I met Gregory Isaacs on many occasions over the years but only interviewed him once, after I'd given a speech in his honour at the Jamaica High Commission in London during his 35th Anniversary celebrations. Rumours abound about the Cool Ruler but I always enjoyed my encounters with him, and also his great sense of humour.
Gregory Isaacs, the Cool Ruler of reggae music, finally lost his battle with lung cancer on Monday October 25th 2010 after a lengthy illness. He died in London, where he’d enjoyed so many artistic triumphs over the years, surrounded by his family. In accordance with his now legendary status he was awarded a state funeral back home in Kingston, Jamaica, where his journey had begun in the slums of Denham Town just fifty-nine years earlier.
There were many sides to Gregory’s talent. The epitome of gangster cool in his fedora, tailored suits and silk shirts, he was the classiest rude bwoy Jamaica’s ever seen, and a masterful performer no matter what he was singing about – whether crooning intimate, romantic ballads designed to make ladies weak at the knees, or documenting the realities of ghetto life in a manner which left us in no doubt of their authenticity. The fact that he wrote nearly all of his own hits despite being so prolific would have been enough to enshrine him as a major star but Mr. Isaacs was also a sublime vocal stylist, possessed of an unhurried delivery that could express either tender vulnerability – designed to send his legions of female fans into raptures – or conversely, thinly veiled menace, depending on his mood. Without question he was reggae’s leading male sex symbol, and by a very long distance.
Maybe this was due to the influence of singers like Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and John Holt, whose music he absorbed in-between trying his hand as an electrician and cabinetmaker during his teens. At seventeen he cut his first-ever recording (Another Heartache, shared with Winston Sinclair), then joined a vocal trio called the Concords, who recorded a handful of sides for Rupie Edwards’ Success label. It was Edwards who produced Gregory’s earliest solo recordings like Lonely Man and Far Beyond The Valley, which contain all the hallmarks of his latter-day, laconic vocal style.
There are other similarities with Sam Cooke too – not only regarding dress sense and delivery, but also in how Gregory took charge of his own output. In 1973, he started the African Museum label with fellow singer Errol Dunkley, whose career promptly received a welcome boost with Black Cinderella. Roots reggae was gaining popularity in the wake of the Wailers’ Catch A Fire, and songs about Rasta and black history just beginning to make their presence felt. Whilst better known as a lovers’ rock singer, Gregory would soon embody such changes in his own music. In the meantime he assumed sole control of African Museum and opened up a record store on Chancery Lane in downtown Kingston near to Idlers’ Rest, where singers and musicians would hang out, awaiting an opportunity to record at studios like Randy’s or Treasure Isle. Gregory would continue to produce many of his own hits down the years – something few other Jamaican singers have managed to any notable degree. When you consider these self-productions include Slave Market, My Only Lover (his own personal favourite), My Time, Top Ten, Tune In, Front Door, Cream Of The Crop and Love Me With Feeling it’s a wonder he ventured onto anyone else’s label at all, except the ever-prolific Isaacs also voiced for many of Jamaica’s top producers including Alvin “G. G” Ranglin, who gave him his first No. 1 hit in Jamaica with Love Is Overdue back in 1974.
Ranglin is from Clarendon, the same parish that gifted reggae music Toots Hibbert, the Maytones and Freddie McGregor. After leaving school he repaired radios and television sets, then branched out into jukeboxes, founded his own sound-system and even sang a little before relocating to Kingston and trying his hand at record production. By the time Gregory sauntered into his life, “G. G” had issued 45s with the likes of Eric Donaldson, Max Romeo and U Roy, but it was the enigmatic Cool Ruler who put his label on the map with a slew of hits released over the next three years. The material collected here represents the fruits of their alliance, and offers an essential glimpse into Gregory’s early solo work. In the aftermath of Love Is Overdue he wasted no time recording his debut album for Ranglin, which Trojan Records issued as In Person during 1975. The cover depicted him sat at a wheel of a newly imported, bright red Ford Capri and the contents – led by Love Is Overdue – were equally impressive. Sweeter The Victory and Financial Endorsement are among his earliest sufferers’ laments, whilst tracks like Another Heartache, No Forgiveness and Love Disguise set into motion a gift for wronged love stories that would last his entire career. Add to this tally a joyful The Way She Walks, the cautious optimism of Far Beyond The Valley and his declaration of righteousness on Happiness Come and it’s little surprise he was hailed as a significant new talent right from the start.
It was the Soul Syndicate who played on most of the In Person set. For material gathered on two further albums, The Best Of Volumes 1 & 2, Ranglin recruited the Revolutionaries – a band anchored by drummer Sly Dunbar and based at Channel One. Both albums appeared on the producer’s own label in Jamaica, and were released after Gregory had already left for pastures new. We can trace the progression from “flyers” – with its emphasis on sizzling cymbals – to a more sophisticated roots sound, ablaze with horns and with Gregory’s vocals mixed well to the fore. These tracks came across as being more assured and the singer too, had grown – both as an artist and in his personal life. The Best Of Volume 1, issued in 1978, showed him on the cover with budding dreadlocks and holding a spliff, which may explain how he came to write a song like Double Attack, which told the story of a ganja bust. This track heralded his predilection for outlaw tales but it was My Number One that registered most with the reggae public, and proved a massive hit on 12” single. Look Before You Leap and the seductive Special Guest were among other standouts, along with covers of Willow Tree and Breaking Up (both hits for Alton Ellis in Jamaican reggae circles.)
Three years later, Ranglin issued Best Of Volume 2 – another striking collection featuring Border (arguably Gregory’s best-ever repatriation song) and other tracks displaying his rebel credentials for all to see. No Footstool is not a wish, but declaration; A Riot preaches insurrection; Jailer tells of life behind bars whilst Village Of The Underprivileged and Payroll again speak out on behalf of those left destitute as a result of corruption and inequality. Rastafari, fused with a burning sense of social injustice, now infused much of Gregory’s song-writing, although he still found room for a sprinkling of wistful ballads such as Once Ago, Each Day, Something Nice and Tumbling Tears – another Alton Ellis hit, and with the added attraction of dee-jay Ranking Barnabas on the final few bars.
Alas, Best Of Volume 2 brought to an end Ranglin’s relationship with a singer who’d now established himself as a reigning superstar of late seventies’ reggae music – one whose popularity rivalled that of his close friend Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff and even Bob Marley. By this time Gregory had voiced hits for many different producers, including Lee “Scratch” Perry, Niney The Observer, Micron, Ossie Hibbert and Sly & Robbie; founded his own distribution set-up in tandem with Bunny Wailer, and signed to Virgin Records’ Frontline label for the albums Cool Ruler and Soon Forward. He’d also starred in the film Rockers, recorded for Charisma and then transferred to Island Records for his best-known hit single and album Night Nurse – a landmark he’d celebrated by being jailed in Kingston’s feared General Penitentiary for possession of an illegal firearm.
Gregory would increasingly weave elements of his own life story into the reggae folk process from thereon – most notably on songs like One Man Against The World, Talk Don’t Bother Me and Rumours; even Hard Drugs, in which he made reference to his cocaine addiction. The Cool Ruler wrote about his frailties with rare honesty and whilst most commentators agree that his latter-day output was dogged by inconsistency, you wrote him off at your peril. Back in the mid-to-late seventies however, he was an emerging force of great talent and persuasion – one whose songs radiate conviction, and will live forever in the hearts and minds of reggae fans worldwide.