By Stephen A. Cooper
Despite a near thirty-year separation, perhaps no singing duo in music history has enjoyed a comparably resilient, prolific, and successful partnership, as Jamaican rocksteady icons Keith Rowe and Phillip “Tex” Dixon. As the inimitable radio personality Junor Francis forcefully exclaimed when introducing them at Los Angeles’ Dub Club on December 13: When they started singing together – as scrawny, starry-eyed teenagers in Jamaica – Keith and Tex were “met with massive rejection!”
Video clip of Junor Francis introducing Keith and Tex at the Dub Club in Los Angeles | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper
But fifty years ago, just as now, Keith and Tex refused to give up on pursuing their dreams. And so stubbornly, they practiced. And they practiced. Like anyone courageous enough to invest themselves fully in an artistic endeavor – and who ultimately is successful – Keith and Tex refused to give up despite their naysayers. They continued honing their skills until they had enough gumption to risk humiliation again. But this time, instead, they got their big break from popular 1950s singer turned producer (and record shop owner) Derrick Harriott – recording in short order the classic “Tonight,” and the now world-famous rocksteady anthem, “Stop That Train” – going on to become one of the most readily identifiable names of the rocksteady era.
The great news is Keith and Tex are still performing. They’re still producing new, rich, soulful harmonies, modern love songs, and tunes that unabashedly confront the serious social issues of the day; not only are Keith and Tex still very much “back together again,” they are turning out quality, exciting new music at a jaw-dropping pace.
Once the thunderous applause, hooting, and sporadic departing cries of “I love you Keith and Tex” from departing Dub Club patrons began to die down – and as the positive vibrations from their unique, live performance slowly dissipated into the night – I had the honor of interviewing Keith and Tex about their historic careers in music. What follows is a transcription of the interview modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: That was a thrilling performance, congratulations!
Keith Rowe: Thanks.
Q: I understand just a couple of days ago you guys were touring in Japan. How did that go?
Keith Rowe: It was fabulous. This was our second time going there. And we played two cities, Osaka and Tokyo. Just fabulous. People were totally involved. Packed houses. And singing our songs from the first note.
Q: I knew that there’s a fairly substantial market for reggae music in Japan. But I didn’t know it extended as far as rocksteady.
Keith Rowe: Oh yeah! And that’s been surprising while we’ve been on tour: how many people are actually listening to rocksteady music.
Q: Your new album “Same Old Story” has been out since the end of March – so about nine months now. How is the album doing, and are you pleased with the reception its received?
Tex Dixon: Considering that it’s a rocksteady album, I think it’s doing pretty good. We’re in touch with the guy who’s producing it. And they had to go back to the press to press some more [copies of the album] because sales are good.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned the production. Because the album sounds sonically superb. And I know you recorded it with veteran producer Roberto Sanchez in his studio in Cuerto, Spain. And I understand all the musicians on the new album are all also from Spain – isn’t Mr. Sanchez’s studio band called “The Lone Ark Riddim Force?”
Keith Rowe: That’s correct.
Q: I understand that even in Jamaica you heard rocksteady songs Mr. Sanchez had produced, and that you knew you wanted to work with him. Can you speak a little bit about what it is about Mr. Sanchez’s “A-Lone” productions company – or about Mr. Sanchez specifically, his studio band, or his equipment – that makes him able to produce such an authentic, vintage, rocksteady sound?
Keith Rowe: Well, first thing is, I met Roberto about ten years ago. He sent me a message – an email – wanting me to do a song for him. Two songs, actually. So we did that work, and you know, that was it. Ten years passed. And we were getting ready to complete another album – not this one that’s out now, but another one – that we wanted to produce ourselves. And I sent him an email asking him to send us a couple of tracks to put on that album too. Because I know he’s into rocksteady. And what he did is, he came back and he said, “why don’t we do an album together?” And so we talked it over and decided to go with it. But the thing about Roberto is his musicianship. [And] the equipment he uses is vintage old school equipment. So you get that 60s sound. He is able to capture a sound that is hard to produce with today’s instruments and today’s players.
Tex Dixon: He’s got an ear for that era. So he just knows how to tweak the sounds.
Q: Singer Bunny Brown’s beautiful voice can be heard harmonizing on your new album, particularly on the track “Refugees.” Have you guys always known Bunny Brown? Or how is it you decided to work with him?
Tex Dixon: We’ve known him since we were kids. We were all singing for producer Derrick Harriott at one point.
Keith Rowe: And we’ve sang harmony on [Bunny’s] songs [before] too. He’s our friend for life. So whenever we’re doing music and he’s available, he’s with us.
Q: Are both of you guys retired, or semi-retired, from the non-performing jobs that you had? Keith, are you still doing your radio show “Reggae Rhapsody” in Florida?
Keith Rowe: [Nodding] In Tampa, yeah.
Q: And are you fully retired now, Tex?
Tex Dixon: I’m more retired now than before [laughing].
Q: The reason why I’m asking is because you guys have been extremely prolific [in recent years]. Since 2013, you have released three albums. So, you are on pace to put out a new album just about every year and half!
Keith Rowe: And we have one coming out in March.
Q: You have yet another new album coming!? So . . . I bring this up, not only because it’s so impressive, but because in an interview that you did Keith with Peter I from [the online magazine] Reggae Vibes back in 2004, you said, “I didn’t fulfill what I probably thought was my destiny in music.” And so, I wondered, Tex, if you felt the same way at all? And also, if that’s what you guys have been doing these last few years – making all this new music together and touring the world – are you making up for lost time, lost opportunities from your past musically? You know, instead of just leading a sedentary retirement and just chilling, you guys are out here working as hard as you can, still trying to capture a dream?
Video clip of Keith and Tex singing “Tonight” at the Dub Club in Los Angeles | Courtesy of Stephen A. Cooper
Tex Dixon: It’s a little bit of everything. We have unfinished business. Because if you know our story, we had roughly parted ways for thirty years.
Q: Yes. I am going to be asking you a few questions about that.
Tex Dixon: And so, there’s a lot of time lapsed in between. And so we think we still have enough in us to continue on our journey, and try to fulfill some of that potential that we feel. So, we’re just taking it day by day. We are working on trying to make something new – trying to go on tour as if we are picking up where we left off.
Q: Nice. Nice.
Keith Rowe: The thing is too that there is so much more music left in us. There’s life experiences to write about. We have a lot more lyrics to write. Experiences allow you to draw from different things to put into a song. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve sung about refugees, we’ve sung about who is to be blamed for society and the way it is, you know? So these are the things that our life experiences have allowed us to write about.