Peter did Johnny ‘Goode’

Observer senior writer

The Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment Desk continues its month-long feature titled ‘Cover Me Good’. It will look at songs covered by Jamaican artistes which became hits.

One of the first guitar heroes of rock and roll, Chuck Berry, had a jangly sound that has influenced countless artistes — from Keith Richards to The Beach Boys and AC/DC. His 1958 song Johnny B Goode is a tour de force.

In 1983, roots-reggae star Peter Tosh covered the song for his Mama Africa album. He was encouraged to put his spin on Berry’s ode to a guitar hero by Donald Kinsey, the American guitarist in his Word, Sound and Power band.

Kinsey recalled his initial conversation with Tosh about taking a shot at Johnny B Goode during a 2019 interview with the Jamaica Observer.

“Producer Chris Kimsey came up to me — we were staying at the same house — and he asked me what if Peter did a version of Johnny B Goode. When he first said it, I had to just think for a minute. I said, ‘Well, a lot of rock and roll groups have done a version of Johnny B Goode, and they did it just like Chuck Berry did it’. If Peter did it, there wouldn’t be nothing there that would remind you of the original Johnny B Goode, other than maybe some hot guitar licks,” he said.

Kinsey, who is from Gary, Indiana, joined Word, Sound and Power in 1977, after a one-year stint with Bob Marley whose Rastaman Vibration album he played on. He and his two brothers grew up hearing their father, Big Daddy Kinsey, playing the blues; Kinsey played in blues legend Albert King’s band as a teenager.

While he and Kimsey were enthusiastic about a reggae version of Johnny B Goode, Tosh was not enthused. It did not fit with his message and image as a firebrand.

“So I sit down and try to work out an arrangement. And it turned out we came up with a pretty nice little arrangement and presented this to Peter. For a long time, Peter didn’t want to do the song,” said Kinsey. “For whatever reasons, he wasn’t into doing somebody else’s song. I don’t know what it was. There would be a lot of other Rastaman around that would just tell him that he don’t need to do somebody else’s song but I felt that the tune really had something in common with Peter.”

Tosh had done a few covers. In 1978, he teamed with Mick Jagger on Walk And Don’t Look Back, originally done as Don’t Look Back by The Temptations.

For his version of Johnny B Goode, Kinsey made it a little more Jamaican to suit Tosh.

“We changed a few of the lyrics around, like saying ‘deep down in Jamaica close to Mandeville, back up in the woods on top of the hill’, for it to really be Peter. Instead of being the leader of a rock and roll band, he’d have a reggae band. But, man, it was difficult. He did not want to do this song,” Kinsey stated.

Tosh’s sturdy vocals and a searing solo from Kinsey made Johnny B Goode a favourite at the singer’s shows. It helped take Mama Africa to number 59 on the Billboard 200 Albums Chart, the highest for a Tosh set.

Peter Tosh was murdered at his home in September 1987 at age 42. Chuck Berry died in March 2017 at age 90, while Donald Kinsey currently tours with The Wailers Band.

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