s not my line of work, but all of this was done to hurt me. They get mad at me now.” Apple says that this is when he experienced a side of Alpha that many have either never seen, or those who have rarely talk about. “The head staff, big men who walk around with big strap and things and he slap me with the strap and I curse him out. I say if you do that to me again, I’m going to be the last person you do that to. You don’t beat with a strap. I was in the big dining room and I feel blam! Right across my back! The same man come and hit me with the strap. I took up my breakfast and the hot cup of tea and I throw it in his face and I walk outside of the dining room and he come out and I hide behind the door and the Maroon spirit rise up in myself. I broke two bottles and with the pieces I am ready to stab him. I say if you think you’re bad, come out here. I told you not to put your hands on me again. They go and call the nun and I tell them to go back to Italy with your brainwashing stupid shit. Every-thing just come out of my mouth. I ain’t no damn Catholic, I ain’t no damn slave, I’m not into your program, fuck that program. They put me in the jail for seven days. Another time I tell the staff to go suck his bomboclaat ass because he hit me with a strap and the nun come now with a little plate, a saucer, with three scotch bonnet pepper in it and told me I must eat the peppers to burn the bad words out of my mouth. She got seven big boys to hold me down over a bench to force me to eat the peppers. When they hold me down, I bite down on their flesh, I become a vampire now, I want to taste blood. Seven boys I bite them up. Every one of them have to go to the medical when I’m done with them, and I look at that nun and I say, ‘Fuck you, you nyam that pepper!’ She turn red, I tell her if she approach me again I’m going to take that and stuff that in your fucking mouth and rip up your bomboclaat face. I was like a mad man. After that they put me in the senior center. Out of revenge they send me down to the garden, and I am handicap, how am I supposed to walk with a damn bucket of water? To punish me worse they put me in with the garbage dump where they dump the garbage. So they make me shovel the garbage through mesh to get fertilizer. It was a dump full of scorpions. We call it the scorpion pit in Alpha. That was the worst punishment. And that’s when I start to plan to run away. I’m not staying in that place.”
Officials at Alpha today say there is no record of Apple Gabriel having ever attended the school. But Albert Malawi confirms that Apple did indeed attend and the two were friends. “Yes, we were at Alpha. He was in the junior home part. Apple was there. How dem don’t have his record?” Malawi asks, in disbelief. Apple says he remembers that his friend Malawi had a nickname at Alpha—Turbit—which Malawi confirms. “Perfectly right. Dat shows we were together because when we are getting beating, we nuh cry. We tough like turbit fish,” says Malawi. Apple says he thinks his missing record is because Alpha wants to “hide the mistreatment they have done.” As a result, he ran away. “The nuns never called the police to bring me back. I was the only one no police try to bring back. They never had an experience like me, they were facing a Maroon!” He had no immediate plans when he ran away from Alpha, but he dreamed of a better life. “I used to go up and sit in a tree out on the playfield and sing and play this pan as a drum. I used to look at the planes flying overhead, leaving Palisadoes Airport, and I say, ‘One day, one day, I am going to be on one of those planes going to America.’ I decide I’m leaving this place today. I climb through the fence and I just hit the damn street, at 13 years old, went straight to downtown and never look back. My 14th birthday I was on the street as a homeless sleeping on the sidewalk in downtown Kingston.”
While on the street, Apple met many people, including rude boys and musicians. He was a beggar, wiping car windows at stoplights for change, asking shop owners at Bruce’s Patty at Crossroads for a patty or two. “That’s one of the places where I used to hustle.” Though he took up with his mother again for about a year in 1970 after living on the street for three years, she had been living with another man who wanted Apple to help clean his hog pens and he refused because he was becoming Rastafari and didn’t eat pork. “He threw me out.” Apple was 16 and he started sleeping in the Hope Riverbed for months. His mother brought him food so he could survive and broke up with the man, unable to stand the way he treated her son. She moved to Rockfort and Apple moved with her in an area with his cousins. “We were all family inside that yard, 7 St. Patrick Road at the foot of the Wareika Hill, and people come out and play domino and smoke some chalice pipe. It was a gathering yard, island style, and my mom didn’t like that kind of gathering I’m involved with, with the Rasta. She said I couldn’t stay around because my Rasta ways was clashing with her spiritual vibes. I was 17 and my mom threw all of my clothes over the fence!” he says, laughing.
Apple went back to Mona Rehab in search of the rights that were given to him by the government as a victim of polio. “I rode my bicycle all the way up to Mona Rehab. There was an open bush with cows, donkeys, horses, goats and it was government property. I hide my clothes there and live there for years in that bush. I went up there for help because John Golding and Sammy Henriques who ran the rehab were obligated to help me and set me up with a job and live. They live like two gods. They were rich, millionaires. I told them I need help because my mom signed papers for you to help me. I was a spokesperson for the people in Mona Rehab because I snuck in the office and read all the papers and I knew our rights. I want to see if I can still get the help I can get my parents sign up for, but I went as a Rasta, and they did not like that shit. But I start to sleep and eat on the compound and I need help, I need a job, and they say if I stop preaching Rasta we will help you but I have to stop preaching the Rasta thing, but I said to John Golding in his office, ‘What does my religion have to do with the obligation you have to give to me by law?’ They call the police and I said I am going to live inside this damn institution and the police said this man is right, you people owe him that obligation to rehabilitate him. It is his right to be here.”
Apple met up again with Skelly, who was his best friend from three years old, and Wiss, who both grew up in the institution. Apple says he read the Bible to Wiss and Skelly so soon they too were associating with the Rasta culture. “Every day I used to sit in the bush at Mona Rehab in a big big open land, bush land, and Skelly and Wiss come with me and we sing and sing and sing and every evening we make a likkle audience and people passing by in the bush used to clap at the end of the song and encourage us, so we became known in the whole area as the three Rasta handicap who sing.” Because Apple used to play piano every day at the Theological College with Donald Manning, lead singer for the Abyssinians, and all the students knew him, he was asked to perform at a college party, their first performance. Apple named the group Israel Vibration. Apple played piano while all three sang.“By this time now we join the Twelve Tribe people and we do stage shows for them and everyone come to see the three handicap. We were the headliner. A lot of people join Twelve Tribe because of we. This was the first time in history this sort of thing rise up. This guy named Hugh Booth, me and him were close bredren, and he own a sound called JahLoveMuzik and he take us to a studio and he produce us. We made Skelly lead vocal first because he cannot sing back vocal. He sing a song we call ‘Why Worry’ and two other songs.” Apple says that though there were many other artists with Twelve Tribe, they all left because “it wasn’t real, it was fake people. Take the money and feed them big belly, jump in their fancy car and leave us standing there. Bob was a member, Dennis Brown was a member, Jacob Miller was a member and Gad Man [Vernon Carrington], the leader of Twelve Tribe, treat us ghetto dreads all worse than the light-skin dreads. Bob was angry and said it was racist and he left Twelve Tribe and make a song call, ‘Running Away.’ He was telling the Twelve Tribe people about the divide in the organization and the favoritism show to the light-skin dreads over the black dreads. He was angry over it and that’s why he left Twelve Tribe. Bob sit down and tell me he wrote that song and record it, he said, ‘I have to sing about this shit.’ After they left, we left. We lick them like Bob, by singing the ‘Same Song,’ and the first album we put out also called Same Song. Twelve Tribe was full of hypocrisy.”
Israel Vibration then recorded with Tommy Cowan and his newly developing Talent Corporation, but Apple says they left there too after a short time because of conflicts with Inner Circle who was also with Cowan. “There was a conflict between Inner Circle and Tommy Cowan because of us. We were number one and the band become jealous and they take the original tape for ‘We Are the Rasta.’ To this day that tape was never found. It was a different mix from the album and it was revenge so they could be the front line again for Talent Corporation. It wasn’t Jacob Miller. Me and Jacob was best friends. It was the other guys and they were jealous and because we were handicap they look down on us.”
They next went to Tuff Gong because Bob Marley hired Tommy Cowan who produced their second album, backed by the Wailers band. “Five of us start Tuff Gong Distribution in Jamaica—Israel Vibration, Nadine Sutherland, Rita Marley, The Melody Makers, and Bob Marley himself, five of us. We start Tuff Gong Distribution in Jamaica. Then Bob have a radio show called the Tuff Gong Package and every Saturday Bob have a one hour show on JBC Radio and they only play the five of us music, emceed by Errol Thompson, the number-one disc jockey then. All this was going on and I’m still sleeping in bush on the property alongside the Mona Rehab, and I also slept at the Island House after Bob bought it when it wasn’t fixed up or anything yet. That’s where Bob and the band used to rehearse every weekend. Family Man was living in the back. It wasn’t Tuff Gong yet. We did the album called Unconquered People and Bob love it. We was Bob’s favorite singing group in Jamaica. It was the Wailers who played all the backup on the album, all the rhythm section dem.”
Apple did have his childhood dream realized when he boarded a plane to come to America in 1979 for a sold-out show in New York, returning again in 1981 for another sold-out show. “We did a show in Manhattan at Negril Club and that was the last show that Bob Marley came to before he died. He sit right at stage side and give us juice. He do his show the next night with the Commodores and he collapse on stage. He never come back. But Billboard magazine interview him, the last interview Bob make to the world, he said if God take away this illness from me, the only group I would produce is Israel Vibration, I’ll take them on every tour with me. These are the words of Bob Marley.”
In the subsequent years, Israel Vibration toured the world and sold out shows everywhere they went—all over Europe, North America, and South America. But Apple says that the band was torn apart due to division within the group which he believes was fostered by their manager, Doctor Dread, who he accuses of stealing money from the group—money from the shows, merchandise, and music sales. Despite what Doctor Dread has written in his book, Apple says he did not walk off the stage during a performance and quit the group. “That’s a damn lie,” he says. Instead, Doctor Dread sent Skelly and Wiss on tour with the Roots Radics without Apple. He heard about it through a friend who called him from Germany, wondering why the trio was now a duo.
“After the group break up, a lot of things happen to me,” he says, noting the death of one of his three children. He has also moved a number of times, but he continues to write music from his home studio in Atlanta and he has had a successful solo career. “I could put out 50 albums back to back, right now, but I have no investor. I never stop writing. I never stop making music. I’m the fountain of music, I can’t dry up!”