By Erica Meus-Saunders.
My interview with Mr. Ronnie Butler was a year in the making. I had the opportunity to have met him at Sandy Port in August 2009, hanging out at what was then the Oyster Bar. I had gone out to celebrate with some friends and listen to some jazz when in walked Mr. Butler.
That same night he performed, after which I gave him my business card and got his contact and promised that at some point I wanted to interview him for my magazine. So almost an entire year later, I was sitting in his living room and having a conversation. I took my girlfriend Suzette along who was excited to meet the man himself. A candid person, Ronnie Butler spoke freely about his music, his life, about the decline of morals, an appreciation for culture, and the plight of the Bahamian musician.
We started with me talking about a previous interview he had done with Jeff Lloyd; I mentioned to Ronnie that I had to do some catching up on him. He cracked a joke that I should then know that he had gone to jail for stealing chicken; I could not help but laugh and the interview proceeded in a comfortable banter.
Ronnie: I was brought up like most of us in the church, barefoot, patch in the ass. I was dragged to church, spent 5 days a week in church. At 17, I was what was called ‘MC on the altar’. I would have to set the pages for the priest, the chapters that he would read from on those days. So I knew that bible from back to front at the age of 17. But then I questioned some of the things. I asked the priest, who was an English priest, some questions and he told me that I should not question the bible, but just believe it.
So I asked him, ‘Well, why don’t we ever read the bible period?’ And I would pretty much guess, that if you have been going to church since a young child, no matter what the denomination is, you have not seen where they have started reading from Genesis and go to Exodus. It’s like they are always picking through and never reading the entire Bible. Do you know why? Do you know why?
It’s because they don’t want you to do what I’ve done, which is question. There are so many things there to question, and when you start questioning and especially when you get a few answers, your mind begin to open up. This is why I’m at this stage, from being an MC on the altar at 17, I have not been back.
About his early beginnings
NW: How long have you been performing?
Ronnie: 55 years.
NW: When did you first begin performing? And where did you begin performing?
Ronnie: I started performing right after I was 17, at a place that was on East Street North, between Shirley and Bay. It was called the Carlton House. It’s no longer there; there is a parking lot where Carlton House used to be.
NW: So how did you get into music at that young age?
Ronnie: I didn’t choose music; I sort of glided into music. I did masonry. The guy, who lived across the street from me, played a Hawaiian guitar (the kind you put across your knees). I used to go over there after work and fool around with him, and then about ten days later, I went home and there was a drummer there, and we started practicing. I guess about two months later, he got the job at the Carlton House.
At that time, when we got the job at the Carlton House I was still doing masonry. The Carlton House job was from 7:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m., so I could go home and sleep and get up and then go to do masonry work. The money I made from masonry, I could not crack that envelope, if I opened that envelope that was ‘cutass’ for days. Every penny of that went to my mom, so the $10 that I was making from performing was now money on the side for me, which was fine. I wasn’t doing this to say I wanted to be a musician, I was doing it to make a couple dollars; but then, as I got into it, I got to like it. The more I did it, the more I liked it. Although I sang in church, at that time I did not sing, I had started with shaking maracas. After working with them, that’s when I got into doing the Bahamian songs.
NW: How many albums have you done?
Ronnie: Fourteen. My fifteenth album will be out in a couple of weeks, I hope. It’s a semi-jazz album and it’s here already. I just haven’t released it yet. But I am planning on releasing it in two to three weeks. Right now, I’m working on a gospel album which is about two thirds done.
NW: On your fifteenth album, who did you work with? Or is it all Ronnie Butler?
Ronnie: Vocal wise yes, it’s all me. Of course, I have musicians play the instruments you know. It’s basically old standard American Jazz tunes, a couple of Bossa Novas.
NW: What is a Bossa Nova?
Ronnie: It’s a rhythm. It’s amazing. When I started in music, the band and I would mention King Eric and his band; because after quitting that first group that I mentioned, I started working with King Eric. At that time, the bands played a number of rhythms. There was Bossa Nova; there was Cha-Cha; there was Samba, Tango, and Meringue. All of these different rhythms we played, because people danced to that. Today, if you tell a band to play a Cha-Cha, they’re lost. It’s just one of those things that happened in music.
This new album has a couple of Bossa Novas, a couple of slow tunes. One of my favourite songs is on this CD.
Ronnie: I haven’t actually released it yet (Ronnie goes and gets the new CD for me to have a look at).
NW: Wow! So what’s one of your favourite songs on this album?
Ronnie: On this album, my favourite song is called “Lucky Old Sun”
NW: Tell me about the song “Lucky Old Sun”
Ronnie: Oh it’s …ummm (pause). You have people … entertainers who will get up on stage and sing a song, and it’s just a song. I’ve found over my career that in certain songs, there is more to it. Most people want to hear, ‘I love you, you love me’. These songs are a dime a dozen. I will give you an idea of a popular song called ‘My Way’, not only was it a popular standard song, but it said something. Well, ‘Lucky Old Sun’ to me goes even deeper than that. When I sing this song, I feel and I see in my mind’s eye, what I am singing. And to be honest, very rarely will I sing this song. Because like two other songs I love, I normally cry when I sing it. Just talking about it gets me emotional. They mean so much, they say so much, you need to go beyond the fact that you are entertaining and think in terms of what you are singing and try to get to that depth.
NW: I really need to hear this song now.
NW: We were talking about Bossa Novas and you said that you had played with King Eric, how long did you play with him?
Ronnie: I worked with King Eric for about six and a half years. He taught me all I know.
NW: And where did you mostly perform with King Eric?
Ronnie: Ah, at a place called Captain Kids, also the Barmar. Those were the two places that I basically performed.
NW: Have you ever been married?
NW: So you are a marrying man? (laughter)
Ronnie: I was. The second marriage, the minute I wrote that song (‘I’m a Married Man) and recorded it, two weeks later my wife left me.
NW: Why did she leave?
Ronnie: I ‘een know… I know, but I can’t tell you (laughter).
NW: So as an entertainer, would you say that you have had a bumpy road with relationships?
Ronnie: Well, you know most people have bumpy relationships.
NW: Yeah, but was it more difficult than normal, due to the fact that you are a musician?
Ronnie: No, not really. My first marriage broke up because I was young, stupid and doing sh#@.
NW: How many years ago was that?
Ronnie: Oh, my son is going to be 48/49, so I was about 26/27 when I got married. So yes, I was young and stupid. I take total responsibility for the break-up of my first marriage. My second marriage, if I didn’t cook, I didn’t eat, if I didn’t pay the light bill, the house would be in darkness, I couldn’t take any more of that. The woman was a workaholic… I didn’t get “any” in six months.
Ronnie reveals that both his wives were foreigners.
NW: Were your wives living here?
Ronnie: Both of them were living here.
NW: So how many children do you have?
Ronnie: I have five children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
NW: Is that it for you on the marriage front? Do you think that you will marry again?
Ronnie: She got to be good boy, cause at my age…
Ronnie says that his entertainment has taken him everywhere except the Far East.
Ronnie: I haven’t been to the Far East, but I have been pretty much all over Europe and the western world. I did a lot of traveling with the Ministry of Tourism and the Hotel Association, promotional tours, you know. Actually, traveling helped to widen my scope. Going into museums in Germany, and seeing things that we can’t duplicate today, when people thousand of years ago was doing this stuff. We can’t do it today, but it’s there.
NW: In terms of Bahamian musicians, how would you compare the musicians back then to what’s coming up now?
Ronnie: When you compare, I don’t think that there is much difference. The young musicians of today are into instruments, guitars, saxophone and stuff like that. Where, I kind of fall-off is when on any stage, where someone is performing, especially a band, they should look like a band. They should not look like they just came of the banana boat: one has on blue-jean and white t-shirt, the next one got on brown…you know what I mean. Back in the day when you walked into a room, even if the band was on a break, you could look at the clothes he was wearing and see that he was different, and that is one of the things that I have a problem with. But hey, you can’t open your mouth nowadays, so you got to keep your mouth shut. People do what they want to do.
RONNIE TALKS ABOUT THE PLIGHT OF THE BAHAMIAN MUSICIAN
NW: Right now, would you say that there are a lot of places or avenues for a Bahamian artist to play?
Ronnie: There are just a few. To be perfectly honest with you…I blame (and you can put this in big bold letters) I blame the governments, and I say governments (both) because none of them ‘een no good. When they make their heads of agreements, they say to these people (hotels, foreign investors) we want you to hire some Bahamian musicians. Well that is Bulls#@#, excuse my expression because they are giving the person a way out, okay.
When you give away hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions of this country, I’m a part of that. So are you giving those concessions away just for waitresses, waiters, bartenders and maids? No. This is a part of my country you are giving away, so I should also benefit. When I say “I”, I am speaking about musicians and entertainers in general. They (government) just say we want you to hire, and so as a result, the fellow may hire two here, three there. We have on Paradise Island at the Atlantis, a piano player and a singer and that’s ‘BAND”. That is totally ridiculous, especially when you have all these musicians who aren’t working. And then to make it even worse, the government goes further – now the Defense Force has a pop-band, the Police have a pop-band, and the jail people have a pop band. These people get a salary, rain or shine. They get pay every month from the government, but they are out there taking jobs that the regular musicians should be getting, but THEY are getting it. Why? My only conclusion as to why this is, is that they must be working for far less money or something. The point I’m making is that this shouldn’t be allowed. If it is a government function, sure, this is okay. The Police pop-band or the Defense Force pop-band at government house or at some big ‘to do’ where the government has some dignitaries is fine, but they should not be allowed to go to Exuma to a regatta to perform, especially when you have a band sitting down here, who only maybe work once or twice a month, and the Police and Defense Force are getting paid every month come rain or shine. To me that is not right.
Suzette: Have you ever been a part of The Bahamas Musicians Union?
Ronnie: I have been a part of this, and I’m still affiliated with them, but that’s a Union. The Union can only do so much, and we are not and never have been as strong as say the Hotel and Caterers Workers Union, because we never had that many members.
Musicians who influenced his music
NW: What instruments do you play?
Ronnie: I play a number of instruments. As I said, King Eric was largely responsible for me being Ronnie Butler the entertainer. He gave me the opportunity to learn how to be a band leader, and as a band leader in my view, you are supposed to be able to tell the drummer “Eh, man I said play Bossa Nova, not Rumba.” If you are in charge, the ball is in your court. Someone comes over to dance a Bossa Nova, and the drummer is playing Rumba, and that person is a professional dancer, he knows , so I’m supposed to know to tell my drummer to play the right kind of music, and if he can’t, I’m supposed to teach him. So I learned to play the guitar and base drums, the saxophone, the steel drums, the Bongos, and the Congo.
NW: What is your favourite instrument?
Ronnie: My favourite instrument is and always was the guitar.
NW: So would you say that King Eric influenced you most?
Ronnie: Yes, of course. There were also people like Joseph Spence, Blind Blake, and George Symonette who were entertainers ahead of me. Also Freddie Munnings Senior.
A dying culture
Ronnie: I went to the US Embassy a couple of years ago, and I walked in the lobby, and my picture was there in the lobby, okay. I walked into the Ministry of Culture’s Office and you have got ‘the Golden Girls” and you have Sir Durward Knowles. So what are they saying, track and field and boat sailing is culture? And that is again, bullsh@#, because everywhere in the world, there is track and field and boat sailing. Our country is the only country where you can find Rake N’ Scrape. Sadly, it’s not just this Ministry, that’s how it’s always been, they just don’t care.
Again, Cuba is a communist country and they have a Ministry of Culture. We got a Ministry of Youth, Sports and then Culture. So culture comes last, and culture should be at the top of the heap, next to tourism. Culture should be top of the heap. I get tired of beating my head up against the wall, and that’s why I don’t talk much about it. I don’t talk about it on the radio anymore. When they ask me to come on the radio, I ask them what are we going to talk about? If we are going to talk about the crime, fine. I don’t talk about music because I am tired of talking about it, it ain’t doing any good. People, who can do something about it, are not doing anything.
I’ll give you an example of how lousy these people are. Tyler Perry used my song in the movie (Married Man). Now somebody here, had to know when it was going to be premiered and all that sort of thing, they were premiering this movie on Monday night; I got contacted on Sunday. You know somebody in this country knew what was happening, now you let that had been Mr. ‘so and so’ entertainer from the US or somewhere else, that shit would never have happened. This is how we are defined by the powers that be, my view, the way we are treated, as second class citizen. I will tell you there was a time in this country when a man called Stafford Sands in spite of what Tom, Dick or Harry might say, musicians were looked up to in this country and appreciated. But from1967, everything started going downhill. Why? It’s the same old story, a fellow who is in business, if he has any kind of sense, and you can always tell the people who are successful, they don’t care who the idea came from as long as it’s going to make the bottom line look good. But now, you will find that most Bahamians who are in our government, the idea had better come from somebody from Canada, or the States (US) or England or someplace else, because Bahamian ‘een gone do it. We had in this country, the biggest promotional thing we can have, which was the Miss Universe Pageant; did you see what we had for entertainment?
There was a time when I was proud to be a Bahamian, not any more. Everything is just gone and it’s continuing to go down the hill. Don’t talk about the social ills, that’s even worse.
NW: So how do we as a country get back to where we were?
Ronnie: Let me tell you how we got this way. Bahamians in general were never a violent people; we always tried to be nice. I remember going over to New York, and going to New Jersey, and I went with these friends of mine to a store and when we got there, there were 1,500 people picketing in front of the store because they went up one cent on a loaf of bread. But here, we walk into the food store and pay $1.99 for the corn beef, and the next time we go it’s $2.45, and we just pick it up. We are too easy, and as a result, the people who are in charge, mainly the governments take advantage of that; and because we don’t get out there in huge numbers they just do what they want to do without even consulting us. Total lack of respect.
Suzette: I always wondered if it’s because we are so proud. They go up on the prices and nobody wants to complain. They don’t want to say they can’t afford it, they just pretend as if everything is okay, and complain amongst themselves.
Ronnie: Well, that’s probably a part of it. We bury our heads in the sand and then we have to take what we get. But like I said, it’s pointless to have one voice crying in the wilderness, because you will be crying in the wilderness forever. You need numbers. On several occasions, I can tell you of actions myself and a few other people wanted to take and we tried to get a certain amount of people but they didn’t want to follow through. They were afraid of loosing what they might have.
NW: I think a lot of Bahamians put too little a value on who they are and what they are worth… Because if I’m worth this, this little piece of bread you are giving me on the side means nothing to me. So many of them will just accept that, either because they are too afraid to rock the boat or they think it’s okay.
About Teenage pregnancy and social ills
Ronnie: You know if my memory serves me right, there is a part in the Bible that says “O ye generation of vipers” that is what we are dealing with. I think it’s going to be difficult; it’s going to be very, very difficult to make the type of changes that are necessary. First of all, you would have to have the patience of Job. You are dealing with a generation now, where you can’t yell at, or scream at, because you could get killed. Children are not being brought up, they are growing up, and I saw the trend 30 years ago with this 15 year old; she wasn’t quite 15, and I went to Pindling. I said Ping, ‘you need to make it mandatory, that when they girls get 14 years old they go on the pill, at least if they are making love they can go to school, and get a proper education’. Now they are dropping out of school because they are pregnant. They can’t boil water and they are having babies. If they can’t boil water, how are they going to teach the children to boil water? It’s digressing all the time.
I am just happy to have lived in this country when living was good, when I could jump in my car at 2:00 in the morning, go out to the esplanade, open my doors, lay cross my back seat, go to sleep with money in my pocket, and wake up the next morning with money in my pocket.
The highlight of his career
NW: So through all your years of playing is there anyone who you wanted to play with, but did not have an opportunity to play with?
Ronnie: No, I have had the opportunity …in 68, 69 I had the opportunity to play with Roy Hamilton, when he came to Nassau. He was one of my favourite foreign artists, so was Ray Charles. Ray Charles is at the top of that list. But my biggest moment in entertainment was to be able to perform on a stage where many of the greats performed at the Apollo Theatre in New York City.
NW: So this CD coming out will be the fifteenth, what was the first?
Ronnie: The first album was called “Ronnie Butler Steps Out”
NW: What has been your most memorable album?
Ronnie: The Burma Road Album. It is forty years old and it’s still going strong. Ronnie and the Ramblers produced that.
NW: I heard you had part ownership in a Club?
Ronnie: Yes, Ronnie’s Rebel Room, you were five when I left there.
NW: Wow! (laughter).
NW: What was so memorable about the Burma Road album? I love that album.
Ronnie: Well, a number of the songs on that album, I wrote and what I wrote I had lived. And as a result, it was my life at the time and to a large degree still is. I haven’t changed, I would still rather go to the Reef and eat “Corn Beef and Rice” as opposed to going to Gray Cliff and them putting bush on my plate and calling it garnish, and they charging you for it (laughter).
Ronnie on his other hobbies
NW: Outside of music what do you do?
Suzette: Besides women (laughter)
Ronnie: See you just took the wind right out of my sail. Well, actually I enjoy reading, I read a lot. Most people know me because they see me on the stage for an hour or two, or when I had the band 3-4 hours, and it’s ha, ha…But the other 22 hours of the day, they don’t know me, they don’t know what I think, because I don’t get into that with anybody. I’m basically a loner, I don’t keep company, I don’t hang out, I don’t drink liquor, take drugs or anything like that, I never have.
NW: You have never?
Ronnie: I had my first taste of alcohol on my 29th Birthday, and maybe since then, I’ve had maybe 12 drinks. I grew up around drunks and that kinda put a damper on it. When I was in my late 20’s, early thirties, grass was prevalent, but I always believed that I want to do what I do and remember and know what I’ve done. I don’t want somebody to have to tell me well you did this because… I just stayed away from all drugs. My thing was, I would get off work and go home or go to the club, but other than that, if I could put the money one place, these couple of books you see here is a joke. The books in my back bedroom, in my mother’s house, the books I have in storage, if I had the money right now…I spend a lot of my time reading and I’ve been doing that for the last 38 to 40 years, just searching for knowledge. If a doctor wants to talk to me, if they want to talk about DNA or the Double Helix, Recumbent DNA, I can conversate because I’ve put my time into it. I have what you call this insatiable thirst for knowledge, so I spend a lot of money on books. So this book that you asked me about, this is the next chapter. This book is the Knowledge of Enoch, I want to get the actual book of Enoch.
Ronnie Butler FYI
Ronnie wrote his first song on his first album which was called Bahamian Gal.
© 2010 Nu Woman magazine. All rights reserved. This article was first published in Nu Woman’s summer/autumn 2010 issue.