Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the birth of one of Jamaica's most beloved entertainers - Gregory Isaacs. He surely ranks among the most popular singers in Jamaica's music history.
As a singer of love songs, it is widely accepted that nobody in reggae music sings a love song quite like him. His unique style - cool, hypnotic, while portraying glimpses of the rude boy, has earned him the title 'The Cool Ruler'. He really emerged in the mid-1970s and developed a style, which at times had his audiences, especially the ladies, almost eating out of his hands.
In both his songs and his personal life, Gregory often seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve: In the tenderly caressed verses of My Number One, his romantic vulnerability is palpably felt.
The song ends with an almost-whispered plea of a man who has known many travails of the heart, when he utters:
"If you want to be my number one,
Let me know your future plan, Please don't hurt this man."
Like many others before him, Gregory started his entertainment career by entering various talent competitions and appearing on stage shows before getting into studio to do his first recording - his self-penned Another Heartache in the late 1960s for West Indies Recording Limited (WIRL), founded by former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga. His second composition My Only Lover, done for Rupie Edwards' Success Label in the early 1970s, became his first hit and was the template of all the lovers rock-reggae tunes that followed. Considered the chief architect of lovers rock, he reinforced that claim with other early pieces like All I Have Is Love, Let's Dance, Salary Is Thin, and on his own African Museum label, Front Door and Night Nurse which was a desperate appeal for help.
"Tell her, try her best to make it quick,
Woman tend to the sick,
For there must be something she can do,
This heart is broken in two,
Tell her its a case of emergency,
There's a patient by the name of Gregory,
Night nurse, only you alone can quench this thirst."
LAMENTS OF LONELINESS
Apart from the excellent lyrical word-play, these were recordings that epitomised the theme that ran through most of his songs - the man who plays the part of the lonely lover, tormented by laments and loneliness. It is even more evocative in one of popular music's great songs, when he pleads:
"Who is gonna tell me goodnight
Now that she's gone out of my sight,
Who is gonna tell me lies and let me think they're true,
Now that my love is overdue?"
His mother Miss Enid Murray, with whom I spoke, confirmed that he was born in Fletcher's Land, Kingston on this day in 1950, and like myself, attended the famed All Saints Primary School in the community. Murray recounted her amazement on hearing Gregory pre-empting her in the introduction of himself to a Basic School teacher when only two years and nine months old.
This mental altertness and retentive memory were given greater expression in later life when, according to June, his wife for 28 years, he sang and recorded straight from memory.
"Gregory has never written a song on paper," she explained.
"He stores them in his head line by line, sometimes with the help of a recorder, and records them straight from memory." Something of a genius, he was once heard referring to himself as having 'long remembrance'.
FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH
After the days at All Saints, Gregory attended a private school at 21 North Street, before entering the world of music. He had, by then, groomed himself through talent and stage shows, and has seldom looked back during a three-decade career that went from strength to strength.
While many other reggae stars toyed with the rude boy image in their lyrics and were viewed in jest, Gregory was the real McCoy, having had encounters with the law in the mid-1980s.
During the encounters, June was constantly implicated, having been an ever-present companion, and although Gregory 'took the rap', she spent many hours at the General Penitentiary along Tower Street in Kingston, to offer moral and physical support to her hushand.
A trained teacher, she gave up that profession in order to dedicate herself to custodial duties for Gregory's 10 children, and administer the business aspect of his music.
Having paid a fine for a gun offence, Gregory continued his musical exploits throughout the remainder of the 1980s and into the 1990s when he held his own in the midst of the DJ and dancehall boom. He literally took the youths at their own game and won with such classics as Rumours, Private Beach Party, Big All Around, All I Need Is You, One Man Against The World and Hard Drugs.
Earlier, he wrapped his crystaline voice around such classics as Tune In, Love Feeling, Top10, and Mr Brown, all on his African Museum label.
Gregory will be remembered just as much for the wonderful things about his character traits, as for its frailty.
He warned in one of his songs against the use of hard drugs, yet he was immersed in it. He was the generous giver who refused to give less to others than he would to himself. He was the family man whose dedication was limitless. He was the laconic, peaceful individual who could be transformed into a gunman if unfairly dealt with, and he was the serious humorist who once drew a pistol as his signature in a letter to a delinquent client.
On this 62nd anniversary of his birth, the Gregory Isaacs Foundation has again pointed out its intention to continue, charitable works started by Gregory. Focussing on children, the Black Harmony Basic School, Walkers Place of Safety, and St Barnabas Basic School, Gregory's first school, will benefit, as they did last year, from gifts of clothing, educational material, first aid kits etc. Artistes such as John Holt, Uroy, Big Youth, Mighty Diamonds, Tarrus Riley, and We The People Band will give their services free, in a concert at Studio38, Trafalgar Road, today in aid of the foundation, which is funded by Tads, VP, GG, and RAS records.
The entrance fee is simply a gift in cash or kind to the foundation.