'I'm in Love with a Dreadlocks' Reclaims Brown Sugar As Lovers Rock Pioneers
A new compilation shows how three teenaged girls helped pioneer the musical articulation of black consciousness in England in the 1970s.
I'm in Love with a Dreadlocks: Brown Sugar and the Birth of Lovers Rock 1977-80
14 December 2018
"So in love, so in love, so in love, so in love," the background singers croon over a loping, sweet reggae beat. As the lead singer proclaims her love, it sounds like another version of the classic good girl-bad boy archetype of girl group pop songs, dating back to the Ronettes in the early '60s. But the flip comes when the lead sings, "We live righteously / In love and harmony." And in case you missed the reference, she doubles down next time around: "They say he shouldn't locks his hair / And talk abut the clothes he wear / But I don't care what people say / Oohh nooo."
Actually, the tune's title says it all: "I'm in Love with a Dreadlocks."
What might be most stunning is that this 1977 song didn't come from Jamaica, where most people back then thought all reggae music came from. Rather, it came from London, and was one of the opening salvos in a movement that would have a profound effect on global black pop.
They were three teenaged black girls - Pauline Catlin, Carol Simms, and Caron Wheeler - who bonded over a love of vocal harmony singing. Catlin's mother named the trio Brown Sugar - one wonders if she realized that was also the name of a Rolling Stones paean to the supposed benefits of sex with black women, but no matter. They landed an audition with Dennis Harris, who wanted to launch a new record label. He had named the enterprise Lovers Rock, and had lined up bassist/producer Dennis Bovell and guitarist John Kpiaye to oversee the music tracks. Upon hearing Brown Sugar at an audition, Harris immediately thought of them as something like the Supremes.
The comparison is not altogether offbase. Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Betty McGlown, and Florence Ballard, all from a Detroit housing project, were still in their teens when they came to Motown's attention in the early '60s (initially monikered the Primettes, after the Primes, who eventually became the Temptations). They represented the first generation of post-World War II black Americanness, a generation that would become the shock troops of the Civil Rights Movement.
Brown Sugar represented a different first generation, but one no less hopeful and defiant. They were three of the children whose parents came to London from the Caribbean in the 1940s and 1950s, when those islands were still British colonies, to be known as the Windrush generation. Those initial immigrants and their children faced immense racial intolerance in a land not used to people who looked like them (and still do), and their children turned to culture to express their identities and frustrations as young people in South London with Caribbean roots.
The music they made, while wholly indebted to Jamaican reggae, took two forms, in a curiously gendered way. The men formed militant-leaning bands like Aswad and Steel Pulse, while the women tended towards more romantic songs that acknowledged the social tensions but solved them through tender love songs and being with your boo at a dance - thus was the genre lovers' rock born.
The success of "I'm in Love with a Dreadlocks" launched both the group and the label on a nice-but-brief run on the nascent UK reggae scene. They followed their first hit with a cover of the American 1960s R&B hit "Hello Stranger" (did Barbara Lewis and company have any idea, when they cut that tune in 1965, how far across the globe it would travel?). The trio, being enamored with American soul since their days practicing in front of a mirror in Catlin's home, also covered the Impressions' "I'm So Proud" (a staple of male harmony groups in America and Jamaica, did any other girl groups do that one?) and Linda Clifford's disco hit "Runaway Love," but also brought it home with tunes like "Black Pride" (1977) and "Our Reggae Music" (1979), which came closer to expressing the unique style of UK racial consciousness.
Unfortunately, their run didn't last very long. Harris' enterprise cratered, and while the group soldiered on with Winston Edwards' Studio 16, they never released a full-on album, and ended after 1980's "Confession Hurts".
Fortunately, Soul Jazz has collected their entire output on I'm in Love with a Dreadlocks: Brown Sugar and the Birth of Lovers Rock 1977-80, a splendid slice of musical and cultural history. It wouldn't be all that long after Brown Sugar's time that "lovers rock" became grafted onto reggae ballad music from Jamaica, but this compilation reminds us that the idea was born by Caribbean expats - specifically, their female children - who needed a music to give them a break from British racism while asserting their black identity, and have a nice time in the process.
But even without this valuable comp. Brown Sugar's legacy lives on. By the time the group disbanded, Bovell (with Kpiaye in the crew) had already become busy as a producer for various UK reggae acts, most notably four dub-wise albums by poet Linton Kwesi Johnson (Dread Beat an' Blood, Forces of Victory, Bass Culture, Making History) that spoke global truth to local power more forcefully than Gil Scott-Heron ever did on this side of the water. Sade nodded towards this legacy by titling their 2000 album Lovers Rock.
Indeed, the last-plus 30 years of black music from the UK - not just Sade, but everyone from Loose Ends to Dizzee Rascal to Sons of Kemet - owes a debt to the optimistic audacity of Brown Sugar and their peers. And while her bandmates grew disillusioned with the music business, Wheeler kept on moving. She and a new partner sang backup on Elvis Costello's Punch the Clock (1983), then she ended up as the voice of Soul II Soul on their worldwide club hits in the late '80s and early '90s. After that, Wheeler had a brief solo career, including a hit produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, "I Adore You". But it's the title of her first solo album, from 1990, that seems to sum up was Brown Sugar had been about back in the day: "UK Blak."