Photo from the cover of The Don Tells It Like It Is (2013)

Mind Blowing: Leroy Smart in the Heady Days of 1977

In 1977, reggae music burst out of its Caribbean confines and found its way to a record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That's the first time I met "The Don", Leroy Smart.
Leroy Smart
Ballistic Affair (aka The Very Best of Leroy Smart)

Record collecting might be akin to journalism in the desire for a scoop, landing the newest piece of information, the unheard item before anyone else knows of it. At least that’s the way it used to be. In the digital age, the planet is being thoroughly mined for even its most esoteric musical resources; right now a European or American tourist is digging through a pile of records in São Paulo, Mumbai or Nairobi, let alone that the latest release from Lagos or Seoul can be accessed on Youtube.

The collector’s attraction to the obscure or hard to find does not necessarily mean that he or she wants to accrue, in the long run, a financial reward. I once saw some original Muddy Waters 78rpms on the walls of Cheapo Records in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a hand-written sign that said, “Don’t even ask about it.” They weren’t for sale.

The desire to get there first, to impart the newly discovered to the uninitiated, was part of the reason for my wholesale absorption of reggae in the mid-’70s. But that sound, that vibe, was also something that I considered priceless.

That deep and heavy sound, its maximized bass and outstanding rim shots requires, in my case, some context; it was a situation that showed up some inherent if extreme contrasts. I was a white middle-class boy living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, immersing myself in “ghetto music”, the sound of Trenchtown; let alone the problematic of classifying a genre that was deeply influenced by the mainstream of American pop music as “esoteric” or obscure. At the time Reggae truly was pop music, only with a less populous white listening demographic, but popular, nonetheless. The genre was being distributed through different, less mainstream or established channels than other (read “white”) popular music of the time.

But it (the news) was about to break.

Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican back-to-Africa political activist and Rasta icon, provided a curious addendum to this circumstance. It’s been said that he prophesized some kind of apocalypse when sevens clashed on 7 July 1977. There was no global meltdown on that date but, to my mind, 1977 was the high point for reggae’s initial international penetration into the mainstream marketplace. By that time, both the Island and Virgin record labels had established some serious distribution deep into Rock n’ Roll’s FM turf.

But I, as an amateur but dedicated musicologist, wanted to go to the source. This is where Leroy Smart comes into the story.

Given that the music had been shunned by radio both inside and outside Jamaica, Jamaican record stores established a distinctive way of doing business. In the atypical Jamaican reggae outlet, there was the store, a place for the customer to stand, and then a counter that the proprietor and a turntable (or sound system) would stand behind. The owner would play snippets of records of his choice or records that customers requested. This is how one would make a decision about what to buy, let alone that you could just hang around and listen.

In the Boston area, this kind of retail was, as might be imagined, decidedly independent. I can’t remember how we found out about these outlets but sometimes they required a trip into Boston’s African-American enclaves such as Roxbury around Dudley Station or the South End of Boston. Those trips always bring to mind the Linton Kwesi Johnson song, “Come We Go Dung Deh”.

On the other hand, Cambridge being Cambridge, there was an “authentic” reggae outlet, Rupert’s Records (located next to legendary live music venue the Middle East) run by a white American who was flashing dreadlocks. He explained that his immersion in reggae (or Rasta) began with a trip to Jamaica with the intention of making an album with Big Youth. He proudly displayed a scrap of paper signed by Manley Buchanan (Big Youth’s given name). One of the first Jamaican pressings that I bought there was “The Very Best of Leroy Smart” on the Channel One label, packaged in a blank white cardboard sleeve.

Leroy Smart is a “baldhead dread”, clean-shaven but Rasta, baldhead being the derogatory term for those who don’t honor Rastafari by growing their locks; dread implying the fear one feels coming upon the socially outcast Rastaman. For whatever reason, Smart not only kept his hair neat but he dressed like a rooster, sharp and flashy. You can find him in a three-piece suit and wide-brimmed hat in the movie Rockers (1977).

During the mid-’70s, when major labels were scouting for talent in Jamaica, musicians who remained coiffed (growing dreadlocks is not an absolute requirement for adhering to Rastafarianism) complained that they were being passed over, neglected; dread iconography had become part of the way reggae was marketed up north. Smart himself only received one distribution deal from Island Records for the song “Ballistic Affair” (which also appears on The Very Best of Leroy Smart).

Regardless of Smart’s appearance, his lyrical content is Rasta-oriented. Additionally, his lyrics demonstrate the notable split in Reggae between the religious and the secular. The selections on The Very Best of Leroy Smart are divided along these lines.

Smart’s first song of note, “Ethiopia” was released in 1970 on the Joe Gibbs label. On the Channel One LP the song is retitled “Jah Hovia” and given a dreader arrangement, in particular, the American R&B influenced intro of “Ethopia” has been dropped; in “Jah Hovia” we go directly into the matter at hand.

The rest of the world was catching up in the mid-’70s, but by that time Jamaica had already innovated a few musical styles before hitting on the distinct genre that we call reggae. In some ways, reggae is the sound of the late ’60s, which reached an apex when two sevens clashed in 1977. Leroy is chanting (in 1970) about Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, its own apex as far as Rasta fervor.

On the other hand, the album contains “Sharon”, a song that not only explicitly name-checks the beloved but well delineates Leroy Smart’s vocal delivery, one of those weird only-in-Jamaica inflections, leaning towards the lament, well suited for both romantic and religious obsessions. Smart is not exactly a crooner in the Gregory Isaac or Dennis Brown mode, his voice is his own, so much so that it might be a case of take-it-or-leave-it. But there is no mistaking, when he opens his mouth and sings, that it is Leroy Smart and no one else.

I spun The Very Best of Leroy Smart on a regular basis, along with (for example) Jamaican pressings of Culture’s Two Sevens Clash, African Dub Chapter 3, The Prophets’ Conquering Lion, and countless singles. There were days or even weeks when I would play nothing but reggae. I even felt obliged to buy (even though these songs were on the album) a unique Leroy Smart 33 1/3 seven inch single (Channel One’s “Economic Package”) that contained “Pride and Shame” and “Badness No Pay” with their versions (or dubs) after each song.

For one reason or another, one of my close friends also connected with Leroy Smart, so much so that he vocalized Smart’s “Wreck Up My Life” in our ill-fated miss-matched band (in the era when everyone was starting a band), a band that attempted to combine the influences of The Stooges and I Roy. The Clash were trying to do the same thing (albeit far more successfully); in fact they name check Leroy Smart in their song “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”.

That song is partially about Joe Strummer attending reggae concerts in London in which he found himself to be, as a white man, in the minority. In my own experience, in Cambridge and Boston, I found reggae sound systems and live concerts to provide a welcome relief from racial tension, a much-needed space where black and white could congregate under the umbrella of penetrating bass frequencies.

And then the man, Leroy Smart, turned up. For a crucial period of time, an independent promoter in Boston was showcasing the then most-happening reggae ensembles. This promoter, working under the same kind of passion as Rupert’s Records, struggled to find the right size and correctly located venue; concerts moved from space to space. In Leroy Smart’s case, the venue was an obscure after-hours club in Boston’s Back Bay.

All of these concerts had notoriously late start times, but in Smart’s case, he pushed it to an extreme. He didn’t hit the stage until somewhere around 5AM. I certainly had more stamina at that point in my life, but the vibe was also in my favor. I found a comfortable armchair, a roti (a Jamaican adaptation of the Indian staple), a quality packet of weed, and waited out the long-overdue performer.

All that in itself made the concert memorable. But as the sun began to make its presence known, as Leroy progressed through his repertoire, there was a curious moment in that stage-less after hours club, a venue that left the performer level with the audience. For a moment the crowd parted and Leroy Smart and I stood facing each other; we sized each other up and the feeling was one of mutual and stark recognition of the incongruous but appreciable nature of those specific circumstances.

Leroy Smart is still at it today. He has outlived many of his contemporaries such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and the aforementioned Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. He may or may not have received a so-called major label deal, but the breadth of his output and variety of labels he has worked with is outstanding. He has straddled the entire spectrum of reggae, from roots to dancehall, from analog recordings with backing from key players like Sly and Robbie to the wholly digitized backing tracks of Steely and Clevie. He’s not only a survivor but he persists; he’s charismatic, “The Don”, a character well demonstrated in the recent Uncut interview.

Here is a playlist of additional essential Leroy Smart songs:

In the next installment of Vinyl Archeology: How to find an LP by jazz vibraphonist Teddy Charles in Shenzhen, China, a country bereft of vinyl due to the Cultural Revolution.