|junior braithwaite phone interview with roger steffens, may 5, 1985|
Roger Steffens: Let's start at the very beginning. Where were you born, and when?
Junior Braithwaite: I was born in Kingston, Jamaica on April 4, 1949, on Third St. and West Road. That is in the heart of the ghetto. People now know it as Rema, the Jungle. I was living on Third St. and Bob Marley was living on Second St.
RS: Where was Joe Higgs living at that time?
JB: Joe Higgs was also on Third St. RS: Was he a neighbor?
JB: Yes, somewhat. You know, my grandmother raised a youth named Roy Wilson, and Roy Wilson and Joe Higgs were the number one best harmonizing group in Jamaica at that time, and they used to rehearse in the back of our yard. So we as kids hang out around them, cuz we had something in common, Bob, Bunny, Peter and myself, along with a sister Beverley Kelso, as an early Wailer. RS: So when we speak of the original Wailers then, are we really speaking about five people?
JB: Yes, the five people are really Bunny, Bob, Peter, Beverley and myself. And the Wailers was like just a singing group, a harmonizing group. We had nothing to do with instruments. So the commercial Wailers that you had touring with Bob was like a group of musicians that he needed to back him up and he called the Wailers. But they aren't the original Wailers. RS: Let's talk about those early days, prior to those first recording sessions. How did you decide to come together and form a group?
JB: Well, I'll tell you, we as children had something in common because we loved singing, and it so happened that Higgs & Wilson, the number one harmonizing group at the time, used to rehearse behind the houses in the back of our yard, between Third St. and Second St. Just being around them was inspiring. My grandmother raised Wilson, and we were like brothers. He's here in Chicago with me today . RS: So those early days with the five of you, how long were you rehearsing with Joe Higgs before you went to Coxson?
JB: Well it didn't take us long, because growing up in Jamaica where people are more conscious - we grew up in roots and culture, we was born in it, and we as a people then were closely knitted in a social atmosphere. To do anything, whatever projects at any time that we would undertake, would be easy, because it was just a vibe of oneness, and people were very much alive in Jamaica. RS: I spoke with Ray Charles earlier this week, and something he said I think is appropriate here. He said, "Affluence, richness, separates people; poverty drives them together." Would you say that was true of Trench Town?
JB: True. That explains what I'm saying in so few words, that is correct. We weren't so clinging to material things, you know, we were like everything seemed so easily done, so natural to us, in that spiritually we were at our highest level, and we could so easily do anything. Singing was a natural gift, because I understand that Jacob had twelve sons and each son is ordained for special works. Like the prophet would come from the tribe Gad, the priests from out of Levi, the judges, the musicians, physicians. And I know that I was ordained to be a musician. RS: Are you a Levi?
JB: I'm from the House of Judah, because there is just one house, and that's Judah. In fact, I think tribalism tends to separate us and brings conflict and stuff. I think I'm from Reuben, okay, the son of Jacob, but I never let that bother me in any way, whether it's good or bad. Some people say Reuben shall not excel because of such-and-such, but I don't get it. RS: No ism a riddim.
JB: True, no ism at all, man. RS: Tell me please about the first time you went to Coxson's studio to audition for him. What was going through you head before you went there?
JB: Well, the first tune we did together was "Simmer Down." Singing it come so natural to us that it was a thill just to go and to audition. And at the first appearance in that audition, well, Coxson couldn't believe whether I was a teenager or an adult, because I was so bold, I was short, I was only 13 years old at the time, and we did the tune pretty well, we was all like professionals, even though it was the first time and we were youths, amateurs, and we had done it so perfect. So it was really upfront, man. It was a thrill, man! The session was even easier. RS: Do you remember what other songs you cut at that first session?
JB: We did "Lonesome Feeling," we did a lot of tunes like "Straight and Narrow Way," we did so many tunes, man. RS: Did you sing lead on "Simmer Down"?
JB: No, Bob did. I'm with the high pitch, my voice is the first tenor, I'm the very high pitched voice there. RS: And on "Lonesome Feeling" what did you do?
JB: Background. See, I was only 13 years old at the time, I didn't take anything serious, some of the tunes I don't even remember. At the age of 13 the mind is so preoccupied with other things, we was just in and out of the studio. Plus we had ball to play, we had school to go. It was just a pastime thing for me. Who would expect that Bob would become the great King of Reggae and all this? To us, it was just fun, and we didn't even expect - you know something? At the time, a musician or a singer, well, the people in society it was like a shame if you didn't have a trade. If you was a singer, you couldn't make no money, man. And the people would discourage us, telling us to go look a trade. RS: You never expected that 20 years later people would still be singing your songs that you made when you were 13?
JB: No, plus I wanted to be a doctor or something, too. I think singing was just something that everybody needed to do, had to do. And it so happened that we were in a situation, we got a chance of recording. Because around us everybody sang, in churches everyone sang, and dance and sing, it's just a part of the culture. It wasn't like something special that no one else couldn't have done, you know. I know I did several tunes with the Wailers, and I was in school at the time. We didn't have no problem in recording either, it was the one cut, and it was only two-track studio too. I mean, everything playing on one track, one cut, just like that. It's not like it is today, sophisticated, and more studio techniques. RS: Do you think in some ways that that primitive kind of recording situation actually helped create stronger music, because everybody had to get it right at the same time?
JB: No, what it proved was that we were more rootically based, like we were stronger. When you're living in a deeply rooted cultural environment, then everything flow so easily. We were stronger then, because we didn't have any problem, we hadn't journeyed out and had to counteract and encounter racism or anything. I didn't know anything about the color barrier until I journeyed out of Jamaica. We didn't know anything about that, man. So it goes to show them that we were like a people firm, stable, we had stability, and at our best at all times...I only lead sung on "It Hurts To Be Alone." And that was the day [28 August 1964] just before I flew out of Jamaica. Because they had to have me do a solo just before I left, and so it only took a few hours to learn this new tune, and one take. We were that tough, man. (laughs) RS: Did you write any of those early songs?
JB: "It Hurts To Be Alone," and for the main part we all assisted in the recordings, in all the other tunes, too. We had to do what we felt, we worked together. But then, surprisingly, most of the tunes didn't come out written by the Wailin' Wailers, but like Bob and the Wailers, and so on and so forth. But, at the time we really hadn't expected no fortune and fame either, all this. RS: So in effect you are co-writer of several of the early songs that are still selling after 20 years.
JB: Well, we all participated in that as a group. RS: Have you ever participated in any of the royalties from the Coxson material?
JB: No, not a dime of it, man, I haven't seen a dime after all these years. RS: How do you feel about that?
JB: Well, I don't know, I think everything just comes in its due season. I'm waiting and anticipating those, yes, payoffs. The payday. RS: What songs are you proudest of having been part of from that period?
JB: Well, to tell the truth, all of them have their own characteristics, all the tunes. They have different things to say, and a new inspiration come each day, and so I'm saying all of them is appreciated. I consider all of them a blessing or gifts from the Most High, Jah Rastafari. RS: Do you play any of those at home anymore. Do you ever sit down and listen to "The Best of the Wailers," or -
JB: Occassionally I do. RS: What goes through your head when you hear that stuff. Do you laugh? Do you have a tear in your eye sometimes?
JB: Well, maybe the tear would come from the fact that there is no moral support now. It seems like the people closest to me would stick with me and see the importance and the nature of the work. But my family is so busy working that they don't even know what's happening. So when I would sit down and play a tune like this, I mean, it just make me realize how sad it is to know that they don't realize the potential that I have, and if I only have a bit a financial help, I could make a million dollars overnight, man. Because I really know that Jah has blessed me, because I now play all the instruments, keyboards, guitar, bass, everything, and I write songs daily. But I don't even have a tape player to tape it, or to record any of my tunes. I had one, but it went bad, you know. And it's very frustrating for me, man. Some of the times when I hardly listen to those early recordings anymore, I mostly spend time with - I mean I would play tunes of the day, strictly '80s tunes, and from that create or improvise. I write a lot and I have a lot of things to sing about too, an inner expression of one's soul. I'm a very spiritual person, because my train of thought, I've been a vegetarian for four or five years. I start eating fish again, but I meditate, I exercise. I pray a lot. JB: Well, is it really a battle? It's something I enjoy doing, and to me when you say "battle" - RS: Well, to me, reggae is the music of the battle against Babylon, isn't it?
JB: Well, it's about truth and rights, it's not about cars and women. It's a more spiritually - because, you see, the whole purpose of creation is that Jah, every man is equal under the sun. And if I'm oppressed, well, I'm just the voice of the people then. But I don't sing about oppression all the time, I sing about love, because that's a part of life too, and about family, and about the joys and the woes. It's like what a poet would do with his poem, he write about ever facet of life on every level. You have gladness, sadness, whatever. So to me it's not really a war against no one in particular. It's about truth and rights and whoever the cap fits has to wear it, man. I don't have any animosity towards or against anyone. I love - because love is the greatest thing. Love, yeah, is the key to even eternal life. RS: And a lot of those early songs were love songs, weren't they? Before the rude boy era you were singing "Love and Affection," "I'm Still Waiting," "It Hurts To Be Alone."
JB: True. You know something, at the time, too, I remember there weren't hardly any roads, streets, pavements, and the concrete. I remember we grew up, in our days it was the good old days so to speak, because there wasn't no political rivalry like people killing people at the time. Everything was just level vibes, you could go anywhere at anytime of the night, and not worry about somebody robbing you or jumping on you. But then, things started to change, and I suppose that's what brought about the change even in the lyrics of the music. RS: So when Bob came to America in 1966, you had already left the group?
JB: Yes, my family, I was only 13 at the time, and my parents were already in the States, so I had to just move along with my family. You know, we did a few stage shows while I was at home, just before I left home, and they used to pick us up off the stage, man. I mean, I remember them picking me up over their heads, the people, and it was a thrill! (laughs) We played at the Ward, we did about three shows together. But for the main part, Peter used to walk with his guitar. Peter and Bob knew a few chords on the guitar at the time, you know. And we used to walk together, we used to just hang together, man, and people would ask us to do a tune. And we would stop and sing on a street corner or at the tailor shop, or anywhere for that matter! RS: Let me ask you about Bob in those early days. I imagine that Bob wasn't looked on as the leader of the group, that you were all treated rather equally weren't you?
JB: Yeah, it was the Wailing Wailers, not Bob and the Wailers. RS: Let me ask you also about the names. I have heard that at one point you were actually called the Wailing Rude Boys. Is that true?
JB: Well, I suppose the rude boy came in - it's just a nickname, you know, because we were the voice of the rude boys. See, to be a rude boy you'd have to be a rebel soul, because there's always been injustice in society where the younger generation isn't cared for or wanted. There is an outcast in society that we identified with, I suppose, we as rude boys were seeking identity, and I suppose it's just that fact why we became rude boys because we were popular with, we were saying what actually the younger rebels were saying. RS: That was a very controversial stance for you to take, and you obviously took a lot of heat from people for representing the rude boys. They were not terribly popular among society at that time, were they?
JB: No, I mean we didn't necessarily represent the rude boys. It was just that we too were young and we were just expressing our own views, too, which would seem somewhat similar to that of the other teenagers in that era. Okay, it's like the Beatles becoming prevalent, the Beatles and all the younger ones around that time just started wearing the long hair and whatever. It is something similar to that. RS: Tell me what happened when you left Jamaica and came to the States. Fill me in briefly on what you've been doing for those past 20 years.
JB: When I came America, I started school right away. I entered a Catholic high school, St. Mel's. I played soccer all through high school, I was on the newspaper staff, I was on the Glee Club, and I had a band on the side, with one or two Puerto Rican cats in it. Because I needed was to continue in the music. But then, the music didn't have the direction I wanted to take, and it stagnated me. But nevertheless I kept on pushing hoping that one day better would come then, you know. I was ambitious because I worked all through high school, I had a part time job. RS: So you never really left music either?
JB: Not really, it's just that when you're no longer at home where you grew up in the sunshine and eating the fruit off the tree, and just being outdoors all the time, and have to be cooped up in an institution now, and in a house where you find yourself eating meat just to keep from starving. RS: I understand that when you went to the Circle Campus of the University of Chicago, they called you "The Singing Doctor," is that right?
JB: Yes, true, true. I was pre-med and participated in a lot of shows, but then the war, the army, the draft thing started and all the transition I went through - because I had my license taken away at one point, and I was unable to find work, and all my brothers were drafted, and then at the same time my grandmother passed away, and it seemed like everything came tumbling down on me, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I just did what any average normal young teenager would. RS: You turned to drugs?
JB: Well, yes, because those were the alternatives. It was either the war, the army, or go to jail, or just hanging out, man, getting high. I think it's mainly because of the neighborhood we moved to, too, it's a ghetto livity. And I've always been able to get around with people, whether I had a car, and go out and mingle with the different social groups. But after I lost my license and everything, I had to just get on the level of the people. I just started hanging on the corner and in the neighborhood, because most of the institutions were close to us where we were going to play ball and things. I just started to identify with the struggle. And there it was, man, one thing led to another. But I was never a culprit or a bad person. It's just out of despair and frustration, I just became a victim of this oppression. RS: Now in the early '70s Bob was suddenly catapulted into international stardom. Were you aware of what was going on with the Wailers during all that period of time?
JB: Every now and then we used to hear a Marley played, a tape, a tune, and it really tripped me out. But then at the time I was still needed certain strength to come off the things I had gotten caught up in. RS: Did you ever consider going back to Jamaica and trying to join the group again?
JB: Yes, at times. Even Bob Marley expressed that. RS: I had heard that. Why didn't you?
JB: Well, you see, the time wasn't right. I didn't have the money, for one thing. There's a lot of Jamaicans wanted to just fly home, and been working for years, but then, the money, I mean you always need food, clothing and other things. You can never seem to find the money to do that. I'm saying that, yeah mon, it's a trip, you know. Life, life, inna Babylon is just - or in anywhere for that matter - is rugged, man. RS: Well, somewhere in the '70s you got the thing together again to start a group in Chicago, didn't you?
JB: Yes, I played with a couple of local reggae bands. I led sing my way to the top. There was New Era reggae band, and One Love reggae band. We took it to the top, non-stop to the very last drop. But it was effortless because it seemed such a waste of time - no not really. Experience is good, but for me personally, I have nothing to show for it. RS: Where were you when Bob died, Junior?
JB: I think I was at Tuff Gong. Because Bob had talked about us coming together again and singing, right? And it so happened that I was there at Tuff Gong awaiting his arrival, I was waiting for him to come home. And he used to call there sometimes from Germany and I personally would talk to him. I was just waiting and anticipating his arrival, but he just never came home. RS: Was that the point, on May 11, 1981, when you and Bunny and the others decided that you should try to reform, or did that come a little later?
JB: No, you see, the reason I had went to Jamaica, was I needed some help in establishing a career, and so I went to Jamaica. I flew there, I spent some time in Negril, and when the money I took with me started to run out, I called Kingston, and I spoke to the personnel in Tuff Gong, and they told me that Bob wasn't there, or anyone for that matter. So I just took a chance on going to Kingston, man, because I needed to see someone that I could plead my case with. But it so happened I ran into Bunny Wailer weeks after that, because Bunny was my only hope at the time. Peter must have been on tour. I spent some time with a few of the Wailers, like the percussionist, Seeco Patterson, I spent a week at his house, with his family, and I spent a week at Tuff Gong. I just hang around Tuff Gong, and slept in a room, hoping that Bob would come home. But eventually I ran into Bunny, and Bunny invited me out to his home, to spend some time with him. So, here I am again. After we met, it took a while. I had to come back to Chicago and a year after that, he asked me if I was ready again to start working. RS: What is your life like today?
JB: I've been like, I'm not even on the scene anymore [here in Chicago]. For one thing, I hardly have clothes to go anywhere, and any money. So for the main part I just spend a lot of time at the park with my axe, or with a few friends out, or one of the few musicians that I know, I just go to hang with them. I don't even go out to see any of the shows. I know I could probably get in free, but I don't even want to go through the hassle of going through that. I do have a family to feed, and as it is, we're not really together right now because of financial problems, but I'm hoping that something turn over for the best, man. I'm just a frustrated musician. I play, I'm really a good singer and songwriter. It's just that I need now, I just need a break. Well, I've gotten a break, I just need to see some money now, where I can produce my own, write and arrange it, compose my own works. RS: Is there anything in conclusion here that you would like people to know, anything you would like to comment on regarding you and the Wailers?
JB: Whatever happens, I think it's ordained, it was just destined that way. It's giving thanks and praises to the Almighty Father, Jah Rastafari, who all our inspirations come from. Jah is to be praised, we're just the tools he uses to do the work. RS: Finally, I have heard your last name pronounced several different ways. How do you pronounce it?
JB: Brayth-wait. (c)1985/1999 Roger Steffens Reggae Archives
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