Ken Boothe is Jamaican music's best kept secret. The sheer intensity of
his bravado vibrato has cut through some of Jamaica's most timeless,
beloved and dangerous sides. At the top of the Jamaican charts in the
late 60's, Ken could do no wrong first as one of Coxsone Dodd's most
favorite Studio One artists and then at Leslie Kong's classy Beverley's
label. He racked up an international hit with his cover of David Gates'
middle-of-the-road "Everything I Own."
Today, Ken is a stand-alone
artist who still puts on a great show, with rivers of water running from
his body. He is one of the very few Reggae singers left from that
vintage tradition of Jamaican soul-reggae singing which evolved
separately from that of Rasta reggae.
Ken got his start in the business in 1963 when he teamed up with ska
singer Stranger Cole, and the two set out as the duo Stranger and Ken.
Ken recalls: "The first recording we do was for Duke Reid. The song was
in some Chinese language, and was called "Mow Sen Wa." We don't know
what it meant, but Stranger made a song from the words, and we both singit!" The beginning of Ken's successful solo relationship with Coxsone
and Studio One was cemented when the duo voiced "At the World's Fair"
for Coxsone in 1963.
By the time Ken and Stranger parted ways, Dodd was
well aware of Ken's tremendous singing talents and retained him at
Studio One, coaching and developing him until he was releasing hit after
hit in the late Ska and Rocksteady years of 1966-68. Cuts like "Puppet
On a String," "Live Good," "Moving Away," "The Train Is Coming"(featuring the Wailers on backing vocals) the aching "Lonely Teardrops,"
and the enormous "My Heart Is Gone" were huge sellers and earned Coxsone
money. During this period he earned the moniker "The Jamaican Wilson
Pickett" and, most probably, the adoration of many a young Jamaican
woman. (During his sojourn at Studio One, he also donned a preacher's
robe and became "Brother Boothe" for the excellent, Toots-esque gospel
single "I Am Willing To Wait [For Jesus]")
By 1968, looking better money, Ken moved to Mrs. Pottinger's Tip Top
label, where he continued his hit-making career with "Say You," are-make of "Live Good," and others. In 1969 he continued to record for
Pottinger and also moved up to Leslie Kong and Beverley's, where, along
with Toots and the Melodians, he continued to sit on the charts with
"Freedom Street," which proved a hit in the UK in 1970.The early seventies and the death of Leslie Kong saw Ken starting to
work with other producers such as upstart Keith Hudson, with whom he cut
the killer "Old Fashioned Way" (1970), versioned supremely by both
Dennis Alcapone and U Roy. A few years later he also licked over Studio
One hits "The Train Is Coming" and "Moving Away" for Herman Chin-Loy and
his Aquarius label. In 1973 he teamed up with producer Winston 'Niney'
Holness and the Soul Syndicate band, singing "Silver Words": "Baby I'm
not joking/And it's not what I'm smoking..." (When "Silver Words"
released in the UK, the second verse was dubbed out.)
In 1974 Boothe began working with talented producer/arranger Lloyd
Charmers. In 1974 they hit with a Ken's first moment in the global
spotlight came in 1974 with his sublime cover of David Gates' not that
great "Everything I Own." Boothe cuts tracks for producer Bunny Lee,
featuring Sly and Robbie, between 1976-78, but by the time the DJ and
Roots explosion hit its stride in the late 70s and early 80s, Ken fell
from the limelight and his distinctive, soulful act became overshadowed
by the militant, revolutionary trends of the time. He did continue to
record and perform throughout the 80s, but never toured the US or built
up an American following as Bob Marley, Toots, and Burning Spear were able to.
The nineties have proved the Jamaican maxim "Old time something comeback again," as he has now become popular on Oldies
shows in Jamaica. In 1996, he scored a hit with a remake of "The Train
Is Coming," this time with DJ Shaggy. The song was featured in the film
Ken has been an all-too infrequent performer on these shores, and for
those not familiar with him and his force-to-be-reckoned voice, this key
figure in the pantheon of Jamaican singers and JA musical history is an
act not to be missed.
- Biography courtesy of Mark Gorney
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