Reggae producer and singer Winston ‘Niney the Observer‘ Holness said that it was the intimidation from friends-turned-foes Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Bob Marley and Striker’s ‘diss’ track Mr. Chatterbox, which created the anger that imbued his hit record Blood and Fire. The song, he told DancehallMag in an interview over the weekend, led to a fight with Marley at the singer’s record shop in the early 1970s.
Niney, who got his nickname after losing a thumb in a workshop accident, said the discord began when he sought independence from working with the team of Bunny Lee, Scratch Perry, and Clancy Eccles, for whom he sold records in the streets.
“We were a team but me decide to draw away from the team and mi go to Coxsone,” the 73-year-old recalled. “Coxsone decide to back me. Hear wah yu do, him say. Mi ah go give yu Charles Street and yu a can use my studio to produce and we split the money 50-50.”
This move didn’t sit well with his former ‘team.’ “Scratch Perry get a way, and him and Bunny Lee come down a Charles Street and kick in the door and mash up mi desk and ting,” Niney said. A team meeting was called, and he was able to hash it out with Bunny Lee, but the tension remained with Scratch Perry. “Scratch was a man who was completely against me, who would compete. Bunny Lee buy me a bike, and Scratch take away the bike and lock it up inna him shop,” he said.
As Niney ventured into producing on his own, more tensions developed over shady business practices. “I make rhythms for Bunny. I made Bunny Lee a rhythm called ‘Slip Away’ but one day Scratch take a cut offa the version weh me make, call it ‘Prisoner Of Love’ and send it go hit #1 in England. He never put my name or Bunny Lee’s name on it. We had a big fight about it. Bunny had the session and him say, no, Niney is the co-producer. Scratch was f–k up, Scratch never share nothing on the song,” he said. The song Prisoner of Love, first released in 1969, was performed by Dave Barker and Lee “Scratch” Perry & The Upsetters.
“After a while, we never did a live how we used to live. Then me go tek side with Joe Gibbs, ah the competition dem never like. And when me decide to go away on my own, it bring a musical war,” he said.
Then known as the ‘wickedest record salesman,’ Niney developed into a competent producer in his own right because of his avante-garde ideas and great chemistry and energy with musicians and singers.
“So mi decide say mi ah go start make riddim and sell dem, so mi link up with Ansel Collins, Chinna, Fully, Santa and Tony Chin dem, but Perry never waan mi buss out. Mi did a par wid Joe Gibbs, who was called Pressure Beats at the time, and work with him and one day, we buck up rounda Sunrise Crescent because Scratch did have a girl round de,” Niney explained.
Bunny Lee Headbutts Niney
He recounted an incident where his resolve was tested by Bunny Lee in a surprising physical confrontation. “Me and Gibbs use the shortcut to drive through Waterhouse and drop on the Boulevard and then Joe Gibbs stop. Bunny Lee and Scratch see we and start pick after me and dem mek after Joe and say dem ah go beat Joe. Mi say ‘yu caan do Joe nothing, anno him mek me a do tune’ and Bunny Lee say ‘wah yu a do?’. And he had a style where him can buck yu like a bull and him tek off him hat and buck me. Mi never expect that,” Niney recounted.
Niney said he told Joe Gibbs to “easy,” and he tried to play peacemaker, saying, “mi nah mek no argument, yu know how dem stay.”
After hearing that Bunny Lee had teamed up with Bob Marley to do Mr. Chatterbox, the producer said he decided to fight back. “When mi hear it, mi say right now, if a music, me have ideas, dem big but mi nah back from dem,” he said.
At the time, Mr. Chatterbox, a song Bob Marley recorded in 1970, with an intro by Bunny Lee, rankled the feathers of Niney the Observer. The full-length edit of the song (with the intro) was officially released to streaming on February 6, 2024, Marley’s 79th birthday.
In addition to the ongoing strife, Niney said the song stroked his anger and inspired him to respond with Blood and Fire, a track that would become a Reggae anthem, and even inspire the name of a prominent UK reggae reissue label.
“Bunny Lee make a riddim and use the Coxsone song, Mr. Talkative and splice in the voice, ah call me Mr. Chatterbox and ah so mi get ignorant, and come wid Blood and Fire,” he said.
“If yu listen to the Blood and Fire song, yu can hear say mi come wid vengeance. Mi lick offa all three of dem at the same time: Scratch, Bunny and Bob. The man dem mek tune offa me and when dem a sing, dem a point after me as a gimmick so mi get ignorant.”
Niney said he had initially planned to collaborate with Max Romeo on Blood and Fire, but the Chase The Devil singer left him hanging. “Me and Max Romeo rounda Patrick City and mi hear say Scratch a talk more f—ery, so mi tell dem say mi ah go do a tune name Blood and Fire and mi ask Max fi come sing some harmony the Wednesday, but the next day, him never turn up, don’t know if is the name of it frighten him, but him never turn up,” he said.
He said he proceeded to Randy’s, enlisting ‘Chinna’ and others like “Charmers, Dengy Leg’s son, Dobby Dobson, and Dusty Brown” to add harmony to the track. “One lick and voice and mi put on the harmony…’let it burn, let it burn, let it burn burn burn…blood blood blood, blood and fire’…” Niney said, chuckling.
His gamble on the song, funding it with his last six pounds from his bank account, paid off when the track garnered widespread acclaim even before its official release. “They [Randy’s] had held onto the tape because I didn’t pay but I coulda switch the tape, and given dem an old one, but mi did waan do the right ting, so mi pay dem the money the Thursday,” he said.
The producer said he cut a dub for the song, and the following day, he saw a big crowd listening to the recording at Bunny Lee’s place on Orange Street. At the time, the song hadn’t even officially been released yet as he had yet to collect his stamper from Randys.
He eventually pressed 200 copies of Blood and Fire at ‘Mr. Wray at the corner of Beeston and Chancery Street’.
Later that day, Niney said that he heard Bob Marley had taken away the dub because “he wanted to hear it for himself to see if he had done a version of one of his (Bob’s) songs.”
Niney said he clearly remembered that the song was released around Christmas when the streets of Kingston were lively and festive. He began to canvass several record stores to release the song. However, he found several of them had already gotten calls to block the song. According to Niney, attempts to sell the record at Aquarius, Ms Pat (later VP Records), and KG Records fell flat until “George, Clancy Eccles’ brother, took the 200”.
“Scratch did tell Bob say mi version him tune, but nothing never go so…and by this time, dem start sabotage the song, mi check Ms. Pat and she say no and send me rounda KG, but Scratch call and frighten KG say bad word inna the song, so they never took it,” he said.
Then, over that weekend, the song became a sensation, and as those who heard about the dub began to demand the song.
“The Bobo dem from St. Thomas, the one dem who sell the broom come up ah Ms. Pat for it and she say she don’t have it, go KG and then KG never have it. Dem ask Ms. Pat: ‘how yu say yu a leading distributor and yu don ‘t have this song?’. The rastaman say if dem come back and dont get that song, dem a bun down all record shop because Christmas did a come and dem say if dem no get it,” Niney recalled.
By Monday morning, Niney said KG sent a driver to pick up copies of the song from him while he sat down in St. William Grant Park in downtown Kingston. “The driver say ‘KG say if yu have one, tek it, and yu have a million, throw it inna the van’,” Niney said, laughing.
He carried the stamper to KG, who pressed 5,000 copies the next week.
“At one time, KG have two stamper ah press. He get it press ah two places, one of them was Byron Lee, and him tell dem him want a re-run and him want it by a certain time, he spoke with authority, he was the biggest record distributor at the time, all country people come ah him,” he said.
According to Niney, the song’s release dredged up further intrigue, as rival Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry tried to build up animosity through false information. “What really happened is they (Bob Marley & The Wailers) sang a song called Love Light and it was a kind of soul song, a foreign kinda soft song, Scratch tell Bob say when I did “Blood and Fire”, I used their melody, but mi just use the church choir, the songs were nothing alike,” he said.
Meanwhile, Blood and Fire, with its biblical overtones, continued to become a sensation. After tensions cooled, Niney popped up a few weeks later at Bob Marley’s record shop at Beeston and Chancery Lane.
“Me and Bob had a dispute, and when KG put it out, mi name ah call hard, Blood and Fire buss inna the streets now and Perry friend me back and me go rounda Bob fi check dem. Memba say, Peter (Tosh) ah mi friend, and mi always go check Bunny Wailer. By this time, mi calm down, mi cool, KG tek over the business and mi know mi ah go mek the money, mi know money ah go run. So when mi go round de, mi nah no war vibe, mi happy,” Niney told DancehallMag.
“Me and Bob Ah Roll Pon The Ground”
Niney said that Bob approached him in a playfully aggressive manner.
“Bob come wid him frig up way and him ah make joke, and draw him fist and touch me — ah so me and him did rest and run joke more time – but this time, it did kick off a bad way. Argument a gwaan and mi grab up the dub and the needle bawl out and scratch on the record, and it just loud inna the big speakers. Bob say, ‘yu a gwaan like yu a bad man’, and him point inna mi face and mi box weh him hand and ah so the fight start,” he explained.
Both men were rolling on the ground and “wrestling,” according to Niney.
“As we a rassle, mi hear Bunny Wailer say: leave dem, mek de man dem fight and Tosh say ‘bloodclaat…rassclaat , mek dem fight’. Me and Bob ah roll pon the ground and mi feel like mi get cut, mi hot and mi blood a boil, and one ah dem use a bruk bottle, and cut me. Mi still have the scars and mi blood de bleed so mi go rounda KPH,” he said.
He left his dub at Clancy Records and went to Kingston Public Hospital.
“Mi hear say ah Jango cut me wid the bottle over mi left shoulder blade. Jango a one big foot bwoy, him foot ah like bout 20 odd, him tall, around seven foot something, no shoes caan fit him so him haffi mek him own boot, get leather and tie it up. A man named ‘Bella Mood’ hear wah happen to me, man tell him the story, and same time, as mi gone a doctor, mi hear say Bella Mood use a bill and chap Jango over him eye,” he said.
Niney, who was surprised that the lyrical fandango ended in fisticuffs, said he was expecting Marley and Bunny Lee to produce and sing another song and begin a musical feud like Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan.
“I thought they would sing another sing, cause mi did have another song called Satan to give it to them. Mi did vex because Scratch and Bunny Lee take it personal,” he said.
Niney, who received Jamaica’s Order of Distinction in 2015, is known for helping to launch Dennis Brown’s career, even penning the hit song, Love and Hate.
He’s produced music for the who’s who in the industry, including Jacob Miller, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson, The Heptones, Johnny Clarke, Slim Smith, Jacob Miller, Freddie McGregor, Junior Byles, Gregory Isaacs, Horace Andy and I-Roy.
In March 2013, he opened his own Observer Soundbox studio on Lyndhurst Road in Kingston.