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‘I didn’t get a copy of MY OWN single!’

STILL GOING STRONG: Dawn Penn

SHE MAY be famed as a reggae songstress, but Dawn Penn has turned her attention from songwriting to book writing with her new autobiography.

Considered by many as reggae royalty, the 58-year-old who found fame with her 1967 hit You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No), tells all about life in Jamaica, raising a family and being in an industry that she believes exploited her talent.

“I’ve been trying to write a book for the longest while; it’s been in my head,” says Penn. “I don’t consider myself a writer per se, but I just wanted to talk about my life growing up; before I left Jamaica. It allowed me to look back at things that used to happen around me; it brought back some memories.”

Performing as a singer since her childhood years, Penn was also able to reflect on her musical career in her book. In doing so, she realised how she embarked on a career with little understanding of how the business worked.

“I have been unraveling all of my past music for myself; I didn’t have a contract with anyone. I used to just go into the studio and sing, that’s it. I had sung a song When I’m Gonna Be Free; I don’t know how people got that track. It wasn’t even released, but I noticed that the seven-inch vinyl is selling on eBay in excess of £1,700. I never even had a copy.”

It would be an understatement to say that Penn started singing early; she was performing publicly from the age of five. By 1967, the vocalist had recorded a number of tracks for the late Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, including the rocksteady classic You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No). But by 1970, Penn left music and Jamaica behind to start a family in the Virgin Islands.

“I went to the Virgin Islands to check out my roots on my father’s side. They were Quakers, and I was living at the Quaker meeting place.”

Whilst living in the Virgin Islands, Penn lived a modest life and became mother to seven children. But a domestic “scenario” [the singer declined to expand on the situation] shattered her secure existence, forcing her to return with her children to her country of birth.

The turbulence continued as Penn worked a variety of administration jobs, had another child and moved from the Caribbean to America. It was whilst she was working in a record shop in Times Square, New York, that Penn truly embraced singing talent.

“What is for you can’t be un for you,” the singer laughed as she quoted the famed Jamaican expression. “It [my singing ability] was ordained, but I didn’t recognise it was my time. When I was in America I worked in a record shop. I was surrounded by so much music and it was a big learning curve. So I just said, ‘I need to do this.’”

The summer of 1992 re-ignited Penn’s musical career when she was invited to perform You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No), as part of a Studio One anniversary concert. The performance was a huge success and led to the singer re-recording the track for a Studio One tribute album.

The single was then re-released, earning Penn renewed attention and chart success in England, Europe and America.

“After that performance everything took off,” she recalls. “The song hit the British charts at number nine and also entered the Billboard charts.”

The song went on to be sampled by acts including Rihanna, US rapper Eve and Wu Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah, and was also performed by Beyoncé during her I Am Sasha Fierce tour. Though the track is undoubtedly Penn’s best-known hit, the singer says it angers her that she is considered by some to be a one-hit wonder.

“I was looking at Wikipedia and they were boosting No, No, No, making it look like I only had one song. It made me feel sick.”

Still, the reggae star, who is currently working on new music, says she is overwhelmed by the popularity the song has garnered over the years, with so many artists covering the track.

“Big dem up and everything; it’s a good feeling knowing that a person wants to cover your song. I thank God the song has outlived its time.”

Story Of My Life is out now, available from Amazon

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