It is for unearthing small miracles like this that Soul Jazz Records should not only be appreciated, but worshipped.
This music is instantly recognizable: nectar-sweet falsettos, soaring harmonies, socially conscious lyrics, all backed by a tight stable of top-notch session players. Sound familiar? It could be Motown, obviously, but the descriptions above are equally applicable to what, in many ways, was its equivalent in a lesser-known, much less funded parallel universe: what Detroit was for soul music in the ‘60s, Kingston’s Studio One was for reggae music in the ‘70s. And, to belabor an easy analogy, the Berry Gordy of Studio One was Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd -- the owner, producer, and mastermind behind some of the best-loved music of the last century, as well as a treasure trove of forgotten, unknown, and undiscovered material.
When it comes to reggae, ignorance is not bliss, but it is easier to simply overlook the world beyond Bob Marley, in part because there are so few prominent advocates for this music. The fortunate folks who may have picked up a Steel Pulse or Black Uhuru collection in college (invariably thanks to the influence of that one hacky sack enthusiast down the hall in the dormitory) may feel they’ve heard all there is to hear. And for the unfortunate, adventurous individuals who are up for an exploration of this genre, one quickly finds that, like jazz or blues -- or especially classical -- music, there are styles, sub-genres, and no particularly painless way to even guess how to begin. Trying to grapple with the breadth and substance of reggae is not unlike learning another language: the most effective way to do so is to immerse oneself in that area code for a while. Regrettably, one cannot live inside music (as much as one might try).
So… where to start? What guideposts are available for the uninitiated? Enter Soul Jazz Records. Since the ‘90s, this British label has done aficionados and novices alike an incalculable service, courtesy of their ongoing series featuring Studio One recordings. Suffice it to say, two more recent volumes, Studio One Rub-A-Dub and Studio One Kings, come warmly recommended. Each edition in this series revolves loosely around a specific theme, such as previous standouts like Studio One Rockers, Studio One Roots, Studio One Ska and, of course, Studio One Dub. These releases are as close to a sonic encyclopedia of this impossible to categorize era as we’ve seen or are every likely to have: Soul Jazz Records is an indispensable force for good and deserves all the appreciation and acclaim we can offer.
For starters, the music collected in this series provides a refreshing alternative narrative for the prevailing, Eurocentric version of how we should properly assess (or understand) what happened behind the scenes in the ‘70s. When rock music was seemingly hijacked by either progressive-minded mad scientists concocting sidelong Frankensteins, or else slouching greedily toward the disco apocalypse, over in Jamaica -- for a literal fraction of the cost -- human minds produced human voices and instruments played by actual human hands.
The best, if most efficient, way to delineate the import and influence of Studio One, founded by Dodd in 1954 -- a full two decades before Eric Clapton appropriated “I Shot the Sheriff” and helped reggae grab a foothold outside the islands -- is to simply name the roster of geniuses who recorded and paid youthful dues there: Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Toots Hibbert (and the Maytals), Horace Andy, Alton Ellis, and, perhaps most significantly, Lee “Scratch” Perry. Get the picture? After many of these artists hit what passed at the time for pay dirt in the late ‘60s, the demand was high and, thankfully, the supply was strong. Studio One Rub-A-Dub features some of the incredible new faces who would make names for themselves (Cornell Campbell, Horace Andy, Freddie McGregor) and others who remain, regrettably, obscure (Len Allen Jr., Willie Williams, Lone Ranger).
Rub-a-dub, which may or may not have devolved into dancehall in the ‘80s and ‘90s, depending upon who you ask, unquestionably ruled in the early ‘70s. Roots reggae was never quite the same once Lee Perry began cooking up those strangely delicious sounds in his cauldron, creating dub in the Black Ark. Rub-a-dub was an amalgamation of classic roots reggae (in fact, many of the songs are versions of well-known originals, with different lyrics and singers), and while there are some early elements of dub, the focus here is on the vocals. Granted, in reggae the focus is always on the singer(s), with good reason, but dub eventually proved the powerful exception to that rule. Studio One Rub-A-Dub presents, then, the apotheosis of a style perfected by many of the best singers of that time. And these songs should satisfy anyone: the reggae enthusiast can feast on some previously unearthed bounty; soul music lovers can savor the song craft and, above all, the singing.
Magical moments abound. Fans of trip-hop maestros Massive Attack should recognize elder statesman Horace Andy, and be appropriately awestruck hearing a much younger, even more ethereal, almost feminine sounding version of this living legend. Andy’s rendition of “Happiness” goes right for the gut, all honesty and emotion, infused with the extra, ineffable quality that distinguishes the best music. Cornell Campbell, whose falsetto is occasionally, if unimaginatively compared to Curtis Mayfield, is in fine form on “My Conversation”. The musical accompaniment -- as it is on all of these songs -- is first rate, but Campbell could make any song compelling all by himself. Ditto for Barry Brown (“Give My Love a Try”) and Johnny Osbourne (“Forgive Them”). Judah Eskender Tafari’s “Danger in Your Eyes” is delivered with vulnerability bordering on desperation -- it actually sounds as though he is singing his heart out.
Rapper Robert and Jim Brown provide a high note (inevitable pun intended) with their clever and hilarious “Minister for Ganja”. This selection alone is well worth the cost of admission: the infectious, free-form vocal antics in the opening seconds anticipate a style immortalized by Mikey Dread and, after him, Musical Youth (whose hit “Pass the Dutchie” may actually represent the last time reggae music had a song on the radio that everyone knew); and the mirthful coughing sounds during the choruses provide an obvious inspiration for the brilliant cough/inhale noises employed to replicate the cash register on Easy Star All Stars’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money” (from their must-have Dub Side of the Moon). If all this sub-referencing seems gratuitous, it is an opportune time to mention how crucial -- even inextricable -- quoting and referencing is in reggae (especially dub). As is the case with jazz, this clever signal of respect and solidarity provides a ceaselessly enjoyable facet of the music. Finally, some free advice for Red Stripe: if they have any sense they would immediately option “Minister” for their TV ads and watch their revenues increase about a million percent.
Last, and far from least, special acknowledgment must be made regarding Len Allen Jr. (wherever he may be) for his soulful, softly devastating delivery on “White Belly Rat”. This underdog morality tale is a three minute tour de force, that rarest of songs that you can’t imagine your life without as soon as you’ve heard it for the first time. It is for unearthing small miracles like this that Soul Jazz Records should not only be appreciated, but worshipped.
Studio One Kings is more of the same, boasting a larger number of famous, familiar names. Burning Spear, Joe Higgs, Devon Russell, and Ken Boothe all appear, in typically top form. Alton Ellis contributes “The Well Run Dry” and Horace Andy delivers the goods, again, with “Every Tongue Shall Tell”. A case could easily be made that Ellis and Andy are the two most purely talented and distinctive vocalists from this era. On the other hand, a similarly compelling case could be made for at least a dozen of their compatriots. Take, for instance, the inimitable Burning Spear: if the uninitiated or unconvinced listen to “Them a Come” and remain unmoved, they are advised to check for a pulse. One of pleasant surprises from either collection is Freddie McGregor’s ten-minute celebration of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”; it is as definitive a reworking as Jimi Hendrix’s scorching rendition of “All Along the Watchtower”.
And so, like jazz and blues, there are hundreds (thousands?) of reggae compilations out there (some better than others, many copying an uninspiring formula, safely skimming the surface of vast and forbidding waters), and while the good people at Blood and Fire and On U/Pressure Sounds are noteworthy labels contributing admirably to the cause, Soul Jazz Records is leading the charge in an effort to keep this essential, if largely unheralded music alive. It is all but impossible to attempt collecting or keeping pace with all this indelible art, but it remains among the most rewarding and life-affirming endeavors in which anyone can engage.