From Jamaica to the world, reggae pioneer Max Romeo raised himself up out of the mean streets and made a name against all odds as a singer in the Emotions when he moved to Kingston as a teen. Starting out his career in 1964, Romeo had a number of hits singing in the Emotions and as a solo artist later releasing reggae classics ‘War Inna Babylon’ and ‘Chase The Devil’, sampled by Jay Z and Prodigy.
After the recent release of his new album ‘Words From The Brave’, I spoke to Romeo in France, where he had his dreadlocks wrapped up high on his head to combat the 23-degree heat that day. “How long have you been growing your dreadlocks?” I asked. “Errr its been from… 1972 I think it was!” Romeo recalled. He took a break from cooking up some vegetables, rice and peas, to talk to me about being banned by the BBC, remixed by the Prodigy and rubbing shoulders with The Wailers and Lee Perry.
Born in St. D’Acre, St. Ann, Jamaica in 1944, Romeo took us back to his humble beginnings; “Well we were poor and being ruled by the British. We spent pounds and learned the British way. There was a lot for us to do, we were a young nation trying to stand together so there were a lot of sufferings in some areas and a lot of joy in some areas. It was a bittersweet situation.” On the new LP Romeo’s song ‘The Farmer’s Story’ has a very moral message which highlights the farmers struggle. He spoke about the subject being close to his heart. “I grew up on a farm in Jamaica so I have an experience of what is happening. Over here farmers are not really recognised as doing a very worthwhile thing. But they feed the people so we feel it’s an important entity. ‘Work with a little pain’, it’s part of Jamaican society so there needs to be a national cry. It’s a worldwide thing so I wanted to shine a light on poor farmers.
Romeo left home at the age of 14 and worked on a sugar plantation outside Clarendon. He won a local talent competition at the age of 18 and soon moved to Kingston to pursue a singing career. “Well to be honest it was hard to push a singing career because singing was unheard of in those days. There wasn’t much happening, not much access to things like that. But it was a journey. My mother migrated in 1953 and my grandmother and other family members were taking care of me. My grandmother died and my great grandmother couldn’t handle the situation, it was a whole heap of trouble for her. So she sent me to Kingston to work hard. I got there when I was about 18 years old.” Part of his upbringing was a ‘ghetto youth’, I asked if he’d ever been on the wrong side of the law, “No I’ve a perfect record! I’ve never been to jail, never been incarcerated, I just walked a thin line.”
He spoke about the early days of The Emotions, “It was a struggle. It was my first time entering the music business and the competition was stiff then. There were a lot of good singers writing good songs so it’s not easy, you’ve got to have something extra. I started working with a company called Caltone label. I started carrying samples to the stores to promote artists and then I started singing on the same lyrics with The Emotions. Eventually we got in the charts and I built up an incentive to pursue music!” I probed Romeo about the musicians he hung out with in Kingston, “Yeah Jamaica is a small country and in reggae music we all are one family I would say. Everybody knows everybody. Earl Way Lindo was a very good keyboard player for The Wailers and a good man, I spent time with him and all of the Wailers and Lee Scratch Perry.” I asked if he hung out at Inna Da Yard in Kingston; an open reggae house owned by prolific guitarist Earl Chinna Smith. “Yeah sometimes. It’s a vibe centre, ya know? I’ve known Chinna from teen days.” Romeo also still keeps in touch with Lee Perry, “Yeah when I’m on the road we link up because he lives in Switzerland and I live in Jamaica. On tour we sometimes play on the same bill, ya know? We reminisce about our past and have a good time.”
We resumed talking about his career in the ‘60s. By 1968 Romeo was pursuing a solo career and his song ‘Wet Dream’ climbed the chart in the UK. “Well Palmer Records were responsible for releasing the song. I was in Jamaica and didn’t know when it was released until a few months after. My attention was elsewhere because I was in demand back home. When I realised what was happening, I flew to England in 1969 and started doing gigs throughout the UK. That song was in the chart for 26 weeks, it went as far as number 2.”After being played on the radio a few times, it was banned by the BBC when its overtly sexual lyrics were noticed. Once the public were alerted to it being ‘lyrically dangerous’, people were keen to see what the fuss was about. When Max was asked to explain the lyrics at the time, he said they were about fixing a leak in the roof. “Yeah well there was a Jamaican guy playing on BBC radio at night and Tony Blackburn was on during the day. He said “What the hell you playing? You not hear the lyrics? ‘Lie down girl let me push it up’ – that’s suggestive.” The DJ hadn’t paid much attention to what I was saying and then he was shocked because he’d found a great record and was never allowed to play it again. But it got the interest of the whole UK. Everybody started buying the record to see what I was saying for them to ban it. It worked in my favour, it helped me establish myself in the UK and Europe and took me out of Jamaica.” I asked if he was happy when the Prodigy remixed ‘Chase The Devil’, “Of course, that’s money in my pocket! It got people’s attention, that’s wonderful and that helped enhance my name.”
A chief of the roots reggae scene, Romeo has been touring throughout 2019. Romeo celebrated his 74th Birthday this year, and he’s still full of Rasta wisdom that people are keep to hear. Romeo gets 600,000 monthly listens on Spotify and his song ‘Chase The Devil’ has over 16 million plays on YouTube. He spoke about how his new album ‘Words From The Brave’ came together. “It didn’t take a lot of time ya know, what happened was that the band Roots Heritage had these instrumental recordings. I was listening to the instrumentals and it sounded excellent so I said to the guys, “Wow these rhythms, you shouldn’t let this go to waste.” I decided to take on the assignment of writing some songs that fit on the rhythms. It was a wonderful experience putting them together. The band brought me over to France to play and we’ve played shows all over.”
Romeo gave some insight into tracks from the latest LP starting with ‘The World Is On Fire’, “Yeah the world is on fire right now! ‘There’s war and rumours of war’ that’s Revelation remember? ‘Children against parents, parents against children.’ Right now there is a lot of evil but God is there to wipe it out because God’s children must survive.”
He spoke about the song ‘Have You Ever Hit Rock Bottom’, “I’ve hit rock bottom before so I know how it feels. I slept on the sidewalk. Millions of people all over the world are living under bridges or lighting paper in a trunk to try and get heat. I’ve been all over the world and seen things like that. That song’s about awareness.”
He talked about bringing reggae back to its roots, “The situation is that reggae music in Jamaica has taken a dive because of the bad production of inexperienced people building rhythms with two fingers and a computer. There’s no instrumentation. We need real music now, I’m not trying to be big, it’s just a fact. This album is instrumentation, live, no computer, just like it was in the day.” Finally, I asked Romeo if he would be heading over to the UK soon, “Yes the UK is on the program but Boris won’t give me the visa! Its planned, I will be passing through!”
Keep an eye out for tour dates and check out ‘Words From The Brave’ out now.