You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...
Surely one of the greatest dub reggae love songs, or love songs of any genre; each time I hear the way Carlton Manning sings his vocal part, enclosed by the supporting harmonies that creates a kind of claustrophobic intensity, it kills me, just a little bit.
Lyrically, musically in terms of its overall tone, its production vision, few songs come close. Certainly there are other reggae vocalists who have comparable talent as singers, but this song - largely thanks to the Coxsone Dodd production sound (listen to the unexpected hidden-away drums that only appear sometimes, after introducing the song so confidently) has an otherworldly mood all of its own.
There are so many elements to highlight: to take one the pause after “my” for no apparent reason other than to draw attention to the “cup of tea” in the sweet couplet: You are just my … cup of tea/You are everything to me ...
Released by Studio 1 as the AA-side (not B-side) of his hit, “Love Me Forever,” one of reggae’s foundational songs -
(the info linked to the Soul Jazz reissue from 2017 supplies a different release date) produced by Coxsone Dodd (Carlton Manning says that Dodd underpaid artists - he was also given £ 5 by Lee “Scratch” Perry in another context - see the interview below, causing him to move on).
On YouTube there are two versions of the song with this title that sound dramatically different; here is the second. I’m not sure if the difference in sound relates to different versions/recording sessions, or the way they’ve been uploaded online. The track’s muffled quality disappears in the second, which is a shame as this submerged quality is what distinguishes it and makes it so affecting.
Countless capital-R romantic Lovers rock songs, deep on melody were recorded in Jamaica in the 1960s on, but usually the tone of the songs is clear with the vocals the dominant element, just like a pop song. The tone shifting between upbeat, mournful or threatening (warning the departed lover how much she’ll miss him now she has left him) - think about the catalogue of Ken Boothe or Honey Boy.
In contrast, this song has such a dense sound with that over-exaggerated bassline taking prominence over the guitars, drums and pulsing with such an intensity. Basslines in dub are often key – exposed and allowed to be the sole element – but the way this song is recorded/mixed makes it sound as if the bass is distorted, it’s so prominent, relentless and constant. The contrast between it and the sweet vocals is really something.
Similarly, the track’s intensity comes from not only the bringing the vocals right at the top and the way they are recorded: Carlton Manning sings the beginning of each line alone, to be joined for the latter part by the other vocalists. This is strikingly different from many/most reggae songs, which depend on a call & response dynamic between the vocalists, where the singer is “met” by another voice, and often one of a contrasting character for contrast, effect and frequently humour. (This use of contrast between voices and parts continues on in hip-hop, of course).
To stay with the way the vocals come in so early, just before 15 seconds: this is the signature of other famous dub/reggae songs say The Congos’ “Fisherman” from Heart of the Congos, released in 1977 on Blood & Fire Records:
But here the singer/backing vocalists interaction is maintained, so it’s not exactly the same as “Never let go” and is generally more conventional despite the beginning (and extraordinary sound). Listening to the Carlton & The Shoes song it’s almost as if Dodd is not only recording it, but imagining this song with vocals as if it were an instrumental, with no space between the two principal elements as is normally the case, i.e. no separation between the vocals and the music. This strikes me as innovative, forward-thinking.
Other groups - recordings from the same year, see this cover by The Gaylads/Soul Vendors of “Sound of Silence” also on Studio 1 and produced by Dodd- follows a more familiar pop song structure, allowing the song to build first:
The performance here is wonderful and has that submerged-production, which might be the defining quality of Coxsone’s work at this time, but sounds old-fashioned compared to the Carlton & The Shoes song. To get a sense of how Coxsone Dodd’s production style is so distinctive, check out this much cleaner cover by Roland Alphonso.
I like the muted vocals in this version of the song, the way Carlton Manning sounds distracted and preocuppied and the dub.
The extended version above is credited as having the Family as producer, the overall feel is less intense, more sweetly melodic than the one by Coxsone Dodd with the emphasis on on the horns solo - it more predictable and pretty, but still nice, the very simple dub especially.
In a 2016 interview with Angus Taylor for unitedreggae.com Manning shared stories about Dennis Brown, their trip to London that Brown organised where Manning had to keep returning to the airport to get visa extensions so he could remain in the U.K. and how his group got its name.
How did your original name Carlton and the Shades become Carlton and the Shoes?
Let me see. I have a problem with shoes. I have a disease when it comes to shoes. The most expensive things, raiments I wear, are my shoes. I will pay any amount of money for a good pair of shoes if I like it. I’m going to tell you something – Clarks Shoes are the most comfortable shoes you will ever find. You look at the bottom of that there and you see “Wallabee Clarks” right there. I love Clarks. I like to be comfortable. When I was in the studios working, every time the song is finished and everybody has gone to the console room, I get my guitar case and get my duster and I am dusting off my shoes. I like to see them nice and shiny.
That’s what Coxsone noticed. I told him Carlton and the Shades. Well, at that time there was a singing group named the Shades. To be truthful I wasn’t penetrating that. But because of that fussiness about the shoes Coxsone put “Carlton and his Shoes!” I was mad about it for a while but it caused one thing where everybody wanted to know who was Carlton and the Shoes. I just resigned to it. Everybody was calling me Mr Shoes, Daddy Shoe, Uncle Shoe, Fada Shoe. That’s what they called me since then. I kind of got used to it.
Anywhere you go on Mountain View Avenue ask “Where Shoe live?” Just say “Shoe” and they’ll tell you “Jus down the round there”. If you say “Shoe” you’re going to find me. A lot of people might not know who you’re talking about if you ask for Carlton Manning but if you say “Carlton Shoe”? Everybody knows where Shoe is!