There are few more important Jamaican singers than Gregory Isaacs. He was the passionate hustler with a tender heart, and as his confidence and skill grew, he addressed social issues and represented his Rastafari faith with pride. David Katz takes a closer look at the records that defined one of reggae’s foremost figures.
In the pantheon of reggae vocalists, Gregory Isaacs is right up there at the top. One the most iconic reggae singers of all time, he has gained acclaim for both his expressive vocal delivery and his exceptional skills as a songwriter, and the undeniable charisma is another part of the draw. Like the great pioneering figures that came before him, such as John Holt and Alton Ellis, Isaacs’ biggest claims to fame came through love songs that exposed the vulnerable heart of a passionate man, but like Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, Isaacs has also recorded a lot of astute social commentary and expressions of black pride, as well as devotional recordings.
Gregory reached his peak in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, with major label releases on Virgin, Charisma and Island, but he’d been a hit-maker in Jamaica long before then and remained a force to be reckoned with long after. Put it all together and the end result is an awesome catalogue, though longstanding issues with addiction resulted in an abundance of substandard work in later years, with the occasional gem surfacing along the way. His frequent cocaine busts made for lurid reading in Jamaica’s tabloids, and his erratic behaviour made him something of a pariah among his peers. Yet he also commanded a high level of respect, particularly in the western Kingston ghettos, for his contribution to the community through charity gala concerts.
Born in 1950 in Fletcher’s Land, a cramped slum of narrow lanes built around a patch of concrete wasteland, Isaacs was raised in the nearby ghetto of Denham Town, adjacent to Trench Town. He gained local recognition in his teens performing Sam Cooke and Otis Redding numbers at school concerts while hustling weed on behalf of Toddy Livingston, the father of Bunny Wailer.
Isaacs reached a recording studio for the first time in the late 1960s. Rather than aiming gain the patronage of an established record producer, Isaacs and another aspiring singer, Winston Sinclair, put their heads together and cut a 45 together comprising Isaacs’ ‘Another Heartache’ on one side and Sinclair’s ‘Come On Little Girl’ on the flip. Isaacs’ side set the template for many forlorn ballads to follow, and the fact the tune was self-produced demonstrates his unusual foresight at an early age, already seeking to maintain artistic and financial control of his work. The single was pressed in a minute quantity on a blank label, however, and since the pair had no solid distribution outlets, it was perhaps inevitable that the record wouldn’t achieve much in the way of sales – though it did surface on Pama’s NuBeat subsidiary in England.
Isaacs had strong connections in the west Kingston ghettos, and the notorious political ‘enforcer’ known as Jim Brown introduced him to Prince Buster, who had Isaacs cut the jaunty ‘Dancing Floor,’ which also failed to impact. Then, as the new reggae style became more prominent, harmony trios became the rage, bringing Isaacs into a group called the Concords. They recorded a handful of tracks for Rupie Edwards, of which the hard-hitting reality tune ‘Don’t Let Me Suffer’ was the best. Isaacs recorded a number of other songs for Edwards as a solo singer during 1970 and 1971, including the heartbroken ‘Too Late’ and the emotive ‘Grow Closer Together.’ He also voiced ‘Set Back’ for Sidney Crooks of the Pioneers, with whom he would work more closely some years later.
1972 was a landmark year for Isaacs as he established an early version of the African Museum label with Errol Dunkley, issuing ‘Look Before You Leap’ and ‘My Only Lover’, Dunkley’s ‘Movie Star’ and ‘Darling Ooh’, and Big Youth’s debut recording, ‘Movie Man’. Dunkley, however, found Isaacs to be too short-tempered, and his conflict with the landlord of their Orange Street headquarters led him to quit the partnership to form his own Silver Ring label. Isaacs soldiered on under his own steam, releasing material on African Museum and working with a range of producers at the same time. His first significant hit arrived in 1973 with ‘All I Have Is Love’, voiced for Phil Pratt at the newly opened Channel One studio. The following year he began a working relationship with Alvin Ranglin of GG Records, with the smash hit ‘Love Is Overdue’ massively elevating his profile.
As Isaacs’ songwriting skill evolved, he began addressing social issues more readily, referencing his African heritage as he began to sport dreadlocks as a visible marker of his Rastafari faith. He started to gain recognition overseas, too, giving a brief performance at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square in 1975. More great work followed in a range of settings: he re-cut Dennis Brown’s Studio One classic ‘Easy Take It Easy’ for Joe Gibbs in 1976 under the new title, ‘Babylon Too Rough’, and after teaming up with keyboardist Ossie Hibbert, cut the moving ‘Storm’ and ‘The Winner’, as well as a driving rendition of the Silvertones’ Studio One classic, ‘Smile.’ In 1978, a link with Sly and Robbie yielded an exceptional 12” single, ‘Motherless Children’ backed with ‘Going Down Town’, which would surely have achieved greater sales if allocated to a larger overseas label.
The international breakthrough finally arrived in 1979 once Isaacs signed a contract with Virgin. The albums Cool Ruler and Soon Forward reached new audiences overseas, not only in Britain, Europe and North America, but also throughout territories in Africa, where the company had a strong distribution network. But in the 1980s, it became clear that Virgin was abandoning reggae, so Isaacs shifted to Charisma Records’ Pre subsidiary for The Lonely Lover, presenting a kind of a reggae counterpart to Bowie’s ‘Thin White Duke’, and, after nurturing the talents of the Roots Radics band, harnessing them to fine effect on More Gregory. Finally he hit true paydirt with ‘Night Nurse’ for Island, one of reggae’s greatest crossover successes.
Just when Isaacs had reached an unparalleled level of international success, he was imprisoned in Jamaica for possession of an unlicensed firearm, a stint that gave him ample material for an album he issued as soon as he was released from jail, titled Out Deh! In the mid ‘80s his work for Gussie Clarke began with the mellow Private Beach Party, but it was Red Rose For Gregory and No Contest that boosted him into another league, bringing him to the top of the heap in digital dancehall. He got another boost internationally with work for Acid Jazz, and went on to open a recording studio in Kingston, but nothing particularly noteworthy ever surfaced from it, aside from the odd record with Brent Dowe, and some collaboration with his son, Kevin Isaacs.
Gregory Isaacs succumbed to cancer in October 2010. This list comprises a dozen of his greatest recordings – just a few of the outstanding releases to come from the best decades of his long career.
(African Museum blank/NuBeat 7”, 1968)
Isaacs’ debut recording dates from 1968, when the new reggae style was sweeping away the former popularity of rocksteady. Though only in his teens, Isaacs’ voice is already perfectly formed on ‘Another Heartache’, the rich, deep tenor capturing a feeling of forlorn abandonment which would permeate so many of his future releases. He cut the record with another aspiring singer from his neighbourhood, Winston Sinclair, who appears on the single’s B-side, and since Sinclair was credited when the single was issued on NuBeat in the UK, there has been a lot of confusion about the record in retrospect. The NuBeat release also credits a “V Ivan” as songwriter – could that have been a misheard “G Isaacs”? Adding to the mystery, a recent reissue credits guitarist Ranny Bop as the tune’s producer; it certainly sounds like Ranny’s chugging guitar line in the backing band, so he may well have been responsible for the overall arrangement. In any case, ‘Another Heartache’ already shows plenty of promise for a singer so green. Isaacs’ sole outing for Prince Buster, ‘Out On The Dancing Floor,’ dates from the same era and is also worth seeking out.
‘Don’t Let Me Suffer’
(Success 7”, 1969)
As reggae developed in the late 1960s, harmony trios became hugely popular, and since Isaacs was still struggling to become established as a solo singer, he drifted into the Concords, formed with “a brother called Bramwell and one named Pengro.” The group began recording for Rupie Edwards, and of the half-dozen tracks to surface from the sessions, ‘Don’t Let Me Suffer’ is the most impressive. Though the song was written by a B Brown (who may or may not be Bramwell Brown, a singer who passed through the Melodians), Isaacs’ powerful lead is what drives the tune (another singer handles one verse, however) as he pleads with the Lord to deliver him from a life of misery and allow him to teach his fellow men to live together in peace. It’s another great track with ‘skinhead reggae’ overtones, as heard in the sprightly organ melody that appears between the choruses and the choppy rhythm guitar chords, while wild drumrolls help with the propulsion. Check the original Jamaican 45 on Success for the best mix and mastering, with superb spatial placement of each instrument and voice. A taste of what could have been, should Isaacs have remained at the helm of a harmony group—but greater fame was just around the corner.
‘All I Have Is Love’
(Sounds United/Faith/Wimpex 7”, 1973)
Gregory takes a feather from Dobby Dobson’s cap with a ‘Loving Pauper’ theme: those other dudes have enough riches to take a gal out in style, but GI hasn’t got money at his disposal. If the apple of his eye is able to accept him for what he is on the inside and not care about his broke-pocket state, then they can make a real go of things. This was the first song to really boost Gregory Isaacs’ profile on the home front in Jamaica, and the unusual horn arrangement and gently loping rhythm is part of what helped him achieve it, but as usual it’s his voice that cuts through to make the most lasting impression. He has fun with his rhymes along with way (“I may be poor but it’s you I really adore / If you don’t accept it you can walk right through the door”) but it’s the heartfelt anguish that really draws attention; he’s singing every word as an honest reflection of his own circumstances. Isaacs would return to the song at several other points during his career, but the Phil Pratt-produced original is the best. Other excellent tracks to check from 1973 include the proverbial ‘One One Cocoa’ for Glen Brown, the mournful ‘Way Of Life’ for Roy Cousins and the suave reggae reading of Mike Williams’ anti-war epic, ‘Lonely Soldier,’ produced with style at Randy’s by Clive Chin.
‘Love Is Overdue’
(GGs/Attack 7”, 1974)
Gregory’s prolific mid ‘70s output saw him bouncing between different producers. Much of the material was high quality, yet sales were undeservedly slim. Linking with Alvin ‘GG’ Ranglin paid considerable dividends, with ‘Love Is Overdue’ lifting Isaacs to household name status in Jamaica. In terms of the lyrics, the template isn’t so far from ‘Another Heartache’ or ‘All I Have Is Love’; Gregory’s heart has been broken again, with his girl leaving him for another. But this time the frenzied bursts of lead guitar underline the anguish, and the wobbly rhythm underlines that he’s unsteady on his feet, with clattering drums suggesting his dispirited dejection.
‘Thief A Man’
(Advance/Micron 7”, 1975)
Throughout the 1970s, Isaacs continued to hone his craft with spectacular results. Whether singing of the joys of a close squeeze on ‘Let’s Dance,’ issued on saxophonist Dirty Harry’s Frelimo label, addressing social injustice on ‘Village Of The Underprivileged’ for Bunny Lee, covering Bob Andy’s ‘Sunshine For Me’ to fine effect for Ossie Hibbert, or chatting nonsense scats for Niney on ‘Ba Da’, his work became stronger with every release, his rich tenor now capable of more nuanced expression while his lyrics grew more subtle along the way. His self-produced work was also swiftly developing, with ‘Warriors’ being one of a handful of excellent tracks laid down at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio. On the outstanding ‘Thief A Man,’ distributed by Micron Music, Isaacs warns all thieves and robbers to leave him alone; he’s so poor and needy there’s nothing but trash in his bag, and if these fools keep trying to rob an innocent man, the only place they’ll end up is behind bars. Bongo beats cluster beneath his irresistible vocal hooks while the treble bleating on the high end of an organ warns that things are not as they should be. Some issues of the track have audible backing vocals, but later album issues do not, so aim for the 45 cut if you can. If you want to experience a totally different take on the same concept, check Doctor Alimantado’s reactionary deejay piece, ‘Gimme Mi Gun’.
‘Babylon Too Rough’
(Belmont 7,” 1976)
For whatever reason, Isaacs didn’t work much with famed reggae producer Joe Gibbs, though some of his material ended up on labels Gibbs controlled. His cheesy version of Skeeter Davis’ ‘End Of The World,’ cut at the Black Ark, surfaced on the Reflections label (which Gibbs set up to handle some of Lee Perry’s early Ark productions), and the far superior ‘Love Light’ ended up on a Gibbs compilation through Ossie Hibbert, but the track of most importance is ‘Babylon Too Rough,’ a remake of Dennis Brown’s ‘Easy Take It Easy’ recast with the dread portents of a Rastafari viewpoint.
The expert mix by Errol Thompson places the slowly pounding drum pattern to the fore, with a complex piano pattern lingering in the background and a melodic bass meandering alone as Gregory wails of the injustice meted out by corrupt police. Check the wonderful dub version on the B-side to hear exactly what the musicians are doing, with strategic use of echo by ET lending a feeling of sheer infinity. Other tracks to seek from the period include the censorious ‘My Religion’ (with its great toasting counterpart from Alimantado), the equally critical ‘Black Against Black,’ the castigating ‘Mr Know It All,’ and the thrilling sensuousness of ‘Rock On’ for Niney the Observer.
(Micron 7” 1976/Golden Age 7”, 1977)
The years 1976 to 1978 saw another slew of GI greats surfacing on 45s. Several of these were semi-autobiographical outlaw epics, such as ‘The Border’ for GG and the self-produced ‘Handcuff.’ Other numbers provided a broader look at historical injustices and their postcolonial hangovers in Jamaica and elsewhere, as heard on ‘Slavemaster’ for Niney the Observer and the self-produced ‘Uncle Joe’. There was the sensuous ‘Rock On’ for Niney and the censorious ‘Mr Know It All’, which surfaced on label printer Lloyd F. Campbell’s The Thing imprint.
One of the outstanding numbers of the period is the anthem-like ‘Mr Cop’, recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Ark in 1976 and issued in Jamaica by Micron Music (with overseas releases coming the following year). Beginning with the watery sound of excessive reverb, ‘Mr Cop’ hits you from the get-go with that inimitable Black Ark soup of heavily phased sonic mud, as Gregory pleas with the cops to lay off the Rasta brethren: isn’t licking the chalice on the street corner better than engaging in pointless violence? Some of the lyrics are really priceless, with Gregory rhyming in patois: “Beef there ah market, marrow in a bone / What don’t concern you, leave it alone / ‘Cause the grass was made for the cow and ass / And the herb on this land for the use of man.” Flip the disc for a killer Perry dub with snippets of the cool male harmony backing vocals frozen in time.
(Taxi/Niagara 12”, 1979)
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Isaacs never did much work with ubiquitous reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie, but nearly everything they did record together is top-notch. The first collaboration yielded ‘Oh What A Feeling’ in 1977, one of the first records to become a hit for the Rhythm Twins when they joined forces as an independent production team. The biggest hit of all was the sensual ‘Soon Forward,’ but my personal favourite is ‘Motherless Children’, a hard-hitting reality tune. Isaacs uses biblical language to relate the plight of innocent youth in the ghetto, and the pain and anguish his voice indicates that he is really singing about his own experience rather than merely observing.
The complex rhythm crafted by Sly and Robbie is a rock-solid affair, with Sly’s drum pattern emphasizing the hard-knocks life that Isaacs describes so eloquently; Robbie keeps his rumbling bass at the lowest end of the spectrum, and there’s some unusual percussion providing tense accents at regular intervals. The other side of this impressive 12” disco mix is equally enthralling: ‘Going Down Town’ speaks of the healing powers of reggae as well as its defiance, with Isaacs cautioning: “The things that you did to my ancestors, you ain’t gonna do it to me.” And don’t miss ‘Universal Tribulation’ from the Soon Forward album, another exceptional track of the period.
‘Poor And Clean’
(Cash & Carry 7”, 1979/Pre 7”, 1980/African Museum/Pre 12,” 1980)
Isaacs’ nurturing of the Roots Radics resulted in a fruitful pairing. The Radics core stemmed from the remnants of the Morwells group, centred on bassist Errol ‘Flabba Holt’ Carter and guitarist Eric ‘Binghi Bunny’ Lamont, and a new dimension was added by the wah-wah artistry of Noel ‘Sowell’ Bailey and the young keyboardist Wycliffe ‘Steelie’ Johnson,. After Isaacs purchased a drum kit, which he expressly allowed the young upstart Lincoln ‘Style’ Scott to hone his talents on, the Roots Radics became his backing band. Their proficiency pointed reggae in a new direction and soon made them the most sought-after set of session players on the island, and it was partly the backing of Isaacs that allowed their status to rise.
The self-produced ‘Poor And Clean’ finds the singer holding onto all of his principles, proclaiming that he’d rather be poor and clean than live rich in corruption since “a rich man’s heaven is a poor man’s hell.” Style’s dribbling drum pattern has a sense of military precision to it, yet it’s the off-beat accents on the floor toms that really make the tune roll along as Sowell makes mayhem with the wah-wah. Whether flipping the original single on Leggo or reaching the extended dub portion on the later 12” releases, the musicianship is superb. Note that the UK 7” issue on Pre does not have a dub cut, but has instead the equally excellent vocal tune ‘Tribute To Waddy,’ so it’s a win-win situation whichever disc you manage to track down. And don’t miss ‘Wailing Rudy,’ an outstanding 12” also issued in 1980.
(Junie/African Museum/Island 7”/Island 10”/Mango 12,” 1982)
The Lonely Lover and More Gregory albums for Charisma’s Pre subsidiary were divided pretty evenly between roots ‘reality’ tunes and songs of heartbreak. In addition to ‘Poor And Clean’, noted above, the tracks to seek out from this phase include the celebratory ‘Tune In’ from The Lonely Lover and ‘Confirm Reservation,’ ‘Front Door’ and ‘Hot Stepper’ from its successor. After those albums came the move to Island and the breakthrough that catapulted Gregory Isaacs to a whole new level of popularity when ‘Night Nurse’ became a sensation.
Recorded with the Radics at Tuff Gong and mixed down by Godwin Logie at Compass Point, the classic reggae songs has plenty of hooks, the most immediate of which are supplied by Wally Badarou’s gurgling keyboard line, offset by the brash treble keyboard blasts which take the place of horns. As usual, the Radics are rock-solid, with Style supplying another tricky drum pattern over Flabba’s low bass growl; an occasional piano motif from Steelie injects some unpredictability too. To understand exactly what instrument is making which impact, check the extended dub portion on the 10” mix, the most compelling format, though every issue of the song has the same irresistibility, as Isaacs appeals to his consort to give him some physical aid in the form of sweet sorrow: “My night nurse, oh, the pain is getting worse!”
The song remained so popular that a cough medicine brand made use of it in a TV ad, while Simply Red frontman and reggae obsessive Mick Hucknall would later lick over the tune with Sly and Robbie – credible enough, even if it doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
(Music Works 7”/Music Works & Greensleeves 12”, 1988)
Isaacs’ ongoing drug abuse and the inevitable problems with the law made the 1980s a problematic phase for the singer. After an initial high-profile bust relating to the possession of unlicensed firearms, he spent time in Jamaica’s notorious General Penitentiary and sang about the perils of life behind bars on the poignant ‘Out Deh!’, the title track of his follow-up album for Island. Although albums like Private Beach Party for RAS Records contained some enjoyable material, it felt like Isaacs had passed his peak. Then, without warning, ‘Rumours’ catapulted him to the top of the dancehall peak.
This inspired track, which was actually the first song recorded at Gussie Clarke’s fully digital Music Works studio, played on Isaacs’ dubious reputation, and was really the result of a series of spontaneous occurrences. The rugged, minimal rhythm had been built by Cleveland ‘Clevie’ Browne and his brother Danny for Gussie, who wanted the Mighty Diamonds to voice it, but they could not muster what Gussie intended. But just as an image of Isaacs flashed through his mind, the singer walked through the studio doors to create an instant and lasting classic.
Isaacs is on familiar ground here, playing the role of an alleged ganja grower on the run, and the widespread popularity of the rhythm among the growing dancehall audience saw Gussie apply it to fine effect for JC Lodge’s sex fantasy chatline thriller ‘Telephone Love’ and Lady G’s validating deejay cut ‘Nuff Respect’, as well as a whole slew of other voicings. Proof that Isaacs still had plenty of mettle as the 1990s approached, the 12” releases are the ones to aim for as they include extended dub portions.
‘Poor Man In Love’
(Tabu 1 12”, 2015)
As time rolled on and Isaacs records kept pouring forth, the catalogue grew increasingly patchy. His voice began to waver and there was often a breathless quality to much of what was captured on tape; tales abounded of the man demanding more money in the studio to what had been previously agreed, and if producers failed to comply, he would remove his false teeth before a session, yielding a whistling sound or poor enunciation. Yet there were moments of clarity along the way. An album for Acid Jazz with a decent dub companion helped create awareness among younger listeners and songs like ‘Rude Boy Saddam’ showed that Gregory remained engaged with world affairs, while tracks like ‘Hard Drugs,’ ‘Crack Heads’ and ‘Coke Seller’ proved he did not shy away from addressing the issues that had affected him.
Yet the posthumous release ‘Poor Man In Love’ is Isaacs’ most fitting swansong. Released by the French Tabou 1 label, the song succeeds because Tabou’s boss made use of the company’s longstanding association with Sly and Robbie, who crafted a stonking new rhythm at Harry J with luminaries such as Robbie Lyn, Tyrone Downie and Sticky Thompson. Wally Badarou supplied more killer synth lines and Godwin Logie was enlisted to oversee the final mixdown. The whole thing is steeped in the kind of mood that made ‘Night Nurse’ such a great record, and even if it was clearly voiced by the contemporary Isaacs rather than the Gregory of old, he’s on fine form, displaying the mixture of rudeboy confidence and vulnerable loner tendencies which made so much of his catalogue so compelling. The extended dub workout allows a fuller appreciation of the contribution of each individual musician, and Gregory’s own vocal delivery remains on par throughout. All in all, it was a fitting way for this iconic reggae singer to bid us farewell.