At age eleven he became a founding member of Musical Youth, a British-Jamaican pop/reggae band. The group originally formed in 1979 at Duddeston Manor School in Birmingham, England and featured two sets of brothers, Kelvin and Michael Grant, plus Junior and Patrick Waite.
The latter pair’s father, Frederick Waite, was a former member of Jamaican group The Techniques, and sang lead with Junior at the start of the group’s career in the late 1970s.
They were quickly signed to MCA Records and by that time, founding father Frederick Waite had backed down, to be replaced by Dennis Seaton, a kid their own age, as lead singer.
In 1982 they released there first and only hit. The pro-marijuana song called, “Pass The Dutchie” was based on “Pass The Kouchie” by ‘The Mighty Diamonds.’ The song sold over 5 million copies, but none of their future releases would gain as much attention as this one had. They went onto sing backup for Donna Summers until the career began to sour, eventually leading to the disbanding of the band in 1985.
An interview in England from March 2003 reveals that Musical Youth was Doomed from the start, in an industry that has claimed many legends, unprepared for great wealth, adoration and royalty theft. Here is that interview with singer Dennis Seaton and keyboard player Michael Grant.
Next Car & Van Rental sits opposite a council estate in Halesowen, a small town near Birmingham. It’s not the best area, but it’s not the worst either. The walls of the forecourt are spiked with broken glass. Inside, co-owner Steve Cooke offers a pulverizing handshake, the internationally recognized signal of a provincial businessman on the up. His partner, Dennis Seaton, is charming, yet seems faintly sheepish about being interviewed.
Next Car & Van Rental is a long way from the Grammy awards, where Seaton was nominated best newcomer the night Michael Jackson picked up eight gongs for Thriller, and from Los Angeles, where he was briefly top goalscorer on Rod Stewart’s celebrity expat Sunday league team. But it’s also a fair distance from signing on or delivering sacks of rice, which Seaton also did when his 15 minutes of fame ran out. Today, few of his customers know he was ever famous. “People aren’t going to rent a car from me because I used to be the singer in Musical Youth,” he says.
Musical Youth’s 1982 single Pass the Dutchie sold 5m copies. They broke America. They were the first black artists to be played on MTV – beating Michael Jackson by several months. But their stardom never transcended its era. Seaton’s tales are thick with dimly remembered names. They were regulars on Razzmatazz, Tyne Tees’s unlamented pop show. They worked on a film with The A Team’s Mr T. Irene Cara, singer of Fame and Flashdance, guested onstage. Throw in a commentary by Stuart Maconie and some footage of people wearing deely boppers and you’ve got yourself a BBC2 nostalgia show.
What started out as a jaunty celebration of multi-cultural British youth ended as a cautionary tale about the perils of naivety in the music industry. Like all tales from rock’s dark side, it involved drugs, mental instability, lawlessness, financial wranglings and premature death. In this tale, however, the people who got in trouble, went mad and died had barely hit puberty at the height of their success.
Eating lunch in a gaudy Birmingham leisure complex, keyboard player Michael Grant is aware that Musical Youth has become a byword for child stardom’s misery. “Black artists get ripped off, child stars get ripped off,” he says. “We were doomed from the start, really.”
Grant is the only surviving member of Musical Youth who still has a successful musical career. Remixes by his production team, 5am, have graced singles by Mariah Carey, Busta Rhymes and Kelly Rowland. He manages a gospel duo called Nu Life and has recently produced an indie band, River Deep. “I want to produce the next Oasis album,” he says hopefully.
Courteous to a fault, he is nevertheless noticeably angrier about Musical Youth’s demise than Seaton. The singer retains a curious ebullience even when accusing the music industry of racism. Perhaps that’s the legacy of being the frontman, spending your early teens grinning good-naturedly on gormless kids’ TV shows and in gormless pop magazines.
Grant was nine years old in 1979, when he and his guitarist brother Kelvin, then seven, joined Musical Youth. They had formed at the behest of a family friend, Freddie Waite, once a singer in Jamaican vocal trio the Techniques. Waite had left the band in 1966, emigrated to England and ended up in Nechells, in inner-city Birmingham. Waite encouraged his sons, Patrick and Junior, to take up bass and drums respectively. When the Grant brothers joined them, they became his backing band.
“We used to do a lot of pubs and clubs with this 35-year-old man when we were between the ages of seven and 12,” says Grant. “This old guy next to a bunch of kids! Kelvin’s hands were so small they could only just reach around the fretboard of his guitar. It was odd, but we got a favourable reaction. We could play our instruments.”
Reggae is a famously obtuse genre. It makes stars out of the most unlikely people. Freddie Waite and Musical Youth were certainly weird, but no weirder than, say, King Stitt, Jamaica’s cross-eyed, toothless, facially disfigured DJ. Outside reggae circles, however, Freddie Waite and Musical Youth were just too peculiar. An A&R man spotted them performing in Coventry, and offered them a deal – on one condition. “He said, you need a singer your own age,” Grant chuckles. “We held an audition and Dennis was the only one to turn up. It was pretty embarrassing.”
Musical Youth signed to MCA records in 1982. “We would have been excited if we knew what it meant,” says Grant. “We thought it was par for the course – why shouldn’t we get a record deal? We didn’t really understand.”
“The Fun Boy Three tried to talk to us about the business,” remembers Seaton. “But we were asking them questions like, ‘Are you going out with Bananarama?'”
Musical Youth’s first single for MCA was a version of the Mighty Diamonds’ Rastafarian anthem Pass the Kouchie, with the lyrics and title famously altered to avoid any reference to marijuana. Driven by Kelvin Grant’s exuberant toasting – a kind of Jamaican proto-rapping, then entirely alien to a British pop audience – Pass the Dutchie entered the charts at number 26 on September 25. The next week it leapt to number one. It was a hit across Europe. It reached the top 10 in America. They recorded with Donna Summer. Michael Jackson took a shine to them. “I was one of those kids that’s been in his bedroom,” says Grant indignantly, “and nothing untoward happened.”
The money was rolling in. Everyone except Seaton moved away from their council estate homes. “We had to set up our own companies,” he remembers. “We had to get accountants and sit in board meetings. I would ask questions, but I was 15 and I felt like I was bothering them.”
In some ways, it’s surprising Musical Youth’s success lasted so long. In a market reliant on high visibility to keep fickle audiences interested, Musical Youth were restricted by guidelines protecting child performers. “We could only work 42 days of the year, and we were trying to compete against guys that toured for 18 months solid,” says Grant.
In addition, once the excitement surrounding Pass the Dutchie died down, Musical Youth found themselves trapped in a musical no-man’s land, between frivolous teen pop and the sombre, grittily political world of reggae. They had honed their skills in Birmingham’s notoriously tough black clubs and recorded sessions for the John Peel show, but their age meant they would inevitably be viewed as a novelty, aimed not at serious music fans but children. “We were seen as a novelty, not just because of our age, but because of the colour of our skin,” says Grant. “There weren’t any role models around our age, there weren’t any black kids on TV, so we were setting a lot of trends.”
The disparity showed in the songs Dennis Seaton penned with Freddie Waite. They awkwardly attempted to graft the language with which Rastafarian artists prophesied Babylon’s imminent collapse on to juvenile concerns. Pass the Dutchie’s follow-up, The Youth of Today, suggested its protagonist was “under heavy manners”, a phrase coined by Jamaican premier Michael Manley, when he introduced martial law in 1976. It wasn’t the first time the term had been re-appropriated by a reggae song (fire-and-brimstone Rasta Prince Far-I beat them to it) but it was presumably the first time it had been used to describe a child’s frustration at being unable to “buy a little bike”. The B-sides of their second top 10 single Never Gonna Give You Up further encapsulated their dilemma. One was a bass-heavy band original called Rub N Dub. The other was the theme to Jim’ll Fix It.
Their record label was keen to capitalise on their US success. In America, Pass the Dutchie had become the biggest-selling reggae single in over a decade – testament both to the band’s commercial appeal and the fact that Americans didn’t buy many reggae records. “We started doing R&B because they wanted to make it accessible to America,” says Grant. “Even then, at 13, I was thinking, this isn’t what I want. We weren’t really in a position to argue. I should have been more assertive in hindsight, but I was a child. I had no influence on my career. To say we were manipulated is an understatement. We were led by everybody and anybody.”
It was to prove a disastrous miscalculation. Different Style limped to number 144 in America. In Britain, too, the novelty had worn off: 18 months after Pass the Dutchie, Musical Youth’s chart career was over. Its failure shocked their label, which hurriedly sent them – with their families – to Barbados for a massively expensive recording session with reggae star Eddy Grant. “My parents realised the money was running out, that we didn’t look as happy,” remembers Grant. “Nobody from the record company and the management came to explain to my parents about what was going on. Towards the end of Musical Youth, they got solicitors involved. Now, looking back, it was an absolute nightmare.”
“It became the Grants versus the Waites and Dennis Seaton was caught up in the whole thing. The parents thought their career wasn’t being planned or controlled properly,” says David Morgan, who became Seaton’s manager in the late 1980s. “I think they thought they could do better themselves, but they had no knowledge of the business. When MCA saw this internal squabbling, they were pretty dismayed. Then when the label discovered the amount of money Eddy Grant had charged them, and heard what he’d done, that was pretty much the kiss of death.”
While the families and their respective lawyers battled with each other, the behaviour of both Waite brothers was becoming unpredictable. “Junior was showing signs of mental problems,” says Grant. “Stuff that should have been water off a duck’s back he was taking really seriously. If you asked him why he hadn’t shaved, he’d go beserk, ‘Why are you criticising me? Why don’t you mind your own business?’ Patrick was like that as well. I just thought, ‘We don’t need this.'”
The reasons behind their decline are still mysterious. One band associate solemnly claims Patrick Waite’s problems stemmed from an incident in which he had “fallen over and bumped his head”. Seaton thinks they had something to do with the Waite family’s relocation from the estates of Nechells to Edgbaston. “They moved to this swanky apartment, a well-to-do area. That changed them because they were in surroundings that they weren’t used to. My family stayed in Nechells, my mum bought her house there. It keeps you grounded.”
More prosaically, the Waite brothers had developed drug problems. Seaton and Grant profess ignorance as to precisely what drugs. “Obviously, we knew that he was smoking weed because we were his friends, but this other stuff, we had no idea,” says Seaton. “When I hear now what people are like on speed, I think that’s what it must have been. When Patrick left school, he was spending a lot of time in this pub that his dad owned, so I suppose he must have got it there. It wasn’t until we got out on the road that we realised he was going off the rails.”
Patrick Waite’s erratic behaviour came to a head on a final, disastrous trip to Jamaica in the spring of 1985. “He completely lost it onstage,” Grant remembers. “He was totally spaced out, didn’t know where the hell he was, playing all kinds of crap. His dad ran onstage, took his bass off him and took him off the stage.”
Waite was hospitalised, and the rest of Musical Youth left Jamaica without him. Back in England, they were dropped by MCA and broke up in June, spurred by Seaton’s decision to leave: “The day before my 18th birthday, I became a Christian, and from that day everything changed. For the last four years, I’d lived, breathed, slept and shit Musical Youth. The decision to leave wasn’t planned. I didn’t even particularly want to be a solo artist. I just wasn’t happy.”
Neither was Michael Grant. “After the band broke up, I read this article in one of the tabloids saying Musical Youth were has-beens. I was 16 years old. All my friends are leaving school, going into jobs, starting their lives, doing all that sort of thing, and you read this article saying you’re a has-been. I didn’t do anything for a couple of years. I got involved with different bands, but it didn’t bring me any peace.”
His brother, just 14 when the band split, was equally distraught. “He got bored and restless and didn’t have anything to do. Kelvin didn’t want to go back into the music industry, didn’t want to go back down that road. He felt a bit burned by the experience. He’s still trying to find some direction.”
Today, Kelvin Grant is a virtual recluse; the brothers seldom speak. Various attempts to reform Musical Youth during the late 1980s floundered, usually because of the Waites’s unpredictability. Seaton tried his hand at a solo career. Despite songwriting help from Stevie Wonder, his 1989 album Imagine That flopped. Two years later, he was back in Birmingham, driving a delivery van. “I had to sign on when the money ran out. People were looking at me and laughing, but I had to do it.”
The Waite brothers’ lives unravelled far more dramatically. Patrick Waite began making local newspaper headlines as a petty criminal. Grant thinks his crimes had little to do with poverty. “Suddenly, there’s no rehearsals, you’re not going around the world any more. I think he was just bored out of his mind.” In 1987, he was jailed for four months for reckless driving, credit-card fraud and assaulting the police. In 1990, he was jailed again, for robbing a pregnant woman at knifepoint. Shortly after his release, he was arrested again, for marijuana possession. “I had words with him,” remembers Seaton. “I was trying to tell him it affected all five of us, that it was tarnishing whatever reputation the band had left. Every time he appeared in the papers it wasn’t Patrick Waite, it was Musical Youth. That was the last conversation I ever had with him.”
While awaiting trial in February 1993, Patrick Waite collapsed on February 18 and died at his uncle’s, the victim of heart failure brought on by a rare virus. He was 24 years old.
At the time of his death, he was sharing a flat with his mother, sister and Junior, whose mental condition had worsened. “He just got more and more withdrawn,” says Seaton. “I suppose he had a breakdown. He used to sit at home all day watching Aswad videos. He was like a guy that retires, doesn’t have anything to do. It’s bound to affect you.” Junior Waite was eventually sectioned. Today, he is still under medical supervision, in the care of his mother.
By the late 1990s, Musical Youth had passed into history. The sound of Pass the Dutchie became a sort of musical shorthand for a less manufactured era of pop. In 1998, Seaton’s former manager David Morgan heard it on the soundtrack of 1980s-themed romantic comedy hit The Wedding Singer. “I rang Dennis and said, ‘You must be earning a lot of money. He said no. The members of Musical Youth had not received any royalty accounting from their record label since 1986, which was diabolical. Just the use on The Wedding Singer earned about £20,000.”
It took him two and a half years to sort through Musical Youth’s business affairs.”Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ,” said Universal’s spokesman, when Morgan launched a £2m claim for unpaid royalties, damages and interest on the money owed Musical Youth. “I sent something like 10,000 letters,” he sighs. “They tried to wear me down by ignoring me.” In December 2002, MCA/Universal settled out of court. Morgan cannot divulge exact figures but claims “it amounts to close on a seven-figure sum. In the end, the record company were embarrassed about it.”
In addition, he has convinced the label to release a Musical Youth compilation. Seaton and Grant plan to promote it with some club dates and a 1980s package tour. “Everyone remembers Musical Youth,” says Seaton. And indeed they do. Ever since Frankie Lymon, the teenage singer of Why Do Fools Fall in Love? overdosed on heroin in 1968, child stars whose careers go horribly wrong have exerted a morbid fascination. It may be that their stories confirm the public’s worst instincts about the music industry. It may be something to do with the gulf between the chirpy records children invariably make and the reality of their lives: child stars rarely sound like Joy Division or Nirvana, signposting doom in their music. Or it may be simple nostalgia for a more innocent era. “I still get emails from Holland,” smiles Seaton. “People saying we changed their life.” Then his telephone rings, and he arranges to pick up a Mercedes hatchback from a nearby industrial estate.
Their recordings include “Children Of Zion,” “Rockers,” “Youth Of Today,” “Sixteen,” “Yard Stylee,” “Air Taxi,” “Blind Boy,” “Mash It The Youth Man, Mash It,” “Young Generation,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Heartbreaker,” “Never Gonna Give You Up,” “Schoolgirl,” “Shanty Town,” “She’s Trouble,” “Watcha Talking ‘Bout,” “Incommunicado,” “No Strings,” and “Tell Me Why.”
They received a Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards of 1984. Their follow-up to “Pass the Dutchie”, “Youth Of Today”, reached number 13 in the UK Singles Chart, and early in 1983, “Never Gonna Give You Up”, climbed to UK number 6. Minor successes with “Heartbreaker” and “Tell Me Why”, were succeeded by a collaboration with Donna Summer on the UK Top 20 hit, “Unconditional Love”.
In 2001, the band reformed, but the set of shows scheduled for the Here & Now tour of that year were cancelled due to the 9-11 attacks. Sadly, and according to your website, original band members Freddie ‘Junior’ Waite has since suffered a nervous breakdown, Kelvin Grant also suffers from psychological problems, and Patrick Waite died at age 24 from heart problems!
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