GREGORY ISAACS / “Loving Pauper”
Source: Extra Classic (Trojan - 1977)
A while back, I did a post of some of my favorite falsetto soul songs. In that post, I included two reggae songs that fit the bill. This time, we’re going to dig deeper into the reggae falsetto thing. As in the case of American soul, there are so many great records of this type that these songs will only scratch the surface.
The Wailers – “Hallelujah Time” – from Burnin’ (Island – 1973)
We’ll get to the inevitable lovers rock tunes in a few minutes, but let’s start with an impeccable example of falsetto reggae that happens to be a protest song.
Of the Wailers trio, Bob Marley was the theorist, the thinker, the leader; Peter Tosh was the lightning rod, the stepping razor, the warrior; but it was Bunny Wailer, the pacifist, the farmer, the hill-dwelling Rasta, who had the prettiest voice. By far.
Check the first verse of “Hallelujah Time” for all the proof you might need. My man sings…
Smelling the earth
When sprinkled by raindrops
Reminds us of youthful days
But now it’s not rain
That waters the cane crops
But the sweat from man’s brow
The substance from our spine
When Bunny sings “now it’s not RAAA-IIIN” it sounds so pretty it makes me lean over in my seat, like, “I know, I know!” Damn, man.
Cornell Campbell – “My Conversation” – Originally a single (year and label unknown); Available on Studio One Rub-A-Dub (Soul Jazz – 2007)
Let’s do one more political record and then we’ll get to the love songs. Cornell Campbell is a reggae vocalist whose career dates back to the rock steady days. He started out singing with vocal groups (The Eternals and the Sensations) before finally finding his footing in the early seventies as a solo act.
This Campbell selection, “My Conversation,” is actually a cover of a tune originally made famous by Slim Smith. The original is much faster and bouncier than Campbell’s cover and it (the original, not the cover) has been versioned and sampled many, many times. I like Campbell’s cover primarily because of his flawless falsetto. At times, Campbell’s smooth navigation of the high notes even compares favorably to the one and only Curtis Mayfield.
Horace Andy & Tappa Zukie – “Natty Dread A Weh She Want” (12” Mix) – From Natty Dread A Weh She Want (Trojan, 1978)
I love this record. The lyrics concern a non-love affair between a young lady and a Rasta who passes her each day on the street. Despite never working up the courage to actually speak to the girl, the Rasta insists he’s the one the girl wants. How exactly he knows that is open to discussion.
Meanwhile, the dubbish groove is impeccable and the extended second half of the record when Tappa Zukie jumps on the mic to talk about how ol’ girl “no want white man / no want Chiney man” is hilarious. Maybe even intentionally so.
For those who aren’t familiar with Horace Andy, I should also mention that Horace isn’t exactly singing falsetto on this record. That strange, quivering high pitch thing he does is just the way he sings. Note too that Horace been around forever. In the early seventies, he was recording classic roots reggae in Jamaica. These days, he’s one of the in-house vocalists for the British trip-hop band Massive Attack. Strange, but true.
The Mighty Diamonds – “Just Can’t Figure Out” – Originally a single (Unknown label, 1975); Available on Simply Reggae (Union Square Music, 2005)
The Mighty Diamonds are one of Jamaica’s classic vocal trios. Their songs “Right Time,” “I Need A Roof” and “Them Never Love Poor Marcus” are classic roots tunes and another record of theirs, “Shame And Pride,” is a classic lovers rock record.
This week’s selection, “Just Can’t Figure Out,” was cut in 1975, a year before the Diamonds’ Right Time LP made them stars. On this record, the Diamonds ask that eternal love song question: “Why has my girl up and left me?” They go through various justifications and possibilities, all to no avail. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the rest of know exactly why she left. What’s the line? “She’s just not that into you.” Yeah.
Gregory Isaacs – “Loving Pauper” – from Extra Classic (Trojan, 1977)
It’s inadvisable (and maybe not even possible) to do a decent overview of falsetto reggae without including my man Gregory Isaacs. As we talked about a couple weeks ago, Isaacs is best known for the record “Night Nurse,” but throughout his decades-long career Issacs actually recorded over one hundred Jamaican hits and in just about every one of them he’s employed that effortless falsetto croon of his. Both in terms of his wonderful singing voice and the length and breadth of his recording career, it wouldn’t be out of place to think of Isaacs as Jamaica’s answer to Smokey Robinson.
This week’s feature selection is “Loving Pauper,” an Isaacs cover of an older Jamaican hit. (I’m not familiar with the singer of the original, a cat named Dobby Dobson.) Even though I’ve never heard the original song, I feel confident in saying that Isaacs significantly updated the arrangement. The backing ‘whoo-whoos’ and ‘oh yeahs’ are straight out of the seventies. Same thing for the slowed-down pace and the unusual snare patterns.
Judging from the amount of notoriety “Night Nurse” enjoys, it’s possible that some regard Gregory Isaacs as something of a one hit wonder. The truth is, dude’s catalog is deeeep. One of these weeks I’m going to do an entire Gregory Isaacs post. For now, we’ll ride out on this one. In the words of Gregory himself, “If you’re hungry, girl / I can’t feed you.” Now that’s romance!
—Mtume ya Salaam
I always be advising the youth, the first rule to being a player is: “don’t respond to provocations.” Let the words of those who would upset you be water on your duck back. With that in mind, I need to blow my cool a minute and jump up on that temptation Mtume dangled in this intro to falsetto reggae.
“…but it was Bunny Wailer, the pacifist, the farmer, the hill-dwelling Rasta, who had the prettiest voice. By far.”
Man, this no be beauty contest. This a here roots reggae! Bunny was the most spiritual one: he who care not a whit for Babylon fame and fortune. He who would tour no more except the length and breadth of Jamaica. No snow, no Europe for Bunny man.
Bob, Peter and Bunny each had a solo career after the original Wailers break into thirds but Bunny the only one who career stay home. And while I’ll be forever loving Bob, truth be told, Blackheart Man is my Caribbean island pick of roots records. Could listen to the angelic Bunny for eternity.
Mtume, I know you know Bunny’s Blackheart Man be the truth bomb for spiritual/falsetto reggae. Much as I might enjoy everything included here, I must affirm that Blackheart Man is in a category all its own. By far. It’s magnificence is the combination of the roots style, the conscious lyrics, and Bunny’s ethereal singing.
I make mention of Blackheart Man because it occurs to me that many of our readers/listeners probably have never heard (or even heard of) this massive document. So I include three cuts for general education purposes: “Reincarnated Souls,” “Bide Up” and “This Train.”
Bunny is the blackheart of spiritual sweetness. The deep essence of our beauty. Meditate with his strong songs in your heart—everything will be alright.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
So much talent
Yes, I do know and love the Blackheart Man album. It came out the same year as Bob’s Rastaman Vibration and Peter’s Legalize It. Crazy, right? And even crazier is this: Bob and Peter’s albums are undoubtedly better known, but Bunny’s was probably the best of the three. That year, at least. But no matter who was better in ’76 or any other year, I think we can all agree that it is amazing that so much talent was at one time contained in the same vocal trio on the tiny island of Jamaica.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, November 26th, 2007 at 4:07 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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