As Reggae Celebrates 50 Years, Some of the Genre’s Pioneers Look Back on Its Worldwide Ascent
Shifting ethics, social upheavals and escalations in political and civil rights protests all contributed to the chaotic, landmark year that was 1968. The raging Vietnam War generated polarizing emotions and widespread demonstrations across the U.S. and throughout the world. On April 4 civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of Memphis hotel where he was supporting that city’s striking African American sanitation workers. King’s murder prompted days of rioting in over 100 US cities with 40 reported deaths and more than 2,000 injuries. Robert F. Kennedy, a 1968 presidential candidate, broke the news of King’s demise to Indianapolis while on a campaign stop there; two months later Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.
The United States wasn’t the only country with seismic swings taking place. In 1968, Jamaica (then an independent nation for just six years) experienced widespread public-sector workers’ strikes for better wages. In October 1968 Walter Rodney, the popular Guyana born professor of African History at the University of the West Indies, Kingston, and an outspoken advocate for Black Power, was barred from returning to Jamaica. Prime Minister Hugh Shearer labeled Rodney “a communist threat to the island’s security” and its lucrative tourism sector. As news of Rodney’s banning spread, demonstrations that began at UWI, called the Rodney Riots, proliferated throughout Kingston, which resulted in six deaths, nearly 100 arrests and damages to properties etc. exceeding one million Jamaican dollars. Fifty years ago, Dr. Vernon Carrington founded the 12 Tribes of Israel, the most liberal branch within Jamaica’s indigenous Rastafari way of life. The 12 Tribes sect helped spread Rastafari’s Afrocentric tenets into the wider populace (Bob Marley was a 12 Tribe member). But the most impactful musical occurrence in Jamaica in 1968 was the birth of reggae, characterized by faster paced, complex grooves accented on the off beat, with an emphasized drum and bass. Just like its musical predecessors, ska and rocksteady, reggae emerged from the poorest areas of West Kingston. It was a fitting music for the fluctuating times.
“In 1968, newly independent Jamaica was shifting from the idealism of 1962 to harsh realities as the economy of hope took a downturn; those struggles were reflected in the music,” comments Kingston based Andrea Davis, who in 1994 founded International Reggae Day (IRD), observed on July 1. IRD celebrations are now held worldwide. “Wrapped in the philosophy of Rastafari, reggae made its debut as a genre and a lifestyle movement, becoming a voice for the voiceless, and a force for equal rights and justice.”
By the 1970s reggae would be closely identified with decrying oppression, espousing the wisdom of Rastafari Deity Ethiopian Emperor His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. But in its nascent phase, reggae was dance music. Vocal trio The Maytals sang about “the new dance, going around the town,” on their joyous single “Do the Reggay” (sic) the initial record utilizing the word reggae. “The beat was playing already, we heard it, but it didn’t really have a name,” Maytals’ legendary lead singer Frederick “Toots” Hibbert told Billboard. “There’s a slang word in Jamaica called streggae, a term for a way some people dressed, scruffy. I just say that word reggae came from the people, from the ghetto, the majority who are suffering, because the music was for everybody.”
“Do The Reggay” was a No. 1 record in Jamaica, says Toots, which prompted a spate of releases in 1968 featuring the name of the new dance craze in their title: The Ethiopians’ “Reggae Hit The Town,” Roy Shirley’s “Flying Reggae,” The Pioneers’ “Reggae Beat,” The Gaylads’ “I Love The Reggae” and from the UK, Dandy’s “Reggae in Your Jeggae” (not to be confused with Drumbago and the Blenders’ instrumental “Reggae Jeggae”). Jamaican music enthusiasts largely concur that The Maytals’ “Do The Reggay,” produced by the late Leslie Kong for Kong’s Beverley’s label, was the first Jamaican record to use the word reggae. What’s still debated, though, is which 1968 recording initially adapted a reggae beat distinctive from its rocksteady forerunner. Often cited contenders for that momentous designation include “Nanny Goat,” Larry Marshall and Alvin Perkins; “No More Heartaches,” The Beltones; “Long Shot (Bus Me Bet),” The Pioneers, and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “People Funny Boy.”
“Many historians have their own version of what is, what isn’t, but I’m not going to get into that debate and say one song catapulted reggae into the world,” comments Jamaican bassist Jackie Jackson. Jackson began his recording career at 19, playing bass on singer Alton Ellis’ 1967 rocksteady classic “Girl I Got A Date” for the late producer Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label. Jackson would become the resident bassist at Treasure Isle, which dominated Jamaica’s rocksteady period (1966-early 1968). But Jackson also worked with other producers including Leslie Kong on Toots’ landmark “Do The Reggay” session.
“The (1968) transition from rocksteady tempo into the reggae beat depended on the composers, the singers, because each came with a different perspective on the music,” continued Jackson, who now tours the world playing bass as one of Toots’ musical Maytals. “When ska was on its way out, a new breed of singers came along and the songs they wrote couldn’t be recorded at the ska tempo, it was too fast, so the reggae rhythms were played to fit the songs.” Although Jackson didn’t definitively offer an opinion on the first song to incorporate a reggae tempo, he recalled with great enthusiasm a pivotal 1968 recording session with singer Clancy Eccles for “Feel The Rhythm.” “Right about there, that was a real reggae song, identifying the heart and soul of reggae and alongside Toots’ ‘Do The Reggay,’ those two songs really helped to put reggae on the map.”
While the earliest reggae songs were typically concerned with carefree themes, the music’s migration towards greater societal awareness and Rastafari’s affirmations of African identity (which would shape the genre throughout its 1970s golden age) made sporadic yet significant appearances during 1968. The Ethiopians’ “Everything Crash,” written by lead singer Leonard Dillon, commented on the widespread strikes and resultant turmoil gripping Jamaica; The Heptones’ “Equal Rights” is a stirring plea for justice co-written by the group’s lead singer and prominent bassist of the era Leroy Sibbles and harmony vocalist Earl Morgan. Desmond Dekker and The Aces“Poor Mi Israelites” powerfully conveyed the plight of the downtrodden (“shirt dem a-tear up, trousers is gone/I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde”). Originally released in October 1968 “Israelites” would eventually reach No. 9 on the Hot 100, the first reggae song to attain such recognition. With lyrics largely indecipherable to non-Jamaican ears, the song’s irresistible beat and Dekker’s flawless delivery nonetheless captivated listeners far beyond the island’s shores.
Also released in 1968 on (the late) producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label was Bob Andy’s brilliant “I’ve Got to Go Back Home.” Ostensibly suggesting a longing to return to Africa (a central theme within 1970s roots reggae) Andy’s lyrics portrayed the daily struggles of Jamaica’s poor (“I can’t get no clothes to wear, can’t get no food to eat, I can’t get a job to get bread”) while looking beyond one’s immediate surroundings for salvation. “There’s a metaphoric home and a longing for Africa within the song,” the lauded singer/songwriter explained. “It was about the things that I cried for, to be able to enjoy certain privileges, wherever I could provide those things for myself and others, that was home to me.”
Born Keith Anderson, Andy, 73, was a founding member of the popular rocksteady harmony group The Paragons. As a soloist, Andy’s profound lyrical expressions, including the challenges depicted in “Life,” and the anguish wrought by poverty detailed on “Let Them Say,” both released in 1968, were pivotal in influencing the progression of the genre. Andy cites America’s Black Power movement and Bob Dylan’s lyrics in particular as essential components in shaping his incisive words. “At that time, African Americans were protesting for their rights and I realized that we had the same struggles in Jamaica,” he recalls. “I was influenced by Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice, the Autobiography of Malcom X and the teachings of (Jamaica’s pan-Africanist) Marcus Garvey and HIM Haile Selassie I. Most Jamaicans were influenced by African American music and American music in general. But when I heard Bob Dylan’s music, it introduced me to the world of social commentary; I realized then that you could talk about any issue in a song, you don’t have to write about the bedroom, and that set me on my way as a writer.” Andy’s exceptional, if somewhat overlooked catalog, also includes “Too Experienced” a staple within the career of Jamaican crooner Barrington Levy, and “It’s Impossible,” a 1989 hit for English band UB40, retitled as “Impossible Love.”
Marcia Griffiths, the long reigning queen of reggae had her first solo hit with the exuberant “Feel Like Jumping” (Studio One), written by Andy. Griffiths calls Andy “a visionary, one of the best songwriters Jamaica has ever seen.”
Following her initial solo success, Griffiths teamed with Andy as the duet Bob and Marcia, modeled on the success of Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell. The Jamaican pair even recorded a reggae version Marvin and Tami’s 1968 Motown hit “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” Griffiths recalled the difficulties of pursuing a career at the dawn of reggae’s creation. “It was a struggle to survive back then because as woman in a male dominated business you are taken for granted unless you have good management, which, unfortunately, I didn’t have.” She also laments the lack of remuneration for Jamaican singers and musicians’ (now seen as) groundbreaking efforts, a sentiment echoed by most artists from that time. “Back in 1968 there was no compensation for our work in the studio, we did it for the love of the music. But the fans have always given me great support and that was enough for me to want to continue.” Griffiths alongside Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt formed Bob Marley’s backing trio the I-Threes, who recorded and toured the world with the reggae superstar between 1974-1980. Now 68, Griffiths has had one of the most enduring careers in Jamaican music, which includes her 1989 single “Electric Slide,” which reached No. 51 on the Hot 100. Still heavily in demand at reggae festivals and concerts worldwide, she remains encouraged by reggae’s 50-year evolution. “When reggae started in 1968 no one really knew about it, today there’s nowhere in the world where people don’t play this music,” she states. “Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley were among those artists who took reggae to the four corners of the earth. I was a part of that experience with Bob Marley; I have since returned to the many places I went to with him: Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all over Europe. The seeds of reggae that were first planted all those years ago have bloomed beautifully.”