Laying reggae's foundation
February is Reggae Month and the focus continues to be on Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and the events that are planned to celebrate the occasion, while very little mention is made of the recording artistes, musicians, producers and earlier songs that gave birth to the genre back in 1968.
These are the cornerstones on which reggae music was built, and without them, perhaps reggae music might never be around. So how can we not be paying tribute more vociferously and rewardingly to those who made it possible?
With all due respect, Marley and Brown have made invaluable contributions to the internationalisation of reggae music, but Brown was virtually an unknown in 1968, while Marley had just emerged as a minor star from producer Clement Dodd's Studio One. Notwithstanding the negatives that have been attributed to Dodd, he remains perhaps the most important cornerstone in the establishment of Jamaica's most popular and longest-lasting music form.
Two recordings from Dodd's immense catalogue: Baby Why by the Cables, Nanny Goat by Larry and Alvin in 1968, lay very strong claims to being the first reggae song. Nanny Goat, in particular, was hailed by many musicologists as the first recording with a true reggae feel. "It was like the guitar on the delay meshed with an organ shuffle," one source claimed. Dodd told me that he returned from England, just before the birth of reggae, with a few gadgets, including a delay which influenced Nanny Goat's beat. Alton Ellis was a part of the action as well with Can I Change My Mind and Breaking Up.
But overall, it would appear, from discussions I've had with musicians, singers and producers, who were close to the action, that the birth of reggae was a spontaneous happening, born out of experimentation by musicians with the existing rocksteady beat. Others claim that it was a deliberate attempt by some musicians of the day to change the beat into something that was livelier and more exciting. Another theory was that new producers like Clancy Eccles, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and Bunny Lee couldn't always acquire the services of the regular musicians, and so resorted to the less experienced ones who tried something new, unwittingly creating a new rhythm. Singing groups like The Heptones, The Melodians, and The Paragons continued to build the genre in 1968-69 with the hits I Shall Be Released, Everybody Bawling, and Change Your Style (Holligans), respectively, while Ken Parker's My Whole World is Falling Down, with its insistent reggae beat, became one of the most popular reggae recordings of that era.
Stranger Cole's contribution to the establishment of reggae was crucial, albeit coming under very unusual circumstances: "I was passing by Treasure Isle Studios one day and producer Bunny Lee, a very good friend of mine, called me upstairs where he was doing an instrumental recording called Bongo Chant with saxophonist Lester Sterling. He asked me if I could put some words to it, and I just came up with 'Mumma no wan bangarang', and the rest was history," Cole said. Bangarang became a number one hit in Jamaica in 1968, and to this day, Cole insists that it was the first reggae recording. In that same year, still four years before his advent at Island Records, Marley created a recording that likened his hometown of Trench Town to a place where music would hit you, without doing you harm. It was a stunning, early reggae piece by 'The Gong', titled Trench Town Rock, that represented another pillar in the foundation of the genre. In the recording, Marley insisted that, 'One good thing about music, when it hits you, (you feel no pain), hit me with music, this is Trench Town Rock'.
A year later (1969), Dennis Brown laid another pillar with his debut, No Man Is An Island, a Van Dyke's original. The late Clancy Eccles, who came into the entertainment business as a singer with the boogie-influenced Freedom, around 1960 for Dodd, cannot be overlooked, as his role was monumental in more ways than one. He started to produce for himself in 1967, and had in his fold stars like Eric 'Monty' Morris, Larry Marshall, Joe Higgs, The Beltones, and The Fabulous Flames.
Naming the genre
Although Frederick 'Toots' Hibbert was credited with being the first to mention the name 'Reggae' in a recording (Do The Reggae), Eccles was one of few persons said to have given the genre its name. According to Eccles, it came about on a dance night when he jokingly used the rhyming slang, "Hey Streggae come make we reggae"! - reggae referring to dancing, and Streggae to a so-called 'regular woman' at dances. Eccles was also instrumental in helping Lee Perry set up his business after Scratch had parted company with Coxsone Dodd. We can readily see the importance of this move, as Scratch, in the role of producer, helped Bob Marley to create the blueprints for his future recordings at Island Records.
The name reggae has over the years been accepted by the less knowledgeable as a generic name for all Jamaican popular music, whether it be ska, rocksteady, reggae or dancehall, but in truth, reggae occupies a specific period between 1968 and 1983 and has a distinctly different beat from the others. Yet in a sense, reggae seems to contain ingredients of all the previous forms of Jamaican popular music. One musicologist describes it as "The ska riff on top of a slowed-down rocksteady bass line, with a touch of mento".
Although it is impossible to name all who laid the foundation that made Reggae Month possible, mention has to be made of Jimmy Cliff and Gregory Isaacs, who both took reggae music to all corners of the globe. Isaacs had the big hit, Love Is Overdue, in the early 1970s, which set the standard by which many subsequent lover's reggae songs were judged, while the 1971 movie, The Harder They Come, which starred the Jamaican James Chambers, later known as Jimmy Cliff, played a very important role in popularising reggae music internationally. Containing some unforgettable cuts, the soundtrack album sold well at home and abroad.