A Patient By The Name Of (Gregory Isaacs)

On Sunday 13th of May 1984 I was returning home after a weekend out there on the perimeter of South London which had started at Friday tea-time. I had to change buses in Brixton so hopped into the warren of the Stockwell Park Estate for a pit stop at my friend Mary’s. See the kids, quiet cup of tea & a smoke before catching a #35 back to Camberwell. Well, that didn’t happen, the small flat was noisy, full of Mary & around 9 of her friends, some I knew, others I wouldn’t mind knowing, all dressed up & priming themselves to attend a Gregory Isaacs concert across the road at the Brixton Academy. There was one no-show so a ticket was going spare & I was invited along. I had been at it for 48 hours, had work in the morning & was looking forward to my bed. Anyhow this posse of smart, sharp black women were enjoying ragging on a slightly frazzled white man just a little too much. It was time to call a halt to their fun so I left them at the venue & went home. Lightweight!

GREGORY ISAACS © Beth Lesser | Jamaican music, Jamaican culture, Reggae  style

If I didn’t already know it the 1987 release of that concert as “Encore” confirmed that I missed quite an occasion. Gregory “The Cool Ruler” was an international Reggae superstar by this time. Romantic Reggae had always been a thing alongside the conscious Roots Rastafarian music & his classic, clear, polished “Night Nurse” album (1982) set a new standard for the Lovers Rock that was now carrying the swing in Jamaican music. Gregory, recording since he was a teenager, had released a string of albums since 1975, more than a few of them essential. After a 6-month stretch for the possession of unlicensed firearms with his swag, style & his studio/touring band, the Roots Radics, he was ready to show the world how it was done.

And there it is. “If I Don’t Have You” from “More Gregory” (1981), like “Loving Pauper” (“Extra Classic” 1976), & “Lonely Girl (“Soon Forward” 1979) is one of the finest examples of his “lonely lover” style, the smooth, languid vocals heartfelt & believable, gorgeous & glorious. Gregory was always independent. He, like many singers on the island, hired himself out to other producers primarily to finance his own African Museum record shop & label, on Queen St, in front of the Tivoli Gardens, you know it. Here, along with the best Jamaican musicians, he had total control over the recording of his prolific catalogue of songs. His talent as a writer/arranger/producer compliments his position as one of the great Reggae singers. The “Extra Classic” album, a collection of his work for himself & others between 1973-1976, is exactly what it says in the title.

It wasn’t all finding & losing Love. Of course as a young Jamaican man Gregory couldn’t fail to be influenced by Rastafarianism & to be affected by the violent political turmoil of the decade. “Dread Locks Love Affair” skilfully brought romance into this social realm & his cultural songs, reflections on Kingston street life, bring an effective contrast & texture to his records. Here’s one now.

Gregory Isaacs in front of African Museum Record Shop - photo Beth Lesser

“Black A Kill Black”, still sweet but with the militancy & social conscience that marked Jamaican music of the time. A personal shout too for “Thief A Man” (just a part of Babylon’s plan”), a track from “Gregory Isaacs Meets Ronnie Davis” (1979) where the two singers, under Ossie Hibbert’s production, sounded as clean as country water over rhythms that were so bright you gotta wear shades. It’s one of the great Reggae albums. I do have a penchant for a “version” of a favourite tune & Gregory’s melodic song construction, a natural mid-tempo flow, lends itself to some unhurried rhythmic exploration. Over at King Tubby’s studio in 1978 with Prince Jammy at the controls Gregory’s voice was largely absent from “Slum (In Dub)” & his songs are the foundation of a lovely, relaxed Dub album.

Throughout the 1980s Gregory Isaacs consolidated his legendary status in Reggae music though an addiction to crack cocaine became expensive & debilitating. He was always prolific until his death in 2010, the Discogs website lists 127 albums while the Wiki checks for over 500 including compilations & records re-released under a different title. A couple of his later ones were nominated for Grammy awards but there is no doubt that his drug use had affected his previously peerless voice & the quality of his output. If you have no Gregory in your collection (that’s not possible is it?) it’s probably best to start with something recorded before 1990.

Gregory Isaacs, 1970 | Peter Simon

In 1980 my friend Dave had a flat above a pub in Soho’s Old Compton Street, right at the heart of London’s glittering West End. Newly arrived in the nation’s capital our reckless, alcohol-fuelled adventures around a part of the city that never slept, still edgy, even a little dangerous, were exciting. Back at the pad we could get mellow, move the speakers to the open windows & enjoy the nightlife below while blasting “Soon Forward” down to them. It’s a tune that always brings back memories of good times, a couple of rebels without a clue, young, free & stupid. “Soon Forward” is more than that, it’s one of the greatest records, Reggae or otherwise, Gregory Isaacs’ songwriting skills, unique vocal talent & consummate production combining to nourish the head, the heart & to stir the hips. He was Cool & he Ruled.

Soul Brother & Sisters (Soul November 14th 1970)

At #17, rising 10 places, on the Cash Box Top 60 For R&B Locations for 14th November 1970 was “Big Leg Woman (in a Short, Short Mini Skirt)” by Israel “Popper Stopper” Tolbert. This credit alone justifies inclusion in any monthly chart review & it’s a fine bluesy, brassy Muscle Shoals party. While I could knock off a couple of paragraphs concerning big leg women & skirts that no-one needs to read, I know very little about the Big Popper so we’ll leave it with the link. Anyway, this week there was a new chart topper by one of the greats of Sixties Soul. The first time he had hit #1 since 1967.

Remembering Wilson Pickett; daughter, Veda, helping to keep his memories  alive - Music Life Magazine

Yeah ! In 1966 this 13 year old cast his vote in the New Musical Express Readers Poll for Wilson Pickett in the World Male Vocal category. The Wicked Pickett released 4 singles that year, “634-5789”, “Ninety Nine & a Half (Won’t Do)”, “Land of 1000 Dances” & “Mustang Sally”, Blimey! My pocket money was still spent on discs by the British Beat groups but the raw, impassioned vocals & that driving beat made these records the highlight of the weekend Youth Club dances. They, more than any other, first brought the Stax studios in Memphis & the Alabaman FAME gang of session musicians to my attention. It’s a devotion that endures to the present day. “Spotlight on Wilson Pickett now, that wicked wicked Pickett. Singin’ Mustang Sally, Oh yeah, oh yeah”.

Wilson Pickett In Philadelphia - Rolling Stone

By 1970 Wilson may have been supplanted in my affections by the greater sophistication & wider range of Otis, Marvin, Stevie. After his 1968 success with the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” he released a number of Souled-up covers of Rock & Pop hits. It was in 1970 that Atlantic moved Pickett away from his usual recording setting, matching him with Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff the young writer/producers rapidly establishing their reputation. The resulting album, “Wilson Pickett In Philadelphia”, introduces more varied instrumentation, a little sweetness, without changing his gritty, forceful voice. That was his trademark, what made him “Wicked”, there would be no point. The record is a little uneven but when it was done right, & the groovy, funkified “Engine Number 9” certainly is that, it worked. Both 45s lifted from it returned Pickett to the US Pop Top 20 & that was the point. In the following year , Gamble & Huff having their own thing to do, Wilson successfully returned to Muscle Shoals before leaving his long-time home at Atlantic & not bothering the chart compilers so much. “Engine Number 9”, a welcome update on his sound, is not always included in the top rank of his hits, it should be.

Ann Peebles | Concert posters, Music concert posters, Vintage music posters

Down in Memphis bandleader Willie Mitchell had been working at Hi Records since 1961. Increasingly involved in production, by 1970 he had his ducks in a row & made his move. Taking over as executive vice-president of the label he had two new singers, Ann Peebles & Al Green, to record & develop along with a stellar studio band anchored by the Hodges brothers, Charles, Teenie & Leroy & star drummer Al Jackson Jr. from Booker T & the M.G.s. “Part Time Love” was the fourth single released by Ann Peebles. It was at #3 on this week’s chart, a breakthrough, the biggest hit yet for the new kids on the Memphis block though how “Generation Gap Between Us”, the lead 45 of 1970, missed out remains a mystery to me.

Ann Peebles - Part Time Love / I Still Love You (1970, Vinyl) | Discogs

Ann’s “Part Time Love” album re-works four of the tracks from her debut of the previous year & includes covers of contemporary hits that are very good but y’know it’s difficult to improve on the Isley Brothers’ original of “It’s Your Thing”. It’s a showcase for a great singer, tough, confident & passionate, beautifully matched to Mitchell’s new Hi sound, a tight, smooth, mid-tempo groove, the Memphis Horns less urgent but just as prominent as they were on their Stax recordings. In the near future Al Green used this template to join the pantheon of male Soul stars while Ann Peebles, apart from “I Can’t Stand The Rain” (1974) struggled to find more commercial success. Together with her writing partner & later husband Don Bryant, she did have more input in her later more mature recordings & while her individual albums are worthy of investigation any “best of” assemblage, 17 or 18 tracks showing how well Memphis Soul was done in the first half of the 1970s, is essential.

ARETHA FRANKLIN "BORDER SONG" SHEET  MUSIC-PIANO/VOCAL/GUITAR/CHORDS-1969-NEW!! | eBay

The two highest new entries on this week chart were songs written by white British musicians. (the third highest was Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go”, a good week or a Golden Age? You decide). Santana’s performance at the Woodstock Festival, the barnstorming “Soul Sacrifice” being a highlight of the movie & of the million seller soundtrack album, had brought much wider attention. “Black Magic Woman”, in at #38, is a Peter Green song. Green had made his reputation as Eric Clapton’s replacement in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. His instrumental talent & a developing individuality as a songwriter made his group Fleetwood Mac one of the best & most interesting of the British Blues bands rather than the coked-out, polyamorous purveyors of Soft Rock it became after his departure.

Elton John Recalls Aretha Franklin's Final Performance in Heartfelt Tribute

In late August 1970 the buzz created by Elton John’s US debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles had set him on the path to becoming Elton John. Aretha Franklin was, of course, “Lady Soul”, the Queen, on an incredible run of 10 albums between 1966 & 1974 that defined & refined the emotional intensity of African-American music. In 1970 her current LP “Spirit in the Dark” brought another pair of hit singles, adding to a list so long that I can’t be bothered to count. Her latest 45, entering the chart at #36, was a song from Elton’s eponymous second LP &, oh my, she took “Border Song (Holy Moses)” to church. Aretha’s vocal, her own piano, Billy Preston’s Hammond organ & a choir led by the Sweet Inspirations invest the song with a grandeur & a spirituality that surpasses the original. I sure that Elton John & his lyricist partner Bernie Taupin, still finding their way, still some months away from the success of “Your Song”, were equally stunned & thrilled that an artist of Aretha’s stature would cover one of their songs. I’m sure too that they would agree that she made it better.