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HomeNewsArchives'Sweet Island Man' Sammy Watts Is in a 'Party Mood'

'Sweet Island Man' Sammy Watts Is in a 'Party Mood'

Sept. 9, 2004 – Sammy Watts is in a "Party Mood," and everyone's invited to get the CD and start listening and dancing.
Watts has made music from St. Kitts to Nevis, from Madison Square Garden to Hollywood, from Memphis to Rhode Island, from Canada to Paris. But a goodly number of years ago he settled in St. Thomas and began composing, singing and playing from one end of St. Thomas to the other: Partnered up with Bolongo "umpteen years ago" in 1977, the "Sweet Island Man" formed bands known as Soul Sides, Unity and Soul, the Sammy Watts Combo and played Pirates Parlor, Bluebeard's Castle, The Boardroom, Hillside, Sapphire — the list goes on, as does the music.
In the early '70s he toured the United States, Europe and Canada, and he remains grateful for the opportunity to see the world through his music. He recorded in jam sessions with Isaac Hayes, and played with bands for movies — including "Save the Children" — and television programs, such as the Stevie Wonder special with Jack Benny and Helen Ready. Parts of that life, though, were hectic, he said. For a time headquartered in Memphis, he might do a show in Little Rock, Ark.; maybe the next night have to be in Rhode Island, so take the train, get on a bus in New York City. Another time, take a bus from New York to California. He enjoyed a less-hectic Canada stint of a week, playing every night in the same place.
Once he got to Europe, he found a pace to his liking, in Paris, Rome, and Cannes. Cannes, his favorite, was a waterfront town, he said, that "gave him a West Indian feeling."
He's been part of the Caribbean music scene since he began playing in Nevis at age 14 on a stringed instrument homemade from a sardine can, nylon fishing line and a shingle. His father played on a fife he himself had made, so young Sammy learned music at home.
But music, he said, was reserved for special occasions such as masquerading and Christmas, so he didn't hear a lot of it. He moved to St. Kitts, where he took up the quattro, a four-string instrument when an experienced musician took him under his wing and said, "Here, take my quattro." The baritone quattro has a nice, solid sound, Watts said, but he really preferred the guitar, which became "his instrument;" he "likes music with a strong bottom" and guitar has the two bass strings. At the age of 18, he was invited to join a band — because he "lived country" — and the bandleader didn't want those town boys who had "an attitude." Once the band began playing he moved to Basseterre.
When he came to St. Thomas, he played a lot with local bands, learning their particular style. Syncopation differs, he said, from island to island. Now he uses a synthesizer, which seems to a listener like the best of all worlds: he can "play" any instrument he chooses. He also plays steelpan, but he's long since gone off into composing — music and lyrics.
Words and music? The words are easy, he said, because language is endless. But music is harder: It only has 12 sounds!
He still plays and sings around the island, but he spoke a little sadly of how live entertainment is not like it used to be; there's a loss of pride in performance because of "karaoke and DJs."
"The hotels don't even build stages any more," he said.
He talked about quadrille and quelbe. The music he remembers in St. Kitts came out of masquerading, and it was usually fife and drum — somewhat similar to early V.I. quelbe. He was surprised at the many different instruments used when he came to St. Thomas. When he came, he said he thought quelbe was "everything but gospel." He sees a strong influence from Europe, especially the Irish, on Caribbean music, but always with the underlying African drumming.
He loves Barbara Streisand and included "Evergreen" in an earlier album. "Impossible Dream," he said is his favorite song.
Why is "Party Mood" his first recording published in a decade? "I hate the business end with a passion," he said. Putting an album together, writing the music, that's the part he likes. "I could put out three albums a year for the next 20 years." But selling an album is hard — pirating, distribution woes, complications outside music.
He wrote, arranged and produced music and lyrics for all songs on the new CD except Aerosmith's "Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Guitar synthesizer and sequencing acoustic and electric guitar and also by Watts. The CD is a "soca album with a blend of reggae, rock ballads and a hint of Latin flavor," a release said. Titles include "Nothing Good Comes Easy," "Rhythm in Meh Head," and "Dance" — some of the 10 songs familiar, a couple written for this recording.
The CD was recorded at Doghouse Studio with Wayne Samuel as engineer. It's available at record stores all over the Virgin Islands, but if you want to catch him in person, it has to be on St. Thomas, and he is still out playing on the island. He doesn't do anything other than music, he said: "I love doing it."
Sounds as if Sammy Watts is living his own "Impossible Dream."

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