Within all the music Canada generously gifted to the world, the genre of rhythm-and-blues – in its classic form – and its derivatives soul and funk are the least represented. But there was a great band in the ’70s, called CRACK OF DAWN, who, the first black collective to sign with a major label in their country, delivered one brilliant album before, well, cracking up; or, it would be more correct to say, there is a great band, because last year this group have not only made a proper comeback, but also followed-up on their debut record, with a new one. The release of "Spotlight" – a great display of the veterans’ unbridled energy – became a good reason to meet one of the originals, COD’s sax player Alvin Jones, and talk about music and life beyond and behind the tunes.
– Alvin, this band started in Canada in the mid-’70s. What was the racial atmosphere here then?
It was pretty bad – it wasn’t much different than it was in the U.S. The same sort of racial discrimination existed here as well but it wasn’t as open however, we had no problems finding places to play, because people wanted to hear black music, so the club owners had to give the people what they wanted. We did the whole circuit: we did all the little towns like St. Catharines, Hamilton, Kitchener – places around Toronto – and even further North as far as Thunder Bay, sixteen hours from here. Not a problem, because we were young, and as kids we didn’t pay much attention to the discrimination, although that backdrop has always been there – it was more like an adult thing. I went to school in Toronto, and I was the only black kid there, but there was only one incident when one kid called me a nigger, and I beat the crap out of him. (Laughs.) Most of my friends were white, and we had our own little gang, so nobody ever messed with me. No one ever bothered me.
– Was the band perceived as something exotic – or there were other black groups?
There was only a handful of black groups in Toronto, so they needed to fill that market, and we never had a problem getting any engagements; we worked with a booking agency, so we never had to look for gigs. The agent told us where the next concert was and where we were playing the following week. Of course, we played the entire week, from Monday to Sunday, and sometimes there were two gigs on Saturday – we’d do a matinee in the afternoon. That was the sort of environment that we came from when we first started. As for the money, at that age – and some of us were teenagers – we didn’t really care. I wasn’t supporting a family, so any money that we earned, we were happy with..
– You were integrated group, weren’t you? There was a white guy in the band.
Yes, Jacek Sobotta from Poland, a great keyboard player who used to play classical music and jazz. We invited him to join our group when we were signed to Columbia Records, even though we didn’t have a keyboard player at that time. All we had were two guitarists, a lead guitar player and a rhythm guitar player, a bass player, a drummer, a horn section and a singer.
– Speaking about a brass section… At least half of the band came from Jamaica, but when I listened to your debut album I don’t hear THE SKATALITES influence – you sounded like a mixture of OHIO PLAYERS and THE MEMPHIS HORNS.
We were more into R&B and funk music even though we were from Jamaica. I left there when I was six years old, but our trombone player, Trevor Daley, came at a much older age. We didn’t really play a lot of reggae as most people would expect from a bunch of guys from the Islands, because what they wanted was American music; and what we enjoyed playing was also American music, so we did American music, and sometimes we added a little Caribbean flavor to it, like on a song from that album called “Boobie Ruby” which is more like a mixture of reggae and soul.
– You were discovered by a producer who worked with Otis Redding, right?
That’s correct. It was Bob Gallo. He was really big in the U.S., especially in New York City, and he had produced multiple hit records for Atlantic Records, like Otis Redding and James Brown – a lot of major R&B acts – and they brought him here because Columbia Records wanted someone Bob to take over that department in Canada, so that they could start providing more Canadian content.
Columbia was a huge worldwide record company at the time, and they had a subsidiary operation here, but mainly they were just distributing the music that was coming from the U.S., so that’s when the Canadian Government came up with CRTC [Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. – DME], an institution whose basic program is to make sure that there is more Canadian culture in the arts – in music, and so on and so forth – so our culture is not completely dominated by the American one.
We’re talking about the time when magic number was, like, 35 per cent; so 35 per cent of the stuff that came out on Columbia Records in Canada had to be Canadian content, and the radio stations and the TV stations had to make sure that 35 per cent of the stuff they played on the air was Canadian – made in Canada by Canadian artists. That’s why Bob Gallo arrived here.
– So you were in a unique position as a Canadian band playing American music!
(Laughs.) That’s right. That’s right: very unique. But we enjoyed that. If we didn’t enjoy that music, we wouldn’t be playing it, you know. We were playing the music that we loved and listened to. To be honest, I wasn’t really big on the reggae music as a fan; I liked the funk music, that type of stuff. Reggae’s gotten more established in Canada as time went on, in the ’80s, but in the ’70s there wasn’t a huge population, there wasn’t many West Indian people here – it’s grown over the years.
– Still, when the band broke up, most of you progressed to rootsier groups.
What happened was, when we broke up we had a guitar player, Rupert [Harvey], who started a reggae group in the ’80s, called MESSENJAH, and they got a recording contract with Warner Bros, and Trevor became their manager. Rupert’s brother Carl, our lead guitar player, also joined them, and our current bass player [Charles Sinclair] was in MESSENJAH, too, and they were basically playing nothing but reggae music, so today we have three guys from that band in CRACK OF DAWN. Now that reggae is a more established format, we certainly like that; however, my preference right now is the same music as we played before: R&B, soul and funk. That’s what CRACK OF DAWN is all about.
– You re-recorded a few tracks from your first album for the new one. I don’t find original versions outdated, so why did you decide to return to those songs?
The first album that we made was heavily influenced by the record company. We had our own material, but there were only a few numbers on that record that were written by our singer at the time, Glen Ricketts, and Rupert Harvey, but the rest came through a record company who wanted a certain sound, and we basically provided concurred but, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to do. “Spotlight”, we produced ourselves, and that’s everything that we wanted: this is the sound that we wanted and we did everything our way, we paid for everything ourselves, we have our own record company, we have our own publishing company, etcetera, etcetera. Record labels worked with publishing companies, and Warner Chappell, who were huge in the publishing world, would send us music, and we had to do it. So in terms of why we needed to re-record those songs, it’s because our old fans might want to hear how we put our own little twist on that material and brought it up to date.
– Well, they fit your new context quite nicely, and everything sounds fresh. It’s a very youthful album. Was it easy, then, to do a record this time?
Yes. Because everybody in our group is a writer: I’m a writer, Rupert’s a writer, Carl is a writer, our keyboard player Bela Hajmann… who’s from Hungary – you see, we always have a European guy in the band! (Laughs.) He’s a great songwriter, and our singer Michael Dunston is a great lyricist. So there’s so much material that we have, everybody contributed whatever material they had for this album, we listened to it and chose the songs that we wanted to do, and then everyone put in their two cents in each particular song that we did. Everyone contributed to the arrangements; the singer might have adjusted some of the lyrics a bit and added some here and there so that it would fit better. It wasn’t just one person’s idea, it was a collaboration between all the members of the group; I think that’s probably why we came out with a good product.
– If a 20-year-old you listened to this new album, what would you make of it?
(Laughs.) Hopefully, I would like it. But today’s 20-year-olds are into Drake and Lil Wayne, and if I was into that stuff at the time – which I might be because of that age group and peer pressure – there would have been some hip-hop and rapping on our album. It’s so hard to say, that’s extremely hypothetical question. We were and continue to be serious musicians with classical training in come cases, so this could be problematic in terms of the musical component, of hippl-hop and rap.
– I couldn’t find the group’s second album, “Horizons”: what did it sound like?
When we broke up, our trumpet player Dwight Gabriel – we grew up together in downtown Toronto, in the Annex, the area around Spadina and Bloor – continued under the name CRACK OF DAWN in the ’80s and did this album with some other people that I actually used to play with, too, before I joined CRACK OF DAWN, in a group called KONFUSION. It’s a good sounding album, a mellower, smoother, straight R&B.
– Why did you break up in the first place?
What was rumored is that we were beginning to sound like EARTH, WIND & FIRE. Columbia thought they would fulfil the requirements for the Canadian content that we spoke about before, and they probably never expected us to start rising up and becoming so popular. So we were doing a concert, I believe it was in Montreal, in a place called “Place des Arts” that holds five or six thousand people. We were performing with Teena Marie, a big star on Columbia, and we played so well that the next day the local newspapers called us the only highlight of the show. They downplayed Teena. But some of the guys from Columbia Records from the U.S. had come to see the show that night, and Trevor overheard them talking: they thought that we sounded a lot like EARTH, WIND & FIRE, that we were outselling that group and that they had to do something about it. They thought that they should get rid of the horns and just have the rhythm section. Lo and behold, that was the next thing that our producer Bob Gallo suggested we do, and our singer was up for that, but the rhythm section wanted us to stay together. Unfortunately, we decided to break up. We could have gone to another label, and we would have no problem – any label would have scooped us up at that time – but we didn’t have a strong manager and we were too young to make the right decisions.
– What about camaraderie and united front? There was none of it?
Yeah, what about it? (Laughs.) The singer we had then was very selfish – he was only thinking about himself and wasn’t concerned about the rest of the band – and he thought that he still had a future, but it never worked out for him. The label called Filthy Rich Records invested a lot of money and effort into this guy, and he had multiple chances of becoming a star, but he never went anywhere.
– In “Ol’ Skool” on “Spotlight” you name check a few artists, including EARTH, WIND & FIRE. You considered those artists to be your rivals or your heroes?
They were our heroes. And I don’t think we were in competition with anybody – we make our own music and we play it ourselves; we could only be in competition if we were all playing the same music and trying to be better than the next guy. But we’re not trying to do that – more so, we welcome everybody, we like all musicians. That’s how we are.
– This is not your first reunion – you got together in 2012, too. What’s so different about your current comeback that you’ve finally come up with a new record?
Well, I think we found ourselves a great vocalist, we have a great bass player in Charles Sinclair – we have a keyboard player who’s also a great composer, and a great percussionist, Mark Daniels, who added a new dimension to the music. These were the elements that we were missing and we’ve got them now, so our next album will probably be better than this. We have tons of material, enough to make twenty albums that we haven’t done over the years. (Laughs.) We’ve done so many other things in between the group breaking up and coming together now and then. 2012 wasn’t our first reunion; we had a reunion in 1985 – we played in a club in downtown Toronto, and we were supposed to be there for one week but they asked us to stay for two weeks. We could have stayed together then, but MESSENJAH started becoming very popular, international stars, so we put CRACK OF DAWN on the backburner over that period, and it wasn’t until recently that we got together again. We were all still involved in the industry somewhere and somehow, doing something.
– From what I read, everyone sees you as a legacy act rather than living and breathing organism that’s still pushing forward. What’s your take on this?
Everybody still thinks about the old CRACK OF DAWN, but we’re not that old CRACK OF DAWN anymore! It’s a totally different group with a fresh sound and fresh, completely new ideas. Everything is fresh right now! It’s just people have this opinion that’s based on what they knew about the group back in the ’70s, but we started from scratch.
– And you play sporadically at the moment. Any plans for a proper tour?
We’re getting into that but we have to re-establish our name first, to establish the CRACK OF DAWN brand again, the fact that we are back. It’s like we’re starting from zero – that’s how we look at it.
– Let’s look at the album’s cover. If I didn’t know it’s by an R&B band, I’d think it’s some new age record.
You see it’s the sea there and a lighthouse. The whole concept behind this is, we want to bring people back to real music. People, as far as we’re concerned right now, musically, they’re lost in a sea of bullshit (laughs) – there’s this crappy music, and everything is computerized, autotune and all that stuff – and we want to make real music with real musicians playing real instruments. And we played it straight, all on the floor in the recording studio, with not a lot of overdubs; only the singer went and did the background vocals. That was always our driving force when we set about recording this album: to make people feel good.