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The Music Diaries | Jamaicans among elite group of reggae acts to get a UK No. 1

Published:Sunday | August 21, 2016 | 8:00 AMRoy Black
Shaggy
Desmond Dekker
Boris Gardener
Alton Ellis
Ken Boothe
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Although he is the most successful reggae artiste of all time, Bob Marley never achieved the success of having a United Kingdom (UK) number one single. The closest he has been was number four with Buffalo Soldier in 1983, while his most fondly remembered cut - No Woman No Cry - peaked at number eight.

However, several reggae recordings have achieved the number one status in the UK, six of which, up to 1993, were Jamaican. The Guyana-born Eddy Grant's releases feature strongly among the bestselling reggae singles in the UK. His 1982 single, I Don't Wanna Dance, went to number one on the UK singles chart and stayed there for three weeks, and so did Musical Youth's Pass The Dutchie, UB40's Red Red Wine in 1983 and Aswad's Don't Turn Around in 1988. Johnny Nash, who was mainly responsible for the mainstream acceptance of reggae music in the United States of America, hit the number one spot on the UK singles charts in 1975 with Tears On My Pillow.

Orville Burrell, better known as Shaggy, became the latest Jamaican to join that elite band of singers who had the distinction of having a number one hit single on the British charts. He did so with a remake of the Folks Brothers' Oh Carolina in 1993. It was Shaggy's first hit, and the one that brought him to public attention. The song narrowly missed the number one spot upon its release, but when it was used in the movie Silver, that same year, Shaggy's DJ version became an instant dancehall smash and a number one UK hit.

It was while serving in the United States (US) Marine Corps that Shaggy honed his musical talents and, after being released in the early 1990s, he decided to pursue a singing career seriously. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1968, Shaggy moved with his parents to the US in his late teens and, shortly after, spent four years with the US Marine Corps. His choice of Oh Carolina as his debut seemed a smart move, as the song contains some discernable dancehall properties. That apart, Oh Carolina has distinct elements never before heard in any Jamaican R&B record, perhaps the first to have moved away from the general trend of imitating American R&B songs.

 

FIRST NUMBER ONES

 

Some 24 years earlier, Desmond Dekker and The Aces became the first to set the trend in Jamaican UK number one hits with Israelites. It is a timeless reggae masterpiece with almost incomprehensible lyrics. But the diehard Jamaican music lover isn't concerned much about lyrics. What they are concerned about is rhythm and beat, so they would sing along in the opening verse:

"Get up in the morning, same thing for breakfast, (or) baked beans for breakfast", while Dekker was in fact singing:

"Get up in the morning, slaving for bread sir

So that every mouth can be feed, poor me Israelite"

The recording was also a number one hit in Canada and reached the top 10 in the US, and several European countries. Two years later, Dave Barker, a session vocalist, and Ansel Collins, a keyboard player, combined to push Double Barrel to the top of the UK charts. It also topped the Jamaican charts, gave the world an early glimpse of dancehall, and brought Sly Dunbar's drum play pattern to public attention.

Ken Boothe was also among the top 10 artistes to place a single in the number one position on the British charts. He did so in 1974 with the David Gates' composition, Everything I Own. It was almost a fortuitous happening as explained to me in an interview with Boothe: "He (Paul Buchanan) gave me the song and suggested I record it. I was doing an album at the time with Lloyd Charmers. We had nine songs and wanted one more, and included it. Released in the UK, the song entered the charts and gradually climbed to number one," said Boothe.

The Jamaican singing duo of Althea Forrest and Donna Reid were still schoolgirls when they recorded Uptown Top Ranking for producer Joe Gibbs in 1977. The recording climbed to the number one spot on the UK charts in February 1978, spent one week there, and in the process created the biggest UK number one chart surprise in history. The youngest female duo to occupy that position, Althea and Donna's song rode the rhythm of Alton Ellis' immortal 1960s track, I'm Still In Love.

The lead-up story to Boris Gardiner's I Wanna Wake Up With You (1986) being elevated to the number one position on the British charts, is perhaps the most interesting of all. Gardiner had just lost all his musical equipment in a fire at a Houston Texas hotel, and had lingering thoughts of quitting the music scene. In an exclusive interview with me from his home, Gardiner told me more: "Willie Lindo came to me and say, 'Boris, you stop recording, people longing to hear from you, mek we do something nuh'. So I said alright and we made a deal. We went into the studio and recorded Guilty, Let's Keep It That Way and I Wanna Wake Up With You, which was the last to be released. The time it was released could have been the wrong time, as it came out with the 'Boops Craze', which had some 45 versions all over the place, and so Wake Up With You got very little airplay. Then it was released on the ethnic market in New York, where it started holding its own", Gardiner said.

An English resident named Mathias, who was in New York, heard the song and requested a copy from Willie Lindo, to try for its release in England. Being unsuccessful, Mathias acquired a copy via another source, which he re-edited, remastered and pressed about 500 copies which were sold off in a couple of days. A further 1,000 copies had the same result. Mathias then went to Creole Records and began the promotion. Wake Up With You entered the UK charts at number 96, and according to Gardiner, "It made some giant moves into the top 50 and gradually worked its way up to the number one spot."

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