By Stephen Cooper
On his forthcoming solo album, “Unstoppable,” Tony Chin – one of the greatest rhythm guitar players ever and a founding member of “Soul Syndicate,” the top studio band in Jamaica during the 1970s – sings in his unique, mellifluous falsetto: “If you look in my eyes then you can see some of my deepest memories of the country where I came from; Kingston, Jamaica, is the city where I was born.”
After being introduced to Tony Chin by my friend, legendary sound engineer Scientist – and after spending time in the recording studio together – I made arrangements to interview Tony at the Golden Sails hotel in Long Beach, California (where he plays each Sunday as part of legendary bassist George “Fully” Fullwood’s band). I wanted to better “look in [Tony’s] eyes,” to “see [and hear directly from him about] some of [his] deepest memories” – not only about Jamaica, but about his historic half-century as a professional musician.
So on June 30 and July 7, before he performed at the Golden Sails, Tony and I spoke for several hours about numerous subjects of interest to Jamaican music historians and reggae lovers alike. Because the interview is full of fascinating anecdotes and precious insight that, for posterity’s sake, cannot be excised, I’ll be releasing the transcript in parts, modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations. This is Part I. Enjoy!
Q: Greetings, Tony. It is truly an honor to be able to interview you here at the Golden Sails hotel.
Tony Chin: Yeah man. Give thanks!
Q: Tony, I want to begin by reading a quote from reggae historian Roger Steffens: “Tony Chin is one of the greatest unsung heroes of Jamaica’s golden age of reggae[.] As the rhythm guitarist for the Soul Syndicate, the prime studio band in Kingston during that electrifying decade, Tony helped anchor some of the biggest hits of the era.” Now because I believe your professional recording career began in the late 60s, is it accurate to say you’ve been in the music business – as a professional musician – for close to 50 years?
Tony Chin: Yeah, that’s true.
Q: Now even though you are primarily associated and thought of as being the rhythm guitarist for the Soul Syndicate, which started off being called the “Riddim Raiders,” you’ve worked as a freelance guitarist or session musician for virtually all of the most famous reggae producers in the 1960s and 70s. The list is too long to [recite all of their names], but correct me if I’m wrong: During your career you’ve played your guitar on works for Bunny Lee, Lee Scratch Perry, Niney the Observer, Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd, and Joe Gibbs. True?
Tony Chin: We never really worked for Coxsone Dodd. But all those others, yes, and more.
Q: Now it’s not really fair to ask but, out of all of those producers, if you had to [choose], which one would you say would be your favorite to work for? And why?
Tony Chin: Bunny Lee is one of them. Because he’s one of the first producers that really [took Soul Syndicate] in the recording studio, and break us. Bunny Lee, we call him “Striker Lee,” you know what I mean? And then, we have Niney the Observer. He was one of the next ones that really project us. And was honest with us. [But] Bunny Lee, [Soul Syndicate] did a lot of recording with him. And if it wasn’t for Bunny Lee, we wouldn’t have been doing a lot of recording – possibly. Because I remember we were doing a session with Bunny Lee, and this producer named Phil Pratt came in the studio. And he said, “Tony, Fully, Santa, I’d like to come record some songs at Randy’s next week,” or whatever. And this producer Phil Pratt, we worked on a tune with him, one of the first recordings we [did] with Dennis Brown, called “What About the Half?” And we did [another] tune for him and Gregory Isaacs: (singing) “All I Have Is Love.” But as I say, Bunny Lee is the man. And Niney. He was one of [Soul Syndicate’s] favorite producers.
Q: Those were two of your favorite producers?
Tony Chin: Yeah man. Every song at that time [in the 70s], although Niney didn’t call the band the “Soul Syndicate” – he called us “the Observers” – we are the ones [who played for him].
Q: I think that you’ve said before that producers all had their [own individualized and possessive] names for their studio bands.
Tony Chin: Right.
Q: So as a result you’ve played for all of these different bands: The Aggrovators, “Randy’s All Stars,” [Lee Scratch Perry’s “Upsetters,” Jack Ruby’s “Black Disciples,”] all of these studio bands –
Tony Chin: Alright, the Aggravators, [was] Bunny Lee’s studio band. It’s a “studio band” because sometimes it’s not all of Soul Syndicate [playing] together on [a] record. Sometimes it’s [lead guitarist] [Earl] Chinna [Smith] and [drummer] Santa [Davis]. I am not there. [Bassist] Fully [Fullwood] is not there, [and so] maybe it’s Robbie [Shakespeare] playing bass.
Q: Different [musicians] were [circling] in and out?
Tony Chin: Yeah, different [musicians] [were] coming in [and out]. But [Niney’s] the Observers was strictly [Soul] Syndicate with some horn players.
Q: Especially all those Dennis Brown [hits]?
Tony Chin: Ah yeah, that’s Syndicate. [And] [s]ome of Randy’s All-Stars was all Syndicate, [too], but not all of them. [Also] Syndicate did an album for Joe Gibbs (showing me vinyl records) “African Dub, Chapter One,” and “African Dub, Chapter Two.” You see?
Q: You know I asked [legendary sound engineer] Scientist to tell me what are his favorite dub albums, and he said African Dub was one of them.
Tony Chin: This is one of the best dub albums, man. African Dub, Chapter One, and African Dub, Chapter Two; I mean, it’s amazing.
Q: Just to showcase the amazing breadth of your career as a guitarist, and also to show why we can’t possibly cover all of the important music questions I have for you in [only] one [interview], and why we’ll need to meet up again, I want to list a few of the stars you’ve played with. Correct me if I’m wrong but you’ve played and recorded music with: Bob Marley and the Wailers, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Big Youth, Johnny Clarke, Ken Boothe, Gregory Isaacs, The Mighty Diamonds, U-Roy, Jimmy Cliff, Freddie McGregor, Judy Mowatt, John Holt, Horace Andy, and Max Romeo.
Tony Chin: Yeah man (laughing). All dem and a lot, lot more.
Q: Before we dig deeper into the music, I want to take a step back for a moment to ask you a few biographical questions, questions about your background, family, and coming of age.
Tony Chin: I was born in Greenwich Farm, Kingston, Jamaica.
Q: I understand you were born at the public hospital?
Tony Chin: Yeah.
Q: And I read that your father [Alvin Chin] was part Chinese and –
Tony Chin: – and part black, yeah.
Q: Your mom[, Inez Noyan,] was part Indian and part black?
Tony Chin: Yes.
Q: And did both your mom and dad raise you?
Tony Chin: First, when I was growing up in Greenwich Farm, yeah, they raised me till I was about 9 years old. And then [my mom and dad broke up, and my mom and I] moved to Trenchtown. And I grew up [then] in Trenchtown. I think we [left] Trenchtown when I was about maybe 14. And [then my mom and dad got back together and] we moved to a place called Tavares Crescent close to Trenchtown. And I lived there for a few years until about 17 [when my mom migrated to America]. And then [my dad and I] moved to 179 ½ Spanish Town Road. And that’s where it all started. That’s where my music career started. My father came home with a guitar [he bought] from a drunken man. I was not playing in a band yet or anything. My friend Maurice Gregory was a singer, but he could play guitar. [George] “Fully” [Fullwood], Fully used to come up – we used to sing on the street corner in a group. Singing Beatles songs, singing rocksteady music and ‘tings. Like The Paragons. The Melodians. We’d be singing those things.
Q: Greenwich Farm is like a garrison? A ghetto? A tough spot?
Tony Chin: Yeah. Greenwich Farm and Trenchtown, yeah, they are ghettos. Spanish Town Road is close to Greenwich Farm. So we were singing on street corners, and Maurice Gregory used to play the guitar. And Fully would sometimes play guitar. And we was singing. And this guy used to walk past and he’d see us play; he was a shoemaker. And one day he came to a friend of mine, a friend of mine named Benji, to give me a message. And he said that he had some guitars and a drum set. And he wanted to put a band together, if I’m interested.
Tony Chin: At that time Fully used to play guitar. And I took him down to Fully’s house. And this guy named Benji had some equipment, an amplifier and stuff from the music store that he’s paying monthly for. And Fully’s father pay it off.
Q: Was that the first investment in the Soul Syndicate?
Tony Chin: It wasn’t the Soul Syndicate [yet], it was the “Riddim Raiders” [back then]. So when Fully started playing bass, he was playing bass on a guitar not a bass. [We] had two guitars. And that’s how it all started. Then we had this guy Cleon Douglas came in as our singer. And I showed him a few [guitar] chords. And he started to play rhythm guitar, too. Chinna wasn’t even in the band yet. Then Fully’s brother changed the name of the band to “Soul Syndicate.” Then we had this keyboard player who came and played with us, Tyrone Downie. This was before Bob [Marley].
Q: Didn’t he play for Bob [Marley]?
Tony Chin: Yes! He was Bob Marley’s keyboard player. He came and played with us way before Bob. Then you have Wire.
Q: Wire Lindo?
Tony Chin: Yes, that was before Bob[, too]. Then you have Glenn Adams, [another] keyboard player. He used to play on all those backing songs for the Upsetters. And he was part of “The Hippie Boys” with Reggie, Family Man, and Carly. Those people used to play with us. Glenn Adams made [Soul Syndicate’s] uniforms.
Q: And [they both] played in Soul Syndicate!?
Tony Chin: Yeah!
Q: What did your dad do for a living?
Tony Chin: He was a fisherman. And then he was a shoemaker. And then he was working for a drink factory – that makes soft drinks.
Q: Was your mom working, too?
Tony Chin: My mom migrated to America. She was living here. [But before that] [m]y mom was a domestic servant; in America, you call it a “maid.” Cleaning the house and washing clothes. ‘Cause I remember when I was a kid, maybe 6, I used to go with her to work because they didn’t have no babysitter to babysit me. So she took me with her to work.
Q: Did she work in the hotels? In the resorts?
Tony Chin: No, not in hotels. In people’s houses. Rich people’s big houses. She’d go up there and wash clothes, clean the house, and cook for them.
Q: So after your parents broke up, then she moved to the United States?
Tony Chin: She moved to America, yeah.
Q: Were you able to stay in touch with her?
Tony Chin: Yeah, yeah, because every once or twice a year she would come and visit me on Spanish Town Road.
Q: Were either your father or mother musicians?
Tony Chin: Neither of them.
Q: Did your parents encourage your passion for music?
Tony Chin: My ambition when I was a kid going to school, before the music thing for me, I wanted to be a pilot. I wanted to fly planes. That’s what I wanted to do. I was in the Boy Scouts. And then when I was in high school, I joined the cadets. I loved militant type of stuff.
Q: By the way, you’re still wearing a militant uniform (Laughing).
Tony Chin: (Laughing) Yeah, you see. I love the military business [so] I joined the cadets. And at first I was playing bugle. But it hurt my jaw, and I didn’t like it. So I switched to playing side drums.
Q: This was all in the cadets? They had a cadet band?
Tony Chin: Yeah man, they had a military band. I really loved that. You wear short-pants and things. And I noticed you had a thing called “Girl Guides.” Like Girl Scouts. And the Girl Guides, dem always looking out for the cadets. (Laughing)
Q: Now Tony there are many Jamaican citizens that, like you, have Chinese ancestry. And indeed the surname “Chin” is not uncommon in Jamaica.
Tony Chin: A lot of Chins!
Q: It’s not even an uncommon [last name] in the reggae music industry. Are you related by chance to Chris and Randy Chin of VP Records?
Tony Chin: No.