Sunday, April 24, 2011

Random Roots

Here are 3 roots tunes selected pretty much at random: 'Mellow Up Yourself' by Bonnie (Bunny) Gayle, 'Land Of Our Birth' By George Whyte & the Black Liberators, and 'I Man A Grass Hopper' by Pablo Moses. They all came out in 1975, but that's a pretty tenuous connection and completely unintentional.

Bunny Gayle was one of the original members of the Viceroys, and may or may not have been the same person as Devon Irons. As a solo artist he recorded a version of 'Yah Ho' for Keith Hudson, plus two singles for Clive Hunt ("Mellow Up Yourself" and the excellent 'Lady Of The Night') and this song that I found on YouTube.

'Mellow Up Yourself' isn't his Gayle's vocal, but he does enough to make sure that the superb and very heavy rhythm track doesn't go to waste. I don't know what label this came out on in Jamaica, could it have been Jigsaw? Treble C is the English release.

George Whyte, who knows? 'Land Of Our Birth' is the only song of his I've ever heard - there is a deejay cut called 'Farmer In The Den' by Jah Lloyd (a lot better than the title suggests). Reggae's littered with artists who left no trace apart from one or two great songs - same as soul, 50's rock & roll and most of the other genres of music that I like. It means you just can't get bored of it because the thrill of discovery is never far away.

Pablo Moses should be familiar to all reggae fans, and 'I Man A Grasshopper' was his first big hit. I remember hearing 'Come Mek We Run' on the radio late at night when I was still at school - it was the first song I'd ever heard by Pablo Moses and it just blew me away. Looking back, I think a good part of what I liked about it was Geoffrey Chung's production and the backing band. This is a similar sort of extended jam, split over the two sides of the single. The vocal's better than 'Come Mek We Run' but I sort of miss the flute.

Back to my youth!

Lovers rock isn't the most highly-regarded form of reggae. When you hear people arguing the merits of different eras, it hardly ever gets a look-in and I think that's a bit unfair. Growing up in England in the eighties, artists like Kofi, John McClean and Sandra Cross provided the soundtrack to some pretty crucial moments in my life and still have a special place in my heart.

My first selection is 'If I Give My Heart To You' by John McLean. Mad Professor produced a ton of really good lovers tunes on his Ariwa label, and for me this is one of the songs of the decade. Honey-voiced John McLean had a few other hits like 'Truly Bowled Over', but never did anything else even half as good as this one. The horns section may've been replaced by a synth, the rhythm may be a drum machine but it hardly matters: the lyrics are smart, McLean sings with the sort of finesse that few singers can manage, and the mix is fantastic light-hearted and playful in the sort of way that you only really hear on Ariwa.

The b-side is 'Doppler Effect' by Professor Doppler (aka Mad Professor). Listen to the drum, bass and piano - it's the sort of rhythm that got done to death at the start of the nineties, but it's also an evolution of the stuff Mad Professor was putting out on his African Connection dub LPs.

The next record is Brown Sugar's magnificent 'Our Reggae Music'. For those of you unfamiliar with them, Brown Sugar were a trio consisting of Kofi, Caron Wheeler and Pauline? Catlin. Kofi of course went on to very successful solo career, and Wheeler is far better known for her work with Soul II Soul a decade later but this is where it all started. The vocals are as great as you'd expect, and John Kpiaye's  guitar is a major bonus. Kpiaye's name crops up on so many great lovers tunes that I decided to do some digging, and after a just couple minutes found this biography! He's the man responsible for the reggae version of 'Swan Lake' and plays guitar on most of Linton Kwesi Johnson's LPs (think of that lovely hook on 'Reality Poem'). He put out an LP of his own a few years back that I really like and recommend - it may not be to everyone's taste but here's a sample:

Finally, here's one of the songs that all other lovers tunes are measured against - 'Ring My Bell' by Blood Sisters. For me this is better than Anita Ward's original disco version. It's not just that the vocal is absolutely flawless and the rhythm is superb - the dub is as good as you'll hear anywhere in reggae and both sides of the record are equally strong. I don't really know anything about Blood Sisters, they seem to have left no traces apart from one great record, a couple of good ones and a few photos on their MySpace page.

I'm going to sign off now with another video, a classic by someone called Melina Carrone, which came out on the back of Human Cargo's 'Carry Us Beyond'.