Cricket legend Sir Curtly Ambrose has long since exchanged the bat and ball for the bass – but as he releases his long-awaited autobiography, the great man explains that sport and music are not so different after all
Words: Angus Batey Images provided by: Spirited
With a few exceptions (Roy Harper’s ‘When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease’, 10cc’s deathless ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, the Duckworth-Lewis Method), cricket hasn’t tended to be synonymous with great pop in the country that invented the game. In the Caribbean, however, it’s a different matter.
During the early 1970s, a West Indies team led by Clive Lloyd became the best side in world cricket. The Caribbean was emerging from colonialism, and cricket catalysed regional pride.
In parallel, reggae began to grow in popularity around the globe, itself a manifestation of a new spirit of West Indian independence. The cricketers and the musicians felt kinship and common cause: Bob Marley dropped in on the team in the changing room, and DJs took up residence in the stands during Test matches in Trinidad.
In Antigua, meanwhile – home of the next two men to succeed Lloyd as West Indies captain: Sir Viv Richards, a reggae fan nicknamed The Master Blaster after Stevie Wonder’s ode to Bob Marley, and Sir Richie Richardson – cricket and music converge in unprecedented manner. The band Spirited boast two icons of West Indies cricket in their line-up: Richardson, who plays guitar, and Sir Curtly Ambrose on bass.
“We’ve always felt that there’s two things that can unify the Caribbean – cricket and music,” says Ambrose, speaking to BGM during a visit to London to promote his autobiography. “They go together hand in hand, like a marriage.”
An imposing 6’7”, Ambrose came into the West Indies team under Richards, and went on to take 405 wickets in Test cricket. His record says he was one of the all-time greats, and no one who ever saw him play is likely to disagree. Alongside the Jamaican bowler Courtney Walsh, he formed arguably the most devastating new-ball partnership the sport has ever known: a satirical British cricket magazine of the 1990s dubbed them ‘Curt and Courtney – cricket’s rock’n’roll couple’.
Ambrose’s rise was meteoric: keener on basketball and football as a child, he didn’t take up cricket until his late teens, but within four years was an established international. He took to music just as easily…
“Richie [Richardson] used to be my roommate on tour,” Ambrose explains, “and to unwind from the pressures of international cricket he would strum his guitar. I would hit the table and do a little singing, just to relax. Then one day I just said to him, ‘I’m going to buy a bass guitar’. We were in Birmingham for a Test match, and there was a music shop around the corner from the hotel.”
He chose a headless Steinberger, the weapon of choice of his favourite bass player, David Edwards, of the Antigua band the Burning Flames. “I always liked his style,” Ambrose says. “He just makes it look so easy.”
The same thing used to be said for the way the Windies sides he was part of dominated world cricket.
“A lot of people say we made cricket look easy,” he says. “But it was never easy, to be honest: it was a lot of hard work. But because we played with a natural kind of flair, it appeared easy.”
A reputation for being elusive or even truculent kept him out of the media spotlight during his cricketing career: it was claimed that he once turned down a post-match interview request by asking a teammate to tell the journalist that ‘Curtly talks to no man’ – which is an excellent story, but sadly untrue, though referenced in his book’s title. Yet in bass players, perhaps, he found other members of the strong, silent tribe.
“I’ve always admired the bass men,” he says. “The bass is such an important instrument in music, especially in Caribbean music. It’s just a wonderful instrument.”
Ambrose and Richardson played music between cricketing commitments, jamming with the Burning Flames and learning the ropes of the Caribbean’s demanding music business as members of Dread & The Bald Head. It had always been Curtly’s intention to study music after retiring from cricket, but by the time he got to that stage his musical education was already extensive. Spirited formed in 2009 after Dread & The Bald Head fizzled out, and they currently hold down Friday and Saturday night residencies in Antigua. There is a substitute player for Ambrose when his new job, as a bowling consultant to the current West Indies side, takes him overseas.
Though known internationally for its reggae and soca hits, the majority of the Caribbean’s musical economy is based on tourism, with bands making a living from regular gigs in resorts and bars. Extreme versatility and high quality are mandatory: a band has to be able to play every style and genre in the book, and to pepper their two- or three-hour sets with dead-on recreations of current hits, if they want to keep the gig.
“That’s exactly what Spirited does,” Ambrose says. “Even though we’re Antiguan we can’t cater for the locals alone. A lot of visitors come to our shores: of course, we give them reggae, we give them some soca music and calypso, but we’ve got to please everyone – so we touch on everything.”
After learning on the Steinberger, Ambrose switched to five-string bass. “For reggae, in particular, it means you get a deeper, heavier sound,” he says. He doesn’t use effects, playing through a Fender rig owned collectively by the band. He has four basses: an Ibanez, a Warwick, a Fender Jazz, and one from Japanese manufacturer Tune.
“I saw it in the States a few years ago and thought it was different,” he says of the latter. “It’s not a very popular name. I’m the kind of person who likes to have things that not too many people own.”
There are a few similarities between the role he has in Spirited and the one he played for the West Indies. Cricket is a team sport unusually reliant on individual performances, and bowlers need to work in effective partnerships – just as a bass player has to fall in lock step with a drummer, and the rhythm section needs to integrate with the band. Individual style is vital, too – but has to be in service of the collective good, not just an end in itself.
In some ways, Ambrose doesn’t fit the fast-bowler stereotype. The Windies’ all-out pace attack could do real physical harm if the opposition weren’t careful – a Private Eye cartoon published at the height of their dominance showed a crusty duffer in a gentleman’s club reaching up to the library bookshelf and dusting down a copy of Jane’s West Indian Fast Bowlers – but it wasn’t Ambrose’s style to pepper the batsman with short-pitched bouncers aimed at the body. He glowered at batsmen, and on one infamous occasion almost came to blows with Australian captain Steve Waugh (the pair have never discussed the incident, Ambrose says; Waugh contributed a generous foreword to his book). But Curtly’s primary asset was a ruthless, metronomic accuracy – always putting the ball in what English batsman-turned-pundit Geoffrey Boycott calls “the corridor of uncertainty”: a channel near the stumps where the batsman is unable to leave the ball alone, but where playing shots is risky.
“Accuracy is the foundation for being a great fast bowler,” says Ambrose. “Pace is good – if you’ve got raw pace, batsmen are a bit wary of you sometimes. If you can swing and seam the ball, the variations will make you a complete bowler. But all those will be a waste of time if you can’t consistently put the ball in the right area.”
Accuracy and patience, yes – flair, by all means: but only if it’s allied to the fundamentals. Unsurprisingly, this is the same approach Ambrose brings to music.
“There’s nothing wrong with adding something nice and spicy, but it’s all about timing,” he says. “You can’t be going one way if the rest of the band are going another – it’ll just be a confusion. If you mess up you’ll throw out the whole thing. If a guitarist plays a couple of bad chords he can get away with it sometimes; but if you play a couple of bad notes on the bass the whole world’s going to hear.”
Time To Talk, by Curtly Ambrose with Richard Sydenham, is out now, published by Aurum Press.