Wednesday 17 January 2018

The reggae superstar who gave machismo the boot

Gregory Isaacs was one of the finest reggae singers to emerge from Jamaica in the boom that followed Bob Marley's rise to international fame in the 1970s.

Known as the 'Cool Ruler' or sometimes as the 'Lonely Lover', he had an intimate, quavering voice that conveyed vulnerability in a music noted for its machismo. This made his voice perfect for the romantic style known as 'lovers' rock', and his 1973 Jamaican hit 'My Only Lover' is widely regarded as the first recording in the genre.

His hurt and wounded vocal on the song provided the template for dozens more tunes in a similar style, including perhaps his best-known hit, 'Night Nurse', a song which was later covered by Simply Red. He also recorded in the more politicised 'conscious' style on hits such as 'Set the Captive Free' and 'Rasta Business', sounding as grievously hurt by injustice and social suffering as he did by the arrows of love.

In later years his voice lost much of its sweetness because of a cocaine addiction, which resulted in most of his teeth falling out. But after treatment he fought his way back and his final abuse-free and orthodontically repaired album, released in 2008, was appropriately titled Brand New Me.

Born in the Fletcher's Land district of Kingston, Jamaica, in 1951, Isaacs earned his spurs singing at local talent shows. At the age of 16 this activity brought him to the attention of the producer Byron Lee who recorded him as a duo with Winston Sinclair on 'Another Heartbreak' (1968). The record failed, however, and Isaacs next joined a vocal trio, the Concords, with whom he recorded several singles for Rupie Edwards's Success label.

When the Concords broke up in 1970, Isaacs had still not tasted chart success, and further disappointments followed until 1973, when he set up the African Museum record shop and label with the singer Errol Dunkley. Producing himself, he had an immediate hit with 'My Only Lover'.

Over the next few years he recorded prolifically for his own label and for many of Jamaica's top producers, including Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Winston 'Niney' Holness, Gussie Clarke, Lloyd Campbell and Glen Brown.

By 1977 he reached a peak with the album Mr Isaacs, released on the DEB label. International recognition followed when in 1978 he was signed to the Front Line label, the reggae imprint of Richard Branson's Virgin Records.

On the albums Cool Ruler (1978) and Soon Forward (1979) he combined his two musical styles brilliantly, the crooning love songs offset by impassioned roots anthems such as 'Universal Tribulation', all backed by the finest crew of Jamaican session men which Branson's money could buy, including the powerhouse rhythm section of Sly and Robbie.

Although the 1978-79 recordings are today considered as his finest work, their sales were disappointing, and he was dropped by Virgin after just two albums. However, he continued to rack up hits in Jamaica, in partnership with DJ Trinity and backed by the Roots Radics on albums such as The Lonely Lover (1980) and More Gregory (1981), and his global breakthrough finally came after he had signed to Mango, an imprint of Chris Blackwell's Island label.

Night Nurse, his 1982 debut album for Blackwell, was a masterpiece, and the title track gave him the biggest hit of his career.

Unfortunately, Isaacs was not immediately able to enjoy his success as he was at the time serving a six-month sentence in a Jamaican prison for possession of unlicensed firearms. He was released later in 1982 and, despite by then being addicted to crack cocaine, made up for lost time with a prolific bout of releases, starting with Out Deh!, his second album for Blackwell in 1983.

The following year he ventured into the new dancehall style sweeping Jamaica, on the album Let's Go Dancing and a dual set with Dennis Brown titled Two Bad Superstars Meet.

With the producer Gussie Clarke he recorded the 1985 album which included the brilliant 'Feeling Irie'. Equally successful was the 1987 album Double Dose, a collection of duets with Sugar Minott, and there were further dancehall-style recordings with Clarke, Niney Holness and Bobby Digital.

By then, however, his years of drug addiction were taking a heavy toll. By the 1990s his voice had lost much of its sweetness, and his recordings for the most part were run of the mill. Even expert producers such as King Jammy, Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson seemed unable to rescue him.

The duets album Father and Son (2000) displayed his son Kevin out-singing him, but Isaacs eventually cleaned up his act and marked the occasion with the 2005 album, Substance Free. He observed after its release that his education at the hands of cocaine came at the price of "the most expensive school fee ever paid".

Isaacs released his final album in 2008 and continued performing until liver cancer was diagnosed.

* Gregory Isaacs, singer, was born on July 15, 1951. He died from liver cancer on October 25, 2010, aged 59

Irish Independent

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