The Original Rocksteady Crooner
Think the idea of a “battle” or “war” among rival artists is a hip-hop invention? Guess again. The phenomenon dates back more than 50 years, to when John F. Kennedy was still alive and Elvis Presley was the most popular “Black music” star in the world.
In one of many parallels between Jamaican music and hip-hop, producers have always been just as—if not more—important as the recording artists themselves. In 1962, producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd was reeling from the success of his rival Cecil “Prince Buster” Bustamente Campbell. Dodd chanced into teenage singer Delroy Wilson and duly made Wilson his mouthpiece for a series of anti-Buster singles. Thus the first “sound war” was born. Crucially, though, in this case the war never erupted into actual violence. And it made Wilson one of the first stars of what would eventually become reggae, setting a precedent for pubescent heroes from Horace Andy and Bob Marley to Barrington Levy and Sugar Minott.
Wilson benefited from coming of age, as it were, during a watershed time for Jamaican music. In 1963, Dodd founded what would become the most legendary of all Jamaican recording companies, Studio One. And a few years later, the chugging rhythms and blasting horns of ska began to slow down and morph into the more moody, guitar, bass, and drums-dominated rocksteady style. Original Eighteen derives from this period. It’s a remastered version of the classic 1991 compilation Original Twleve, with six tracks appended.
Simply put, you won’t find a better-produced, better-sung collection from the rocksteady era. Recorded from 1965 to 1970, these songs find Wilson going beyond the Dodd-Buster feud and coming into his own as a singer and songwriter, co-authoring with Dodd all but a couple. Thematically, Wilson sticks mainly to love songs—but mostly of the lovelorn kind, as titles like “Troubled Man” and “Ungrateful Baby” suggest. “Someday some boy will make you cry”, he warns an ex-lover on the ska-ish “Riding for a Fall”, and that pretty much sets the tone. Horns—particularly the Glenn Miller-inspired riff on “Feel the Spirit”—are still prominent, adding energy and color. Likewise, backing vocals liven up several tracks. The influence of American R&B still looms large in the arrangements as well as the lyrics, especially on the more upbeat numbers.
But there’s something deeper, darker at work here. Part of it is simply Wilson’s voice, which shows him to be one of the best pure singers of the era. Smooth, soulful, and pointed when necessary, it’s wise and confident beyond Wilson’s young years. It’s tough to imagine he was barely 20 years old when he recorded most of this material. Also, it’s the musicianship—an awesome display by house band, the Soul Vendors, led by organist/pianist Jackie Mittoo. The drums and guitars set a steady anchor for the solid arrangements, which put plenty of emphasis on the backing tracks. But the bass, uncredited but presumably played by Soul Vendors’ stalwart Leroy Sibbles, is superb, dancing around songs like “True Believer in Love” like a bee a around a lavender bush. It’s all there in the way Wilson and band transform Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” from a Motown barnstormer to a hazy, narcotic seduction.
Most of the bonus tracks are far from leftovers, with dubby lament “I Don’t Know Why” the best of the bunch. The sound has been cleaned up, too, but as usual with this music and this era, it’s inconsistent. The packaging, which skimps on photos and credits, isn’t up to the standard set by labels like Blood & Fire, but that’s a quibble.
Wilson isn’t better known because he came to prominence at a time when Jamaican music had yet to turn the corner toward the US market, which it later would in the form of roots reggae. But it couldn’t have happened without songs like those on Original Eighteen.