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!
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.
“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.
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.