Cat Coore of Third World
Third World’s latest album Patriots is a tour de force from a band celebrating their thirty-seventh anniversary. By “patriots” they mean artists who continue to represent all that’s best about Jamaican music, whether it’s veterans like Toots Hibbert, Marcia Griffiths and Gregory Isaacs, or younger flames such as Tarrus Riley, Tessane Chin and the Marley brothers. I should point out that each of these artists shares a genuine bond with the band. They weren’t recruited because of record company connections or anything like that. This is a family affair as Sly Stone once said, and the warmth that results from such alliances permeates the entire album.
Take Stephen and Damian Marley for instance, who breathe new life into 96 Degrees In The Shade – the song Third World wrote about a slave uprising led by Jamaican National Hero Paul Bogle in 1865, and which they discuss with such gravity in Jerome Laperrousaz’s film Made In Jamaica. Damian’s mother Cindy Breakspeare and Third World guitarist Cat Coore’s first wife Donna ran a crafts shop in Kingston and were neighbours. Their children grew up together, and played in a band called Shepherds long before their talents came to fruition. Cat himself was very close to Bob Marley and backed him and the Wailers as a schoolboy, whilst lead singer Bunny Rugs shared the same birthday as Bob and has fond memories of their times together. Another long-time member, bassist Richard “Richie” Daley, lived in Trench Town, knew Marley when he was virtually unknown and can tell you all about supporting Marley on their Natty Dread tour in 1975, including those legendary Lyceum concerts in London.
Third World had only formed two years earlier, after Cat and keyboard player Michael “Ibo” Cooper had tired of playing Top 40 hits with Inner Circle – a band they’d joined as youngsters. Cat was only thirteen when playing on sessions that led to songs like Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby and hits by the Chosen Few, Derrick Harriott and others. Milton “Prilly” Hamilton joined on lead vocals, along with drummer Carl Barovier and Richie on bass. This line-up recorded an album’s worth of unreleased demo tapes called Sleepless Nights In Macka Bush before percussionist Irving “Carrot” Jarrett came aboard, and Barovier was replaced by Cornell Marshall. Island Records had just released the Wailers’ Catch A Fire and Burnin’ and these two albums, plus the film The Harder They Come had irrevocably changed people’s perceptions of Jamaica. Songs were now wedded to African and Caribbean culture like never before. Rastafari, social conditions and black history now infused the music of roots reggae bands and Third World were determined to join them. In 1975 they journeyed to London, just to see what was happening. Britain had already enjoyed more than a decade of crossover reggae hits dating back to the ska era, and audiences there were eager to hear more. Despite having turned them down six months earlier, Chris Blackwell signed Third World to Island Records after seeing them perform at a South London nightclub and the band were on their way.
Their debut album Third World was recorded in Hammersmith and came out in 1976. The band’s cut of Satta Massagana immediately attracted attention, as did tracks like Slavery Days and Sun Won’t Shine. Right from the start, Third World had something different about them. Like Aswad, they were a self-contained unit that wrote, played and produced their own material for the most part, rather than backing a singer. They also drew from a broad, musical palette – a facility partially afforded by Cat and Ibo’s classical training – and even the artwork on their early Island albums was distinctive, with its naïve depictions of country life in the tropics. Their second album 96 Degrees In The Shade followed a year later. Drummer Willie “Roots” Stewart and lead singer William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke had joined them by now. The title track was a huge hit, as was their cover of the O’ Jays’ Now That We’ve Found Love from the next album, Journey To Addis. All the ingredients of Third World’s enduring success were now in place. Their harmonies and melodies soared heavenwards in the same joyous way you’d expect to find on gospel and soul recordings; the rhythms crackled with energy and a percussive drive that wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place in Latin music; Cat’s guitar-playing had an irresistible rock feel whilst Rugs’ lead vocals were as soulful as any r & b singer. Black Echoes described them as “the number one reggae / funk crossover band of all time. They’re the only band to fuse the two styles with complete effectiveness and yet not lose that essential vitality of reggae” – this after 12” extended disco mixes of their hits had gone down a treat in clubs, challenging the best of disco and funk from that era.
Yet Third World’s credentials as one of Jamaica’s top reggae bands were undeniable and remain so to this day. At their core – no pun intended – lies a deep-seated, roots Rasta sensibility that’s delivered some striking examples of cultural reggae down the years, from Island Records’ songs like 96 Degrees In The Shade, Jah Glory, Tribal War, Human Market Place and Third World Man, to current album tracks such as Freedom Must Be Now, Spirit Lives (livicated to the people of Haiti) and the rallying cry which is Revolutionary People.
It’s been a while since we heard roots reggae music produced to such a high standard, and where use of new technology has married so convincingly with the playing of real instruments. Freedom Must Be Now features Michael Rose and is a song for our times, bearing in mind what’s been happening in the Middle East. Another former Black Uhuru singer, Junior Reid, guests on Spirit Lives, which talks about historical figures like Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley, and the indefatigable spirit that humanity seems to summon from its collective heart, no matter the tragedy. Legendary soul producer Kenny Gamble of Philly fame wrote this song for Third World after being knocked out by their cut of Now That We’ve Found Love, which Gamble & Huff had originally produced with the O ‘Jays. Third World’s version was an international hit and its success led to Kenny Gamble visiting them in Jamaica and producing The Spirit Lives and other songs that later appeared on their Hold On To Love album.
“Kenny Gamble wasn’t so much trying to put us in another O’ Jays’ type bag. He came to Jamaica, spent time with us and saw how we lived, found out things about our background, our culture and everything and was totally impressed by it,” says Richie. “He was in awe of it and as a matter of fact when he came to Jamaica, two days after his arrival there was a hurricane, which he was seeing for the first time.”
Was that Hurricane Gilbert?
“Yes, and he was staying at a hotel in New Kingston which had no water and no lights but he was entranced by the experience. He saw the spirit of the people and that’s where that song comes from. He wrote about his hotel balcony after the rain had fell for so long a bird came and landed on the balcony rails… a white dove and he knew then that the storm was over. That’s when he wrote those lyrics, ‘down in Jamaica, one Friday afternoon, a little bird gave us the song and melody…’ It was a very spiritual experience for him but then we had to leave Jamaica to complete that album because was no power in many places and all the studios were basically closed. They had to get things back up and running which was taking some time, and Sony Records were getting anxious so they said we had to leave for Philadelphia, which we did.”
It’s therefore entirely fitting that Third World should now revive it with the people of Haiti in mind. Revolutionary People is again magnificent and finds Rugs and the band declaring how they’re “tired of all your slogans.” The semi-orchestral reggae grooves on this record have long been a hallmark of the Third World sound. It’s a part of their musical identity and stems from Cat’s prowess on the cello, which he studied from infancy. In fact he was so proficient, he played with Pablo Casals at the age of nine and was earmarked for Juilliard before heeding the call and joining a neighbourhood band called the Alley Cats, which is how he got his name. Cat’s father David Coore was Deputy Prime Minister in Michael Manley’s administration, yet his family supported his decision to play music. Their only consideration was that he didn’t waste his talent but unfortunately, Cat’s well-to-do background would attract criticism once the band had tasted success. People began to label them as “an uptown band,” not only on account of Cat’s lineage but also because drummer Willie Stewart – who’d been born in England – lived in Liguanea and went to Providence Preparatory School. Several of the members had attended Wolmer’s and Jamaica College, and Richard Daley’s father was a captain in the Jamaica Defence Force yet Rugs was born and raised in downtown Kingston, whilst Ibo was from Clarendon. Cat is one of Jamaica’s foremost musicians and yet all too often had to answer criticism for his upbringing – an experience that will later inspire him to write Uptown Rebel, on which he reminds us that “it’s easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than enter the kingdom of Heaven,” meaning his struggle is just as hard, spiritually speaking, as that of any sufferer. Third World’s readiness to absorb and integrate other styles into their music didn’t help either, and yet they’d all grown up during an era when people in Jamaica could switch on their radio and enjoy a wealth of different genres, from country, soul, folk, blues and rock, to calypso, Afro-Cuban, jazz and pop.
“We were all reared on such a diversity of music,” explains Richie, “because growing up in Jamaica we heard Bach and Beethoven… They played everything on the radio and so we were influenced by all of it. There were no categories back then but in order to hear r & b songs these days you’d have to listen to a specialist show or go to an r & b concert, right? I don’t know who developed this limited form of radio programming where everything is put in a particular box but it wasn’t a good idea. It means that reggae people are never going to hear what’s happening in rock or what have you, and as soon as anyone steps into that box, then the door is shut onto anything else from outside of it. I think that is a very sad loss because in our early days a song was a song and it really didn’t matter where it came from or in what style it was played.
“Reggae is therefore influenced by every other form of music,” he continues, “and that’s why we’ve always incorporated these other styles into it. “You can take a classical piece on a reggae beat and it’ll work just as well. You can take a country and western song and by swinging it around a little bit, it becomes totally a reggae song. You can do it with ballads or English pop songs… You can transform anything into reggae and it’s unique in that sense.”
Rugs remembers when Third World were invited to tour the US with Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown back in the early eighties, and some of the other musicians told them that roots, rock reggae was going to “kill them.”
“What they didn’t realise that we’d already done one year’s touring all over the United States beforehand and so they were shocked and surprised by the response we got,” he says, chortling at the memory. “I think it was around that time that things began to change for us, and word got around in Jamaica that Third World was a force to be reckoned with.”
They’d been touring with rock bands at first, since there were comparatively few other reggae bands out on the road at that time. Such experiences will stand them in good stead and win them friends from right across the musical spectrum, including Stevie Wonder. Unlike more narrow-minded reggae fans, Stevie embraced Third World with unbridled enthusiasm. Cat had supported him on a Jamaican tour whilst still a member of Inner Circle, and then Third World played on the same bill as him when Stevie returned for the Dream Concert in 1975 – an occasion that marked the final reunion of all three Wailers. Several years later, he was invited to headline at the 1981 Reggae Sunsplash, by which time Bob Marley had died and all of reggae music was in mourning. Stevie felt the loss as much as everyone. In fact he’d been scheduled to tour with Marley that year. On being told that Third World were on the same bill, he requested they join him on stage for two numbers including Master Blaster, which he’d written with Marley in mind.
“There was this sense of disbelief about Bob’s passing,” says Cat, who describes the impact Marley had on his own life as profound. “It was a very emotional occasion but Stevie was incredible. We learnt the tune that same afternoon!”
“We were going to play that night and his people said to us, ‘Listen. Can you work with Stevie Wonder tonight?’” adds Richie. “We said, ‘what? We must!’ There was no mp3 player or Walkman in those days so we had to go and find a record player and learn the songs within an hour or two of going on stage, so we did that and it was amazing. He told us he was going to be at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California the following week and would we like to perform with him there? That kind of started our association with him. Right after that we were poised to go on a world tour but Stevie wanted us to come and record with him at his home studio in Los Angeles and so we cancelled the tour straightaway.”
“Every time we were around him it was an incredible experience,” continues Cat. “Stevie is on a different level, and you really can’t describe what it was like working with him. He’d call me at three in the morning saying, ‘Cat, I’d like you to do an overdub.’ You have to be getting ready when that happens, because you can’t miss something like that! He had a truck parked outside which he’d turned into a recording studio and he had tremendous people working with him, so he could get any sound he wanted really. He did a lot of his own work in there. I remember hearing Duke when we were down there.”
Did he write Try Jah Love for you, or did you work on it together?
“He basically had the idea or at least the framework for the song when he brought it to us. Not all of the lyrics were there, but he sang us what he had. I think he had the first verse already completed, and then we added our thing to it. It was a great experience, I tell you…”
Stevie also wrote You’re Playing Us Too Close for them, as well as producing the band’s You Got The Power album. Third World were signed to CBS by now and had celebrated this alliance with the album Rock The World, containing songs like Spiritual Revolution. Whilst their music could be chart-friendly when it needed to be, the band’s Jamaican roots were of real importance – a fact that Stevie Wonder appreciated only too well.
“When our record company heard that we and Stevie had linked up in Jamaica they sent a producer to talk with him,” says Richie. “They wanted to see if he could take us into more of an r & b direction except Stevie had no intention of ignoring who we were. He refused them but if that had been someone else it might not have worked out too good, y’know? Because they’d sent us some other people before that and when we tried to work with them, it was so far removed from what we were about. They were trying to get us to do highly sexual orientated, bubblegum type material and we just couldn’t sing it because it left us feeling so empty.”
Working with Stevie couldn’t be more different. In fact all the band members couldn’t believe their luck at getting to work with such an musical icon.
“It was amazing watching him work,” says Rugs, “and it was a hell of an experience having him sit down with us and write a song. You would suggest a topic, like ‘let’s write a song about the children’ or whatever. We’d be trying to find the next line and he would shake his head back and forth, then whatever he came up with would be perfect! With Try Jah Love now, Ibo Cooper wanted to break up the vocals like we’d done on Now That We’ve Found Love where me, him and Cat sing a verse each. We started it that way but Stevie said, ‘No. Let Rugs alone sing it.’ That made me feel good, I tell you!”
Bunny had met Cat and Ibo whilst they were still with Inner Circle and even sang with them a few times. He’s a talented painter as well as singer, and had attended the Jamaica School Of Arts And Crafts for a time. When a girlfriend got a job with Atlantic Records he followed her to New York, where he sang Top 40 hits with Hugh Hendricks and the Buccaneers for a while – even sitting in with Third World on their first-ever dates in the Big Apple, at the Bottom Line. He then returned to Jamaica and recorded an album’s worth of songs with Lee “Scratch” Perry before replacing Prilly Hamilton and joining Cat and the other members for good. Many Jamaican musicians rate him alongside the likes of Beres Hammond and Ken Boothe and for good reason. Few singers of any genre are as soulful as the genial Third World front man, whose parallel solo career has taken in tracks for Xterminator and Mikey Bennett, as well a handful of albums – the best-known of which is Talking To You, produced by Jack Scorpio. His latest is Time, containing songs like Kurfew and the title track, which are as strong as anything he’s recorded with Third World.
Cat too, has recorded solo projects. His solo album Uptown Rebel appeared in 1997 and is famous for the track Symphony Rastafari, which is a nyahbinghi-meets classical cello version of the Wailers’ Rastaman Chant. The ultimate uptown Rasta tune, it’s one he’s often played live although the Patriots Theme on Third World’s new album runs it close, and is another showcase for his orchestral leanings. The fact that he and Ibo were classically trained made an appreciable difference to the band’s sound and direction right from the start. Indeed, there are parallels here with the Skatalites since the majority of their members were also classically trained, and it shows in the quality, depth and range of their music.
“If you’re only at one level of skill that’s not so good, whereas if you have more than one level, then it opens up a lot more avenues of creativity,” says Cat. “I think that’s what the classical training has brought to Third World’s music. It opened up our skill levels and so when ideas came to our heads we could just mould them in the way we did, but a lot of kids in Jamaica understand that because the island is filled with kids right now learning bass, guitars, drums, keyboards and what have you. The schools are ram packed but I personally still like to play the cello and mix it with the reggae because there’s no one else doing it and it’s something that people love. I like to experiment with it and put it with reggae music and I’ve even started to imagine what it would like to turn some dancehall songs into orchestral pieces…”
Cat and his son Shiah, who’s produced songs by Damian Marley (Real Friends), Wayne Marshall, Capleton, Tami Chyn, Elephant Man and Assassin among others, worked together on That’s All We Have, featuring Tarrus Riley.
“It’s Shiah’s rhythm track. I went up to visit him where he lives in Jamaica and he was saying that he had this progression and wanted the two of us to finish it. I just basically helped him along,” he explains, “and then when I heard it back I said, ‘Let me take the track and write something on it.’ Not really with Tarrus in mind, but leaning towards a proper style of rockers, y’know?
“What really happened, we had some guest artists on a previous album Black, Green And Gold and it had worked out really well. We set out thinking we’d celebrate our 35th anniversary on this one but the project took so long so rather than just celebrate our own anniversary, we thought we’d also celebrate some of the people who’ve meant something special to us along the way, and also the ones we see as being the future. From there we started to pinpoint those people we wanted to do certain things. We contacted Stephen and Damian Marley and asked them if they would redo 36 Degrees In The Shade, which they did and we loved how they took the song in their direction and gave it a new sound. We also approached Gregory, Marcia and Toots who all said, ‘No problem.’ The sound they have, it’s so much part of a nation. It’s a part of Jamaica’s history and will forever be but these artists gave their time and their whole vibes as a gift to us, which was really cool. We see them as Jamaicans who’ve carried this music all over the world, putting some serious effort into delivering what we see as a positive message, whether it’s through a love song or a revolutionary song. That’s what we’re celebrating on this Patriots album so big up artists like Tessane Chin, Tarrus Riley, Capleton and Dean Fraser because their performances are excellent…”
Marcia was originally scheduled to sing By My Side, but the song didn’t really suit her key-wise so they gave it to Tessane Chin instead. Marcia ended up singing Blood, Sweat & Tears’ You Make Me Feel So Very Happy, which reggae fans will always associate with Alton Ellis.
“Alton’s version is the one that’s dear to us and that’s the one that is in my heart,” says Cat with a smile. He first saw Tessane sing with her rock band in Kingston a few years back and holds her and sister Tami in high regard. Rugs points out that the Chins’ grandfather was Jamaican bandleader Kes Chin, of the Souvenirs fame. The girls’ legacy shines though everything they do and By My Side is no exception, whilst just hearing Gregory Isaacs croon the first lines of Front Door (“I don’t want to be lonely tonight…”) sends shivers running down the spine. The Cool Ruler was ill by the time he voiced it around Christmas 2010. In fact it may even be one of his last ever recordings but the man’s spirit was still intact, and his winning ways with a rub-a-dub selection was never in question. Capleton’s Good Hearted People is another feel-good track whilst Toots sings up a storm on the Rugs’ penned Island Girl.
When I mention that Toots would be considered one of the giants of soul music had he been born in the US, Cat replies that, “surprisingly enough, he’s born in the West Indies and yet he’s one of the giants of soul music, same way!
“When I first joined Inner Circle I was playing these shows that Derrick Harriot and Clancy Eccles used to put on over Christmas and Easter, all of that and we used to back a whole bag load of artists – Ken Boothe, the Mighty Diamonds and many more coming down the line,” he recalls. “In those days the Paragons were still around and the Jamaicans… Also the Chosen Few but Toots was around then too. This was when I was just thirteen. He was a big man to me back then and that was over thirty years ago yet he still looks like the same as he did when we played at the Carib Theatre back in 1969, can you believe that? He’s still the same person, and he’s a tremendous Jamaican musical icon. He’s one of those that is embedded in us. He’s not somebody we can ever leave at home. We have to take him out everywhere with us.”
Dean Fraser is another old friend of theirs and a man Rugs wishes could be cloned “because reggae music could use at least ten of him.” His sax playing on Always Around is sublime. You’ll find the original cut on Third World’s The Story’s Been Told album but this version is just so damn seductive. Apart from having backed all the greats (including Marley and Dennis Brown), Dean has also nurtured younger talents such as Tarrus Riley, Etana and Duane Stephenson, which is something that definitely endears him to his long-time friends in Third World.
“Yes because reggae keeps on evolving and we are the reggae minstrels, so we have to project that and keep it going,” states Cat. “At the same time we’re looking seriously at the new age now. Third World have always been into that; we’ve always been looking to do things that are new, whilst holding onto what is good from the past. You need that attitude, because you can’t just look at what you do and what you did and think that was somehow better. The kids out there, they’re hip man. They’re moving at a very quick rate and if you listen to where they’re going, it’s very interesting. It’s a Caribbean beat they’re playing, leaning towards soca a little and they’re doing some really cool chord changes and progressions with it.”
“Practically everyone I know in Jamaica, their sons or daughters are getting into music or learning to play an instrument,” adds Rugs, who names Cat’s younger son Stephen as an outstanding talent to watch out for. “The young people have really taken onto this thing man, I tell you. The music’s in great hands, and they don’t have to struggle anymore to find out what’s what either. They were born in the computer age and so they know exactly what to do. They’re busy setting up their own production companies, they have their own labels and can access everything they need so easily…”
Richie reminds us that King Jammy’s son Trevor “Baby G” James co-wrote Freedom Is A Must and produced the vocal section of that song. We should take note that former Third World keyboard player Ibo Cooper, who left the band in 1997, now teaches at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, where an army of young talent awaits its chance. Cat tells of “forty drummers, forty bass players and dozens of guitar and keyboard players” passing through their ranks whilst Ibo himself, when asked how he was occupying his time answered by saying, ‘I am doing something that my generation does not do enough. I am listening to the youth. They have something to say, and we need to hear it…”
NB: A German language edition of this article originally appeared in Riddim Magazine, April 2011.