Thursday, November 11, 2010

Once Ago: Gregory Isaacs (Cool Ruler, Lonely Lover, Rosetta Stone)

Yesterday, I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn that my favorite Jamaican musician and reggae’s greatest living artist, Gregory Isaacs, passed away of lung cancer in London on October 25th.

I’ve been dazed, confused and caught up in all manner of other things, but I had been thinking about Gregory a great deal lately and had actually been mentally composing a piece for this space over the last month.  I wonder why?  

Originally, I thought I would draft something about my history with Jamaican music: how I came to learn about it, became an enthusiast, and what it meant to me.  That’s an interesting story, actually, because falling in love with sunny, humanizing, articulate, vital and pulsing reggae back in the dark days of David Dinkins’ mayoral administration in New York, when we were living in Brooklyn Heights and I was riding a very rough subway to the law courts of every borough daily, relieved me from a lot of the anger and paranoia I and many other people were feeling at a time when New York City seemed to be visibly crumbling.

I’ll save that story for another time.  Suffice it to say that a work project of Caroline’s made it necessary for us to learn about the history of Jamaican music very quickly.  Toward that end, I purchased a copy of the album Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers.  Because I had read that it contained one of the original Wailers’ (the mysterious and critically and sartorially fashionable Bunny “Wailer” Livingstone’s) reinterpretations of various Wailers’ hits going back to the beginning of their storied career, and, because of the nature of the project (working with Bob Marley’s children, the original Melody Makers line-up, and also with Peter Tosh), it seemed like a relevant place to start.   

We both fell in love with the record immediately – the songs, the musicianship (provided by the cream of Jamaica’s session musicians, including Sly & Robbie’s Taxi Gang, the Roots Radics band and the eternal Earl “Chinna” Smith), and, of course Bunny Wailer’s singing – and we were off on one of the best journeys of our lives.

Examining a culture through the lens of its art has always seemed to me useful and revelatory, and the history of 20th century Jamaica and its procession to independence in 1962 after 400 years of British colonial rule, is deeply moving.  Because of the grinding poverty and never-ending political corruption that remained in independence’s wake, it also illustrates what the English novelist Ronald Firbank called “Sorrow In Sunlight”. 

Still, a native genius in the Jamaican people actively expressed in sport and art (traditional outlets for talented people with no capital), informed and tempered by the urban renewal and civil rights/black pride movements, led to a great flowering in Jamaican culture in the 1960s, including in popular music where in rapid, logical succession, the musical forms of ska, rock-steady and reggae (exemplified in the work of artists like the Skatalites, the Heptones and the Wailers) unveiled themselves in recordings that were mainly meant to be played for passionate dancers in live dancehalls and on the radio, rather than purchased in stores. (Jamaica was and remains a poor country.)  

It was against this background that Gregory Isaacs, born in dirt poverty in Denham Town, Kingston in 1951, and raised by his mother Enid Murray in a fatherless household, first emerged as an artist in live Kingston talent shows and then with his group The Concords in the late 1960s.

By the time Caroline and I became interested in reggae, Gregory had been a major solo star for 10 years.  He was known and widely recognized as the “Cool Ruler” and the "Lonely Lover", a great singer who was the king of “Lovers Rock”, one of the stars of the movie “Rockers” and, most of all, as a significant and profound songwriter who, like each of the Wailers, members of a slightly earlier musical generation, could write important songs covering all of reggae’s relevant lyrical and musical themes and styles, i.e., political songs, love songs and religious/metaphysical songs.

"Love Is Overdue", "Slave Master", “Once Ago”, “Storybook Children”, “Mr. Cop”, “Extra Classic”, “Top Ten”,  “The Border”, “Soon Forward”, “Front Door”, “No Footstool”, “Oh, What A Feeling”, “Loving Pauper”, “Night Nurse” and the touching, chilling, deeply personal and honest "Hard Drugs".  The list is overwhelming and practically endless. Musically and lyrically, Gregory’s art communicated like some emotional/intellectual universal translating device, a living Rosetta Stone.  Gregory’s dub album “Slum In Dub” is indispensible and his live album recorded at the Brixton Academy, London in 1983, backed by the Roots Radics, is simply the finest performance recording I have ever heard, displaying an artist and audience perfectly attuned to each other.

Here is a link to a story by journalist Christopher Serju, a reporter who knew Gregory well, in the October 31st edition of Kingston’s Sunday Daily Gleaner, which provides some additional information about Gregory’s colorful up-and-down life and personality.  I will always carry with me and treasure the mental picture of Gregory and Bunny Wailer, two visually extreme Rastafarians, as longtime golfing buddies on sunny Jamaican golf courses.  And also the memory of Gregory the opera aficionado and friend of opera singers.  

Brilliance is rare and genius practically non-existent (whatever you may hear around entertainment company water-coolers and in popular journalism).  Artists of Gregory Isaacs’ caliber are irreplaceable.  This is a very difficult loss to bear.


  1. A very moving commemoration, Curtis.

  2. Great piece about some of my life long musical heros. Thanks.

  3. Thank you both for your kind words. Gregory was (and will always remain) a giant, the Cool Ruler. Sadly, we never got to see him perform in person, but because of the live Island Records/Brixton Academy lp, his performance in "Rockers" and some of the funny (and sometimes minatory) interviews he did, we feel we got to learn the things we needed to. And the mental image formed of Gregory and Bunny Wailer in golfing gear is obviously unforgettable. It's a beautiful day in Pennsylvania -- falling leaves, getting colder. Curtis