The following article is reprinted from Full Watts #5 and is
available by sending $3.00 (per issue) to Steve Milne, 8779 Brittany
Park Drive, Sacramento, CA 95828.
By the mid-70s the Greenwich Town/Farm section of West Kingston was
bubbling as a hotbed of musical activity. Already home to such famous
residents as producer Bunny "Striker" Lee and singers Derrick Morgan
and Brent Dowe (The Melodians), the Farm was gaining further renown as
the base of operations for some of Jamaica's most inventive young
talent, including producers Bertram Brown (Freedom Sounds) and Errol
"Don" Mais (Roots Tradition), singers Phillip Frazer, Rod Taylor and
Sammy Dread as well as the Soul Syndicate band and more than a dozen
Although the music was constantly evolving and there was no official
Greenwich Town sound, the most lasting records created by these music
makers are epitomized by the music of Earl Zero; cultural,
Rasta-oriented lyrics sung from the heart and rawer than raw rhythm
tracks typically built by the Syndicate at Channel One or Randy's,
voiced and mixed at King Tubby's. Z (as he prefers to be called) is an
important figure in Greenwich Town's musical history who helped shape
the roots portion of the area's dancehall-roots sound with
full-strength records like Righteous Works, Shackles & Chains,
Blackbird and I No Lie. As interest in classic roots music,
particularly that of the Greenwich Town variety continues to grow, Z's
weighty contribution to the scene is becoming more and more apparent.
His singles from the era are highly sought after by collectors and
several versions from those singles have been included on some of
Blood & Fire's popular dub titles. Z's only domestic album, the
resplendent Visions of Love (Epiphany), was just reissued on CD, some
18 years after its initial release in 1979 and is now widely available
for all to hear the real Greenwich Town experience. Currently residing
in Santa Cruz, California, Z has been busy reactivating his career
performing several club dates throughout the West Coast. He recently
shared the stage with Johnny Clarke, Junior Byles and other reggae
legends during the 5th Annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, a
3-day concert held June 19th through 21st in Marysville, California.
The first of 10 children, 45-year-old Earl Anthony Johnson was born
the son of a Greenwich Town fisherman. His father was a practical man
who initially spurned Z's life as an herb-smoking, dreadlocked, reggae
Rastaman. His mother, who sold fish in the marketplace, was more
accepting and bought Z a Rising Sun guitar for 6 pounds. With his
childhood friend Earl "Chinna" Smith, Z learned the guitar and
developed as a singer/songwriter.
"My mom used to be a fisherwomen. Work in de marketplace sell her
fish and stuff. My dad used to catch fish and ting from the sea, a
fisherman. He used to dock his boat at a wharf called Fisherman's
Wharf. They used to call him Fisherman Zero somehow, some kind of ting
stick which I never check too deep into. We used to go to Sunday
school (at 10 years old) and have to comb me hair and stuff, trim and
wear short pants. Firs' you have to go to the barber and trim and some
thing and bring an offering too. Me used to say 'this is a joke' cause
you have to trim your head every Sunday and go to church and all dem
ting. I start realize dat dat's a joke because dem show I and I
pictures and stuff and said dat's God and me look and say 'dat cyan't
be I God, dat cyan't be right. Sumpin' mus' be wrong. God is all of
one, all colors and everything combined in one. So me start to keep
all de money, the offering, I keep dat and buy all herb, bumba klaat!
Den go check fe me friend Chinna and sit down and play. Me and Chinna
used to go check out Hux Brown after a while and get instructions from
him. I'd go and watch people and den go and try to play it but I never
tried to follow anyone, just tried to be myself. I start to learn each
day to pick the chords. So the more I start to learn the guitar is the
more I start to sing about things.
"I made one (guitar) out of fishing line and plywood, the first time
the music start to form and come to I, till my mom bought me a guitar.
When music really start to happen is when I and I discover dat with
Chinna. We used to meet everyday from school. Start sitting and
playing stuff and have a good time. My mom just worked hard but she
listen and she like music. She was happy when she heard my first song
on the radio. She says to dem people 'oh, that's my son.' And she says
to me 'I heard your song today on the radio.' So then my mom start to
become my buddy and she know what I'm doing and that I'm serious.
Because earlier, I didn't want her to know I'm smoking herb but she
knows, she smell it. So she becomes my friend and I show her how
important it is because it's good when you have a cold or somethin'.
So I bring her a stick of herb for her tea and ting, make tea when she
have a cold, she always check me. Yeah, me and my mom is buddy now,
y'know wha mean?
"So we go to school every morning. We meet, we lick chalice and give
praise and go after school. I used to go to school over in Trench Town
over to Denham Town to high school. But sometimes trod through certain
section of Trench Town some dangerous areas over there. But still, I
and I is not politician, people know as us dat we are musician. We
just smoke herb and give praises, give thanks and we put on concerts
too in the theaters down there and sing. Ken Boothe was my favorite
singer. Him strong, y'know. Yeah mon. Him used to come down to
Greenwich Town all de time. All de singers dem used to come check all
de people dem who have herb and stuff. Gather round and sit down and
drink fish tea and roast fish and yam. A lot of people used to come
through Greenwich Farm to go down to de beach. We meet everyday and
lick chalice and give praise. So de music start too to come up."
Z and Chinna grew together musically and spiritually amidst growing
political and social tensions in Greenwich Town and throughout
Jamaica. Music and the inspiration of Rastafari helped make the harsh
conditions of ghetto life endurable. Z, Chinna and other music makers
in Greenwich Town helped keep the vibes nice during Jamaica's
"We used to gather on the street corner with a guitar and stuff and
work chords and make tings up and we sing about tings what happening
and how de world is going. Dat was our way of saying Rasta, telling
the truth what's happening. Sometime you cyan't even get no food in de
store because like dere's ration. But all that goes because of the
politics dat dey keep some of the stuff away from supplying to de
other people. But see, I and I is Rasta and we never have any problem
because we always says 'well, we get some land and grow some food and
bring yer food come to town and always have food 'ca you can grow
everyting. You can make your own flour. You can grow some yam, potato
and green banana. So we didn't have to take a side for anything at all
more than to give thanks everyday and pray for people stop killing one
another. Me used to be a friend of everyone.
"First time when we go in a studio, me and Chinna did a tune called
'Beautiful Brown Eyes.' I tink we did dat fe a guy named Jumbo if a I
remember. Dat guy used to be a shoemaker and he used to have a shop on
East Avenue. He'd sell him shoes and he'd make dem in the back. He
used to make shoes, man shoes and ladies shoes, cut out everything
with a leather and used to go down sit with a guitar and sing.
Sometimes smoke some herb. All the policemen used to know us and
respec' us because people from our neighborhood grow up and some of
dem go in de army and dey still protect the neighborhood.
"I and I doesn't take sides and join nothing. Me only give praises to
Jah, his majesty. It seem to be very dangerous cause sometimes with
politicians and other people it used to be dangerous. But I and I
always keep the peace. I have brothers that are in the army too. But
if anybody come break our place like our stores or shops we always go
look for them and mash head and stuff. Our neighborhood was pure
niceness, pure Rasta people and the neighbors respect us, people
respect us. We keep the peace in our town. Even the police dem buy our
music and come out to our dance and buy us lots of beer to drink in
dose days. But dese motherfuckers have jeeps park up outside and come
check us. We always have de peace with them and our neighborhood was
well protected as Cornerstone. But it used to be dangerous when other
people from other sides like Tivoli Gardens or for instance from a
section of Trench Town, y'know, people who work for other side. Bad
bwoys. People who say "f" we and de army, "f" his majesty. But I and I
always have friends with everyone and unite, seen? We could go up
through Trench Town and go check other people in different section of
Denham Town. Away from Greenwich Farm dung East Avenue. Go dung to
Marcus Garvey Drive.
"We tell dem 'look, people who smoke herb - you don't beat dose
people up. It might be a guy who sell herb to support his pickney and
some ting. But de ones who rob people and rape and kill or some ting,
kill dem! Sometimes they used to carry us to go to rehearsal. Now to
show how much I and I, as a Rasta growing up, what kind of pride we
have and ambition dat we keep the peace always there and it's by jus'
making dese people know dat what we do and again people know us 'ca
they used to come and line up and buy us beer, me and Philip Frazer,
Rod Taylor, Bertram Brown, the Freedom Sound."
One of Z's earliest singles was "Righteous Works" cut for singer Al
Campbell's Addis Ababa label in 1975. Z has a tremendous amount of
respect and admiration for his former producer and foreman.
"'Righteous Works' I did fe a youth named Al Campbell. I used to work
over down by Marcus Garvey Drive where they used to dredge up the
earth, dredge up the sea and make land, do a lot of dat construction
ting. Al Campbell used to be the manager, the boss man and he was my
friend. And I used to go dere to work every morning. I was a rigor.
You build the bottom of the building with concrete, cement, steel and
stuff and den you build the side and top of it. Dat's the kind of
stuff me used to do. Me used crane and lift up the sides dem and prop
dem up. I'm working for my friend. I had little kids now coming up
(Z's children Cindy and Rickey Johnson are pictured with their father
on the cover of Visions of Love) , 'bwoy, I haffe get a job' y'know .
Nuff people work over dere. Called Esso on Marcus Garvey Drive. Dig up
the sea and make lots more land go further out. I and I always know
that this motherfucker's going to sink after a while beca' the sea
mus' take back it course. I used to go to work over dere.
"Al Campbell is one of de smartest people in de world. He could be
president, dat's how smart Al Campbell is. Good in mathematics and
construction ting, building and plans. He could be a doctor. And he
used to have a sound system called Macka B Sound System dat have nuff
speakers, big speakers, about 30 of dem line up all de way around.
When you keepin' dance parties with lots of people come, we get bamboo
stuff and we even cut from coconut tree and tie around de fence and
make dem in a heart shape and tie 'em up against de fence and tie dem
over the gate, fix it so dat you cyan't see inside de yard. We used to
put on dance, like put on a sound system microphone and sing over it.
Even my friend Philip Frazer we used to put on shows."
Through an acquaintance of his dad Z encountered Bob Marley, Peter
Tosh and Bunny Wailer. Impressed by Z's subdued nature, Marley
entrusted the task of preparing his herb to Z.
"People come from country, dey trying to get jobs and stuff, so him
(Z's father, Fisherman Zero) used to give them jobs by taking dem to
sea - you got to help out somebody at sea with a net in the boat,
cause it's a long neck my dad used to build. So he used to take some
of dese people out to sea wit him, help him to throw net overboard,
tie the buoy and pull it back in de boat and pick de fish off. I used
to go to sea with him too. So dis friend of my dad took me up to see
Bob Marley dem and Peter dem and Bunny dem over in Trench Town. 'Ca
dis friend of mine had a guitar too. He wants to play and I say 'you
do?' and he say 'yeah, you play with me and ting' and we get together.
So dis guy, me used to call him Mad Man, took me over to see Bob and
dem when I was a youth. He used to have a shop down on de beach. Dat's
on Marcus Garvey Drive, de beach where everybody go even Bob Marley
and all de musician dem come down to get de fish from Trench Town. Dey
got to come from Trench Town and come 'cross Spanish Town Road. Mad
Man introduced me to Bob Marley. So I used to go over dere all de
time. I listen and hear, listen to what this wise man is saying. I was
very quiet and listen. So after a while him (Bob Marley) used to ask
dat me sool de herb for him. Cause him notice, him say, I'm very
humble and very quiet. So me cut up de herb for him. Sool up de herb
to get a good nice blend. I used to go over dere and meet dem and hear
de man sing and talk about pure great tings. Dem a talk about change
de world and change tings and make tings better for people and stuff.
Read de bible and everyting."
Z's most celebrated and covered composition, "None Shall Escape The
Judgment," was inspired by his daily bible readings. The song, which
warns all mankind against living an unrighteous lifestyle, was
originally cut by Z at the Treasure Isle studio (with Chinna on
guitar). The session's producer was Bunny Lee, the man who christened
Z with the surname Zero.
"Bunny Lee lived right down East Avenue. Like four other fences from
mine. He lived right up de street there, right by 5th Street. If
people had a bar and dere's jukebox in it, he put his own 45s inside
and play all de time. We did too. 'Ca Bertram (Bertram Brown of
Freedom Sounds) owned a couple of jukeboxes too. Dat way jukeboxes can
promote our music. We make our own record and put inside de jukebox.
We used to do dat a lot. 'Ca we used to distribute dem. Bunny Lee had
a bar and his house and he had another empty lot. People used to go to
de back of his yard. Slim Smith and Techniques used to be over de back
of dere licking chalice. Bunny Lee come over dere and hear us, me and
Chinna. He said come to studio. Me and my friend Don Mais go to Duke
Reid's studio Treasure Isle. Chinna was playing guitar pon de
Lee pressed copies of Z's version but subsequently used the tune as
a vehicle for launching the career of his protégé Johnny Clarke.
Clarke's version was one of the biggest hits of 1975. To this day,
many people credit the singer for writing the tune (an instrumental
version of the song on guitarist Ernest Ranglin's 1996 album Below The
Bassline, lists Clarke as the tune's composer). After that experience,
Z learned some hard lessons about the ruthless side of the music
"In de music business sometime people waan to take your stuff if you
don't stand up for your rights. Chinna bring a record one day and said
'Zero, here's a tune dat we did, is a hit a foreign all over. See if
you get some money from it cause Bunny Lee collect money from it
already.' Dere's other singers dat versions of it too, maybe Cornell
Campbell, after it comes out. I remember Jacob Miller I think did a
version of it too. 'Ca I used to go over him house and play guitar for
him (Jacob Miller's version appears on Jacob Miller With The Inner
Circle Band & Augustus Pablo on the Lagoon label). But Bunny Lee had
some records of me singing it too cause him have some pressed. I don't
think him press any more. But I had a record of it too, of me singing
it. I check it when de record comes out cause dey do bring it out
afterward. So me look for me name and go 'what?' So dis friend of mine
Don Mais we go up and check Johnny Clarke and say 'whapp'n Johnny? How
come de label say you write my song. You sing it good enough but you
naw write it.' So him say it was a misprint dat. Him sign somethin'
dat say it wasn't written by him it was written by me. It was
copyright dat way for PRS (Performing Rights Society) over in London.
Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, John Holt say go and copyright your tune to
PRS cause dey were member of it too long time. So we did dat. Dere was
a PRS office in downtown Kingston, somewhere off of King Street."
Z went on to help establish two crucial Greenwich Town-based record
labels. In 1975 he recorded the debut single for Don Mais' Roots
Tradition label, "Home Sweet Home." He also released a string of
consummate roots singles for Bertram Brown's Freedom Sounds label.
"Bertram Brown used to be a foreman, like a bossman to make money and
ting. And him used to have a liquor store where him distribute beer
and stuff for the neighborhood. So dey have someting going on all de
time because when dance keep, people drink beer. Don Mais lived down
dere at 4th Street. Me and him used to go and distribute music
everywhere on his bike (motorcycle). Me and him jump on his bike and
go downtown to get de people dem to put it in de record store and get
to radio station and go dere and say 'man you haffe play dis for de
people dem man'. We always have de force of de spirit with us all de
time. At the pressing plant - nuff people want to sabotage, is like
'hey, we wan some done today.' Was me and Philip (Frazer) used to be
down dere all the time. I used to never like to hear 'no.' 'Cause cyan
sabotage. I make certain dat people noticing de place in de back
'cause de man press too much den what him supposed to press. Him sneak
copies and sell our dub plates. So Don Mais was my partner. We would
go around and meet people and talk to dem. I made him get some of his
songs copyright too 'cause I was de one who find out about dat.
Singers used to tell me and I tell all my friends Philip Frazer,
Prince Allah, Rod Taylor, Michael Prophet, Brent Dowe."
By 1979, Z was introduced to Epiphany Records' owner Warren Smith.
The Soul Syndicate band had already recorded an album for the Northern
California-based producer and, at Chinna's recommendation, Smith
listened to some of Z's music. Soon after that Smith enthusiastically
signed the artist and lined up a recording session. For the Visions of
Love album Z rerecorded some of his best songs including "None Shall
Escape The Judgment," "Shackles and Chains," "Please Officer,"
"Righteous Works" and "City of the Wicked." The Soul Syndicate were
already familiar with Z's work and the session emerged effortlessly
from Channel One. Chinna's playing is especially wicked throughout the
"We were in de studio dat night, smokin' a lot of herb and eating a
lot of food. De were changing over from 4 track to 16 at Channel One.
So we had to stop. Dat was de night when the changing, is like a
history night or something. And de engineer was pretty cool. Everybody
have herb and everyting and food and licking chalice. Everybody belly
was full with food. Everybody was happy when the riddim was making.
Everybody was licking chalice and everybody have money in their
pocket. Everything was relaxed and irie. I arranged it and everything.
Me used to sing de bass line, drum sound too. Dat's some of de bes'
guitar you hear Chinna play."
One of the album's strongest cuts is "Please Officer." Jimmy Cliff
recorded a reworking of the tune called "Peace Officer" (from Cliff's
Super Hits CD). Z says the song, which urges police to stop the
brutality, is based on a real incident.
"Me and Chinna used to lick herb. We lived at the bottom of East
Avenue. Me and Chinna used to go up fe check (crony) Mohatma Ghandi
every night and draw chalice and walk among street with a guitar.
Sometime you have strange policeman come into de neighborhood dat
doesn't know us, rough one too, yeah mon, you have some murder police,
police from a different side. I tink some of dem are into politics too
cause some is left and some is rightist. Some police jump out of dere
jeep - 'bwoy, stop. Don't move or look behind,' just like you ah hear
pon de record. One of dem said 'bus' dem head, bus' de bwoy. Search
him. Where de herb?' And we said 'boss, we smoke de herb already long
time, we jus' lick chalice. We don't have no herb, we no carry herb,
we are clean and we goin' home now and we live down the street. We are
peace makers down here.' So I said it on dere "Peace officer, you a
warrior, you carry more guns than an aircraft carrier." Jimmy Cliff
did love dat tune. I remember one time me and Chinna was riding a taxi
with Jimmy Cliff and him waan fe do 'Peace Officer.'"
Z says inspiration for songs such as "Home Sweet Home" and "Shackles
and Chains" comes from meditating on the tribulations of his
"Firs' before we sit down and play, we eat some food, exercise, read
a psalms and stuff. Might read a certain psalms out of the Bible, a
certain part and a certain line. As a youth growing up I start to
figure out, 'where am I coming from, who are my ancestors, how'd I get
here?' It's true I and I know dat we were brought here in shackles and
chains so I and I sing of dat. "What about de half dat never been
told" 'cause dere was still something else, y'know. Our teachers dem
wasn't tellin' it to I and I. I was seeking fe know de truth and ting,
waan to know how de whole story go. Rasta is some nosy people who waan
to know everyting. We waan to know everyting - where we from, who am
I, who are you."
The release of Visions of Love in 1979 enabled Z to relocate to
Northern California where he started to build a strong fan base. Z was
a leading reggae pioneer in California, bringing authentic roots music
to the region. He performed regularly at some of the Bay Area's top
nightclubs such as The Keystone, The Savoy Tivoli and The Stone.
During the '80s and early '90s he moved around, spending some time in
New Jersey and other spots on the east coast. Today he's back in the
Bay Area, living in Santa Cruz with his consort Sister Z in their
home/art studio filled with original paintings and other artwork. Z
was pleased to see his classic recordings showcased on the Blood &
Fire dub collections and is hopeful he can hook up with a producer to
record some of his new material, songs like "Life In The Ghetto" and
"Eye of The Needle."
"Dis deejay friend of mine named Prince Kali he bring dis CD to me
and he says 'look Zero, dese people got your name on some stuff.' So
Blood & Fire was promoting the roots from a long time, y'know, when it
started. I wish someday we could work together and put out all de hit
songs. I would be willing and able to do dat. Give 'em a million
seller on de Blood and Fire label. My intentions are really to go and
produce some new ones now. I'm looking for someone who waan to come
together who have de money to go and do it. I'm still praying and
hoping dat someone will come through. Natty dread rise again, yeah
Copyright 1998 Steve Milne/Full Watts, reprinted by permission of author
Earl Zero Discography
To contact Earl Zero for interviews or other information, email: email@example.com