Friday, 4 January 2013

Lion Zion - Reggae In America (1976)

How has this album still not received a re-issue? It seems really strange and if nothing else is a real shame!

Although it's had a hard time from reviewers, half of which are so far wrong in their opinions that I sometimes feel the writers have not even heard this album and are just guessing on it's quality.

It usually gets things written about it like "Lion Zion's vocals are poor", "This sounds nothing like a Black Ark album" and "I doubt Lee Perry had much to do with this one" and in my opinion these are all incorrect statements.

Lion Zion's vocals are fine throughout, they are different in style to that of other Jamaican artists of the time but this is most likely because Lion Zion came from American and therefore doesn't seem have the Jamaican accent.

The sound is very much the typical Black Ark sound of 1976, the rhythms resembling those used on Max Romeo's "War Ina Babylon" and even Susan Cadogan's "Hurt So Good" but with better production quality compared to the latter album. Some extra instrumentation, orchestral pieces and additional harmonies were added by Lion Zion when he returned to the USA but it's certainly Black Ark sounding through and through.

Lee Perry is credited on the album sleeve not as producer but as engineer and mixer but these cuts are no doubt Lee Perry rhythms, mixed by Perry and then extra production would have taken place back in the States by Lion Zion and others.

Lion Zion is a mysterious figure, not much is known about this artist except for a few facts and some hearsay.

A young black American, Lion Zion lived on the west coast of America in the city of Oakland, California where it's said he owned a small record shop during the 1970's.

At some point around 1975/76 during a trip to New York he met Pauline Morrison (Lee Perry's then wife) who told him about Perry's new studio, the Black Ark and that if he ever came to Jamaica he should stop by and visit.

This is indeed what happened when in 1976 Lion Zion showed up at Perry's home in Washington Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica (apparently barefoot) with a number of self-penned songs ready to record an album.

Lee Perry assembled a strong set of musicians including Lloyd Parks on bass, Anthony "Benbow" Creary on drums, pianist / keyboard legend Keith Sterling and guitarist Phil Callender and together they created some fantastic roots rhythm tracks that are completely original to this album.

Lion Zion's lyrics are also very original compared to anything else that was being produced on the reggae scene at the time as they are from the view point of an African American.

Most reggae albums of the time, especially roots reggae, would refer to America as Babylon and have a strictly Jamaican viewpoint of the way in which America was portrayed, but with Lion Zion he had an insiders view, he isn't patriotic as such and critisizes much of American culture but he does stand up for certain American beliefs and discusses it's growing stature as a global superpower and how carefully it should handle such a title.

Songs such as "American Revolution", "Gas Guzzler" and "Arise America" are not only powerful statements against the US but are surprisingly very relevant in this day and age. The references to 'Uncle Sam' on the song "Children Children" (which also includes vocals from young kids which was something Perry was often fond of including) is a very American thing that black Americans especially seemed to hate the ideology of and "Who Killed The Buffalo" attacks the vicious nature in which America was taken over in the first place.

Lion Zion covers much of the social and political situation of America during the 70's, especially the situation for African Americans, in his songs and delivers the message with a passion.  This combined with the deep and edgy sound of Perry's Black Ark, complete with horn arrangements from Vin Gordon, David Madden and Glen DaCosta and added harmonies from The Heptones duo Barry Llewellyn and Earl Morgan makes for a completely unique and engrossing listening experience.

There are also orchestral choir backings on a couple of tracks, the National Dance Theatre Singers of Jamaica feature on the song "Turn Towards The Sun" although it's not made clear if their vocals were recorded at the Black Ark, it would be unlikely due to the small nature of the studio.

What is known however is that once the album had been recorded and mixed at the Black Ark, no doubt with Lee Perry's full involvement, Lion Zion returned to the US with the master tapes and took them to Freeway Recording studios in his home city of Oakland, California.

The engineer of this studio is credited as a B. Dangerfield and his assistant Ron Hatiz and it was here that some very minor overdubbing was added to the album including some flute (on "Beautiful Day") and saxophone pieces (on "Reggae In America") by Ron Stallings, the steel drums heard on "Gas Guzzler" by Carlyle and the lead guitar added to "Arise America". Also the female vocals of Leslie Hart-Hammond on "Beautiful Day".

Another interesting addition is the choir vocals of the Oakland Black Ensemble, which included soloist Riva Florida and were conducted by Phillip Reedey, on the song "American Revolution".

Once Lion Zion had completed the work on the album it was taken to C.B.S studios in San Francisco to get a final mastering session with engineer Phil Brown. This could also explain why, compared to other Black Ark recorded albums of 1976, "Reggae In America" has a more polished and crisp sound.

Lion Zion - "Reggae In America" was eventually released in 1976 on the unknown label 'House Of Natty Records' in the USA and publishing rights credited to 'Rockstone Music Ltd.'

It's unknown just how many copies they manufactured but as of July 2016 these are still the only physical copies of the album available and, as can be imagined, are sold at high prices.

It may not be up there with "Heart Of The Congos" or "Scratch The Super Ape" but Lion Zion's "Reggae In America" is an important part of the Black Ark story. This unknown artist who turned up one day to record an album and put a lot of time, effort and no doubt money into the project and yet it still remains obscure.
Surely someone, somewhere knows who this guy was or has the rights to re-release this material?

It's yet another ground-breaking album from the Black Ark, not many African Americans had recorded a Reggae album in Jamaica at the time and of course Perry would break-ground in later years when a pair of actual Africans from the Congo would show up in 1978 (but that's a whole other story).

Hopefully one day this album will be made readily available to all, it really is a quality album with lyrics that continue to ring true in present times, it contains some of Lee Perry's most unique production work with rhythms not re-used and it remains an important part of Black Ark folklore.

For now Lion Zion remains a mysterious figure, an adventurous young African American who attempted to break Reggae in America.
Enjoy  : )

1) Reggae In America
2) Who Killed The Buffalo?
3) Buffalo Dub
4) American Revolution
5) Children, Children
6) Beautiful Day
7) 3rd Century
8) Gas Guzzler
9) Arise America
10) Turn Toward's The Sun

Recorded at the Black Ark studio, Kingston Jamaica, engineered and mixed by Lee "Scratch" Perry
and Freeway Recording studio, Oakland California, engineered by B. Dangerfield & Ron Hatiz
Produced by Lion Zion. 

Lion Zion - Reggae In America  -!

Check out a wonderful piece on the Midnight Dread website which features a radio broadcast from KDIA Oakland California from September 18th 1977. Lion Zion is the guest on the show Inner Visions and he discusses his album "Reggae In America" as well as his views on reggae music as an African American.

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