Talking blues with Earl 'Chinna' Smith

Sunday, September 17, 2017

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This is the fifth in a series of interviews with Jamaican musicians.

Since making his recording debut as a teenager in 1968, Earl “Chinna” Smith has played countless sessions and been on numerous tours with reggae's elite artistes.

The 62-year-old guitarist celebrates his 50th anniversary in the music business next year. There are no plans to mark the milestone, but Smith continues to record, mainly in acoustic form, at his St Andrew home.

His recent work comprised the Inna De Yard albums, a series of unplugged recordings featuring veteran roots artistes such as Junior Murvin, The Congos, Max Romeo and Bob Andy.

He got his start with the venerable Soul Syndicate Band. Over the years, he has played on seminal albums and songs by Bob Marley ( Rastaman Vibration), Burning Spear ( Marcus Garvey), Jimmy Cliff (Special), Dennis Brown (No More Shall I Roam, Cassandra), Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) and Amy Winehouse ( Frank).

He also wrote Fade Away, the classic Junior Byles song, Brown's Bloody City and Jah Never Fail I Yet by Freddie McGregor.

But while he is recognised as reggae's premier guitarist, Smith is consumed by jazz and its derivative, smooth jazz. Earth Tones, his 2005 album with Ernie Ranglin and American guitarist Charlie Hunter, reflects his love for that sound.

Recently, the Jamaica Observer's Howard Campbell sat down with Earl “Chinna” Smith, (aka Melchezidek, the 'High Priest of Reggae”) about his illustrious career.

Howard Campbell: What is reggae guitar?

Earl Smith: Is a lifestyle. Most man don't understand what dis reggae thing mean. Mi have two father, mi godfather an' mi real father an' di two a dem did have sound system, so yuh grow up hearing dis music an' it get yuh interested. An' as Rasta, di whole concept of spirituality an' one love, yuh bring dat out in yuh playing.

HC: Over the years, what type of guitar do you prefer?

ES: The Telecaster, which I use on most of my recordings, a Fender. The Strat is more for rock, blues. But di guitar is a funny thing, 'cause yuh get a guitar sometime an' it give yuh a great sound. Eric Frater used to play a guitar from Sweden; Hux Brown and Lynn Taitt used to play a Hofner, so it don't have to be a name brand.

HC: Have you always played a Telecaster?

ES: No, one of the first guitar I bought was a Hofner. Then I bought a 1968 Telecaster, I buy it at Music Mart (in Kingston), it become the reggae guitar of di world. It play song like Rat Race (Marley), No More Will I Roam (Brown), Burning Spear Marcus Garvey album. It still play great, but I only tek it out on special occasion.

HC: What's so special about that guitar?

ES: Is like mi mother buy it, is not jus' a guitar. Is like mi bredda.

HC: What kind of guitar did you use with Ziggy?

ES: A Steinberger. First see Robbie (Shakespeare) wid one an' him gwaan wid some mad thing wid dat bass. I was in Lausanne with Jimmy Cliff an' saw dis guy wid one, an' got so excited I went back to the hotel an' buy one. Di thing about the Steinberger, 'cause it made of graphite it stay longer in tune; yuh can use it as a baseball bat an' it stay in tune. Wi did Conscious Party wid it but after One Bright Day, Glenn Rosenstein who was di producer sey, 'hey, to much Steinberger', an' wi go an' get a Stratocaster.

HC: Who do you listen to?

ES: Most a di old time man dem. Di John McLaughlin, Al di Meola, Wes Montgomery, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton as a session man. Like di Neon guy, John Mayer; dis other hip hop guy, Dwight Sills, him mad. Inna Jamaica, Eric Frater, Lynn Taitt, Hux Brown, Ernie Ranglin, di godfather, Monty (Savory), Dalton (Browne).

HC: What are your Top 10 reggae guitar songs?

ES: I listen to simple likkle things, is not like yuh hear a song wid di guitar all over di place. For example, Justice by Delroy Wilson, Lynn Taitt play dem thing; 007 by Desmond Dekker, an' Nice Time (Wailers), Lynn Taitt again. By The Rivers of Babylon, Sweet Sensation (The Melodians), dat a Hux Brown. Then yuh have a song like It Hurts to be Alone (Wailers). Ranglin play di solo, an' is like di solo become di song.”




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