Reggae Reviews: Ethiopians, Gladiators, Duke Reid, Winston Jarrett, Desmond Dekker, Ronnie Davis, Junior Byles

In the world of reggae reissues, two labels have led the field this year.  A third is about to make its bow, as the legendary Trojan gears up to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, but for now, Cherry Red’s Doctor Bird subsidiary and Omnivore’s reinvention of 1980s stalwart Nighthawk lead the pack.  

There is a pleasing symmetry at large.  Doctor Bird (named for one of the pioneering independents of the British ska scene) mines much the same vault as Trojan, to the extent of reissuing many of the latter’s earliest UK LP releases, and thus the early work of a wealth of Jamaican legends. Nighthawk, on the other hand, focuses on the artists’ later years, repackaging albums by what were now reggae veterans, released during the eighties and nineties.

Indeed, for listeners seeking absolute linkage between the two, Nighthawk’s reissue of 1986’s Dread Prophecy, by the combined Ethiopians and Gladiators, dovetails at least glancingly with Doctor Bird’s repackaging, a few months back, of two late sixties Ethiopians albums; and now, two 1968 albums highlighting the work of producer Duke Reid. Wherein, the Gladiators’ “Sweet Soul Music” awaits,

Soul of Jamaica/Here Comes The Duke is an incredibly generous offering.  No less than fifty-two tracks are spread across the two CDs, as the two titular albums are joined by a bevy of bonus tracks, largely featuring the same artists that appeared on the original LPs. 

Joya Landis, Alton Ellis, the Paragons, Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, the Jamaicans, the Techniques, Ken Parker, the Termites, the Soul Lads and Danny Simpson join the Gladiators, with most tracks drawn from 45s released either through Reid’s own Treasure Island and Duke imprints, Trojan itself and, in one case, the original Doctor Bird label.

It’s a non-stop rocksteady bonanza.  Reid might have cut his teeth on ska (and, before that, jazz), but he was quick to jump aboard as ska began to morph, and he did it well. It didn’t hurt, either, that he had some of the island’s most accomplished vocal groups in his stable – the Silvertones, the Sensations, the Techniques and, again, the Gladiators offered up some of the sweetest harmonies this side of classic Motown, and their every offering here is a joy.

Add the Treasure Isle house band, McCook’s Supersonics, to the brew, both accompanying the singers and breaking out in their own right, and Soul of Jamaica/Here Comes The Duke rates among the revived Doctor Bird’s most powerful releases yet.

But what were the artists up to two decades later?

Dread Prophecy was most remarkable at the time for marking the return to action of Ethiopians frontman Leonard Dillon, following a decade of comparative inaction, since the death in 1975 of bandmate Steven Taylor.  There was a couple of low-key solo albums, but that was basically it.  

Nighthawk’s pairing of him with Albert Griffiths and the Gladiators, however, unleashed a remarkable album, albeit an almost shockingly brief one.  Eight tracks total just twenty-six minutes, and half of the set comprises dub versions of the preceding vocal tracks.

But “Dread Prophecy,” “No Bad Woman,” “I’m Ready” and, best of all, “The Whip” are Dillon in vocal excelsis, while the dubs… well, what they lack in sonic invention, they remedy with the enthusiasm of a who’s-who of available sidemen – Clinton Fearon, Scully Simms, Bobby Ellis, Dean Frazier and more.

Many of the same players (and more besides) figure on Winston Jarrett & The Righteous FlamesJonestown, a 1989 Nighthawk release that likewise resurrected a band first heard on record twenty years earlier.  Indeed, Jarrett was an original member of Alton Ellis’s Flames, back in the early sixties, before forming his own Righteous Flames in 1967.

It’s a joyous album, with even the sobering connotations of the title track (Jones Town was a notorious Kingston ghetto), and the apparently harsh autobiography of “Babylon Broke Dung Me House” relayed with almost celebratory glee.  And the Jarrett voice remained as glorious in 1989 as it was all those years before.

Originally released in 1996, Ronnie Davis and Idren’s Come Straight is a similarly welcome blast from the past, and that despite the musical accompaniment having a technological edge that may or may not work with the clearly rootsy attitudes that Davis took into the studio.

A former member of the Tennors and, later, the Itals, Davis reunites both with fellow Ital Lloyd Ricketts, and that band’s customary backing group, Roots Radics, and there is definitely a sense of unfinished business about the album. 

The Itals, so massive through the early-mid 1980s (they received a Grammy nomination in 1987), had basically shattered by decade’s end.  But Come Straight restates all that was essential about the band at the outset of their reign.  “Rough Spot,” “Respect Your Elders,” “Move On Oppressor” and the handful of dubs and instrumentals scattered through the set are genuine highlights. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the production’s reliance on computerized gimmickry (the percussion track on “Repent” sound like someone’s wearing a Walkman in the seat next to you), Come Straight would be in the company of the best of Davis’s past output.  As it is, it’s still worth hearing.

Back in time again, then, to a world where computers were the size of a house, and were about as much use to the average musician as a chocolate teapot to a cafeteria owner.

From Doctor Bird and Desmond Dekker, three albums spread across two rereleases bring us a fabulous glimpse into what, beginning around 1967, is widely regarded as Jamaican music’s long-threatened international breakthrough.  

Dekker favorites “007,” “Ah It Mek” and, of course, “The Israelites”  are the hit tracks on the first two, Action (1966) and Intensified (1967), and both have been gathered onto a peerless two CD set.  Where we discover that, while that threesome’s fame certainly overshadows the rest of Dekker’s output today, when you dig into the accompanying albums, they were just another day at the office for the singer. 

Almost every track on the two original albums, and many of the twenty-six bonus tracks, are at least of similar quality… “Unity,” “Sabotage,” “Rude Boy Train,” “Intensified (Music Like Dirt),” “Nincompoop”… this is crucial stuff, and it’s not just history that says so. 

Breathlessly, the liners, too, catapult us back to a time when “bluebeat” (as the UK continued to refer to the music) was popping up everywhere, and Action could be described as “about the most exciting album around.”  In fact, it still is, and that despite stiff competition not only from Intensified, but also You Can Get It If You Really Want, Dekker’s 1970 British album, now reissued as a standalone Doctor Bird CD. 

The Jimmy Cliff-penned hit title track and the fabulous “Pickney Gal” are the welcoming party, but “Perseverance,” “Peace On The Land,” “Cindy”… so much of this album could and should have followed “You Can Get It” to glory, while a second Cliff number, “That’s The Way Life Goes,” is likewise something special (and a third, from 1975, “My World Is Blue,” is nothing to sniff at, either).  Dekker himself wrote the bulk of the remainder, though, and that’s also a parentage to be proud of. 

The original LP is supplemented by another album’s worth of bonus tracks that trace Desmond through the next five years, right the way up to “Sing A Little Song” – a conglomerate that, while not packing the same historic heft as the earlier material, continue to prove why Dekker remained reggae royalty.  The man could not sing a bad song, even if you handed him one.  That voice alone made everything alright.

Finally, Nighthawk have brought Junior Byles’s Rasta No Pickpocket back to the racks and not before time.  One of the most eagerly awaited of all eighties reggae albums, by one of the most fabulous of all the genre’s performers, Pickpocket reunited Byles with producer Niney the Observer, so the portents were good from the beginning.  But it was also fraught with worry as Byles’ recent battles with mental illness saw a once supremely confident performer and songwriter wracked by insecurity and nerves.

It doesn’t show. Not too much, anyway.  While co-producer Leroy Jodie Pierson’s liners do well to capture the atmosphere in the studio, his silence on the subject of the music speaks volumes. And there’s certainly nothing here to match the majesty of Byles’ earlier recordings (“Curly Locks,” Place Called Africa,” the original “Rasta No Pickpocket,” all with Lee Perry; “Fade Away,”a few years after that).

But the Byles voice remains incandescent, and the six songs that make up the original album all pack an irresistible punch.  Five bonus tracks, meanwhile, add the previously unreleased “No Feelings” and a pair of instrumentals, plus a couple of other out-takes, “Weeping” and “Bur Boy”… which itself should have featured on the original album.

The story does not have a happy ending.  More than three decades on, Rasta No Pickpocket remains Byles’ last album of new material, although he has recorded sporadically in the years since then.  But line it up alongside the remainder of Byles’s catalog – a pair of albums recorded in the seventies, and a clutch of compilations in more recent years, and then try and name a single artist who did it better than Byles.  It’ll be hard.

Leave a Reply