My Operator: The Engineer Who Modernized Reggae

morris-my-operator

“My Operator” was the affectionate nickname given to the otherwise unsung engineer Sylvan Morris. Also called “The Original Scientist” for his early work in dub, Morris is responsible for the sound of many of the key landmark reggae albums in the mid-70s, including Bob Marley & The WailersBurnin’, Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration. It’s easy to overlook his influence when even reggae scholars like Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton failed to give him credit for his work on albums in their Rough Guide to 100 Essential Reggae albums. Not that they would deny that his engineering work was key to the sound and success of those albums. It’s just that producers traditionally get top billing. Sometimes they did take credit for the work of the engineers. There are thousands of songs out there where Morris’ work is completely uncredited to him.

Growing up in Trenchtown, Kingston, Morris was precocious, building tube amplifiers since he was 12 and fixing electronics for neighbors, and repaired two way radios for a company called Comtech for a year and a half while still in high school. After a brief stint at WIRL (West Indies Records label), that talent and a pitch perfect ear earned the teenager a job assisting engineer Graeme Goodall at Byron Lee’s Dynamic sounds in 1965. He assisted Goodall in updating the studio from two to three and then four tracks. Two years later he spent six months at Duke Reid’s studio, then joined Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, where he would control the board as chief engineer for six years and define the Studio One sound. The studio was actually still only two tracks, and Morris bought another two-track machine to dub more takes, which informed techniques used in dub. Dodd like to take credit for the innovations (despite not even being in the studio much of the time), but very gradually, the truth is leaking out via some liner notes and books like Michael Veal’s Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (2007).

“Plenty of people don’t talk about that engineer. And Sylvan Morris was an engineer and technician all in one. You understand? Is he teach Errol Thompson…” — Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee (Heptones, Night Food liner notes).

One of Morris’ innovations was inventing the bass box, which produced the heavy 40Hz bass sound (enhanced by a Pultec equalizer) that came to define the “Downbeat” roots reggae sound and dub. Another was the characteristic tape delay heard on Studio One records. A good example of both can be heard on Larry Marshall’s “Throw Me Corn.” He also made innovative use of the Soundimension, a free-standing echo unit, and eventually used many other simple sound processors. They had to be simple because the budget Dodd allotted to equipment was severely limited, and Morris had to overcome deficiencies like battered microphones with compromised dynamic range.

While he was known as one of the true technicians with professional know how who can bring the sound of the modest Studio One close to the standards of soul recordings coming out of the U.S. at the time, he also communicated his emotional gut reaction to the music through dancing, something Lee “Scratch” Perry was much more well known for.

In those days the engineer was really the producer, because sometimes the drum wants to be tuned and you tune up the drum. These guys respected me so much they used to call me, ‘My Operator.’ …I never stop dancing. In other words, if I stop, they stop. If I’m around the board and the music start play, I start feel it and I start dance, and they observe me carefully! More times I actually hear them playing to my dance because they observe me through the glass. And the more I move, you hear a man lick a ting [play something]. You understand? So they are actually playing to the feel of what I am feeling. And if they see me stop dancing you just hear them say, “Hold on there man! Hold on there man! Brother Morris not feeling the tune! What you don’t like?”  — Babylon Falling

Morris left Studio One in 1972 for financial reasons, probably because his pay did not compensate him for all his uncredited work. Once again, Bunny Lee chimed in on Veal’s Dub book, “Sylvan Morris really was the backbone of Studio One. When him leave, you don’t really hear the Studio One sound again, it changed.”

Bob Marley & The Wailers – Burnin’ (Island, 1973), Natty Dread (Island, 1974), Rastaman Vibration (Island, 1976)

marley-rastamanAs fate would have it, that same year Harry J Johnson built a state of the art 16 track studio installed by Bill Garnett and with financial help from Chris Blackwell, and called it Harry J Studios. Thanks to his reputation at Studio One, Morris was selected to assist on The Wailers’ Catch A Fire (1973), though uncredited, as Carlton Lee and Stu Barrett were listed as the engineers. For Burnin’, however, he got the sole credit, and by 1974 he joined Harry J as a full time engineer, and did Bob Marley’s Natty Dread (1975) and finally Rastaman Vibration (1976). These four albums represent a huge breakthrough for reggae, achieving for the first time a sound comparable to the most advanced American studios of the day. He also recorded a few tracks for Exodus (1977), but by that time Marley was ready to take it to the next level, and had them re-tracked in England at Island’s state-of-the-art 24 track studio. But it was thanks to Morris setting the benchmark for clean, precise rhythm tracks that helped establish Marley’s foundation of popularity in the international marketplace. It marked a big departure from the distorted drum & bass sound and muddy sound of most Jamaican productions.

However it wasn’t just Marley’s albums that Morris achieved a new high end clarity and separation of instruments. At Harry J’s he engineered (and unofficially produced) a treasure trove of enduring classics. While he did play a key role in the story of dub that is well documented in Veal’s book, and Reggae: The Rough Guide, the fact is that his featured dub albums Dub Wise (Morris On Dub) (1975) and Cultural Dub (1978) remain out of print and not quite part of the key dub cannon. The same fortunately cannot be said for most of these classics.

Cedric IM Brooks – The Magical Light Of Saba (Honest Jon’s, 1975-78)

brooks-magicalWhat if Sun Ra were dubwise? Fela Kuti a rasta? Since the early 60s, Brooks was one of Jamaica’s premier instrumentalists, playing on many of Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One hits. His passion for jazz and African rhythms led him to Rastafarian drummer Count Ossie, with whom he formed Count Ossie And His Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari. At the end of the decade Brooks went to Philadelphia to go to music college. He ended up meeting saxophonist Sonny Rollins and Sun Ra. Ra’s communal-based approach of living and practicing together was not a far stretch from the dreads at home, and he was on the verge of joining the band when the birth of his daughter called him back.

He formed The Light Of Saba, and recorded four albums with Sylvan Morris at Harry J that built upon The Mystic Revelation’s brass and nyabinghi Rasta hand drumming, adding reggae guitars, dub effects, his own sax and wooden flute, and a wide variety of rhythms, from local Mento/calypso/rocksteady/reggae to Cuban, American funk and African burru, poco and kumina. Like Fela Kuti, he started with his native culture and expanded the influences to create something new and truly ahead of its time. Morris would apply this multicultural, progressive approach to his work with Third World and Burning Spear.

Honest Jons pulled 19 tracks from the four albums and 7″ singles. It sounds incredible, even the tracks from 1975, which are unmatched in deep bass and clarity from anything in that year aside from Natty Dread. The instrumentals are hypnotic, there’s occasional shouts and chanting that preclude African Head Charge, and even some soulful Curtis Mayfield inspired singing. Brooks went on to play with the Congos and the Skatalites.

The Heptones – Night Food (Island, 1976)

heptones-nightLike The Wailers and the Maytals, the Heptones’ formation goes far back into the ska era in 1965. Earl Morgan, Leroy Sibbles and Barry Llewellyn gradually evolved their lyrical approach into the reality based topics of roots reggae by the mid-70s and a heavy sound while still putting together sweet harmonies. It’s a common mistake to focus exclusively on Party Time (1977), the album produced by Lee Perry. It’s a solid album, but not everything Perry touched were automatically transcendent. And while Cool Rasta (1975) is an important album that has some landmark, gritty songs which Morris had a hand in engineering, their highwater mark is Night Food. By far their best sounding album of that era, it contains definitive versions of some of their best songs from their Studio One days, along with newer compositions “Country Boy,” “Book Of Rules” and “Mama Say.” Some criticize the polished production aimed at the international market and the occasional use of strings such as on “Deceivers.” However it’s patronizing to expect Jamaican artists to adhere to a singular sound and style to prove they are legitimate. The album finally got the respect it deserves with a deluxe reissue in 2015 from Caroline & Island Def Jam, including 11 bonus tracks and extensive liner notes. Now if they could continue to do this for other albums by Toots & the Maytals, Bob Andy and Max Romeo.

Bob Andy – The Music Inside Me (Jigsaw, 1976)

Bob Andy - The Music Inside Me (Jigsaw, 1976)After leaving The Paragons in 1965, Bob Andy wrote a string of hits for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. Some of the songs from 1967 to 1970 were collected in Song Book, one of the great all-time early rocksteady and reggae classics. More can be found in the Trojan compilation Fire Burning, which also covers his collaboration with Marcia Griffiths, including the hit “Young, Gifted And Black.” To be honest it’s syrupy strings don’t do justice to the Nina Simone song, and the duo’s work was overly commercial. Their four albums together don’t exactly hold up as classics. However, Andy’s solo work is another matter. Tracks like “One Woman” (1971), “Life” (1972), “Honey Child” (1973) and “Fire Burning” (1974) showed he still had the spark. “Fire Burning” was re-recorded and became the centerpiece of his first official solo album, The Music Inside Me (1976). While he can’t quite match the sheer number of select songs that his previous album Song Book (which to be fair, were cherry picked from four years worth of singles), his songwriting, vocals and melodies are just as strong, but with the added benefit of a better, fuller sound of peak mid-70s reggae, and holds together as a better album. One example is the descending vocal melody that simply slays on “Check It Out.” Similar to Justin Hinds who was also better known for his 60s work with the Dominoes, it’s a brilliant, underrated gem along the lines of Hinds’ Jezebel (1976). This is sorely in need of a proper reissue. All but three of the songs show up in the Retrospective collection (available on Spotify and on CD in the UK but not the US), but the title track, “Make Mine Music” and “Feeling Soul” are killers, not fillers that deserve to be heard alongside his better known “Fire Burning.”

Burning Spear – Social Living (Marcus’ Children) (Island/Blood & Fire, 1978)

burning-spear-socialAfter Bob Marley & the Wailers and his pioneering dub innovations, Morris is known for his work with Burning Spear on the stunning trilogy Man In The Hills (1976), Dry & Heavy (1977) and Social Living (1978). While Winston Rodney recorded a string of excellent singles at Studio One, he’s best known by far for his album Marcus Garvey (1975). Produced by Jack Ruby, it’s easy to see why it’s so iconic, as it’s one of the first powerful album-length Rastafarian statements. The alluring horns on the title track and the intense chorus of “Slavery Days” sear into the brain. However, the next three albums see Burning Spear honing his craft and progressing, reaching a towering peak with Social Living, an album that was only released in the UK, left out of print and nearly forgotten until the Blood & Fire exhumed it with a fresh remaster in 1994. Everything here, foreboding dread lyrics, menacing slow tempos, Nyahbinghi influences, ghostly horns and jazzy guitar licks, comes together into arguably the greatest Burning Spear album. The progression continued on the nearly as great Hail H.I.M. (1980), recorded at Marley’s 24-track Tuff Gong studio.

Toots & the Maytals – Reggae Got Soul (Island, 1976)

toots-reggaeThe parade of reggae legends coming through Harry J studio to work with Morris continues with Toots & the Maytals. Formed in 1962, the Maytals were there at every step of the way, pioneering advances in ska, rocksteady and arguably recording the very first reggae song, “Do The Reggay” in 1968. Typical for Jamaican artists, their albums were chaotically curated, with songs constantly recycled, re-recorded and shuffled into different collections between 1969 and 74. The most celebrated was Funky Kingston (1973), which was re-issued in the U.S. including songs from In The Dark (1974). While generally being a very productive band, oddly nothing new was released in 1975. Fortunately they found their way to Harry J and recorded their most cohesive album. While it may not quite reach the heights of Funky Kingston, Morris adds textures to the sound that show that Toots is more than a soul-shouting blunt instrument. “Rasta Man” is a lovely re-arrangement of the 60s Maytals tune “Bam Bam” which was one of the early adopters of Nyahbinghi drums. The songs flow rather than jump around, but Toots’ buoyantly joyful performances are just as infectious on “So Bad,” “Everybody Needs Lovin’,” the title track and “I Shall Sing,” which features some “la la las” reminiscent of Van Morrison. No one who loves reggae could possibly turn their nose up at Toots & the Maytals unless they have a dead black hole where their heart should be. In 2015 this album was finally remastered and reissued with 10 bonus tracks. Essential.

The Abyssinians – Satta Massagana (Heartbeat, 1976)

abyssinians-sattaLike The Heptones and Burning Spear, The Abyssinians recorded some great singles at Studio One, which is where they most likely initially got to know Sylvan Morris. Any artist who were happy with “My Operator” would of course gladly follow him to Harry J. This paid off big time for The Abyssinians, who’s dread opus based on their signature version of the much-covered Nyahbinghi hymn “Satta Massagana” was one of the most definitive Rasta anthems in reggae, challenged only by Marley and Burning Spear. While their harmonies may not be as accomplished as The Mighty Diamonds or catchy as The Heptones, and the rhythm rarely varies, it’s a beautifully spiritual album, with highlights like the uplifting “Forward Unto Zion” and soulful “African Race.” Here Morris a wonderfully subtle balance of earthiness and lightness, heavy bass and detailed high end.

Third World – 96° In The Shade (Island, 1977)

third-world-96Starting with their self-titled debut in 1976 through their third album, Journey To Addis (1978), Third World incorporate a more polished production with infusions of blues, soul, rock and funk. Not unlike Toots and Marley really, but just taking it in a jazzier direction along the lines of Steely Dan. Keyboardist Michael ‘Ibo’ Cooper and guitarist Stephen ‘Cat’ Coore are classical musicians who formed Inner Circle in 1968, and left to form Third World in 1973. While the debut was really good, things really click on the second album when vocalist William ‘Bunny Rugs’ Clark joins the band fresh off a solo album produced by Lee Perry. And of course, Sylvan Morris lent a hand on the board. Cat Coore’s guitar lines and the smooth but agile musicianship is infinitely listenable. Considered by some as not ghetto enough, and therefore inauthentic that is such a steaming pile of bullshit. There’s room for diversity within reggae, and Third World were top tier musicians who pushed the limits of expectations and inspired other bands like Steel Pulse, Zap Pow and Aswad. I wish there were even more Third World acolytes.

Horace Andy – In The Light (Hungry Town/Blood & Fire, 1977)

andy-inLike a lot of people, my first exposure to Horace Andy via the groundbreaking 1991 album by Massive Attack, Blue Lines. Investigating where that haunting falsetto came from revealed that Andy was a full-fledged reggae legend, having recorded many hits in the early 70s with Studio One, the majority of which were of course engineered by Sylvan Morris. Andy had recorded so much that 1972 collections like Mr. Bassie and Skylarking only scratch the surface of the treasures gifted by this otherworldly singer. He worked with a slew of producers in the first half of the decade, much of which is inexplicably out of print or even lost forever. That fact makes In The Light all the more valuable, as this album, released in a limited run by Hungry Town, was also almost lost, until it was rescued by Blood & Fire in 1995. Rather than being a collection of singles, Andy clearly intended this to be a cohesive statement, with the assistance of course from his Operator. From the open Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic) influenced guitar squalls by Andy Bassford to the eerie keyboards on “Problems,” and the dread horns accenting the powerful lyrics of “Government Land” that measure up to anything by Bob Marley or Burning Spear, this is indeed a special album, and Andy’s strongest artistic statement of the 70s (though his Bullwackie’s produced Dance Hall Style from 1982 is even better). The accompanying dub album by Prince Jammy is also pretty great. Hearing Andy is like bathing in light, and it has not been ruled out that he actually is an angel.

Max Romeo – Reconstruction (Island, 1977)

romeo-reconstructionMax Romeo got his start in the 60s with the Emotions before releasing some solo singles in 1969, including the rude outing “Wet Dream,” which is a departure from his generally righteously conscious lyrics. After two classics Revelation Time (1975) and War Ina Babylon (1976), it’s kind of shocking that Reconstruction remains out of print. Listening to a vinyl rip to MP3, it may not quite match the consistency of War Ina Babylon, but it is another excellent Morris production that reveals details that don’t exist in his Lee Perry productions. The title track has a catchy chorus and a crisp horn arrangement that brings to mind some of Jimmy Cliff’s successful crossover songs. “Melt Away” is the highlight of the album, the extended 12″ version of which was tacked on at the end of Open The Iron Gate, the Blood & Fire reissue of Revelation Time. “War Rock” and “Martin Luther King” are great protest anthems, while “Take A Hold” tackles Meters style funk, and “Destination Africa” is an interesting mix of Afrobeat, Cuban and dance rhythms. It feels to me like an artist’s explorations rather than an attempt to sell out. Not that Romeo didn’t deserve global success. At the very least, this album deserves a a quality reissue from Caroline/Island to follow up the quality reissues of The Heptones, Toots & the Maytals and Rico.

While the above albums are in my opinion the most towering classics that Sylvan Morris engineered and in many cases unofficially produced, there’s many other important albums in his repertoire. While Morris did some work at Channel One Studios, he continued to work at Harry J Studios until 1986, when he returned to Dynamic Studios, where he worked for at least another three decades. Despite partial blindness from glaucoma, he may still be working at the controls on occasion. While he did not have a hand in all the best sounding reggae albums of the 70s (see Rico, Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, Culture, Ijahman, Steel Pulse and Aswad for other stellar examples from other engineers), he does have one of the most impressive bodies of work, and did indeed define the direction of modern reggae production.

Sylvan Morris - Photo by Shaun Roberts: flickr.com/photos/shaunroberts

Augustus Pablo – Ital Dub (1975)
Fred Locks – Black Star Liner
Larry Marshall – I Admire You
Zap Pow – Revolutionary
Junior Delgado – Dance A Dub (1977)
Bunny Wailer – Protest
Bunny Wailer – Dubdisco
The Meditations – Wake Up
The Melodians – Sweet Sensation
I-Roy – Heart Of A Lion (1978)
Big Youth – Isaiah First Prophet Of Old
Jacob Miller – Wanted
Prince Far I – Long Life
Jackie Mittoo – Showcase (Reissued as Champion in the Arena)
Israel Vibration – The Same Song
Gregory Isaacs – Soon Forward (1979)
The Gladiators – Sweet So Till
Johnny Osbourne – Truths And Rights (1980)
Black Uhuru – Red (1981)

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