Keith and Tex: A revealing conversation with the Rocksteady Rulers

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Despite a near thirty-year separation, perhaps no singing duo in music history has enjoyed a comparably resilient, prolific, and successful partnership, as Jamaican rocksteady icons Keith Rowe and Phillip “Tex” Dixon. As the inimitable radio personality Junor Francis forcefully exclaimed when introducing them at Los Angeles’ Dub Club on December 13: When they started singing together — as scrawny, starry-eyed teenagers in Jamaica — Keith and Tex were “met with massive rejection!”

But fifty years ago, just as now, Keith and Tex refused to give up on pursuing their dreams. And so stubbornly, they practiced. And they practiced. Like anyone courageous enough to invest themselves fully in an artistic endeavor — and who ultimately is successful — Keith and Tex refused to give up despite their naysayers. They continued honing their skills until they had enough gumption to risk humiliation again. But this time, instead, they got their big break from popular 1950s singer turned producer (and record shop owner) Derrick Harriott — recording in short order the classic “Tonight,” and the now world-famous rocksteady anthem, “Stop That Train” — going on to become one of the most readily identifiable names of the rocksteady era.

The great news is Keith and Tex are still performing. They’re still producing new, rich, soulful harmonies, modern love songs, and tunes that unabashedly confront the serious social issues of the day; not only are Keith and Tex still very much “back together again,” they are turning out quality, exciting new music at a jaw-dropping pace.

Once the thunderous applause, hooting, and sporadic departing cries of “I love you Keith and Tex” from departing Dub Club patrons began to die down — and as the positive vibrations from their unique, live performance slowly dissipated into the night – I had the honor of interviewing Keith and Tex about their historic careers in music. What follows is a transcription of the interview modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: That was a thrilling performance, congratulations!

Keith Rowe: Thanks

Q: I understand just a couple of days ago you guys were touring in Japan. How did that go?

Keith Rowe: It was fabulous. This was our second time going there. And we played two cities, Osaka and Tokyo. Just fabulous. People were totally involved. Packed houses. And singing our songs from the first note.

Q: I knew that there’s a fairly substantial market for reggae music in Japan. But I didn’t know it extended as far as rocksteady.

Keith Rowe: Oh yeah! And that’s been surprising while we’ve been on tour: how many people are actually listening to rocksteady music.

Q: Your new album “Same Old Story” has been out since the end of March – so about nine months now. How is the album doing, and are you pleased with the reception its received?

Tex Dixon: Considering that it’s a rocksteady album, I think it’s doing pretty good. We’re in touch with the guy who’s producing it. And they had to go back to the press to press some more [copies of the album] because sales are good.

Q: I’m glad you mentioned the production. Because the album sounds sonically superb. And I know you recorded it with veteran producer Roberto Sanchez in his studio in Cuerto, Spain. And I understand all the musicians on the new album are all also from Spain – isn’t Mr. Sanchez’s studio band called “The Lone Ark Riddim Force?”

Keith Rowe: That’s correct.

Q: I understand that even in Jamaica you heard rocksteady songs Mr. Sanchez had produced, and that you knew you wanted to work with him. Can you speak a little bit about what it is about Mr. Sanchez’s “A-Lone” productions company – or about Mr. Sanchez specifically, his studio band, or his equipment – that makes him able to produce such an authentic, vintage, rocksteady sound?

Keith Rowe: Well, first thing is, I met Roberto about ten years ago. He sent me a message – an email – wanting me to do a song for him. Two songs, actually. So we did that work, and you know, that was it. Ten years passed. And we were getting ready to complete another album – not this one that’s out now, but another one – that we wanted to produce ourselves. And I sent him an email asking him to send us a couple of tracks to put on that album too. Because I know he’s into rocksteady. And what he did is, he came back and he said, “why don’t we do an album together?” And so we talked it over and decided to go with it. But the thing about Roberto is his musicianship. [And] the equipment he uses is vintage old school equipment. So you get that 60s sound. He is able to capture a sound that is hard to produce with today’s instruments and today’s players.

Tex Dixon: He’s got an ear for that era. So he just knows how to tweak the sounds.

Q: Singer Bunny Brown’s beautiful voice can be heard harmonizing on your new album, particularly on the track “Refugees.” Have you guys always known Bunny Brown? Or how is it you decided to work with him?

Tex Dixon: We’ve known him since we were kids. We were all singing for producer Derrick Harriott at one point.

Keith Rowe: And we’ve sang harmony on [Bunny’s] songs [before] too. He’s our friend for life. So whenever we’re doing music and he’s available, he’s with us.

Q: Are both of you guys retired, or semi-retired, from the non-performing jobs that you had? Keith, are you still doing your radio show “Reggae Rhapsody” in Florida?

Keith Rowe: [Nodding] In Tampa, yeah.

Q: And are you fully retired now, Tex?

Tex Dixon: I’m more retired now than before [laughing].

Q: The reason why I’m asking is because you guys have been extremely prolific [in recent years]. Since 2013, you have released three albums. So, you are on pace to put out a new album just about every year and half!

Keith Rowe: And we have one coming out in March.

Q: You have yet another new album coming!? So . . . I bring this up, not only because it’s so impressive, but because in an interview that you did Keith with Peter I from [the online magazine] Reggae Vibes back in 2004, you said, “I didn’t fulfill what I probably thought was my destiny in music.” And so, I wondered, Tex, if you felt the same way at all? And also, if that’s what you guys have been doing these last few years – making all this new music together and touring the world – are you making up for lost time, lost opportunities from your past musically? You know, instead of just leading a sedentary retirement and just chilling, you guys are out here working as hard as you can, still trying to capture a dream?

Tex Dixon: It’s a little bit of everything. We have unfinished business. Because if you know our story, we had roughly parted ways for thirty years.

Q: Yes. I am going to be asking you a few questions about that.

Tex Dixon: And so, there’s a lot of time lapsed in between. And so we think we still have enough in us to continue on our journey, and try to fulfill some of that potential that we feel. So, we’re just taking it day by day. We are working on trying to make something new – trying to go on tour as if we are picking up where we left off.

Q: Nice. Nice.

Keith Rowe: The thing is too that there is so much more music left in us. There’s life experiences to write about. We have a lot more lyrics to write. Experiences allow you to draw from different things to put into a song. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve sung about refugees, we’ve sung about who is to be blamed for society and the way it is, you know? So these are the things that our life experiences have allowed us to write about.

Q: Now you guys have been asked in many interviews about how you got to know each other, from playing soccer together as boys –

Keith Rowe: [Laughing and pointing at Tex] He’s going to tell you that he taught me [how to play].

Tex: [Laughing.]

Q: And I know how when you began singing together that you were initially a five-man harmony group in the 1960s in Jamaica. But that you couldn’t get any of the big producers of that era to sign you, and eventually, through attrition, the group was whittled down to just the two of you. And after more practicing together, and finally, a long trip from Pembroke Hall to Kingston, you ended up in [singer and producer] Derrick Harriott’s record shop. And then, I understand you played the tape you had brought with you for Harriott’s assistant – a woman named “Cherry” – who wouldn’t let you leave until Harriott returned. And —

Tex Dixon: Hey, that’s right, Cherry. [Looking at Keith] He really knows the story! [Laughing]

Q: — you finally got your break. Harriott signed you guys, and almost immediately — just the next week – you guys cut the rocksteady standard “Tonight” and also the famous song [that almost every reggae/rocksteady fan knows and has heard before] “Stop That Train.” And then, your history includes three or four years of recording with Derrick Harriott during your late teenage years. But then, suddenly, in 1970, the music stops. And you guys part ways. I know that Keith, you left Jamaica to emigrate to the United States to join your parents who were already in New York. And then, I believe, just a year or so later, Tex, you emigrated from Jamaica to Toronto, Canada, where you’ve lived ever since. And so there’s this twenty-seven-year gap in the Keith and Tex discography from 1970 until you guys reunited in 1997, fittingly releasing an album called “Back Together Again.” But Tex, were you upset by Keith’s decision to leave Jamaica at all? Was there any kind of falling out or hurt feelings that occurred between you two that caused you to part ways for so long? You’ve said in past interviews that you were disillusioned with the music industry at the time [in 1970]. But it also seems that if Keith hadn’t left Jamaica for the United States that maybe you would have kept singing?

Tex Dixon: I wasn’t disillusioned with [Keith]. I was disillusioned with the treatment we were getting from –

Q: Derrick Harriott?

Tex Dixon: Yeah. But I knew the situation with Keith. His parents were migrating. And so he had to go.

Q: Is that true, Keith? That you felt you had no choice but to follow your parents?

Keith Rowe: I wanted opportunities, you know? And America offered that.

Q: Tex, in past interviews, you’ve said that after you got to Toronto, you didn’t really seek out the music scene at all. And I know you started a family and got a good job with the Canadian government. What was your job with the Canadian government that you held for such a long time?

Tex Dixon: I worked for the Department of the Interior, the Ministry of Transport. So, I was a license issuer for many, many years.

Q: And did your colleagues in Canada know that you had cut several hit songs in Jamaica?

Tex Dixon: You know what? I kept it on the [down] low. There were a couple of times where people who knew me asked me to appear in a couple of shows. But it never felt the same way without Keith. So I eventually lost interest. Because the [music] scene [in Toronto] was kinda not my style. Some of it was amateurish. There was something missing. So I kind of stayed out of it hoping that eventually, one day [looking at Keith], we were going to get back together. I kept my ears to the ground wondering about his whereabouts. He had had gone to New York. And every now and then because I had relatives there, I would go down to visit, and I would see some of my friends, [other Jamaicans] who had emigrated as well, and I’d say, “hey, you guys ever see Keith?” Nobody saw Keith until finally one day somebody said, “guess who I saw?”

Q: And you got his number, called him, and reconnected. Cool. Now Keith, after you got to the United States, it wasn’t very long before you joined the Army?

Keith Rowe: Right. The first two years I worked for Citibank and I did music. And I would have stayed in music, but the music scene there wasn’t able to make you a living, you know what I mean?

Q: And you served in the United States Army for 20 years? Am I right about that?

Keith Rowe: Yes.

Q: What was your rank when you retired?

Keith Rowe: First Sergeant, which is a rate of E-8.

Q: What were your duties when you served?

Keith Rowe: Nuclear, biological, and chemical defense.

Q: Wow. If you don’t mind me asking, did you fight in Vietnam?

Keith Rowe: I was in Vietnam.

Q: Did you fight in any other wars too?

Keith Rowe: No. That was my war.

Q: Thank you for your service. Are you aware of any other professional reggae or rocksteady artist who has been in the military in the United States?

Keith Rowe: Yes. Shaggy was in the military. You know, the DJ and rapper? I’ve known quite a few guys who have.

Q: Oh yeah? I didn’t know that. Now I know that when you were in the army that you were still playing music at various USO clubs. Did folks know – just like I asked Tex a minute ago – did anyone know that you had cut several hit songs in Jamaica?

Keith Rowe: Nah. Nah. We’re from humble beginnings, man. We don’t typically tell people who we are. Unless you ask us specifically, you wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t tell you.

Q: And one last question about your military service. I think it’s fair to say that as long as you served in the military that you must have a real love for the United States. Is that accurate?

Keith Rowe: That’s quite accurate. I was willing to give up my life for this country.

Q: And because of that, I feel like it is appropriate to ask you, especially given the political tenor of some of the songs on this new album of yours – like Refugees and Same Old Story – which I think very much speak to some of the major problems that we have in the world: Are you troubled by the direction that the United States is headed in?

Keith Rowe: It’s like we’ve taken several steps backwards, you know? Refighting the battles that were fought in the 60s. I don’t get the point. One of the things that has shown itself to me in our travels, and I’m sure it’s the same for Tex, is when you connect with different people, different cultures, different ethnicities, it is so powerful. I mean, you know, to have a conversation with someone who has nothing in common with you. Not even the language. And to be able to talk, somehow. And find a connection. It’s awesome, man.

Q: And we’re not embracing that anymore in the U.S. – diversity?

Keith Rowe: No, we’re not. We are into ourselves, you know? My little corner. Your little corner. And it’s our corner.

Keith Rowe performing at the Dub Club in Los Angeles

Q: Thank you. Now Keith, in 1975, you won a singing competition in New York, and I understand part of the prize was a free roundtrip plane ticket to Jamaica. And when you got to Jamaica, you went to go check [legendary reggae producer and artist] Lee “Scratch” Perry who had his Black Ark recording studio in your old Washington Gardens neighborhood in Kingston. And this led to you recording the song “Living My Life,” and what I personally think is one of the all-time best reggae love songs, “Groovy Situation.” That song literally gives me the chills every time I hear it – it’s so good. I’m so happy you played it tonight. Now you’ve said before that working with Scratch was totally unlike working with Derrick Harriott or any other producer. That you felt totally uninhibited. You told Peter I from Reggae Vibes that you wanted to, “sing your ass off for Scratch.” What was it about Lee Scratch Perry – why was he so good at getting the best out of performers like yourself, and Bob Marley, and so many other people?

Keith Rowe: Scratch has – Scratch had a way of communicating, that just let you … Anything that you are carrying on you – or with you – in terms of issues, he had a way of dealing with you so that you just let it go. And just concentrate on what you’re doing. And just the vibes.

Q: He brought out that roots vibe? I understand the studio had a dirt floor?

Keith Rowe: Yeah! There was dirt on the floor.

Q: Ganja smoke in the air?

Keith Rowe: Oh, of course. But it was just the vibes man. And the way he corresponds with you. The freedom he allows you to have, you know? And at the same time, while you’re doing your thing, he’s doing his thing. And you’re feeding off of what he’s doing. And it’s just a combination. It’s awesome. It was awesome. It wasn’t scripted. And that’s what I think got me to, you know, sing my ass off.

Q: Now, in 2015, Derrick Harriott was interviewed by United Reggae. And during that interview, he said you were both “talented people” and that your song “Stop That Train” – which history will record as one of the most famous songs in Jamaican music – was one of the biggest hits in his Crystal Records catalogue. But then, he also said this, which I’d like you to respond to: He said, “[w]hen I have my medley that I do on stage, I never leave off singing ‘Stop That Train.’ So it has been kept popular over the decades because of me continuing to sing it.” What do you think about that statement – and do you agree with it at all?    

Keith Rowe: I’ll let Tex answer that question. And then I’ll add.

Tex Dixon: I respectfully disagree with him. Over the years, in the media, in Canada, people have told me that they remember that song, “Stop That Train,” from back in the day. People my age, people who are younger. Their kids have heard it. People who have never been to our show have heard it. So, maybe him rendering the song during his performances had some kind of effect. But the type of effect it has had, I wouldn’t credit him too much.

Keith Rowe: I’ll be more specific. He’s deluding himself. First of all, we are singing. And people know – I don’t think we give listeners enough credit sometimes. People recognize voices. And when we start singing, you know who sang the song. But him keeping it alive? No. DJs have kept it alive.

Q: And you guys have kept it alive?

Keith Rowe: Yeah! Keith and Tex.

Q: It’s your song! [Laughing].

Keith Rowe: [Laughing] Right. We keep it alive.

Q: Ok, I just wanted to give you guys a chance to respond to that statement by Mr. Harriott.

Tex Dixon: We disagree with him.

Keith Rowe: We do not subscribe to that.

Q: Thank you. Since I think it’s fair to say that you guys are really deans of rocksteady music – true foundation artists – I was curious if you have ever received any honors, awards, or recognition at all from the Jamaican government for your tremendous musical achievements?

Keith Rowe: No.

Tex Dixon: So far, no. But we’re still young. [Smiling]

Q: [Laughing] True! And have you guys ever received any kind of financial or other type of support or assistance from the Jamaican government at all during the entire span of your very extensive music careers?

Keith Rowe: No. No, we haven’t.

Q: It seems like there is a lack of support from the Jamaican government for reggae and rocksteady artists – in terms of investing in and promoting the music like they should. And that this has been going on for a very long time. Would you agree with that statement?

Keith Rowe: I would, generally speaking. Because I’m not into the mix there anymore. But from what I’ve read from artists who are stationed in Jamaica, they believe that the government should invest in it more. Because, it’s a cultural thing. Reggae is worldwide and it is attached to Jamaica. It’s not a genre out on its own. It’s a genre that’s connected with a culture. With a food. With a language. So [the Jamaican government] should definitely invest in it more.

 Q: Two last questions. And I want to thank you gentlemen for being so generous with your time. Keith, one of the things that really helped to grow my passion for reggae music over the years has been listening to the radio program “Sounds of the Caribbean” on Z889, WBZ-FM. That’s a show I know you began in 1995, and hosted until 2013, before turning over the reins to the show’s new host Selecta Jerry, so you could “retire.” (Even though, really, we know that “retire” for you meant work extra hard releasing new music with Tex.) But, can you speak for a minute how you founded that show? I know it broadcasts from Rowan Community College in Burlington County, New Jersey. How did the show start, and how were you so successful at growing the show such that it has a global audience and influence?

Keith Rowe: Well, I got a flyer in the mail actually that said that the college was interested in doing a community type radio station. And they were looking for interested people. So, you know, you had to get in, get trained up. And you had to, first of all, submit a tape with what you can do with your voice and all that stuff. So, I did that, and went through the training. And I started up in ’95. The thing is that you have to play good music. You have to publish playlists. You have to let distributors know that you are a DJ. You have to interview people. You have to do all the things that would interest even you as a listener. So those are the things that I incorporated in the show. And I did it for a long time on my own. Got to the point though where I became a slave to it. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go to a wedding. I couldn’t go to a funeral. You know what I mean? That’s before we were able to record, you know, and leave it on a computer to do things automatically. So, you are tied to that Saturday, from 2 to 6 pm. Every Saturday. For 52 weeks out of the year. I did it for a long, long time. And Selecta Jerry (Jerry O’Brien) typically would call in on Saturdays. He did a part-time job on Saturdays. And he would call in and say, “Hey Keith, I’m driving and I’m listening to you.” [Laughing] And I would say, “Big up, Selecta Jerry!,” and play whichever song he likes.

Q: That’s how you became friends with him?

Keith Rowe: Yeah. The story continues. One day, we’re having a conversation about music, so I said to him, you like this music, would you be interested in helping me out some? And he said “no,” that he’s really busy. And in about fifteen minutes, he called back and said: Yeah! [Laughing].

Q: [Laughing] And it seems like Selecta Jerry has really been able to carry on your vision for the show. And also, continue to grow its audience. Would you agree with that?

Keith Rowe: Let me tell you something. I would not have turned over – or felt good about turning over the show – to somebody who wasn’t as dedicated and committed as Selecta Jerry is. He loves the music. He loves the culture. You know? We became really good friends. Our families became friends. So I felt really comfortable. Sad, you know, but comfortable.

Q: Because it was your baby?

Keith Rowe: Yeah. It was my baby. But you can turn a baby over to a parent that you trust.

Q: Last question. Where will Keith and Tex be touring next? And in addition to continuing to promote the new album “Same Old Story,” are there any new projects or music you guys are working on that your fans – like me – should watch out for? I think you said you already have another new album that’s going to be coming out soon?

Tex Dixon: Yes. It just needs to be mastered – technical stuff. As far as where we are going to be touring next, so far we have a few dates lined up for next summer in Europe.

Keith Rowe: We tour in Europe every year.

Stephen Cooper with Keith and Tex

Photos by Stephen Cooper
Top photo: Keith and Tex performing at the Dub Club in Los Angeles