Keith & Tex: Rocksteady set reggae up to be what it is today

Derrick Harriott once said, "Ask any Jamaican musician and they'll tell you the rocksteady days were the best days of Jamaican music." Despite its short lifespan, the influence of this genre is not to be underestimated. Keith & Tex, best known for their hit "Stop That Train", were a part of this new craze.

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In 1970 they both emigrated with their families – Keih Rowe to The United States and Tex Dixon to Canada. They reunited years later and decided to continue what they started in Jamaica. They perform worldwide and in 2017 released a completely rocksteady album “Same Old Story” on the Liquidator Label. In 2018 they did a show at This Is Ska Festival. I had a chance to talk to them for a while before they went onstage.

Magdalena Miszewska: You’re back in Europe and you play in Europe, I’d say, pretty often, so I think it treats you really well.

Keith Rowe: Just about every year we come back. And we really enjoy coming to Europe because Europe enjoys our music. It’s a mutual love affair.

Tex Dixon:  Our brand of reggae is rocksteady and we have a big appreciation for our style here. Europe is definitely on the forefront of appreciating our music.

MM: The title of your last album is “Same Old Story”. I know it’s also a title of your song, but maybe we could treat this title like some information about what kind of music you are playing. You still play rocksteady – the music you started with 50 years ago. Can we treat this title like a message to all the people: “Hi guys, we are still playing the same music we played back in the day”?

KR: Yeah, pretty much it’s the same old thing. We’re just doing it better, enjoying it more, and have an appreciation, more than before because now we’re older. And you look at things quite differently then you did when you were in your teenage years.

TD: It’s basically a pick up on a theme. A lot of things remain the same but a lot of things have changed. And although they did, we still want to keep our groove from when we were teenagers.

MM: When talking about your latest album, we should mention Roberto Sanchez, a guy from Spain who was your collaborator on this album. How did this happen? Did you find him first or did he find you first?

KR: I’ve known him for over ten years. In fact I recorded two songs for him back in the 90s. Me and Tex were in Atlanta getting ready to do another album, one of our own. And I wrote him an email: “Roberto send me a couple of songs, a couple of rhythm tracks, so Tex and I can write some lyrics to it and put it on an album”. He came back with his email and said: “Would you be interested in doing an album together?”. We said “yes” and started working right away.

MM: He’s the guy responsible for all the music?

TD: Yes, a 100% of all the music here was supplied by him and we supplied the lyrics. It wasn’t a challenge really because the music that he sent us was good. He’s a very good producer. He got the best out of what we do.

MM: Roberto Sanchez is known for working with rocksteady and all those vintage rhythms. And you were doing rocksteady back in the day. Do you think that he’s working the same way like the producers did in the 60s? Or do you see some differences? Does he have all the same instruments or the same equipment for that vintage sound?

KR: I think he’s captured the sound. He’s captured the 60s vibes. The only difference is that we are in Atlanta, in the States, and he is in Spain and we do things online. But in terms of the music he’s captured the sound, he’s captured the spirit, he’s captured the essence of rocksteady music. It’s one of our proudest albums, so far.

MM: The way you work, the way you make an album now is really different than making an album in the 60s in Jamaica because then everything happened so quickly. You guys went to Derick Harriott and in a few days you got a recording session and now you have to prepare for it, you work slower. Do you like it the way it’s made right now or maybe you miss the times when you just got in the studio, recorded on spot.

TD: It’s not exactly as you portrayed it. Back in the days we did some preparatory work at home, we did a lot of preparations. When you entered Derick everything was basically set. He was having a session at the time which was just fortunate for us. But we did a lot of months of work before we actually went to him. You know what? Both sides are rewarding. Back in the days we liked to sit down and from scratch write whenever, do the music do the lyrics and it turned out some of them are OK. It’s easier now with Sanchez because he’s done the music and I mean he’s got the feel in the music. So we’re reduced to  writing some appropriate lyrics. We were kids then, basically teenagers and now we’re grown adults so we have a different mindset, we see the world differently. That’s a key difference. But I mean for the rest of it, it’s rewarding and it’s just as rewarding as when we did it back in the 60s.

MM: And another thing that changed, you put some political and social lyrics on your latest album. It’s not really common for rocksteady music to have this kind of lyrics.

KR: That is true. Rocksteady is mostly about love but we are grown men. We live in a time now where we have refugees all over the place coming from Africa, from Syria. We have to write about it because it’s appropriate for the time. We live in a world, in America for example, where you’ve got a lot of rich folks around you and right in front of them is a whole world of poor people. We have to sing about that because we see it. It’s a lived experience. We are writing in that format and we still write about love. Rocksteady is about love. So, the majority of our songs would be about love. 50 percent anyway.

MM: Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton who wrote the book “Rough Guide To Reggae”, wrote that rocksteady was the most important episode in Jamaican music history because of the focus on drums and bass. That was the game changer. That not ska was the game changer, not reggae, but the really short moment when rocksteady was popular. Do you agree with him that it was the most important time for Jamaican music?

TD: It was one of the important eras. I hesitate to go so far as to endorse everything that he’s saying. He’s seeing it from his perspective. It might very well be true, I’ve just never examined it that closely. But I know that for the timeslot, the period of time that rocksteady was being recorded was a very very important time for a lot of reasons and reggae’s development. Because we’re coming out of ska, which was fast bass music, and we’re slowing it down. And then we’re doing more lovers rock kind of lyrics,  romanticism and all this kind of thing. So, in that aspect it was really very very unique in terms of the journey that reggae has taken from scratch till now.

KR: I’m a little different. I believe in the majority of what he said in that book. But I think that rocksteady for like four years kind of set reggae up to be what it is today. Most of the memorable songs that you hear today were done in rocksteady times. Most of the rhythms that you hear people singing now were done in rocksteady times. They just updated them, changed them. And Paragons, Heptones, Techniques. Come on! There’s nothing in reggae that can rival that period in terms of the longevity of the songs. For 50 years we’re still listening to Keith and Tex, we still listen to the Paragons, we still listen to The Heptones. They’re still relevant, still kids are dancing to it. I think it was an important part. It also broadened the guitar picking, that happened in rocksteady, what Lynn Taitt did. A lot of what reggae is today certainly derives from rocksteady. Just as much as some of the stuff that we did in rocksteady came from ska. We grew up listening to ska.

MM: In the same book those guys wrote that in that moment when rocksteady was popular, ska was treated like music for grown-ups and younger people wanted to listen to rocksteady. I think he was talking about the brass section and those really qualified musicians who were playing ska, that people treated it like a music for grown-up people and youngsters wanted to listen to something new. Was it like that? Do you remember it like that?

TD: I think yes. My parents or people older than me, they were more comfortable listening to ska music. I don’t know if it was an age group kind of thing, but younger people were more comfortable listening to rocksteady. And I remember as a teenager I loved ska, but I wanted to hear more rocksteady because it had that groove, it was a new style. They had the guitar picking that just started and it seemed like ska was for grown-ups. Although we learn how to dance a kind of dance to ska that we call ‘a shuffle.’ People still try to do it. But as kids rocksteady was the music we went for.

KR: I think what rocksteady did was the groups that influenced us, from the States – Impressions, The Drifters, The Platters, The Temptations, The Four Tops, that R’n’B style of music the young people were listening that was being played on the air. So if you’re gonna sing, you’re not gonna sing a ska song necessarily because it’s limited in the speed. You can’t express yourself so fast. I can express myself talking to you slower in a deliberate fashion. So I think that’s what rocksteady did – the influence of American music. And we can’t underestimate that. The influence of rhythm and blues on rocksteady was tremendous, really really important because most of the songs that were being done by the groups were songs that were written by R’n’B artists that we recorded in rocksteady style.

MM: But you don’t have to be young folk to do rocksteady because you can be a little older just like Keith and Tex now and still sing rocksteady music and it stays in your heart because it’s quite a story that you guys moved, one of you to Canada, the other one to the States. You weren’t in touch for years because it wasn’t like you could call yourselves on a mobile and ask “what’s up?” You weren’t in touch and then you found yourselves and still wanted to play rocksteady.

KR: Actually in the 90s we did an album called “Together Again”. Tex found me actually because I was in the military and I was gone most of the times. But in 2012 I got an e-mail from a guy in California that said, “would you guys like to come to California to do a show?” We went to California, did the show and we were just overwhelmed. People were coming from Mexico, from Minnesota, from Chicago, all over the place to see Keith and Tex because they thought we stoped singing or we were dead or something. It really took us by surprise. I personally had no idea that there was such a rocksteady following. They knew every song we did that night. Word for word. They were singing with us. We could just come out onstage and put the mic out there and let them sing. And just say “the next song is…”.

TD: We never really set out to do rocksteady per se after we rejoined. Just that we knew we had a lot of unfinished business because we had not kind of risen to our potential when we started out. We figured that we still have some life in us and we want to continue from where that was. The fact that we did rocksteady, I think is the product of how well we were received and that one show was a part of it because that show kind of ignited something in us. Like he said, we were blown away by the reception we got. Young people, who could be our kids, were appreciating our music, wanted to hear it so much that we decided maybe there’s something to it. And of course, we were familiar with rocksteady music from when we have started out before so it was an easy choice actually to continue doing it. That’s the story [laugh].

MM: Keith, you work for a radio station, so obviously you know about the modern rocksteady bands. Do you listen to modern rocksteady bands? What do you think about them? Would they be any good back in the days? Or maybe they shouldn’t be good in the sixties because they are modern.

KR: There’s an evolution of the music from then till now and a lot of people who were appreciative of what we did then. Some of them would not so appreciate the modern stuff because, like with any generation, in your youth what you listen to you think it’s the best and the next generation comes in and they have something different and you say: “man, what’s this?” You have to have an ear receptiveness to appreciate what’s good. So, I appreciate what I think is good from a modern thing. Of course, some of it I could very well leave alone. But there are some really talented new bands out there. But just like in any field there are some good and some bad. We pick and choose what we want to listen to.

MM: Tex, what do you think about modern rocksteady bands?

TD: I like some of it, but the authenticity is missing. Not everybody can capture that what we had back then. It takes a special guy like Roberto to do it. Not everybody can do it. They sound good technically. But in terms of the feel and in terms of the essence of it, some of that is missing. But it’s music and we appreciate all kinds of music. There’s a place for everybody.

Photo of Rudemaker Crew and Keith & Tex by Dr. Ring Ding


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