The outsider quality of Glen Brown’s music may account for his relative obscurity.
Like the creations of his erstwhile peer, Yabby You, Brown’s distinctly leftfield productions were rooted in the Rastafari creed, but had a good deal more humour about them, and since he always had more ideas than ready finance, much of his output was issued in limited pressings of very small number, making most of his work very hard to find at its initial time of issue. Brown maintained a close working relationship with both King Tubby and Tommy McCook, which resulted in superb examples of instrumental roots reggae releases and sublime dub B-sides, and he had an innate feel for deejay music as well, nurturing some of the form’s best-known exponents. The most distinctive quality that defines his output is partly down to Brown’s deep appreciation for jazz music, and his actual involvement in the Jamaican jazz scene, which allowed a jazz sensibility to permeate almost all of his work, much of which made good use of expressive horn sections.
Glenmore Brown was born in 1944 on the eastern edge of downtown Kingston. Raised in various parts of southeast Kingston, he became fascinated by the Skatalites in the era of Jamaica’s independence, with saxophonists Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso making a particular impression. Ken Boothe, Joe White, and the Techniques were all making an impact in Kingston then, but Glen took his greatest vocal inspiration from Alton Ellis, spending much time in Alton’s yard with other aspiring young singers like Delroy Wilson.
Most reggae fans know Glen Brown for his roots productions of the mid-70s, but his professional career actually dates to the tail end of ska. While still in his teens, Brown was given a guitar by a certain Mr Wong, proprietor of the Wong Brothers’ television repair shop in Cross Roads, where Brown did casual work behind the counter; patrons and friends made note of his abilities with the instrument, which he quickly mastered. He soon forged a singing duo with Lloyd Robinson (known variously as Lloyd and Glen or Glen and Lloyd, depending on who sang lead), patterning themselves after US soul giants, Sam and Dave, though Robinson had to do battle with Tony Brevett of the Melodians in order to gain access to the piano at the rehearsal space they frequented off Spanish Town Road.
In 1966, the duo felt ready to record and passed a successful audition at Duke Reid’s studio, yielding a late-ska adaptation of Sam Cooke’s ‘Little Girl’, led by Robinson, and the rocksteady gem ‘Jezebel’, led by Brown. The excellent ‘Rudies Give Up’ followed for Lindon Pottinger, which called on the ‘rude boy’ street gangs to cease their wanton violence, as well as the soul-styled ‘Live And Let Others Live’; as their reputation grew, they performed with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires at the Ward Theatre. As well as recording a number of subsequent rocksteady and soul sides, backed by Lynn Taitt and the Comets, and the gospel number ‘Praise Him’ for Clement Dodd, Lloyd and Glen achieved considerable success with the sensual ‘That Girl’ for Derrick Harriott, and they sang harmony on Harriott’s classic ‘The Loser’ too, all of which helped them to eventually gain a foothold on the hotel scene, leading to guest spots with the house band at the Sheraton. On their days off, the duo used to go to check Tommy McCook’s Sunday sessions at the Dingo club in Rockfort, and they later did a little guest spot with Tommy at the Bournemouth club too; all the while, Glen was furthering his skills on guitar, bass, and melodica, which helped him to compose more original material.
During a phase when Brown was singing in the house band at the Flamingo hotel, he was approached by jazz pianist Cecil Lloyd, who drafted him into his Quintet, based at the Sheraton’s Junkanoo Lounge. Brown grew close to guitarist Ernest Ranglin during his tenure with Cecil Lloyd and met the soul singer Brenton Wood then too, but Lloyd Robinson opted out of joining the group, marking the end of his partnership with Brown. Then, after performing for an extended period on the north coast with Cecil Lloyd, Glen Brown was approached by Sonny Bradshaw, who recruited him as lead vocalist with the Sonny Bradshaw Seven, and Brown became close to saxophonist Dean Fraser in that group, all the while honing his ability within the jazz idiom.
Somewhere along the way, Glen bucked up on Hopeton Lewis, whom he knew from his days behind the counter at Wong Brothers, and the pair went into the studio to record an emotive rocksteady duet, ‘Girl You’re Cold’, punctuated by chilling choral horn parts. Glen produced the song himself, funded by Wong Brothers, along with a few other tracks, but they all somehow appeared on the Fab label in Britain in 1968, mis-credited as Prince Buster productions — the first of many such disappointments for Brown, involving unauthorised use of his material.
Before rocksteady waned, Brown teamed with Joe White and Delroy Wilson’s brother Trevor for the great ‘Way Of Life’, and then, after a chance meeting, he teamed with Dave Barker, cutting the spirited ‘La La Always Stay’ in the new reggae style for Harry J in 1969, but the vocal partnership somehow didn’t last. Instead, Glen’s solo work began making his Rastafari focus a bit more explicit, first on ‘Collie And Wine’ for Leslie Kong, and then on the popular ‘Love I’ for Derrick Harriott.
1972 was a watershed year for Brown, as he began focussing more concertedly on music production, yielding a number of oddball instant classics right off the bat. Based at High Holborn Street in southeast Kingston, where King Tubby was his neighbour, Brown earned his bread and butter up on the north coast with Cecil Lloyd, but would run sessions every six months or so during a lull from the hotel scene, selling the material from the record shop he opened in the mid-town Kingston business district of Cross Roads. To the end of the decade, Brown released his most noteworthy material on labels such as Pantomine, Southeast Music, Dwyer and Rhythm Master, all marked by his intensely individual sound, whether working with singers, deejays, horn players or just on his own, the dub B-sides from King Tubby a constantly appealing feature. In the years that followed, Brown helped break the careers of singers like Roman Stewart and Sylford Walker, and deejays such as Big Youth and Prince Jazzbo, and he threw the spotlight on brass players such as Carl Masters and Ron Wilson too; spending increasing periods in New York from the end of the decade, he subsequently nurtured the career of Wayne Jarrett and the deejay Welton Irie, just as roots began shifting towards the dancehall style.
Once away from Jamaica, Brown’s output naturally slowed, though he continued issuing sporadic work until the noughties. In the late 80s, a trio of crucial Greensleeves retrospectives led to renewed interest in the man’s work, as well as a surprising string of new albums, including his own Number One Sound: Glen Brown Plays, Melodica Talks; the above-average Plays Music From The Southeast, for London’s Fashion label; and a collaboration with Norway’s Rhythm Foundation, among others. There were a few strong single releases in the new millennium too, including a top notch collaboration with Ras Kush that proved he was still fully capable of producing work worthy of the world’s attention.
The sad postscript to the tale is that Brown was reportedly suffering from a range of serious health issues in 2013, housed in a New York nursing home with a leg amputated due to diabetes, his dreadlocks shorn, and a heart condition, dementia and renal failure among the many challenges he faced. Destitute and somehow deemed ineligible for state medical coverage, he faced an unjustly undignified demise, for someone that has brought us such joy through his music.
What follows are ten of Glen Brown’s most momentous creations, each bearing his unmistakable touch.
Glenmore Brown and Hopeton Lewis
‘Girl You’re Cold’
Nearly all of the work Glen Brown did in rocksteady is worth seeking out, though much of it is very difficult to find now. Of his pairings with Lloyd Robinson, ‘Rudies Give Up’ and ‘Jezebel’ are both exceptional, and some of the soul sides for Lindon Pottinger are equally intriguing; the Glen, Joe and Trevor sides are also highly captivating, and so is the pairing with Dave Barker, ‘La La Always Stay’.
But of all the early duet combinations, the one that really stands out for me is ‘Girl You’re Cold’, with Hopeton Lewis, which benefits from a chilling horn refrain that emphasises the dejection in Glen and Hopeton’s mournful vocals, decrying the frigid behaviour of a woman who only warms to Glen’s money.
(Shalimar/Pantomine/Green Door, 1972)
Opening with a hefty dose of watery reverb courtesy of King Tubby, the sparse rhythm of ‘Merry Up’ centres on Joe White’s basic melodica playing for a few bars, with a bit of trombone and sax above the bouncing bass in the background, until the rhythm cuts and Brown proclaims, “Hold it Mr T, this daughter can’t keep up to this rhythm. Ask me question, I tell you no lie. Ask me no question, I play music.” Then the disjointed rhythm starts up again. Only in Jamaica could such a song be a number one hit!
‘Merry Up’ itself has a complicated history: Brown says he brought Ken Boothe and BB Seaton into the studio with him to record an original vocal song, ‘Welcome To My Land’, but did not have enough money to pay for the studio fee, so left the master tape behind as collateral. When he eventually returned with the money to pay for the session, he found that the vocals had been wiped from the tape, since rival producers who were present when the song was recorded apparently realised that the song was hit-bound. But rather than seeing the situation as a lost opportunity, Brown taught Joe White the melodica riff he heard in his head, and turned the spoilt rhythm into a significant hit.
Brown had been based at Derrick Harriott’s shop on King Street for a time, due to their earlier association, but after suspecting that Harriott was doing unauthorised deals with his product, moved across the road to a jewellery shop called Shalimar, run by a certain M G Mahtani, which is why some copies of this song were released on the Shalimar label in Jamaica; the issue to check for is the one on the Green Door 45 (also on the Club Reggae Volume 3 compilation), which has the reverb-laden introduction, unlike some of the Jamaican 45s and the later represses.
The rhythm of ‘Dirty Harry’ was actually produced for a driving song of religious devotion called ‘Realize’, sung by Richard McDonald of the Chosen Few, and it dates from the time when Brown first established his own shop beside a used car lot at Caledonia Place in Cross Roads, thanks to the assistance of Wong Brothers. The title of the instrumental referenced star saxophonist Richard Hall, known as ‘Dirty Harry’ after the Clint Eastwood film, and the interplay between Hall and Tommy McCook is sterling here.
As with many Brown productions of the period, the rhythm itself is pretty non-standard, with a meandering keyboard line that appears at key intervals, offset by a staccato guitar riff and off-beat rolls on the floor toms, but the main thing is the horn section, which holds plenty of audible swing. Further cuts of the same rhythm worth seeking out include the lively deejay counterpart, ‘Mr Harry Skank’, featuring a young Prince Jazzbo, and ‘Check The Winner’, a hilarious patois skit built around the Foreman vs Frazier boxing match.
‘Never Too Young To Learn’
A riveting slice of deep roots, ‘Never Too Young To Learn’ imparts much of the Rastafari ethos: Stewart sings of being a poor man, but the love in his soul carries him through; he and his brethren gather, meditating on their way of life, secure in the knowledge that better must come, even as they struggle to survive.
Stewart’s emotive voice is offset by a brilliant vocal chorus that lifts the song ever higher, and as usual, Brown’s backing track is totally non-standard, with off-tempo floor toms driving the track along, and a sprightly keyboard line meandering throughout; the song’s structure is actually loosely based on the melody of Kenny Ball’s jazz standard, ‘Midnight In Moscow’ (itself based on an earlier Russian song, ‘Leningradskie Vechera’, which has a complicated history of its own), though Brown’s rendition is totally reggaefied and rhythmically unique. Brown also placed Big Youth on the rhythm for a couple of alternate takes, namely the proverb-laden ‘Opportunity Rock’ and the combative ‘Double Attack’, each of which holds plenty of appeal.
‘2 Wedden Skank’
Another wicked and wild melodica abstraction, cut on a heavy manipulated rhythm, again with a complicated genesis. The backstory is that the Chosen Few cut a fairly faithful reggae rendition of Isaac Hayes’ funky soul groover ‘Do Your Thing’ in 1972 for Derrick Harriott, and for whatever reason, Brown decided to record his own take of the song not long after, this time with Richie McDonald as a solo singer, but Glen’s version changed things around musically, adding a vaudeville piano line and an off-kilter rhythm, its drum rolls and rim-shots arriving at unexpected intervals.
He used this rhythm for a murmuring deejay cut by Prince Hammer, aka Berry Simpson, called ‘Whole Lotta Suga Down Da,’ its sensual content definitely on the suggestive side of things. Then, for whatever reason, Brown reworked the rhythm again to fine effect for the melodica cut, ‘2 Wedden Skank’, which includes the opening toast from Hammer, referencing Glen’s Caledonia Place headquarters, before devolving into a strange musical mush. The UK release of the single on Downtown has a much more dynamic mix than the initial Jamaican issue on Pantomine, the stop-start nature of the beast and its echoing dub elements much more prominent.
Glen Brown as God Son
‘South East Rock’
(Dwyer/Cactus, circa 1973-1974)
Lloyd Parks’ ‘Slaving’ is one of those immortal rhythms that surfaced in the early roots reggae phase. The bassist and former Termites vocalist sings out his torment in a passionate wail, moaning of the daily turmoil facing a poor man at the coalface. Brown was a harmony vocalist on the tune and was involved in its crafting from his days at Shamilar, and used the rhythm for a number of further cuts, of which ‘South East Rock’ is the both the most peculiar and the most compelling.
He’d cut the straightforward melodica version, ‘No More Slavery’, which transplanted the feeling of sufferation through the notes of the plastic toy instrument, but ‘South East Rock’ takes things into another dimension with stop-start mixing, wild niyabinghi percussion, and a second melodica part, pushing the track into the realm of musical madness.
Further cuts of note include a truly oddball duet by Brown and Parks, in which they graft the lyrics of James and Bobby Purify’s ‘I’m Your Puppet’ onto the rhythm, turning the most ordinary of pop songs into something distinctly eerie; Tommy McCook’s wonderful double-tracked sax cut, ‘Music From The Southside’; Welton Irie’s spirited ‘Ghettoman Corner’, voiced in New York in 1977, and Sylford Walker’s ‘Chant Down Babylon’, the latter’s defiant vocal fitting the rhythm like a glove, despite being voiced in 1978.
‘Away With The Bad’ (aka ‘Forward The Good’)
(South East Music Limited, circa 1974)
Another highly atmospheric single, ‘Away With The Bad’ urges humanity to disregard unwanted thoughts and actions, Brown opting instead to commune with the Almighty and find the way forward through meditation. The song reminds us that all things are possible as long as we approach life with the correct attitude, and the fine flute line provided by Tommy McCook helps reinforce the idea that such positive thinking is infinitely good for the soul.
The complex song was given the finely-balanced mixing it deserves from the talented engineer Karl Pitterson, and the dub B-side on the flip, courtesy of King Tubby, helps dissect the rhythm’s composite parts, shining the beam on each of the top-class players of the God’s Children Band that made sure Brown’s productions always remained very different from the work of his peers.
‘Our Father’s Homeland’ (aka ‘Africa’) (aka ‘Jah Jah Power’)
(South East Music/Kingley Sounds, 1979)
As was the case with his link to King Tubby, Brown knew tenor singer Sylford Walker from his days at High Holborn Street, since Walker lived a few chains down, near Gold Street. In youthful days, due to their growing friendship, Walker and Brown used to sing songs to each other, and as Walker became more confident, in 1975 he recorded a relaxed reggae adaptation of the hymn ‘Golden Pen’ for Joe Gibbs, which drew some comparison with Burning Spear on release; a follow-up for Gibbs, ‘Burn Babylon,’ also helped establish his reputation.
Soon Walker was living with Glen Brown, which helped him refine his singing style, and as the months passed, Brown began slowly recording a few singles with the singer, starting with the irresistible weed tune ‘Lamb’s Bread’, followed by the defiant ‘Chant Down Babylon’, voiced on the ‘Slaving’ rhythm. By 1979 Brown had enough material for a Sylford Walker album (though the album itself would not be released for another 10 years), and the pick of the bunch was ‘Our Father’s Homeland’, a repatriation number alternately titled ‘Africa’ and ‘Jah Jah Power’ on US and Canadian pressings.
The song revived the ‘Do Your Thing’/‘2 Wedden Skank’/‘Whole Lotta Sugar Down Da’ rhythm, now driven largely by a mournful trombone part, with little other than drum and bass behind it. The entire song is heavily steeped in dub mixing techniques, and on both the South East Music and Kingley Sounds 12″ issues, the vocal is immediately followed by an extended dub portion, the long streams of echoing delay and test-tone bleeps helping transport the listener over to the African continent—a masterful mix that makes the most of the 12″ format.
(Pantomine/South East Music/Kingley Sounds, 1979)
Rastafarian singer Wayne Jarrett was raised in Allman Town, east Kingston, where he was friends with Horace Andy, but migrated to Hartford, Connecticut as a teenager in 1973. Jarrett was one of many singers to take inspiration from Andy’s style, and his excellent debut recording, ‘African Woman’, recorded for Lloyd ‘Bullwackie’ Barnes in 1976, strongly evidenced Andy’s influence.
After returning to Jamaica to cut the equally moving ‘Satta Dread’ for Pete Weston, plus ‘Jah Children Shall Be Free’ and an ‘I Shall Be Released’ update for Prince Tony, he cut the first version of future hit ‘Chip In’ for Channel One in 1978, but was back in New York later that year, cutting more songs for Bullwackie, such as the utopian ‘Come Let’s Go’. Bucking up on Brown once Brown relocated to New York, Jarrett cut a likeable reggae rendition of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ (on the same rhythm used for Big Youth’s ‘Spider To The Fly’ some years earlier), but ‘Youth Man’ was far stronger, a gripping reality tune cut on the ‘Wicked Can’t Run Away’ rhythm (which Brown cut with Glenroy Richards in 1977).
As usual, issues of ‘Youth Man’ in different territories came in different formats, the original Pantomine release segueing directly into a throbbing dub portion (with an alternate dub on the flip), the Kingley Sounds edition cutting to Glen’s melodica version directly after the vocal, and the Wackies issue mis-crediting the melodica B-side to Augustus Pablo. Great in any form, but the original Pantomine release has the best dubs by far.
‘We Dem A Watch’
(Black Redemption, 2002)
Haitian-born Ras Kush has a long and deep involvement in the New York reggae scene. Friendly with renowned Jamaican expatriates such as Jah Wise of Tippertone sound system, Kush worked at Jammyland Records for a number of years and joined the Roots Potential sound system in the 1990s, which was later known as Black Redemption Sounds Of Praises, once Japanese melodica player Ras Takashi came on board. In 1998, Kush played percussion on Takashi’s Melodic Moods album for Bullwackie and brought Black Redemption to Japan to tour with Takashi under the Wackies banner; upon returning to Brooklyn, he began focussing more concertedly on studio work.
The Black Redemption label was officially launched in 2002 and its inaugural release was ‘We Dem A Watch’, an impressive collaboration with Brown. Over a hot digitally-produced ‘steppers’ rhythm, an outraged Glen sings about Babylon’s useless spying tactics, branding ordinary black folk like him as subhuman criminals and illegal immigrants, instead of recognising their positive contributions to society; Brown’s wobbly melodica blasts completes the picture.