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Ken Khouri: pioneer of Jamaican recording industry
published: Sunday | September 28, 2003


Khouri

Balford Henry, Staff Reporter

KENNETH LLOYD KHOURI, the Jamaican businessman who died peacefully on September 20, will always be remembered as one of the pioneers of the Jamaican music industry.

Although when people outside the business talk about the origins of the Jamaican popular music industry his name is rarely mentioned, within the industry Ken Khouri is one of the most honoured pioneers.

Retired and a reserved man in his later years, it was Khouri's adventurism which actually gave birth to the record-manufacturing business in Kingston.

He started with a second-hand recording machine he bought from a hustler in Miami, Florida, in the United States of America (USA), and he went on to build Federal Records, which he eventually sold to the late Bob Marley and which has since become Tuff Gong International.

NOT BEGGING RECOGNITION

"Nobody ever says thanks," Mr. Khouri told The Sunday Gleaner when last interviewed a few years ago at his home in St. Andrew. "People from abroad do and a few people who did business with me from the beginning, like Prince Buster and Keith 'Matador' Daley, Ernie Smith and Pluto (Shervington) call me up sometimes, but otherwise nobody remembers," he said.

Khouri, however, never wanted to seem like he was begging for recognition.

"I would rather that you do not say it but I am disappointed, especially with the Government, for not recognising my contribution," he said.

However, that omission was partially-filled recently, when he was awarded a Musgrave medal for his contribution to music. Unfortunately, Mr. Khouri died before he could personally collect the medal.

In 2001, he was one of 25 Caribbean persons inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Caribbean Development for the Arts and Culture at its 'Awards of Excellence' ceremony at Kings House in St. Andrew.

A native of St. Mary, where he grew up in the Richmond/High-gate area, Mr. Khouri moved to Kingston as a young man and joined the firm of E.A. Issa and Brothers Limited, where he was eventually elevated to a managerial post, handling incoming goods.

He went into the furniture business for two years after he left that job. Then his Lebanese father took seriously ill.

"He came to Jamaica when he was only 12 and died when he was 81," Mr. Khouri explained.

Mr. Khouri's father was quite an influential man, especially in political circles, so when he took ill and Ken did not have a passport to take him to Miami for an operation not available in Jamaica, the younger Khouri decided to wield that influence.

"I decided to go to Drumblair to see Norman Manley. I woke him up at four o'clock in the morning. I knew him very well. He wasn't what you would call a personal friend, but we knew each other and I was desperate and this was the only way I could get temporary travel documents.

"I told him how seriously ill my father was, after I apologised, and that I needed help to take the plane with him to Miami. He got on the phone immediately and by the time came for the flight all the necessary documents were ready and arrangements were already made for him to be taken by ambulance from the airport in Miami to the Jackson Memorial Hospital."

Mr. Khouri's father was suffering from a growth in his bladder and he had to visit him day and night.

He decided to rent a car to travel around in, but the car's radio stopped working the first day he had it. He took back the vehicle and while he was dealing with the problem, he heard a man talking to the owner of the rental agency.

"The fellow was saying that he was desperate, but the owner was telling him 'I'm sorry, I can't help you' I turned to the fellow and asked, 'Is it something you're selling?' He told me that it was a disc recording machine and asked if I was interested. I asked him to wait until I had the car radio fixed."

Mr. Khouri drove the young man to his home.

"His wife had just given birth to a child and they wanted some money to return to California. I told him to demonstrate how the machine worked. He recorded a disc from the radio right there. I asked him the price and he said he wanted US$350, but said I could give him US$300. I gave him the whole US$350, because I didn't want to take advantage of him. He was down and out and I didn't want to squeeze him. He gave me a box with 100 discs to go with the machine! I asked him how much they cost him. He said US 50 cents apiece. I gave him US$50 more," Mr. Khouri related.

Two weeks later, Khouri's father had improved enough for them to return home.

As soon as he came back, he started cutting voice recordings on the machine. "People were so fascinated with it, I couldn't find enough time to do them," Ken Khouri said.

Mr. Khouri was smart enough to come home with 500 discs, but they quickly ran out because people were crowding him for voiced discs from the machine. He had to send for another 1,000 discs immediately.

COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL

The discs cost 50 shillings apiece and became so popular that even churches were begging him to take the machine to their functions to record fascinated people's voices.

Realising the commercial potential of the machine, Khouri started recording music, instead of just voices. He first started out at a club which was located at Red Gal Ring in St. Andrew, as well as at home.

With increasing commercial success, he decided to import the discs in bulk. Then he called Decca in London and agreed with them to make records from the discs for sale.

"They told me how to pack the discs and send them. I sent a lot. The first song I did was Lord Fleas' Naughty Little Flea. I told them I wanted 500 in 45 rpms and they said it would cost me one shilling and sixpence. I ordered thousands more, although I didn't even have the money to pay for it," he said.

This was when Khouri turned to another and more successful local businessman, Alec Durie of Times Store in Downtown Kingston, for support.

"I made a proposition to him that I wanted him to become the sole distributor of the records. He was excited and we started the Times Record label. I told him to just sell them and give me the difference." Durie agreed.

Their first attempt was a real gamble, but it paid off handsomely. Durie advertised the sale of the records on their Times Records label in the newspapers for the Saturday.

"When I got to King Street the Saturday, I saw a line two blocks long. People had lined up to buy the records. We sold out in less than two weeks. I ordered 5,000 more records and we sold them for between four and five shillings each," Khouri recalled.

People with gramophones at home and no local records to play were snapping up the Times Records 45 rpms like hot cakes.

This encouraged Khouri to start manufacturing the records himself, instead of sending the discs to Decca in London. He called a factory in California, which agreed to send him the machinery as well as an expert who would spend three months teaching him the technique.

Khouri said that in two weeks he had learnt enough. They set up shop at a place owned by Durie at 129 King Street, between Charles and North streets: "I rented a large room, set up a press with boiler and so on," he said.

Then Khouri encountered his first problem ­ the disc would not come off the die. The records were sticking to the stamper (the metallic form from which the records are pressed). He tried using a penknife; there were some nicks, but, at least they could play.

More problems were to develop. Khouri imported five tons of vinyl (the material on which the record is pressed) from London, which turned out to be useless.

The man from California who was showing Khouri how to use the machine the called his office and asked them to send 50 pounds of their vinyl on condition that if it worked, Khouri would start buying from them.

It worked, but the London company refused to take back the five tons Khouri had on his hands, which he had to throw away and order another five tons from California.

"From there on it was easy street," Khouri said.

He started pressing records for Mercury under a franchise, including songs like She Boom and The Little Shoemaker.

EXPANDING THE BUSINESS

Then another problem arose. The records started flying off the spindle prematurely and even lodged pieces in his left thumb. It took him two days to correct the problem, which was simply an untightened spindle.

Khouri could not meet the demand for his records and had to order another press from California ­ a racine hydraulic system. He eventually expanded to three presses and into two more out-rooms on King Street.

Khouri continued expanding, eventually opening a studio at the same location using as engineer Radio Jamaica's (RJR) Graeme Goodall, who stayed with him for 15 years.

In 1961, he set up a studio and factory at Marcus Garvey Drive which became Federal Records Manufacturing Company Limited.

One of Khouri's earliest associates was current opposition leader Edward Seaga, himself a record producer and label owner who had the franchise for Columbia Records in Jamaica: "I sold his business to Byron Lee and it has now become Dynamic Sounds Limited," Mr. Khouri boasted.

He remembered Chris Blackwell from the early days: "He begged me to join him in London when he went there (to start Island Records)," Khouri said.

Khouri was like a godfather to many early Jamaican producers, including Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, Arthur 'Duke' Reid, Prince Buster and Lloyd 'Matador' Daley.

Khouri credits Prince Buster with being the most grateful of those he had worked with.

"I liked him. He was a Federal man. Loyal. Nobody could say anything bad about him to me. I did a lot for Coxsone and King Edwards, Edwards eventually cursed me."

Khouri emigrated to the United States with his wife in the 1970s in the height of the socialism debate, leaving his sons in charge of the business.

He lived in Miami from 1977 to 1980, when he returned to get the company out of debt. However, he was too ill to handle the tough job and decided to sell in 1981.

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