Take ten (part 1): the greatest reggae singers of all time

Garry Steckles shares his very personal list of the ten greatest reggae singers of all time — with apologies to readers who disagree

Illustration by Daren Cheewah

I love lists — stuff like the ten best this, or the twenty worst that — largely because they’re virtually guaranteed to ignite vigorous discussions among any music fans who read them.

In 2004, Caribbean Beat put out a special issue featuring the 250 greatest reggae and calypso/soca songs of all time. I was honoured when editor Nicholas Laughlin asked me to be a member of the distinguished panel who helped to create that epic list, and it struck me the other day that it’s been a long time since I’ve devoted this space to something along those lines.

What follows is somewhat more modest: a highly personal list of the ten reggae singers whose music I’ve enjoyed most over the decades. I present it with apologies to the wonderful singers I’ve had to omit, and to the reggae fans whose favourites aren’t included. In no particular order, here goes:

Gregory Isaacs

A highly respected music critic — Milo Miles of the New York Times — famously described Gregory Isaacs as “the most exquisite vocalist in reggae.” No quarrel from me on that score, but I would have gone a step further, and added that he was also one of the most exquisite vocalists in the history of all popular music.

Isaacs, who died in 2010, was a complex man with an often-turbulent personal life, and that silky-smooth and unique tenor was the perfect vehicle for celebrating the joys of romance, lamenting love gone wrong, describing life in a Kingston ghetto, warning of the dangers of drugs, or bemoaning spending time behind bars. He had scores of memorable hits in a career of more than four decades: songs like “Night Nurse”, “Front Door”, “My Number One”, “Red Rose for Gregory”, “Loving Pauper”, “General Penitentiary”, “Slave Master”, “Love Is Overdue”, “Private Beach Party”, “Mr Cop”, and “Out Deh”.

Personal favourite track: “Too Late”, a little-known gem recorded in 1970. The vocals are classic young Isaacs, and the backing is just as exquisite — seven minutes plus of music heaven.

Buju Banton

At the opposite end of the vocal spectrum from Isaacs, the gravel-voiced Buju Banton burst on to the Jamaican scene in the early 1990s as the latest dancehall sensation — and immediately found himself mired in controversy because of lyrics that were rampantly anti-gay and blatantly sexist. Before long, however, Buju had changed, and he won over legions of mainstream reggae fans — myself included — with songs like “Murderer”, “Untold Story”, “Circumstances”, and“Destiny” that featured conscious, positive lyrics and melodies that were instantly accessible and have stood the test of time.

Buju, sadly, was the victim of a highly questionable “sting” operation by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, and — without ever being found guilty of either selling or possessing an illegal substance — was sentenced to ten years in prison for conspiracy to sell cocaine. Hopes have recently been raised that he may be granted a new trial, because of alleged juror misconduct in the 2011 trial in which he was convicted.

Personal favourite track: “Rastafari”, an hypnotic and simply gorgeous spiritual chant from the 2009 Rasta Got Soul album that showcases Buju’s vocal depth and versatility.

Peter Tosh

The most militant and controversial member of the original Wailers, Peter Tosh’s commanding baritone remains one of the most distinctive voices in reggae a quarter of a century after he and two friends were shot to death when gunmen invaded his Kingston home.

Tosh, unhappy with what he considered his diminished role in the Wailers when the group signed with Island Records in the early 1970s, embarked on a hugely successful solo career, and was soon turning out albums that remain reggae classics almost four decades later, touring the world to rave reviews and sell-out audiences. On stage, he was simply compelling, and his concerts frequently included incendiary speeches attacking the system in general and politicians in particular. His extensive repertoire of memorable songs includes “Legalise It”, “Rastafari Is”, “Mystic Man”, “No Nuclear War”, “Reggae-Mylitis”, “Equal Rights”, and his biggest hit, “(You Gotta Walk And) Don’t Look Back”, a duet with Mick Jagger.

Personal favourite track: “Babylon Queendom”, the song Tosh often used as the finale to his live shows. He usually made his exit half-way through the number, and sang the final two or three minutes from the side of the stage. One of my enduring reggae memories was standing a foot or so from Tosh as he did so at a Toronto concert, eyes closed and so immersed in the music he was oblivious to everything around him.

Jacob Miller

The man with the “bionic voice” was the lead singer of the hugely popular band Inner Circle in the late 1970s, and — like everyone else on this list — he had a voice that was unique and instantly recognisable.

Jacob Miller liked his food almost as much as he loved his music, and was distinctly on the tubby side, but he also kept himself fit, and the sight of him bounding around on stage remains with me to this day. Miller, who died in a car crash in Kingston in 1980, was at his best performing up-tempo reggae songs with melody lines that served as a vehicle for his exuberant vocals, and his hits include “Tired Fe Lick Weed in a Bush”, “All Night Till Daylight”, “Tenement Yard”, “Mr Officer”, and “Discipline Child”.

Personal favourite track: “Chapter a Day”, a soulful reggae classic that showcases Miller at the peak of his vocal prowess.

Majek Fashek

Africa, the spiritual home of reggae, has given us some of the genre’s finest singers, among them South African Lucky Dube, Ivoirien Alpha Blondy, Nigerian Victor Essiet of the Mandators, and Ghanaian Rocky Dawuni. I love them all — but none, in my books, can match the versatility and sheer vocal brilliance of Majek Fashek, the Nigerian singer-songwriter whose limited but dazzling recorded output reflects the diverse influences of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and his countryman Fela Kuti.

Majek’s voice has Marleyesque overtones, but with considerably more muscle, opening up a remarkable range of musical options. Heck, I even like his take on “Hotel California”, a shoo-in for my list of the ten most overrated pop songs of all time. His discography also includes a killer version of Marley’s “Redemption Song”, the soca-tinged “Majek Fashek in a New York”, the lovely mid-tempo reggae anthem “Jobe Lamentation”, an infectious version of Fela’s classic “Water

No Get No Enemy”, and the reggae-rock “Send Down the Rain”, the song that launched Majek’s solo career.

Personal favourite track: “Jah People”, a distinctly African reggae number that also embraces Latin influences.

Bunny Wailer

The only surviving member of the original Wailers, he also left the group soon after the deal with Island Records made it obvious that Bob Marley would be the lead singer, with Bunny and Peter Tosh relegated to very minor supporting roles. And, as with Tosh, it was immediately apparent that his decision to go it alone was an inspired career move.

Bunny’s first solo album, Blackheart Man, was the perfect vehicle for his angelic tenor, and is still widely regarded as one of the greatest roots records in the history of reggae. More roots gems followed, but Bunny made another inspired career move in 1981, with his first album in a dancehall tempo, Rock ’n Groove, backed by the powerful Roots Radics band. The angelic side to his pipes was shelved as the diminutive Bunny unleashed the album that had Jamaican dancehalls rocking for much of the early 1980s, and which sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it did all those years ago. Bunny’s career has been somewhat erratic over the years, but he remains one of the genuine legends of reggae, as well as one of the music’s great pioneers.

Personal favourite track: This is a tough one, but I have to go with “Dance Rock”, a joyous celebration of dancehall culture from the Rock ’n Groove album.

Tanya Stephens

“She has created a sound that’s absolutely unique, in her case by harnessing her voice, a slightly husky, slightly raspy, and deep-down sweet alto that commands attention and respect, with a rhythmic and melodic pattern that seems to announce, ‘This is Tanya,’ whether the song in question is XXX-rated dancehall or a straight-from-the-heart ‘conscious’ composition in the great tradition of reggae’s roots era.”

I’m a tad reluctant to plagiarise myself — although at least I can’t be sued — but that’s the best way I could find in this column in 2011 to sum up the talents of Tanya Stephens — who, like Buju Banton, has progressed from raw dancehall to become an artist of true international stature, and has managed to do so without losing sight of her dancehall roots. A couple of years later, I still can’t put it better.

Nothing’s off limits to Stephens when it comes to songwriting, and, like so many Jamaican artists, she has a gift for summing up a complex situation in a handful of well-chosen words. I’m in awe of them all, and when I listen to some of Stephens’s finest works — songs like “Gangsta Gal”, “The Other Cheek”, “Way Back”, “Cherry Brandy”, “No Means No”, “Come a Long Way”, and “Warn Dem” — I continue to marvel at Jamaicans’ inventiveness and perspective on our world and the people who live it in.

Personal favourite track: “Do You Still Care”, a ballad from Stephens’s superb Rebelution album that manages somehow to link issues ranging from racism, homophobia, and sexism to the Palestinian-Israeli standoff. A truly great song — and if you think I’m exaggerating, treat yourself to her acoustic rendition on YouTube.

Joseph Hill

I honestly don’t know where to begin when it comes to writing about the unforgettable lead singer of the legendary roots group Culture — who left us, at least physically, in 2006. His voice personified what roots reggae is all about. So did his songwriting. As for his live performances, words pretty well fail me: Joseph Hill on stage was at times imperious, frequently serious, and when the mood struck him — and it often did — he could be hilarious. Hill had a wry sense of humour that could surface virtually any time, on or off the stage.

But it was that voice that I’ll never forget: throaty, raspy, edgy, and always, always, pitched perfectly as he sang of history, social injustice, and human frailty. He was adored by reggae fans from Africa to Japan, from Britain to the United States, and he repaid their adulation by touring frequently and never giving of anything but his best. Among his most celebrated songs were “Two Sevens Clash”, “International Herb”, “Calling Rastafari”, “One Stone”, “Humble African”, “Behold”, and “The Shepherd” — but there were scores more every bit as good.

Personal favourite track: “Chiney Man”, an eloquent plea for racial unity. Message music you can skank to, which is what Hill was all about.

Leroy Sibbles

An artist with a wonderful, distinctive voice and a genuine reggae pioneer whose career started in the great rock steady era of the mid-to-late 1960s, Leroy Sibbles is not only a vocalist of the highest calibre, he’s also one of reggae’s greatest bass players, and a key figure in hundreds of productions from Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One, the greatest “hit factory” in the history of the music.

Sibbles recorded hit after hit as lead singer of the superb rock steady/reggae trio the Heptones, among them “Fattie Fattie”, “Party Time”, and “Sea of Love”. He emigrated to Canada in the 70s, and embarked on a successful solo career. Now well into his sixties, he continues to record and perform, and was featured in the acclaimed 2008 documenary Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae. In short, he is one of reggae’s under-appreciated greats.

Favourite personal track: “Rock and Come On”, a mid-tempo reggae ode to the music and the culture of Jamaica.

Bob Marley

Of course I’m not going to forget the late, still lamented, and still revered King of Reggae. So much has been written about Bob that all I really need to say here is that he was, quite simply, a once-in-a-lifetime artist, with a body of work that continues to win legions of new fans more than thirty years after he left us.

Personal favourite track: “Smile Jamaica”, a song that celebrates the people and the music of the island, and features Bob’s incomparable pipes in an almost jazzy vein.

 


 

Again, my apologies to all the great reggae artists who don’t appear on this list — particularly Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney and Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Next up in this space: my ten favourite calypso/soca singers.

  • veria

    Glad to see late Jacob Miller on the list. Definitely a great singer just listen to ‘Discipline Child’.