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From left: Hollywood movie star Rita Jenrette hangs out with Harry J and Sheila Hylton at the Harry J Recording Studio. - File
From left: Hollywood movie star Rita Jenrette hangs out with Harry J and Sheila Hylton at the Harry J Recording Studio.—

One of the legendary record producers of early Jamaican music, Harry Zephaniah Johnson, popularly known as ‘Harry J’, passed away on April 3, and was flamboyantly eulogised in a thanksgiving service at Sts Peter and Paul Church, on Old Hope Road in Kingston on April 20.

Perhaps belonging to the second crop of that elite band of early Jamaican record producers, following the likes of Clement ‘Sir Coxson’ Dodd, Duke Reid, Sonia Pottinger and Leslie Kong, Harry J’s contribution was enormous.

In striving to grasp the important role Harry J played, one has to view it in the light of the responsibilities entrusted to such individuals: They were responsible for all arrangements pertaining to the recording session, including booking and paying for Studio time, paying the musicians, financing the manufacturing of the records, having a say in the musical arrangement and some times acting as manager for the artistes.


Harry Johnson paid his dues in all these areas.

He first appeared as a record producer in 1968, when he launched his own record label – ‘Harry J’.

Born on July 6, 1942 in the small district of St Peters in Westmoreland,Jamaica, Johnson entered the music business as a bass player with the Virtues band. Elevating himself to manager of the band, he gained valuable experience, which augured well for the area he loved most – management and production.


The year 1968 saw a paradigm shift in Jamaican popular music, which resulted in the creation of a new sound called reggae, and Johnson was an integral part of that process.

The Beltones

The Beltones

That same year, The Beltones, which had previously given Dodd two sweet slices of rocksteady, titled Smile Like An Angel, and Dancing Time, came under Johnson’s watch, and allowed him to have his first production, titled No More Heartaches, a monumental piece, which was, arguably, the recording that helped to launch the reggae beat in 1968.

Its lyrics, which some say had an input from Johnson, explored the parameters of romantic love:

Searching so long, just for you,

now that I found you,

please be true.

No more heartaches, no more pain,

no more sorrow no more strain.

Harry J’s agreement with Coxson allowed him to record another popular hit, Lloyd Robinson’s Cuss Cuss, which became one of the most covered rhythms in Jamaican music. Johnson used his subsidiary label, Jaywax, to release other subsequent recordings.


In October 1969, Harry Johnson created history as a producer, when his self-penned Jamaican No 1 instrumental piece, titled Liquidator by the Harry J All Stars. A hit, it was No 9, on the British charts.

An organ-dominated piece, featuring Winston Wright, it became the subject of a legal wrangle between producer/writer Johnson and The Staple singers, who allegedly lifted a heavy chunk of the instrumental’s introduction to decorate their 1971, No 1 hit – I’ll Take You There.

The accusation was denied, but Johnson suspects that the idea was copied one day when Al Jackson Jnr, drummer for Booker T and the MGs – the Staple Singer’s backing band, visited one of his recording sessions and heard the song.


Harry J said, he had sought legal advice to get financial compensation for the illegal use of The Liquidator’s beat, but made little headway.

Utilising the services of some of the best musicians in the land, that included ‘Hux Brown’ on guitar, Gladstone Anderson on piano, Jackie Jackson on bass, Val Bennett on sax, and Winston Wright on organ, Johnson had several other instrumental releases in the UK, through his own subsidiary, Harry J, on Trojan records.

The following year Johnson was again in the international spotlight with perhaps his biggest success – Bob and Marcia’s cover of the Nina Simone original, Young Gifted and Black, which climbed to No 5 on the British charts.

Bob Andy & Marcia Griffiths

Bob Andy & Marcia Griffiths

His productions also included several ‘dub’ versions and Jamaican DJ hits, with artistes such as Scotty and Winston ‘Merritone’ Blake, whoseCambodia was particularly liberating:

Hit the spot with all you got.

Cambodia, another brand new shot.

War ain’t no good for the brotherhood, it’s time for men to unite,

to find a solution one don’t have to fight.


Harry "J" Johnson

Harry “J” Johnson

Johnson, who operated from various locations including 79 and 115 King Street, sold his record shop and established his own recording studios at 10 Roosevelt Avenue in 1972. It became one of the most famous Jamaican studios, recording some of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ best works between 1973 and 1976, including the Catch A FireEastman Vibration and Burnin’ albums, as well as songs by Jacob Miller, The Burning Spears, Toots and the Maytals, Ken Boothe, Augustus Pablo, The Cables, Zap Pow, Sheila Hylton, Peter Scarlet/Fab5, and others like The Heptones, which one writer describes as “The most tuneful piece of philosophy ever recorded, combining raw feelings and precise harmonies.”

Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings

cut clown clad capers in sawdust rings,

that’s why common people like you and me

will be builders for eternity.

each is given a bag of tools

a shapeless mass, and a book of rules.

Bob Andy also got the opportunity to put on display one of his best pieces of writing, while with Johnson, on the recording Peace In Your Mind:

You may possess the world and its gold,

that won’t do nothing when you’re growing old,

you may possess all the things money can buy,

you ain’t got nothing till you’ve got peace in your mind.

The studio was also a must-stop hangout for foreign artistes like The Rolling stones, Grace Jones and Johnny Nash.

The legacy of Harry J’s studio was continued by Stephen Stewart, who refurbished and brought it back into operation sometime around 1999. Since then, it has seen the success stories of Toots and the Maytals, with the album True Love in 2004. Other artistes like Sly and Robbie, Shakira, Papa San, Sizzla, Raging Fyah band, and Uprising Rootz, have also recorded successfully for the resurrected establishment.

Stewart, who worked with Harry J as a teenage trainee engineer in the 1970s, furthered his education abroad and returned to pay his dues, where he was most sentimentally attached.


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