Jamming with Bob in reggae Heaven

Garry Steckles pays homage to some fallen musical heroes

Dennis Brown, the Crown Prince of Reggae, passed away in 1999. Photograph by David CorioPeter Tosh was shot dead when a break-in at his home went wrong. Photograph by David Corio

Millions of words will have been written – and justifiably so – marking the 30th anniversary of the passing of Robert Nesta Marley.

Since his death on May 11, 1981, the late King of Reggae has been elevated to heights of fame that, I’m sure, would have surprised even him. And, tempting as it was to devote this column to Bob, I thought back a few years to a conversation I had with David Rudder, the great calypsonian. In the course of it, I asked David what had inspired him to write so many songs celebrating the lives of deceased musicians – everyone from Fela to Ella, from the Duke to Kitch, from Coltrane to Sinatra. His reply was simple: “I want them to know people remember them.” I’m sure Bob wouldn’t mind if, in that same spirit, I pay my own tribute – along with some personal reminiscing – to a few of the great reggae musicians who have left us since his passing.

Peter Tosh was one of the original core members of the Wailers, along with Bob and Bunny Wailer – and to many serious reggae fans, the firebrand revolutionary was their favourite member of the group. I was lucky enough to see Peter perform dozens of times, and co-promoted four concerts in Montreal with him. Despite his reputation for having a short fuse, I never saw Peter say or do anything even remotely unbecoming, and to this day I feel privileged to have known and worked with him. Born on October 11, 1944, Peter was shot dead, along with two friends, on September 11, 1987, when a break-in at his Kingston home went horribly wrong.

One of the many accolades that Dennis Brown, the late Crown Prince of Reggae, has received was his recent inclusion in 50 Great Voices – “the stories of awe-inspiring voices from around the world and across time”, by America’s hugely respected National Public Radio. Alongside him were names like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone. That’s the sort of company Dennis Brown belongs in, and there’s honestly not much more that I can add, except that his 1988 appearance at Montreal’s Club Soda still rates in my list of the best reggae performances I’ve seen. I was honoured to have Dennis join me live on the Caribbean music radio show I used to host in Montreal the night before that concert, and I couldn’t have asked for a more charming and eloquent guest. Or better music to accompany him. Dennis Brown died on July 1, 1999, at the age of 42.

I still find it hard to believe that Joseph Hill, whose marvellous voice and deeply conscious lyrics uplifted so many lives for so long, is no longer with us. His live performances as lead singer of the classic roots group Culture were as good as reggae gets and I saw him electrify many a Reggae Sunsplash, light up the 1978 One Love Concert for Peace, mash up Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom and Toronto’s El Mocambo, and, perhaps most memorably for me, turn in a tour-de-force headline performance at the St Kitts Music Festival in 1997 that people are still talking about. That Joseph gave my wife and myself half an hour of his time and his humour backstage after that concert is among my most cherished reggae memories. Joseph died on August 19, 2006. He was 57.

Alton Ellis had another of those one-of-a-kind Jamaican voices, and his was truly special. Born in 1938, Alton was one of the pioneers of Jamaican music, and his biggest breaks in the business coincided with the advent of rock steady in the summer of 1966. Alton had a string of hits with major producers, including “Rock Steady”, reputedly the first time the name of the new beat surfaced. He left Jamaica first for Canada and then England, and he continued to record and tour successfully for decades. I saw him only once, at a Jamaican dance in a church hall in Montreal around 1984, and remember the evening not only for the splendid music but also for a backstage chat with Alton, over several beers, in which we discussed, among many other things, a shared love of English pubs. He was delighted when I told him I’d been born in one (upstairs, I hasten to add), and we parted promising that we’d get together in his local one day. Sadly, it never happened. Alton died on October 10, 2008, just over a month after his 70th birthday.

The two sweetest voices in all of reggae were both lost to us within a few months in the second half of last year with the passing first of Lincoln “Sugar” Minott and then of Gregory Isaacs, Jamaica’s exalted “Cool Ruler”. They had much in common, including exquisite voices and an identification with their ghetto and dancehall roots that never left them. I never had the privilege of meeting Gregory, but saw him perform many times and my lingering memory of the Cool Ruler is not of him on a stage, but of him walking toward one, at Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay in 1993. Dressed in an immaculate powder-blue suit, with the trademark fedora at a rakish angle, he was not only elegant, he was regal. I did meet Sugar once, at an early-Eighties Montreal dance he was supposed to be headlining that, somehow, never quite happened. We ended up spending more than an hour chatting backstage awaiting the arrival (or non-arrival, as it turned out) of the backing band, and he was one of the most eloquent and intelligent people I’ve had the privilege of meeting. A lovely sense of humour, too. Sugar died on July 10 of last year at the age of 54; Gregory passed away on October 25 at 59.

There are a multitude of great musicians I should have and would have loved to write about here, space permitting, and I can only apologise for the brief acknowledgements of Lucky Dube, Desmond Dekker, Justin Hines, Jackie Mittoo, Joe Higgs, Tommy McCook, I-Roy, Jacob Miller, Delroy Wilson, Carlton Barrett, Garnet Silk, Mikey Dread and dozens more wonderful reggae artists. RIP – and I know you’re all jamming with Bob in reggae heaven.