By Stephen A. Cooper
Rudolph “Garth” Dennis occupies a storied, honorific place in the history of reggae music: In addition to a lengthy stretch as a lead singer for foundational roots reggae band Wailing Souls, without Mr. Dennis, Black Uhuru – the world’s top-selling reggae band after Bob Marley and The Wailers – would never have existed, period/full stop. Since interviewing Duckie Simpson in 2016 and Don Carlos in 2017, the other two original members of Black Uhuru, I’ve been angling to interview Mr. Dennis too; not only to complete the circle, but because Mr. Dennis, through familial relations, friendships, and multi-fold musical connections, is both a witness and an integral participant in the development and expansion of reggae as a genre.
Finally, last month in Los Angeles, after smoking several strong spliffs together, I got the chance I’d been waiting for: I interviewed Mr. Dennis on a hardwood bench in Chinatown for approximately forty-five minutes. We discussed several interesting subjects including: Mr. Dennis’s involvement in his sons’s roots reggae band “Blaze Mob”; the origins of Black Uhuru featuring Mr. Dennis’s insights into the complex relationships that both united and separated its founding members; Mr. Dennis’s 2015 debut solo album “Trenchtown 19 3rd Street”; Rastafari; Mr. Dennis’s special remembrances of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Mr. Dennis’s brother-in-law Joe Higgs (“the godfather of reggae” music). What follows is a transcription of the interview, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Mr. Dennis, thank you for inviting me tonight to the listening party for your sons’s [Shaka “Rock” Dennis, “King” Saeed Dennis, and Gyasi “Gong” Dennis, also known as “Blaze Mob”] new album, “Words Carved in Stone.” You must be very proud of them?
Q: How much are you involved in their music?
Garth Dennis: Not that much anymore now. ‘Cause they’re more mature.
Q: Were you more involved in the making of their first full-length studio album, “More Consciousness”?
Garth Dennis: On and off. Whenever they needed any instruction, I’d chip in. But the majority of that record was done on their own [too]. My son’s grew up around me and my groups you know, like The Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru. The harmonies. And sounds and ‘tings. When I played and they were around, we’d jam together; so a likkle rubbed off on them, you know?
Q: Did you always want your sons to follow your path, and choose careers in music?
Garth Dennis: No. Not definitely. What really happened is a lot of times when I’d come off of the road, I’d usually bring back an instrument. Sometimes a bass, sometimes a keyboard, sometimes a guitar. And they[‘d] just pick it up from there. Plus, their grandma had a piano at the house, so –
Q: So you couldn’t stop them from it –
Garth Dennis: Yeah. Naturally. Yeah.
Q: Were you concerned at all when you saw that music was the path they were heading down? The life of a musician is not always easy, especially [when] you’re starting out; were you worried for them at all?
Garth Dennis: I wasn’t worried at all because [the] material part of it is not why they started [doing music]. That wasn’t a problem, you know what I mean? Yeah. It just happened natural – and they’re very talented.
Q: What are some [of the most important nuggets of advice] you’ve tried to pass on to your sons about music?
Garth Dennis: Make music that uplifts people. Good music. Music that lives on. [Music] [t]hat’s timeless.
Q: Mr. Dennis, at the end of last month, the Jamaica Observer published an article called “Battle over Black Uhuru.” It concerned news that Michael Rose is challenging Duckie Simpson in court in the U.K. for the right to use the name “Black Uhuru.” What’s your reaction to this development; what are your feelings about that?
Garth Dennis: My reaction to this is all the guys need to talk the truth. They need to come together and talk the truth. I formed that group. The name [Black Uhuru] was given to I-man, Garth Dennis. And the person who gave I the name, so I could name the group “Black Uhuru,” that person is still alive.
Q: What’s that person’s name?
Garth Dennis: His name is Roy Palmer.
Q: Roy Palmer?
Garth Dennis: Yeah, Roy Palmer. Yeah.
Q: Is he in Jamaica?
Garth Dennis: I think he’s somewhere in the [United] States, here.
Garth Dennis: He can be found.
Q: He came over from Jamaica?
Garth Dennis: Yeah. Yeah. He’s the one who present[ed] the name to me. And I tell it to the rest of the brethren. Because I was the first – I put the group together.
Q: Referring to the legal fight over the Black Uhuru name that both you and Don Carlos had with Duckie in the late 1990s, Duckie was quoted in the Observer piece, stating: “This is so weird, I don’t even understand the motive. Is the same thing Don (Carlos) did” – and I think he also meant to include you as well – and quote, “the court award me the name.” What’s your response to these statements?
Garth Dennis: First of all, I must let the world know that [Duckie Simpson] is the one who sued Don [Carlos] and me over the name. And what really happened is: He sued us in the [United] States while we were on tour. We invite[d] him to come along and he refused, right? What really happened is, there’s a show in Jamaica called “Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival” which we were booked on as Black Uhuru. We asked him to come along, and he didn’t come along. What he did was he went ahead and sued us in Jamaica over the name “Black Uhuru.” [And] [i]n Jamaica, myself and Don Carlos won the rights to the Black Uhuru name. In Jamaica! [Laughing.] After we won that name, [Don Carlos and I] went ahead and did that Air Jamaica festival as Black Uhuru. We didn’t [go] to the press, or the TV, or the radio stations to say: “Oh, myself and Don just won the rights to the name of Black Uhuru – in Jamaica where the group was formed!” We didn’t [go] to the press and do that while the [second] court case [Duckie Simpson brought – and eventually won – over the Black Uhuru name] was still going on in America. Or anything like that. Because that’s not what [Don Carlos and I] were involved in.
Q: Do you think that that would have made much of a difference if you had?
Garth Dennis: Much, much of difference! Because that’s in Jamaica where the group is formed – that’s where we [had already] won the rights to the name of the group.
Q: Do you feel like your lawyers in the United States who were representing you [when Duckie brought that second court case over the name] did a disservice to you then?
Garth Dennis: Exactly! They didn’t do a good job. Because they didn’t even mention that.
Q: Because what you’re saying is the fact that you [and Don Carlos] had already won the right to the Black Uhuru name in Jamaica should have meant [more] to a U.S. court if a lawyer had properly [argued] it?
Garth Dennis: Exactly! But that wasn’t presented. In fact, myself and Don [weren’t] even in court when the decision was [rendered]. We were on the road performing as Black Uhuru. And then we were sued twice by Duckie. We [, Don and I,] didn’t do no suing, none at all. So we won the name officially in Jamaica where Black Uhuru [originated]. And as I said before, the person who came up with the name is the right person to interview about where the name came from –
Q: People should be asking Mr. Palmer about that?
Garth Dennis: Exactly! And then they’ll know the truth.
Q: On a different note, isn’t Michael Rose a brethren of yours? Isn’t he one of the Waterhouse singers you mentored and helped to rehearse when he was younger?
Garth Dennis: Yeah, we all grew up together. When you say “mentored,” Michael Rose was always a good singer. But when he joined Black Uhuru, by that time I [wasn’t with Black Uhuru and had joined] Wailing Souls; [but I still] used to rehearse Duckie and Michael Rose, trying to [help them] find a third person for Black Uhuru.
Q: So even when you were no longer with Black Uhuru you were trying to help them?
Garth Dennis: Trying to help them all along. It’s not until the group went through all kinds of different changes with Michael [Rose], Junior Reid, and so on, [that Duckie] came to look for me, to explain to me what was happening. We did a show in the [United] States and Don was on the bill as a solo artist, and I was on the show as a solo artist, and Black Uhuru was on the show [too]. And Junior Reid couldn’t make it. Duckie and the female [backup] singer was there, but they didn’t want to perform. [And] there was an individual who was there that knew all three of us were from Waterhouse – Don, myself, and Duckie – and he said, “all three of you [original Black Uhuru members] are here, go [and perform]!” So we do a couple of songs for the crowd that day. We didn’t regroup right away. Three years after that, [Duckie] came to stay at my house for a while. That’s when he [told] my wife I was the founder of the group. Because when he was about to leave to Jamaica, he said to her for the first time: “Didn’t you know that Garthy formed the group? What’s wrong with you?” And he didn’t tell my wife that all those years [before]. He was the one that said that to her.