Carlos Jones, the ‘Iron Man’ of Cleveland’s music scene

Carlos went big, from using pots and pans as a drum set, to a performance on a real stage. This is his musical journey.

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Carlos Jones, nicknamed the Iron-Man of the Cleveland reggae scene, has been performing since the early 1970s [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

“When you’re trotting up the rough side of the mountain you must keep your faith and trust in the Almighty.”- From Jah Guide Over Us, Carlos Jones.

Like many children his age Carlos Jones had his eyes and ears locked on the television screen as he watched the Beatles’ first American performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.

“Before then my only exposure that I can remember was music in the church, that Southern Gospel type thing,” Carlos says. “When I heard the Beatles the light bulb turned on.”

Carlos was born in the small town of Lawrenceville, Virginia, where his parents both worked as teachers. His grandfather and great grandfather were traditional Southern Baptist preachers. As a child, Carlos enjoyed spending time with his grandfather, a farmer with a “quiet strength” about him.

“When he preached, it was pretty much the traditional Baptist teachings of Jesus and the disciples, but I always got the underlying message: Faith and love, hope and trust, do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says Carlos.

Carlos’ father was in the army and in 1965 he was stationed in Germany. That’s when Carlos got his hands on his first Beatles record,

“I traded a Beach Boys album for a UK Beatles release that was only available to US servicemen,” Carlos says.

His father’s military career meant that the family was often on the move. “It seemed like every couple of years we were somewhere else – Germany, Chicago, Pennsylvania.”

Near the end of the 1960s, Carlos’ mother had had enough and she set down the family roots in Cleveland, Ohio.

“She finally put her foot down and said, ‘I’m done, I’m not moving any more.”

As the family settled into life in the States, Carlos began to absorb the music of the time – Southern soul, the Memphis sound, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones all blended together.

Carlos was naturally attracted to the drums and started beating on the furniture, pots, and pans from a young age. “You know, Ringo Starr,” he says with a smile. He begged his mother for a drum set and she finally gave in, buying a snare drum for her son. “Man, I beat the hell outta that thing!” remembers Carlos.

The drums led to a deeper exploration of music. The backbeat of Soul and R&B led Carlos to Motown and James Brown, and it was the conga intro to Be Thankful For What You Got by William DeVaughn that finally set Carlos on fire.

“I was like damn! So I went in search of that sound and I had to get some conga drums. I wanted that skin on skin sound,” he says.

Over the next few years Carlos picked up every type of percussion instrument he could get his hands on and he spent his time playing music with his brother and friends in the basement of his mother’s home. His first performance, a drum demonstration at the public library, was followed by a spot in his school talent show and Carlos quickly realised where his heart was heading, “I got bit by the bug.”

I-Tal and positive thinking

In 1973, Bob Marley and The Wailers performed Stir It Up on The Old Grey Whistle Test and once again Carlos was locked to the television screen.

“It was the beat, the rhythm drew me in.” He dived headfirst into reggae music, searching for the pulse, and he soon began to feel the message.

“I got to see Bob Marley perform in 78, it just kinda blew my mind … I wanna feel that.”

Bob Marley performs at a reggae festival in Paris, 1980 [The Associated Press]
Bob Marley performs at a reggae festival in Paris, 1980 [The Associated Press]

Around the time when Carlos saw Marley in concert, a fresh reggae band named I-Tal was making the scene in Cleveland.

Carlos and his older brother Keith caught one of their shows at The Coach House, a local bar long since closed.

During a break in the music Carlos introduced himself to one of the band members and asked if he could grab his bongos and sit in. “He was like, ‘Sure’,” Carlos says, “So I set up on the side of the stage, playing my bongos … and I never left!”

I-Tal’s shows were “joyous and elevated events,” and being in the middle of this had an addictive affect on Carlos, eventually inspiring him to start writing music.

During his first few years with I-Tal, Carlos worked as a mechanic during the day while performing with the band at night. His parents were now divorced and his two brothers moved away from home. Carlos decided to stay at home to help his mother with groceries and things around the house. “I felt like I was taking care of her.”

Despite the heightened experiences of their live shows and their growth in popularity, I-Tal were struggling to stay together. As the band neared its break up, Carlos wrote his first song, Hold Back Syndrome. The song was a message to band members urging communication and expressing his belief that they could work things out if they just let go of their fear and negativity.

As a child, Carlos’ mum always emphasised the power of positivity and he was surrounded by a strong element of faith.

“I remember seeing a book that my mum always had out called The Power of Positive Thinking, by Dr Norman Vincent Peale,” Carlos says, “That title always intrigued me.”

When he heard Bob Marley sing Positive Vibration it clicked and the foundation of Carlos’ thinking towards reggae music began to form.

“Lines like ‘Jah will see you through’ were like the songs I would hear growing up in the church, ‘Jesus will carry you through’. Once my intellect caught up with the concept of faith and just trusting in that higher power, that guiding force to guide you along the right path, you know, that just always felt right to me.”

First Light and the challenge of equality

In 1983, I-Tal split up and Carlos stepped into a new role as the front man of First Light, a reggae band whose sound incorporated rock influences with soul and R&B.

Bob Marley movie tells story of Jamaican star

“Even though it had the Jamaican rhythm and that beat, ya know, it had more of an edge … more of that rock edge and that drive.”

Carlos continued writing songs and the same themes that occurred in the music he had grown up listening to, issues like social and spiritual equality, made their way into his music. “I wrote about what I believed in.”

Early on in the band’s career there was little thought about playing the music industry game. “It was about the pure simple joy and the magic that making that music brought,” Carlos says.

This ideology was challenged as the band’s popularity began to grow. Thoughts about a record deal, and dealing with publicity turned the band into more of a commercial enterprise.

“The original purpose and intent got a little lost in trying to be what they say you are supposed to be in order to move up the ranks. But all the while I had that fire burning inside of me to express the positivity that was a constant ongoing theme – positive vibration. Even if we were covering songs by Nirvana, I always wanted to shine that light because that light never went out in me.”

Music and the way people consumed live performance began to change in the 90s and Carlos started to feel like he was losing the joy of making music. His mother began to show early signs of Alzheimer’s and family took precedent.

“Mum needed my help, and I just always felt like I was being guided.”

The Peace, Love, and Unity Syndicate

First Light broke up in 1994, which challenged Carlos to refocus.

“The timing of everything felt like it wasn’t really in my hands. It was just up to me to see and know what I was being shown and to make those difficult decisions to let go of whatever felt secure at the time and take that step … I just felt like the stone would appear under my foot just because I was moving forward.”

“I just look for the good, I rejoice in the good, and there's a lot of good to be had,
“I just look for the good, I rejoice in the good, and there’s a lot of good to be had,” – Carlos Jones [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

Over the next few years Carlos spent a lot of time with his mother, often bringing his guitar and playing for her.

“I remember a couple days before she passed. I was at a gig, it was the night the Pope [John Paul II] died. Even though I’m not Catholic, not being connected in that way, I still felt like, ‘Wow a great presence among us has left.’ There was a huge wind and ice storm that night. 

“Right about that time I was writing a song for mum and the place where I received the song, out in a park, there was a group of trees. The night after the show I went back to that group of trees and one of them was gone, the one directly in front of me, just gone,” remembers Carlos. “A day or so later … my mum passed.

“I just made a connection there, to be able to take that song and sing it for her as she was making her transition … I felt like it was a gift that was given to me, to give to her what she gave to me,” says Carlos.

Carlos’ faith has been strengthened since his mother’s death in 2015. He knows life is short. “It’s temporary, this physical life, you know, so the time to love and to do is right now,” Carlos says.

“I feel fortunate to know that my mission seems to be to tell what I know, what I know to be true, and try to pass that on to people and give them something to hold on to and carry and share. While my mom’s passing was sad – to lose her from this physical life, at the same time to know she was free from the pain and the worry and confusion, and to be there to help birth her into the next, into pure spirit, you know, I mean, that just felt so right to me.”

Carlos says he believes in the higher power, “whatever name you choose to give it.”

“I don’t call myself Rastafarian,” he says because he feels it is a cultural label that wasn’t part of his upbringing. “There are a lot of things I align with when it comes to Rastafarianism, but I think calling myself a Rasta would be a disservice to those people who really had to live it. It’s not a coat you put on.”

For Carlos, “religion and spiritual belief are like spokes on a big wheel: You have people with whatever belief they have but it all comes to the centre in one focal truth, and love seems to be it.”

He finds a common element in all faiths that he thinks unites all. “You know when Rasta says one love, well I can get behind that, but what about the Buddhist, what about Islam, Hindus, I mean there seems to be a single thread or element that binds them all.”

“Who am I to say that, well, your way of looking at is wrong and mine is right?”

Carlos Jones performs at Brother's Lounge in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2013 [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]
Carlos Jones performs at Brother’s Lounge in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2013 [Angelo Merendino/Al Jazeera]

Carlos is no longer concerned with playing the music industry game. He shares his message of love and positivity as the leader of the PLUS band – The Peace, Love, and Unity Syndicate.

PLUS came together in 1993 and the band’s current schedule shows few signs that they are letting up. The feeling of being appreciated for what he has to offer gives Carlos more satisfaction than any artist could ask for.

“People have told me they met their spouse at our show, or they conceived their firstborn after our show … I mean just to know that our music is a part of people’s life like that, you can’t beat it!”

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“It’s that feeling, you know, these little things that make you wonder, and smile, and I catch them a lot. That is, to me, the faith that the spirit Is, and you can be open to it,” Carlos says.

“It doesn’t mean your life is gonna be perfect, it’s a roller-coaster ride but I’m on for the whole ride.

“I just look for the good, I rejoice in the good, and there’s a lot of good to be had. So many have said it, love, you know. It just feels to me that it’s gotta be true.”

Source: Al Jazeera