Hello, Noise Narcs massive! The passing this week of one of my all-time favorite singers, reggae legend Gregory Isaacs, is a sad but appropriate subject for my long-overdue first Noise Narcs post.
My first introduction to Gregory Isaacs was back in 2002 when I discovered that the Penn State library had a trove of Heartbeat Records reggae reissues and compilations ripe for ripping. Rip I did, and pretty quickly I realized that the Gregory Isaacs stuff was among the best in the Heartbeat catalog (matched, in my mind, only by Dennis Brown). Known as the Cool Ruler, Gregory is most closely associated with the romantic “lovers rock” style — soulful lyrics of love and longing backed by lilting beats. This was the first Gregory song I remember hearing; I loved it immediately:
His voice, ever-so-slightly nasal, was gentle, clean, crisp, and intimate, and he was a master at conveying romantic longing or aching heartbreak with just a few syllables.
Recorded at Channel One with that studio’s matchless house band, the Revolutionaries (anchored by Sly & Robbie), Gregory’s 1978 album Cool Ruler features some slightly harder-edged themes backed by the band’s signature aggressive, driving “rockers” style. Turn up the bass!
Sound engineer Prince Jammy remixed the tracks on Cool Ruler, producing Slum in Dub, one of my favorite dub records.
Released on Island Records, 1982’s Night Nurse, with the Roots Radics Band, introduced the singer to a wider audience. Gregory was heavily into cocaine and crack around the time of the album’s release and subsequent success, and a veteran Jamaican musician once told me that Gregory’s “night nurse” was, in fact, his crack pipe. Regardless, the entire album is great. The synths are used tastefully, making the album sound less dated than a lot of ’80s reggae (see below). Other highlights include “Cool Down the Pace,” “Material Man,” and “Stranger in Town.” Also, note that he weaves his own name into the lyrics. Which brings us to…
Gregory Isaacs, “Red Rose for Gregory”
Last Sunday morning, as news of Gregory’s deteriorating condition spread, DJ Jeff Sarge of WFMU dedicated a portion of his weekly three-hour reggae show to the singer. One tune he played was “Red Rose For Gregory,” a late-’80s number that I wasn’t familiar with. Beyond the trappings of ’80s reggae production — cheesy synth leads, orchestra hits, synth bass, synth drums… synth everything really — it’s a really sweet song about a secret admirer, and features Gregory in his best and most familiar role — the aching lover. Plus, I love that his name is in the title. Try to imagine writing a song in which you refer to yourself by your proper name.
I wrote a little reggae tune this summer (shameless plug). It was my first songwriting attempt, and it’s a pretty blatant Gregory Isaacs rip-off, down to the bass line, which is somewhere between “My Number One” and “Native Woman.” But now that he’s gone, I’m especially proud of that fact — my own tribute to one of my favorite singers.