Although the Reggae world knows him as Winston Holness, Niney actually came into the world as George Winston Boswell, in Montego Bay in 1944. His parents separated when Niney was a youngster, and Holness was the surname of his mother's subsequent husband. Like many Jamaican youngsters, Niney was big on music from an early age and, although he was not as big on the 'Three R's', he did start to organise a little band or two during his school years. (It was also during his later school years that he came to be known by his internationally-famous nickname, following an incident with a saw that culminated in the removal of one of his thumbs, and that left him a 'ninefinger' - or a 'Niney' for short). After he and schooling eventually found they had no further use for each other, Winston Holness moved away from Mo' Bay and up to Kingston around 1966, to live with a family member and to fall deeper in love with the city's vibrant music scene.
It was not too long before he had talked his way into some pretty impressive music circles. In David Katz' mandatory 'oral history of Reggae' that is 'Solid Foundation', Niney told the author that 'I start to move with guys like Derrick Morgan and Monty Morris…then me and (Striker) Lee hook up, then me and Lee Perry…night upon night I used to be around Andy Capp (the great W.I.R.L studio engineer Lynford Anderson) - he was the greatest. I work with every single producer in the business; Beverley's, Coxson….after I work with (Lee) I do freelance at night-time. I just go and make my riddims and any producer who want a cut, I sell him…'
The independent producer Joel Gibson p.k.a. Joe Gibbs was a special fan of Niney's work: 'Joe Gibbs…did like my riddims, but he never really want me to sell (them to him), he want me to (work) with him'. Which is what Niney did, on and off, throughout late 1969 and early 1970 - earning his first nickname of 'The Destroyer' during this period, thanks to the plethora of Jogibs instrumentals from the time, that were usually credited to the mythological Destroyers. He also continued to associate with Striker Lee (then, as now, going by the more readily recognised nickname of Bunny, or Bunnie) and shared living arrangements with Lee and one of his preferred singers, Maxie Smith p.k.a. Max Romeo.
Striker and Niney fell out big time in the late Spring of 1970, the former publicly mocking the latter via the spoken intro of the Wailers' 'Mr. Chatterbox' ('A who come? Niney? Bwai, is Mr Talkative dat! Bwai, afraid of him like puss...'). It was once again time to move on - but rather than hooking up with another senior producer, Niney decided it was time to go out on his own. (The lack of financial reward that his friend Max Romeo had received after selling his self-produced, chart topping recording of 'Macabee Version' to small-time producer Willie Francis played an important role in our man's decision). Using the nickname that he had earned while running sessions for Joe Gibbs, Niney set up his Destroyer imprint, in mid-1970.
He got lucky with the double sided success of two of his earliest independent productions. Rising star Dennis Alacpone and his sometime DJ sidekick Lizzy cut two hard tunes for Niney, one a version of the Melodians' 'Everybody Bawling' and the other an observation (no pun intended) on the 'Mr. Brown' phenomenon of 1970 (during the early months of that year it's alleged that a coffin was seen moving around downtown Kingston under its own steam, with three crows perched atop calling out for 'Mr. Brown'. Other important records to comment on these occurrences include The Wailers' seminal 'Mr. Brown' and 'Duppy Serenade', a Studio 1 release credited to 'The Inn-Keepers' that also featured Alcapone). However, this initial double-sided success was not ongoing, and money was getting tighter for the young producer. He was getting by on not much more than a mixture of goodwill and good luck as the year began to draw to a close, but was still keen to make a living as an artist and producer in his own right…
It's often said that the darkest hour is the one before dawn, and the dawn looked a long way off to Winston George Boswell as 1970 drew to a close. Somehow, though, he was able to channel the frustrations that were blighting his progress into the song that would soon come to turn the Reggae world upside down and, in doing so, would reinvent the way that Jamaica's indigenous music was being made.
There are many stories surrounding the creation of 'Blood And Fire', most of them contradicting each other. What is certain is that Niney wrote most of the song in the fall of 1970, and managed to scrape together a little money to buy some studio time around November to lay the riddim with Hux Brown and Chinna Smith on gits, and founder member (and original vocalist) of the Soul Syndicate Cleon Douglas picking out the wheezy organ stabs. The unmistakably deep speaking voice of the great Lloyd Charmers provided a memorable devotional recitation and backup vocals, while Niney himself poured every bit of 'blood and fire' that he could personally muster into his performance of the cautionary lyrics. The end product was like almost nothing that Reggae had experienced before, and it would eventually take the Jamaican music world by storm during 1971.
However, 'Blood And Fire' very nearly missed out on staking its claim to being one of the 10 most influential recordings in the history of Reggae, thanks to a bitter argument that came dangerously close to ending with Niney's death. As Steve Barrow told it in an earlier Trojan reissue of Observer classics, Niney took his sole dub plate of 'Blood And Fire' over to Striker Lee, to gauge his former colleague's opinion of the completed master (the two had made their peace very quickly, in the wake of the 'Mr. Chatterbox' incident). Singer/organist Glen Adams of the Hippy Boys/Upsetters/Wailers band was present when Niney pitched up by Striker. On hearing 'Blood And Fire' Adams declared that at least part of the melody had been stolen from a recent Wailers recording ('Duppy Conqueror' is the track most commonly cited, although these comparisons are lost on your correspondent…). He furiously snatched up the dub plate from Lee's turntable and hotfooted it, with Niney in pursuit, over to the Wailers' camp to play it to an equally aggrieved Bob Marley. The argument that had started by Striker escalated dramatically, to the point where a knife was pulled and Niney was stabbed, with potentially serious consequences, in the shoulder.
He was taken to hospital, stitched up and released. Somehow he got his dub plate back from the Wailers - although it's said that Marley never forgave him for his perceived 'thievery' - and managed to beg and borrow enough money to press a few hundred blank label copies of 'Blood And Fire', which he distributed himself on Christmas Eve 1970.
'Blood And Fire' immediately came on like gangbusters, selling out its limited blank run right away and becoming the 'must have' record of the holiday period. Its killer combination of a totally unique riddim, and a lyric that gave blatant thanks and praises to Jah Ras Tafari were collectively enough to make it the dancehall sensation of the moment, and Niney was soon able to fund a further, much bigger pressing - this time, on his newly -inaugurated Observer label - with which to satisfy public demand.
Not everyone wanted to know about the track, however. Rastafarianism was still in its infancy back a yard and, in terms of radio playability; records that celebrated it were about on a par with DJ music in the eyes and ears of Jamaica's programmers. RJR and JBC would not initially touch 'Blood And Fire' with a ten foot pole, citing it as musically inferior and forbidding its DJs to play it. Eventually the record's popularity proved unstoppable and both stations caved. 'Blood And Fire' went onto win an award as the '1971 Jamaican Song Of The Year' - a wholly fitting achievement for so colossal a creation.
'Blood And Fire' was also a massive seller in the UK, where it topped the Reggae charts for weeks on end, and was still selling well almost six months after its first appearance on Trojan's Big Shot imprint. (Never ones to miss out on a good thing, Harlesden's Palmer brothers also released it, somewhat belatedly, on their Pama label's Gas subsidiary). Reggae sales were seldom counted by the powers that made up the UK national charts, but it's probably not beyond the realms of truth to suggest that the combined sales of the Big Shot and Gas releases would have been enough to hoist the record into the UK Top 30. With just over three minutes of music 'Niney The Observer' had permanently established himself as one of the most important producers in the history of Reggae, and those who made and bought the music would henceforth be watching him to see what revolutionary spins he would bring to the genre in the coming years.
Economies being what they are, the next few releases on Observer were versions to the 'Blood And Fire' riddim, among them the moody Tommy McCook and Bobby Ellis horns cut, 'Psalms 9 To Keep In Mind', but by the middle of 1971 a variety of Niney productions on an assortment of riddims had bolstered his catalogue considerably. Most of the 45s featured the producer as lead vocalist - when you're a chart topping singer yourself, it's pointless to employ others to do the work for you - and these included the dark 'Message To The Ungodly' and a frank 'In The Gutter' that spoke to and from the heart of the ghetto. But by the end of the year Niney was locked into a long running recording relationship with Max Romeo, which would yield a copious quantity of classic recordings over the next half decade.
Niney and Max had hit it off right away, when the former supervised some of the latter's Striker Lee-financed sessions. They also ran with the increasingly creative Lee Perry, and the music that the various permutations of Niney, Maxie and Scratch would make together in 1971 pretty much set the original template for what soon came to be known as Roots music. At a time when musical appraisals of H.I.M. The Lion Of Judah were still very much the minor component of Reggae, the triumvirate turned out one great piece after another, including the scathing 'Rasta Band Wagon' ('Everyone Claims Dem A Rasta Now') and its Scratch-intro'd companion piece 'When Jah Speak' - both on another wholly-original riddim, that was probably created by the 'Setter rather than the 'Server. (Romeo also cut an x-rated lyric to this riddim for Perry, entitled 'Softie Cellar' and released on the 'Adults Only' label as by 'Ben Rude Dick'). The trio also voiced a 'chapter' to Scratch's 'Beat Down Babylon' riddim at the same time (and probably at the same session), their vitriolic 'Babylose Burning' made all the more memorable thanks to Maxie's 'Not Even The Dogs That Piss Against The Walls Of Babylon Can Escape Jah Wrath' intro. And on Observer - and once again with a riddim that sounded nothing like anything Reggae had previously experienced - Max and Niney celebrated 'The Coming Of Jah' in jubilant fashion (ironically, just weeks after Haile Selassie's physical life had ended). The conscious aspect of the pair's work together was further cemented with the tale of the 'Beard(ed) Men Feast' and, although the record was credited to 'Niney And Max', it was actually Lloyd Charmers and Maxie who celebrated the recuperative powers of 'Aily And Ailaloo' (Marijuana and Jamaican spinach, for the unititiated). These, and associated messages of consciousness that Max Romeo released in this time ('Ginalship', 'Chi Chi Bud', 'Pray For Me' and - for Scratch Perry - the monumental 'Public Enemy Number One') virtually eradicated his earlier reputation as Reggae's prime purveyor of smut, forged largely by the notorious 'Wet Dream'. They also built a great foundation for Niney to carry his reputation forward throughout the 70s.
By 1972 the Romeo/Holness partnership had pretty much run its course, and the producer was looking around for another artist with whom he could establish a long-running and successful working relationship. In 1972 and 1973 he released quality music on both new and proven talent, giving the already veteran Ken Boothe one of his biggest records of the early 70s with his cover of Detroit maverick, Sixto Rodriguez' Sussex recording 'Silver Words', and bringing the world another immortal roots anthem in Keith 'Sang Hugh' Morgan's 'Rasta No Born Yah' ('He Already On Yah'). It was also in 1972 that he worked for the first time with the great Dennis Brown, then still not of school-leaving age but already the possessor of arguably the greatest voice ever to grace a Jamaican recording.
D. Brown had already made a series of undeniably classic recordings, which included 'No Man Is An Island' for Coxson Dodd, 'What About The Half' for Phil Pratt and 'The Song My Mother Used To Sing' for Herman Chin-Loy, before coming into Niney's camp. The two young men struck further gold from the moment they opted to work together…
It's often alleged that Niney produced Dennis' original 1972 recording of 'Money In My Pocket' and, indeed, he may well have been present at the session. However, the record appeared on Joe Gibbs' 'Jogibs Record Globe' label and while it bears few hallmarks of the Niney sound of the day, it certainly sounds like your typical Gibbs record of that period. However - and although it eventually appeared on a 1973 Gibbs album - Dennis' first actual Observer 45 sounded nothing like a Gibbs production. In increasingly typical Niney fashion, it also sounded nothing like anything that had been done in Reggae before.
Niney had assembled his preferred studio band, the Soul Syndicate, to create a riddim run that came off Memphis Soul God Al Green's 'Love And Happiness'. It's said that the musicians couldn't quite get their lick to roll the way that Green's colleagues in the Hi Rhythm Section had done. But using the tune as their template, the Syndicate worked up their own variation that swung like a pendulum and that had a pronounced chug, which gave it the feel of a train in motion. Over the top of this invigorating riddim D. Brown added the appropriate lyrics of 'Westbound Train'. Another overnight musical sensation was born, and the Observer had another chart topper on his hands.
As he had done with 'Blood And Fire', Niney quickly brought in other notables to ride the riddim to great effect. 'Mr. U Roy' - as he was billed on the label - took a very scatty 'Train From The West', while keyboard maestro Ansel Collins (or 'Colling', as he was billed!) rode a dubbed up 'Inbound Train' to 'meet The Observer'. Tommy McCook and Bobby Ellis also moved one very horny 'Trainload Of Collie' in the riddim, but this cut was not released until years later, as Niney was already ready to reshape the 'Westbound Train' riddim into something even more radical.
Here's what happened next, according to the man who was there: '(Just) before I put out 'Westbound Train' (me and Dennis) come from the beach one morning and when we a come up Orange Street him say 'Skipper, Me a spit blood y'know'. We a go run test at the hospital, so him did admit (with tuberculosis).
'Wha'appen (next) is 'Westbound Train' a come (big) now, so me take Dennis out of hospital around 2 o'clock one night and do this song 'Ride On'…with him and Big Youth. Me give it to (Tit For Tat Club DJ Winston) Blake to play. So, one night when me a…go up deh, is Lloyd Parks and Al Brown me hear a come with (another Al Green classic) 'Here I Am Baby'. So, me just ride the morning, go up a hospital again, go a Randy's and book the studio time, go back a hospital fe Dennis and clap 'Cassandra'. From that now, D. Brown a get big, big, big….'
The jarring guitar clang of 'Cassandra' was also Niney's precursor to the 'flying cymbal' sound that would dominate Jamaican music in 1974, and the first half of 1975. Never one to follow fashion, Niney virtually ignored the effects of the 'flying cymbal' and continued to find all sorts of extraordinary ways to reinvent Reggae's basic riddim structure. Some of the best ways he found can be heard on several of the D. Brown selections featured here. The ultra-rare 'Giving A Helping Hand' features Dennis and the Heptones competing with a groove that blends Ska and disco in a rhythm that was far too daring even for its time. When Dennis came to the UK for the first time in late 1974, to predominantly promote his recent Observer releases, he and Niney laid the stark riddim of 'Tribulation' in London's Chalk Farm Studios with musical help from the Cimarons, thereby establishing new levels of creativity and respectability for the then-much maligned UK Reggae scene. Forever inventing and reinventing, Niney proved with riddims like these that he was only truly content when marching to the beat of his own drum - a trait that she shares with, and that puts him permanently among the upper echelon of, Reggae's true creative genii.
Between 1973 and 1977 Niney and D. Brown worked together with a degree of consistency that was matched only by the remarkable quality of the music that resulted from their collaborations. Few fans of 70s vocal Reggae will not be familiar with the likes of 'I Am The Conqueror', 'Whip Them Jah Jah' or 'No More Will I Roam'. Dennis and Niney cut so much great music that it would have been possible to fill this 2CD set up just with the works that they created together. Happily, the release of Trojan's recent career-encompassing double D. Brown CD 'Money In My Pocket' means that we don't have to do that, leaving us to sprinkle just a few choice classics and less-often reissued items across our own selection here, and to concentrate instead on some of the other Observer productions of the era. Not that there are too many - Niney was so busy with Dennis that he did not always find the time, or feel the need, to reach out to work with others. But among those who did benefit from the experience of working with Mr. Holness in these peak years were the great Delroy Wilson, and the equally great Big Youth.
Both men collaborated with Niney all too briefly, releasing just a couple of singles apiece. Jah Youth was busy getting his own Negusa Nagast label off the ground at this point, and was working increasingly less with others when - as mentioned above - he voiced, with alternate Dennis Brown vocals, a couple of cuts apiece of the 'Cassandra' riddim (of which we've included 'Wild Goose Chase') and two rides of the 'Blood And Fire' riddim itself (we've chosen 'Mr. Finnegan' which, although slightly less impressive than its companion piece 'Fire Bunn', is the less-reissued of the two). The late and truly great Delroy was the inveterate label hopper, but on his travels he managed to stop by Niney for a remake of his late 'Bad Boy' brother Trevor's 1971 Mor-Well-Esq recording 'Not I' - which he retitled 'Rascal Man' a.k.a 'False Rasta'. While he was there, Niney had him cover another song from the same 1971 Sixto Rodriguez album that had featured the original of 'Silver Words'. It may not have been as big a hit as Ken Boothe's aforementioned chart topper, but as far as your scribe is concerned 'Half Way Up The Stairs' is the better of the two recordings….
In 1974 Niney also released the exceedingly rare and truly great 'Leggo The Wrong' by Astley Bennett, an obscure but uncannily accurate impersonation of the legendary Roy Shirley that showed how influential the 'Hold Them' man still remained in Reggae circles. That same year, he also effected a brief reunion with his old homeboy Maxie Romeo for the compelling 'I Man A African' - released under the unforgettable alias of 'The Son Of Selassie' - and it was in '74 that he began to groom another youngster who, later in the decade, would make his own indelible mark on the international Reggae scene as the lead singer of Black Uhuru - Michael Rose.
In a 1999 radio interview with leading UK Reggae DJ David Rodigan, Niney explained how he came to strike up a relationship with Rose: 'They used to have a talent show, place named Bohemia at Half Way Tree Road…he sing and nothing never happened because (a) girl win it. He look frustrated, him stand up in a corner. So I say 'come now yout' you is a great singer, but it a just so it go. So me say, check me on 91 Orange Street' - Observer base of operations - 'and when him come, me have him in the camp for three months before me record him. Me say fe learn, go a studio, look a wha' g'wan, pick up vibe and learn…
Rose got his first recording break when Dennis Brown failed to materialize for a scheduled session. Niney told Rodigan that 'Me…carry him to the studio and record 'Love Between Us' - him sound like Dennis Brown. 'Freedom' - like Dennis. One more tune, him still sound like Dennis'. Niney did not rush to release these tunes 'cos (if) I put them on the street, is Dennis gonna get the fame and everything, (Rose) sound too much like him'. In fact it was Dennis who, having heard these early studio efforts, helped Rose to break away from being just another D. Brown impersonator and to become his own man in the studio. Here's Niney again:
'(I asked Dennis to) carry him go a studio. Dennis say 'You remember a movie whe Sidney Poitier a do?' And (Michael) say 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?'. And I say 'Well, that a the title of your song for today'. And him start (to compose) now, Dennis deh with him and all of we clap the tune - boom! That was the song that move him off…'
…Indeed it was, and on a career that continues to this day. Rose did not stay long enough in the Observer camp. Around 1976 he accepted an offer, from the group's founder member Ducky Simpson, to become the lead voice of Black Uhuru - a position he held well into the mid 1980s, when he went solo again (and was replaced by Junior Reid). But among his other Observer releases was the mighty 'Clap The Barber', one of many 'Barber' themed recordings that were prevalent in this period and almost as much of a classic as 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner'. On the evidence of the small amount of material Rose and Niney cut together, there's every reason to regret that there's not more of it…
Niney, meanwhile was staying busy with D. Brown and also extending his roster to include proven singers like Horace Andy, Junior Byles and Cornel Campbell, as well as top flight DJs such as Dillinger and 'The Dictionary' himself, Roy Reid p.k.a. I-Roy. The most lyrically intelligent of all Jamaican DJs, Niney remembered the late great I-Roy as 'a very drama-rous guy (and) the best dressed man in town'. With Niney, Roy made a number of hits including 'Sister Maggie Breast' and the amazing 'Point Blank' - a cut to the remade 'Get In The Groove'/'Up Park Camp' riddim, which also served as the basis for Gregory Isaacs' immortal 'Slave Master'. Roy's astounding lyrical science and a full-on, bottomless pit of a Tubby's mix paled into insignificance beside the jaw-dropping intro on which Roy impersonates - with exaggerated accuracy - a London cockney! (He'd based himself in the UK from around 1973 to 1975, and had not long returned back a yard when he voiced his tracks for Niney). 'Point Blank' epitomizes the quality of music that could be found on the Observer imprint in the mid 1970s, and especially that which ruled Niney's high watermark years of 1976 and 1977.
That these years were so significant in the recording life of Niney was largely down to the continual vinyl outpourings of Dennis Emmanuel Brown. By the middle of the decade, Niney had fallen back in with Lee Perry and was prepared to overlook Scratch's earlier vinyl attacks on his character - as epitomized by Charlie Ace's 'Cow Thief Skank' and Bunny and Rickey's blatantly vitriolic 'Nine Finger Jerry Lewis'. Happily, they made it up by the time of Perry's greatest creative peak, when his Black Ark studios was hemorrhaging classics on what seemed like a daily basis. That list of classics was soon to be added to, thanks to the release of Dennis Brown's monumental 1977 'Wolf And Leopard' album, and the 'Here I Come' single - which Dennis had recorded on one of his increasingly frequent trips to the UK, again with accompaniment from The Cimarons (whose musical expertise can also be enjoyed on the stripped to the bone dub version of Dennis' 'Tribulation' that we've included here, in preference to the oft-reissued vocal cut). 'Wolf And Leopard' was, quite appropriately, the culmination of everything Dennis and Niney had put together over the previous three or four years and, quite simply, there was nowhere else for it to go once it had reached this level of creativity. Dennis was getting his DEB label underway anyway, so the two men parted on a musical high and as friends, to reunite in the digital age for a selection of recordings that often rank among the best of D. Brown's final years.
Dennis' departure seemed to remove some of 'Server's innovatory desire. Although he would continue to make great records well into the early 80s, they would never collectively captivate fans and collectors in the way that his early 70s works had done. As you'll hear from the selections we've chosen here, there's no real reason why this should have been so. Gems like the reconstituted Heptones' barbed attack on Channel One's riddim remaking Hoo Kim brothers 'Mr. Do Over Man Song' ('Why Don't You Get A Song Of Your Own'?) and the slew of superb recordings Niney made with Freddie McGregor around the turn of the decade show that Niney was still a mighty force in Jamaican music. But where he had been the new kid on the block in 1970, others were claiming similar status in 1980, and even though he was barely in his mid-30s as the eighties rolled around, he was all too often seen by many of the day's dancehall-obsessed record buyers as belonging to another era (which, technically, he did).
Niney took most of the 1980s off, traveling and settling in Paris for a brief time. But his innovatory spirit eventually dragged him back home and back to work in the late 1980s. A stream of strong-selling recordings on the revitalized Observer imprint showed that he could cut it digitally with the best of them, and even though he eventually went quiet on the recording front again he has come to be acknowledged as one of Reggae's greatest ever contributors, thanks to a series of career-defining CD packages on Heartbeat, Blood and Fire and Trojan.
Niney is now in his 60s, and seemingly retired from the business of creating music. Disillusioned about the way that Reggae has become just another business, he told David Rodigan in 1999 that 'When people go a studio now, all them go in fi count how much money a tune gonna make…you never looking at the business fi just money (in the early '70s). Was fun, dem time deh everybody just musical, you do it from your heart, y'know'…
Who, though, would ever bet against this extraordinarily creative man coming back strong with a killer diller tune if the time and vibes were right? Certainly not this writer, who is privileged to have been a fan of Observer music for the whole time Niney has been creating it, and who is honored to have been involved in the creation of this well-deserved overview of the man's halcyon years…
…Let It Burn, Let It Burn, Let It Burn, Burn, Burn!