Talking with The Mighty Diamonds: “Harmony Can Never Go Out of Style”

Judge, Tabby and the author. Photo: Stephen Cooper.

On September 25th at the Dub Club in Los Angeles, I interviewed one of the best reggae bands ever, the Mighty Diamonds. What follows is a transcript of that interview; it has been modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.

Q: Tabby, Judge, and Joe, thank you for this interview[, and] great show tonight! It’s [a thrill, an] honor, and [and a blessed] opportunity to [be able to] reason with one of the best harmony bands — and one of the best bands period — in Jamaican history. So I give thanks for this time. Now with great respect for Joe Benaiah and what he brings to the lineup, the original Mighty Diamonds are Bunny [Simpson], [Donald] Tabby [Shaw], and [Lloyd] Judge [Ferguson]. This is the lineup that produced 44 albums and countless hit songs over a fifty-year career. So the question almost all fans of the Mighty Diamonds said I needed to ask [you] tonight — including legendary drummer Sly Dunbar — is: How is Bunny Diamond [doing]?

Judge: Well Bunny Diamond is presently doing terribly. He’s got everything…his senses and everything…it’s just movements.

 Q: Is there still a chance that he could rejoin the group?

Judge: Well yes, of course. It all depends on him. Because this kind of business, you have to be–

 Q: You have to be healthy?

Judge: Right.

 Q: Now another big fan of the Mighty Diamonds [who goes by the handle @NickiNotNice on Twitter] relatedly asked me to ask you: How do Judge and Tabby feel about not having Bunny with them anymore? And how has Bunny’s absence [from the group] affected the foundation of the Mighty Diamonds, and the vibes that you bring?

Judge: (Chuckling) Well, to really speak, anyone can know how [Bunny’s absence] affects us, you know? Because we [three] have been together since 1969, you know? It’s real sad to me.

Tabby: It come (about) so sudden, you know, [Bunny’s illness]. It’s a change. [But Bunny] can take therapy now.

 Q: Another person I [consulted] about this interview is [legendary] Soul Syndicate guitarist, Tony Chin. Tony Chin said I should ask about when he first met you. Because Tony Chin said when he first met you guys, there were 4 members in the group. And, [Tony said,] that this fourth guy had what Tony described as a “bad eye.” Who was this fourth member of the Mighty Diamonds that Tony Chin described? And what happened to him?

Judge: (Laughing) Well actually, he wasn’t a fourth member [of the Mighty Diamonds]. But we [were] schoolmates together. And we did a tune together called “Betcha By Golly, Wow,” and he took part.

 Q: What is his name?

Judge: His name was Rudolph Ross. We used to call him “Rossiblemo.”

Q: What happened to him?

Judge: He migrated to the Caymans.

 Q: Since I brought up Tony Chin, Soul Syndicate, and even Sly Dunbar, [yet] another friend of yours from the past asked me to ask you a question. This is [legendary] sound engineer [and] dub [pioneer], Scientist, [also known as] Hopeton Brown. And Scientist said, “Ask them, do they remember when they used to come pick me up at my house to take me to Tuff Gong Studio?”; Scientist says he was about 18 [years old then]. Do you guys remember that time?

Judge: (Chuckling) Well yes, [Scientist] was very young then.

Q: And Scientist says he recalls how dangerous it was in those times [just to walk to the music studio]. Because you had the warring [political] factions [at that time in Jamaica], JLP and PNP, [on opposite sides of the street.] And [sometimes,] when you’d go to the studio, there’d be machine gun battles that would happen [in the street]. Do you guys [also] remember this threat of violence when you’d go to the studio – [either] to Channel One or [to] Tuff Gong?

Tabby: What happened in those days, time[s] when we wasn’t there, you had some shootings, sure, but we wasn’t there.

 Q: Were you ever worried about going to the studio? Were you [ever] scared?

Tabby: No, I was never scared. Never scared.

 Q: Did the gunmen who were there respect you because they knew –

Tabby: We never crossed them.

 Q: Bunny did an interview [with Jim Dooley] and he said that one of the reasons Channel One [Studio] shut down was because Joseph Kim’s brother was robbed and shot [and killed]. And [after that] [Joseph Kim] started to back away from the [music] business in [Jamaica], moving it to New York. You guys were not present at this interview and I want to [know] if you agree with what Bunny said about why Channel One began to close down its operations in [Jamaica] in the early 80s?

Judge: I really don’t know why Jo-Jo move out his operations. But what Jo-Jo told us was that he was never gonna do anything outside of Jamaica. (Laughing) And then he went and did it. But we don’t really know the reason why he moved to America.

 Q: Many people have written and said that your work at Channel One – and I’m thinking about songs like “Right Time,” “I Need a Roof,” “Have Mercy,” and [so many other] hit songs [too], many [of which] you sang tonight – that that is the best work of the [Mighty] Diamonds catalogue. Do you guys agree with that?

Judge: Well what I would say, you know –

Tabby: Some of the best.

Judge:  – people have a way [of saying] that “the first cut is the deepest,” you know?

 Q: Yeah.

Judge: But we have 46 albums up to [now], and there are a lot of good songs there; I don’t even have a favorite.

Q: Because you guys have worked with so many producers – I mentioned Joseph Hoo Kim, [but also] you worked with Lee Scratch Perry, Gussie Clarke, Bunny Lee, Joe Gibbs, all these [legendary] producers. Now, looking back on your career, is there one or two [of these producers] that [stand out], that you would say really helped the [Mighty] Diamonds make it?

Tabby: (Laughing) Hey-hey.

Judge: When you say “make it,” what –

Q: Well, [to achieve] success over time.

Judge: Well our success started at Channel One. But I would say Gussie. Because he was the one who produced “Pass the Kouchie.” And Donovan [Germain]he produced “Heads of Government.”

Q: In an interview (with Angus Taylor for Reggaeville.com), Bunny said it was you, Judge, who wrote the massive hit songs “I Need a Roof” and “Have Mercy.” Of course he mentioned [many] other songs that you wrote, too. But those are two of my all-time favorite songs. For “Have Mercy,” what inspired you to write this heartfelt and genuine [plea] to Jah, Judge? 

Judge: Well “Have Mercy” was written and put away for five years before it was recorded.

Q: What was it that inspired you to write that song?

Judge: Well the inspiration came to me because of the way – how Jamaica was going at the time. It was a lot of depression and all kind of things.

Q: Do you think that one of the reasons why that song is so successful is because it acknowledges that suffering is part of life?

Judge: Yes.

Tabby: Yes.

Q: I read before the [Mighty] Diamonds were formed that both Bunny and Tabby worked as welders, and that Judge, you worked for several years as a policeman –  

Judge: Yes.

Q:  – and prior to that [Judge], you were also a soldier in the military?

Judge: Right.

Q: Did any Rastas or Jamaican musicians, whether Rasta or not, ever give you a hard time because you had that military and police background?

Judge: Never give me a hard time because, what you don’t know, when I was in the [Jamaican] army, I was with the Twelve Tribes [of Israel, a major mansion of Rastafari.] A lot of people didn’t know that. The minister of the opposition now, Peter Phillips. I used to sit around table with him, because he was a member of Twelve Tribes also.

Q: How did you first come to the teachings of Marcus Garvey? Were there any particular musicians or Rasta elders who guided you into a Rasta lifestyle?

Judge: Well my father was a follower of Marcus [Garvey], and he taught me a lot of things about him.

Q: And Tabby, what about for you, how did you get into Rastafari?  

Tabby: My grandmother. She was a follower of Marcus Garvey, too. She was one of the people who talked about Marcus Garvey all of the time.

Q: The same way I asked you [Judge about] the inspiration for “Have Mercy,” Selecta Jerry, he’s a [respected] DJ in New Jersey, he wanted me to ask you Judge: What inspired you to write the beautiful song “I Need a Roof”?    

Judge: Well “I Need a Roof” was a combination of three of us, me, Tabby, and Bunny.

Q: All three [of you] wrote [the song]?

Judge: Yes.

Q: And is it an original song?

Judge: Yes.

Q: Many [Mighty] Diamonds fans asked me [on social media] to ask you guys questions, but one of the best questions came from a woman who goes by “@MsAfrikanRoots” [on Twitter]; she asked: “How important are harmonies in contemporary reggae, and is this becoming a lost art form in music?”

Judge: It’s very important because you know that the harmonies – singing in harmony – is the best.

Q: Is it going out of style?

Judge: I wouldn’t say that.

Tabby: Harmony can never go out of style. The harmony, to me, it is more like a togetherness; people come together as a unit, to have a sound, where it brings peace into the ears, you know? One man can sound good, but harmony [has] more melody, more substance to it.

Q: Do you think there is a want out there, a desire, for there to be more harmony groups today?

Tabby: Yes!

Q: I read that [the Mighty Diamonds] performed at the One Love Peace Concert [that took place in Jamaica’s National Stadium in April, 1978].

Judge: Yes.

Q: Can you please tell me a little bit about what sticks in your mind about that occasion? What’s your biggest, fondest memory of singing at the One Love Peace Concert?

Judge: Well my greatest memory was when Bob brought the two prime ministers onstage and made them shake hands.

Q: Where were you guys standing when that happened? 

Tabby: We were out in the crowd.

Q: Were the Mighty Diamonds and the Wailers friends in the 70s? 

Judge: Yes!

Tabby: Yes!

Q: Did you hang out together?

Judge: Yes.

Tabby: Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.

Q: Was there a little bit of a competition between the [two bands]?

Tabby: No, no, we [didn’t] have no competition.

Judge: Because the Wailers inspired the [Mighty] Diamonds.

Q: Selecta Jerry, I mentioned [him] a moment ago, [he told me that] there is a very cool song – which I listened to – it’s called “Leaders of Black Country.” He said it’s credited, and it is, to the “Vibestones,” but he said he’s pretty sure it’s a Mighty Diamonds song. And when I listened to it, it sounds exactly like you guys. Could you please tell me, is this your song?

Judge: Yes.

Q: Why did it get credited to the Vibestones and not the Mighty Diamonds?

Judge: (Shrugging and smiling) Well I don’t know. But what really happened was that song was produced by Tappa Zukie. You know Tappa Zukie?

Q: Yeah. But you’re not sure why it was released under the “Vibestones” and not the Mighty Diamonds?

Tabby: (Smiling) Don’t know why.

Q: [I have] two last questions I want to ask you guys, and again, I give thanks for the time. Where do the [Mighty] Diamonds go from here? What are your plans for the rest of this year, and going into 2020? 

Judge: Well we have plans to do a European tour. And a Canadian tour.

Q: Awesome. Awesome. 

Judge: And then we have plans to go into the studio.

 Q: You’re gonna release another [album]?

Judge: Yeah. We’re gonna make an album.

Q: And finally, is there any message, or anything at all, Judge and Tabby, that you guys want to say to all the Mighty Diamonds fans that are out there? 

Judge: Well what I would really say to the fans is that we thank them for supporting the [Mighty] Diamonds over the years, you know, and we hope they’ll keep on supporting [us].

Q: I’m sure they will. Tabby, what would you like to say?

Tabby: We want to bless up all the fans dem for supporting us all these years, and thank them for being a part of our life. Because without you people the [Mighty] Diamonds wouldn’t be here, you know? Nuff respect and give thanks, you know?


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Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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