With his business savvy and talent behind the boards, ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ producer Joe Gibbs helped bring reggae to an international audience in the 1970s – including London’s blossoming punk scene. David Katz looks back on his greatest productions.
Few Jamaican record producers have achieved Joe Gibbs’ level of international success. His astute marketing of acts like Culture and Prince Far I and the impact of his African Dub album series helped take reggae to a global audience; he also brokered a record deal for singer Dennis Brown with US label A&M and his work with Jacob Miller was issued by RCA Brazil — some of the first reggae to ever surface in that country. But it wasn’t just his business acumen that allowed him to reach such unprecedented levels of success overseas; his renown was ultimately a by-product of the dynamic working partnerships he forged with a few of reggae’s most important figures: Errol ‘ET’ Thompson, a highly talented engineer who remains an unsung hero; dub genius Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry; and Niney the Observer, covered in this column previously.
Born Joel Gibson in 1943 in Salt Spring, on the northwest outskirts of Montego Bay, Gibbs was one of several Jamaicans sent to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where he worked as an electronics technician as a young man. After returning to Jamaica in the mid-1960s, he opened a television and radio repair shop at 32 Beeston Street, a couple of blocks east of Orange Street, already the epicentre of the Jamaican music scene when Gibbs began selling records circa late 1966.
Becoming a record producer was the next natural step, and when Gibbs started asking around about local talent, he was introduced to Roy Shirley, who’d been singing informally with Slim Smith. Shirley wound up voicing his highly original song ‘Hold Them’ as a solo artist for Gibbs’ first session, yielding an instant hit and one of the defining releases of the evolving rocksteady style. The song was issued on a label Gibbs called Amalgamated, which hinted at his engineering background, and released in London on Graeme Goodall’s Doctor Bird label. The success of the single, which topped the Jamaican charts, was achieved partly through Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee’s strong industry connections, with radio presenter Jeff Barnes enlisted to boost the song on Radio Jamaica Rediffusion, Jamaica’s first commercial station.
Bunny Lee introduced Gibbs to aspiring teen singer Errol Dunkley soon after, and Gibbs gave Dunkley some American R&B records to adapt which he’d acquired during his stint in Guantanamo Bay. This yielded a couple of instant hits, turning Dunkley into Jamaica’s second child star, following in the footsteps of Delroy Wilson. Then the Pioneers arrived in Gibbs’ camp just as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry entered the picture, fresh from five years of underpayment at Studio One, where a lack of proper recognition for his work rankled nearly as much as the lack of recompense. Perry arranged hits with the Pioneers and the Mellotones for Gibbs, and lashed out at Studio One proprietor Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd on his own landmark tune, ‘I Am The Upsetter.’
Perry soon found that Gibbs was not particularly forthcoming with payment either, so he struck out on his own in late 1968, leaving Niney the Observer to step into his shoes. Around that time Gibbs moved to a more prime spot downtown at 11 South Parade which he named the New York Record Mart; basic recording equipment was installed in the back of it, and he typically did the engineering on recording sessions himself. By 1969 he had opened a studio in Duhaney Park, on the western outskirts of Kingston, and Niney was responsible for some of the oddball instrumentals issued by Gibbs in this time, credited to the Destroyers.
In 1972, after Gibbs moved to 20 North Parade, the shop now known as Joe Gibbs Record Globe, Niney introduced him to Dennis Brown, spawning one of the greatest reggae connections between artist and producer – though the link took time to bear its most significant fruit. First there were hits by the Heptones and Peter Tosh; the latter also made use of as a session guitarist and keyboardist after Lee Perry introduced him to Gibbs.
Gibbs’ most significant phase of record production began in 1975, when he moved his recording studio to Retirement Crescent, in the semi-industrial Cross Roads area that acts as a buffer zone between uptown and downtown Kingston. The gifted engineer Errol Thompson, who’d done his apprenticeship at Studio One and engineered the exceptional work Lee Perry cut with the Wailers at Randy’s, became his in-house engineer, shifting Gibbs’ productions into an entirely different sphere once they joined forces as the ‘Mighty Two.’
Thompson had engineered Dub Serial for Gibbs at Randy’s in 1973, one of the first dub albums ever issued, and at Retirement Crescent, ET continued mixing the African Dub series, of which Chapter 3 had the most lasting impact. With the ace set of session players known as the Professionals, Gibbs and Thompson reportedly produced over 100 Jamaican chart-toppers in the next decade. Keyboardist Ossie Hibbert, producer Maurice ‘Blacka Morwell’ Wellington, and multi-instrumentalist Clive Hunt also contributed to Gibbs’ evolving sound, and having such a talented team at his disposal allowed Gibbs to devote more energy to the business side of things. There was strong social protest material from Max Romeo and Gregory Isaacs, breakthrough LPs from Culture and Prince Far I which chimed with punk audiences in Britain, and then Gibbs struck true pay-dirt with ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, Althea and Donna’s sassy deejay cut of Marcia Aitken’s rendition of Alton Ellis’ ‘I’m Still In Love.’
The Dennis Brown connection peaked in 1978-9 when the recut of ‘Money In My Pocket’ went ballistic; the 1972 original was a big hit in Jamaica, but revamping the rhythm in the ‘rockers’ style proved a winning formula on both sides of the Atlantic, while Gibbs’ satellite company in Florida helped better serve the grassroots American market.
Closer to the ‘80s, Gibbs issued some of the earliest work to point towards the dancehall style, with Kojak and Liza, Prince Mohammed and Welton Irie leading the way. There was fine early dancehall work from unique singjay Eek-A-Mouse and sound system favourites Lee Van Cleef and Lui Lepke too. But the tremendous success of JC Lodge’s soft-reggae rendition of Charley Pride’s ‘Someone Loves You Honey’ proved Gibbs’ undoing. The first issues of the single credited Pride as songwriter (though the song was actually written by Don DeVaney), yet by the time the reggae cut was licensed to Arista overseas, Gibbs somehow got the credit. He’d already had his fingers burnt over the songwriting credits for ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ (since Alton Ellis’ original composition had not been acknowledged) but this time the devastation approached total bankruptcy, leading to a long fallow period from 1985. The record shop became a grocery store, with ET stocking the shelves.
But Gibbs was too shrewd to be out for the count for long. In the late 1990s, he reopened the studio at Retirement Crescent, with ET still on board and Sidney Crooks of the Pioneers as in-house producer, revamping old rhythms with new vocals, aimed at the thriving yet very particular reggae market in the north-eastern Brazilian city of Sao Luis. The death of Errol Thompson in November 2004 was the final ending of the Mighty Two, and though he remained active on business fronts right to the end (setting up Joe Gibbs Europe in 2005 and inking a deal with VP Records a few years later), Gibbs suffered a fatal heart attack himself in February 2008.
What follows are a baker’s dozen of Joe Gibbs’ greatest productions, testaments to the creative energies of Gibbs and his team. After that, read more reggae guides on FACT.
Ainsworth Roy Rushton took the stage name Roy Shirley, scoring a hit called ‘Shirley’ for Leslie Kong in the ska years with Jimmy Cliff’s assistance. He cut a few tunes for Sonia Pottinger in a duo with Ken Boothe, but struggled to fit his original songs to the fast pace of ska, inspired as he was by American soul singers. During a phase when he was singing informally with Ken Boothe and Slim Smith, he heard a Salvation Army Band marching down Orange Street, giving him the inspiration for the peculiar timing of ‘Hold Them,’ which Coxsone Dodd rejected on Shirley’s initial audition.
Being introduced to Joe Gibbs for the producer’s debut recording was a fortuitous event, and things may have gone very differently with the song’s actual recording, since Shirley initially rehearsed the tune with Boothe and Smith until pianist Gladstone ‘Gladdy’ Anderson suggested he voice it alone. The resulting session, held at Federal with Trinidadian guitarist Lyn Taitt, became one of the defining singles of the rocksteady idiom, and brought Gibbs and Shirley to the top of the Jamaican charts. It was the first of many massive successes for Gibbs as a producer, and must have felt like a particularly sweet victory, since it was his initial gamble in Jamaica’s cutthroat music business.
‘Please Stop Your Lying’
Teen sensation Errol Dunkley began recording in the ska years before his voice broke, cutting a handful of tunes for Prince Buster, both in a duo with Junior English and on his own. Well-connected dance champion Bunny Lee, who’d been assisting various producers with record promotion, introduced him to Gibbs just after helping Gibbs’ debut ‘Hold Them’ to hit, having met Dunkley by chance outside WIRL studio, where Dunkley was hoping to audition. Dunkley had some original material to propose, but Gibbs chose to school him with foreign songs he’d picked up in Guantanamo first, leading to a successful rocksteady adaptation of Barbara Lynn’s ‘You’re Gonna Need Me’, expertly arranged by Lyn Taitt. According to Dunkley (who rehearsed the tune with Slim Smith, though voiced it solo), Gibbs acted as ‘executive producer’ on the tune, putting up the money, but largely leaving the musicians to work out their own arrangement.
By the time he was preparing to cut the follow-up with Dunkley, ‘Please Stop Your Lying’, Lee Perry had entered the picture as the chief arranger and supervisor of Gibbs’ productions. The track was again given its greatest musical texture from the picking lead lines of Lyn Taitt, whose guitar imitated the steel pan melodies he’d played as a youth in Trinidad, and this time there are shrill horn blasts, arranged by Tommy McCook, which emphasise the forlorn lyrics of a hapless beau, admonishing his wanton woman. In addition to being a huge success in Jamaica, the song became the inaugural release of the UK branch of Gibbs’ Amalgamated label, a subsidiary of Trojan Records solely devoted to his work.
Lee ‘King’ Perry
‘I Am The Upsetter’
Lee Perry was fresh from five years of rip-offs at Studio One when he landed himself in Gibbs’ camp. Perry added greater textural depth to Gibbs’ productions, introducing some of the wildcat percussion and psychotic voices that would frame his later work on songs like ‘Kimble’, a dramatic reworking of Stranger and Gladdy’s superb ‘Seeing Is Knowing’, which he’d also assisted with. Other Gibbs-issued tracks in this era by the Mellotones, Cool Sticky, the Overtakers and the Pioneers all bear the hallmarks of Perry’s involvement, and this one-off swipe at Coxsone’s head is pure Perry, a playful jibe at his former boss atop another great Lyn Taitt rhythm that holds plenty of bile and bite.
Of course, once he discovered that Gibbs was just as reluctant to pay as Coxsone, Perry would soon make an even bigger splash as an independent producer, upping the ante with ‘People Funny Boy’, which took sure-fire aim at Gibbs; the latter responded in kind with the Pioneers’ ‘People Grudgeful’ and ‘Pan Ya Machete’, both of which took the piss out of their former collaborator. Despite the vinyl grudges and professional rivalry, Perry and Gibbs remained on good terms for the rest of their respective careers, with Perry introducing Peter Tosh to Gibbs, who employed him as a singer and session musician. After Perry opened his own Black Ark studio in the mid-1970s, some noteworthy early productions surfaced on Gibbs’ Reflections subsidiary, including some Time Unlimited material, and Perry returned to Gibbs’ studio in the early 1980s to record ‘Jah Road Block’ with ET, once the Ark was no longer in use.
Joe Gibbs and the Destroyers
(Destroyer 7”, 1969)
The departure of Lee Perry made space for Winston Holness, aka Niney the Observer, to become more involved with Joe Gibbs’ productions. He’d been a record salesman for various producers and was most closely aligned with Bunny Lee and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and in his capacity as a freelance rhythm builder, he began working with Gibbs on hit songs like Ken Parker’s ‘Only Yesterday’. Like Perry, Niney had an early penchant for oddball instrumental versions, as heard on ‘Danger Zone’, Winston Wright’s organ reading of the Parker hit.
Anything bearing the Destroyers appellation points to Niney’s involvement, and along with the Spaghetti Western-themed ‘Nevada Joe,’ the instrumental ‘Niney Special’ is one of the best; with a chugging organ atop a funky bass line, we’re firmly in “skinhead reggae” territory and there are moments when the melody seems to ape Toots & the Maytals ‘Monkey Man’ (famously covered by The Specials), without ever becoming a direct pastiche of it. Midway through, the organ gets out of time with the rhythm section but manages to keep things going through an unexpected left curve.
Niney would remain an integral part of Gibbs’ operation thereafter and would help Gibbs to score some of his greatest hits, including Nicky Thomas’ ‘Love Of The Common People’ and Peter Tosh’s ‘Them A Fe Get A Beaten’, as well as popular Heptones material, but the most important thing he did for Gibbs was to introduce Dennis Brown into his bourgeoning stable, initiating one of the greatest partnerships between a singer and a producer in the entire history of reggae.
(Jogibs Record Globe, 1971)
Legendary harmony trio the Heptones have convoluted beginnings. During the mid-60s, Earl Morgan and Barry Llewelyn had been singing together informally with a number of other people on the Trench Town streets, including Glen Adams. Once Leroy Sibbles joined with Barry and Earl and assumed leadership of the group, the line-up solidified and Sidney Crooks of the Pioneers brought them to the Caltone label, where they recorded their first sides, including the topical ‘Gunman Coming To Town’. A move to Studio One brought not only their island-wide breakthrough, but some of the greatest reggae records of all time, and once Jackie Mittoo directed Sibbles to the bass, he created some of the most memorable lines in reggae history.
However, once their five-year contract was up, just like Lee Perry, they were ready to jump ship, tired of a lack of proper recompense for their work. By the time they reached Gibbs’ stable, his studio set-up allowed for a more complex and better-balanced sound than some of his earlier productions (probably because of the move to Duhaney Park). The outstanding ‘Hypocrites’ spoke of their dissatisfaction with Coxsone in no uncertain terms, with Leroy’s commanding lead nicely offset by searing choral “oohs” from Barry and Earl. The rhythm is a definite killer as well, with a potent organ line atop clambering rhythm with added kick-drum emphasis, and a rumbling bass interspersed with jangly minor chord guitar progressions. Seek out the original Jamaican 7″ on Record Globe for the keenest mix, in which each musical element has excellent spatial placement.
‘Have A Little Faith’
(Joe Gibbs Record Globe, 1972)
The Nicky Thomas story is of made up of brilliance and tragedy in equal measure. Born Cecil Thomas in eastern Jamaica, he worked as a builder after moving to town, labouring on the same site that gave rise to the Gladiators (whose early work was given financial backing by the mason Leebert Robinson). Thomas’ highly-charged debut for Derrick Harriott, ‘Run Nigel Run’, was credited to the Chuckles on its UK release, and although locally popular, Thomas still had to sweep the floor at Joe Gibbs’ premises to get his foot in the door.
He would record the bulk of his Jamaican output for Gibbs before migrating to Britain and though his original compositions were always captivating, Thomas made his name through Jamaicanised covers of foreign hits; whether singing his own work or an adaptation, his powerful, emotive voice was the biggest draw. His international breakthrough would come with his reggae cover of the Everly Brothers’ ‘Love Of The Common People’ (patterned after the Winstons’ orchestrated soul reworking of the tune), which made a mark on the UK pop charts after the addition of strings. The song that remains a perennial favourite amongst reggae fans of a certain age, however, is Thomas’ cover of the Chambers Brothers’ gospel-tinged psychedelic soul side, ‘Have A Little Faith,’ reworked as usual in truly Jamaican fashion with another delicious picked guitar line, meaty bass, and an understated drum part that makes judicious use of the hi-hat.
Thomas’ move to England brought further releases but evidently led to plenty of frustration, and footage of him in the television documentary Aquarius Reggae shows a gifted singer pushed to the very edge. Thomas evidently returned to Jamaica and a tantalising glimpse of what might have been came through the 12″ ‘Trow Mi Corn’ (a re-working of Winston Shand’s skinhead reggae rarity, rather than Larry Marshall’s better-known anthem of the same name), issued by Gibbs in 1980. He also recut ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ for Gibbs and took part in a Gibbs-produced tribute track with Ken Boothe and Barrington Levy when Jacob Miller died, but those are about the only things to surface from his Jamaican return. Thomas reportedly died in the late 1980s, but details are sketchy at best, with suicide, alcohol dependency and cardiac problems among the suppositions bandied about on the internet. Whatever the truth, his artistry remains highly valued and the early Gibbs productions represent some of his greatest work.
‘Susu Pon Rasta’
When Joe Gibbs opened a new state-of-the-art studio at Retirement Crescent in 1975, it ushered in a whole new era for his label, and the poaching of engineer Errol Thompson from Randy’s studio was a very shrewd move. Joining forces as the Mighty Two in a greatly improved facility gave Gibbs’ productions an intense sonic edge and made his output even more readily identifiable than before. He installed a pressing plant at the premises as well, so he could now manufacture his own product, giving him greater control of the means of production.
A high volume of outstanding roots reggae surfaced from the studio during the mid-to-late 1970s, and this early nugget from the new facility is a prime example of why it was so great. Dolphin ‘Naggo’ Morris would join the Heptones after Leroy Sibbles bowed out, and his mournful voice is here lamenting the many injustices facing Rastafari in Jamaica, with the faithful blamed for a multitude of wrongs throughout the capital and farther afield. The A-side shows a better-defined drum sound than that found on some of Gibbs’ earlier work, and along with a foreboding bass line, played way down the neck, there is a chilling piano line that also emphasizes the hopelessness of the situation. In the bridge, when Morris wails, “This man and that man is the same kind of man / The only thing / They don’t understand each other”, we really feel his anguish, and the sparse dub on the flip highlights the pervasive feeling of dejection.
There are a couple of excellent deejay pieces on the same rhythm, too, with Prince Far I’s ‘Under Heavy Manners’ being the most impressive, and it was one of the tunes that helped punk fans in Britain tune into reggae’s ominous power. Trinity’s portion of an extended 12″ reworking of the tune has plenty of appeal too, with synth noises, syndrums and melodica overdubs giving more complex musical backing to this portrait of victimisation.
‘Two Sevens Clash’
(Joe Gibbs Record Globe, 1977)
Culture’s arrival at Joe Gibbs was one of those momentous occasions that resulted in widespread changes in Jamaican popular music, not only through the enormous popularity that the group achieved at home, through their role in helping reggae to appeal to new overseas audiences, specifically the punk audience in Britain, from whom the apocalyptic ‘Two Sevens Clash’ became an anthem after John Peel championed the tune. Lead singer Joseph Hill had recorded at Studio One as a solo vocalist and also did harmony and percussion duties there. After forming Culture in 1976 with his cousin, Albert Walker, and a friend called Kenneth Paley (aka Lloyd Dayes), the group appealed to DJ-turned-producer Jah Lloyd, who suggested they check Blacka Morwell, who was then in charge of auditions at Joe Gibbs’ studio.
‘Two Sevens Clash’ spoke of various prophecies that were said to have been uttered by Marcus Garvey, the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association, who was belatedly accorded the status of National Hero in Jamaica, and revered by Rastas as a counterpart to John the Baptist. Diverse prophetic statements are verified in the song, and the chorus hooks us on the notion that 1977 would be a year of dread portent. From the moment that the resounding drum roll counts in the unaccompanied introduction, you know that we’re onto something special here, and Hill’s dramatic tenor is given more bite from the soprano harmony vocals, interspersed with string synth from the young keyboard wizard, Franklyn ‘Bubbler’ Waul; choppy piano chords and an understated guitar skank lend a further feeling of uncertainty.
The heavily reverberating dub version has some nice phasing on the drums, which are fully in the spotlight throughout, as other elements leap in and out of the mix; the likeable DJ cut by Bojangles, ‘Prophecy Reveal’, is more prophetic fuel for the fire. Though Culture enjoyed a number of further hits with Gibbs, dissatisfaction over financial matters soon saw them re-record many of the same tunes for Sonia Pottinger, who brought them to even greater heights of glory through a contract with Virgin Records. Yet ‘Two Sevens Clash’ remains their best-known record, and for good reason.
Dennis Brown & Prince Mohammed
‘Money In My Pocket’ / ‘Cool Runnings’
(Joe Gibbs, 1978)
When Niney the Observer introduced Dennis Brown to Joe Gibbs in 1972, the result was an instant Jamaican hit called ‘Money In My Pocket’, recorded in a relaxed fashion with the Soul Syndicate band. This convincing tale of being flush with spending money but having no gal to share the good times with struck a chord when the single first surfaced on Gibbs’ Pressure Beat subsidiary, and Big Youth’s deejay counterpart, ‘A So We Stay,’ helped extend the shelf-life of the tune.
Brown cut further material for Gibbs during the early 1970s, which the producer issued as The Best Of Dennis Brown, but their reconnection in the late ‘70s yielded a whole slew of incredible releases, starting with Visions Of Dennis Brown in 1976, and continuing through Words Of Wisdom, which benefitted from the input of harmony singer and percussionist Ruddy Thomas. Other self-produced Brown albums were handled by Gibbs overseas (including Joseph’s Coat Of Many Colours and Yesterday, Today And Tomorrow), while Gibbs also issued the great Brown-produced Black Uhuru single ‘Rent Man’ in Jamaica, pointing to the extremely close working relationship enjoyed by the pair in this era.
There were all kinds of incredible Dennis Brown singles produced by Gibbs in the same timeframe too, including ‘Whip Them Jah’ (arranged by Ossie Hibbert, and later versioned by punk comedian Keith Allen on the decidedly controversial ‘Boot Sex Dread’), ‘How Can I Leave You’, ‘So Jah Say’ and ‘A True’, along with individual cover versions of Alton Ellis’ ‘I Can’t Stand It’, the Heptones’ ‘Equal Rights’ and the Paragons’ ‘Man Next Door’ (to name but a few), as well as the original ‘A Little Bit More’, the latter surfacing in the early 1980s.
Of course, nothing achieved the spectacular success of the revamped ‘Money In My Pocket,’ which was issued as the 12-inch extended play ‘disco mix’ format had taken Jamaica by storm, which allowed Jamaican producers to re-cut earlier hits for new audiences. ‘Money In My Pocket’ now had a killer drum pattern with plenty of vibrant rolls, more keyboard shenanigans from Bubbler, and an impassioned vocal from Dennis, making it easy to picture how the tune would bring the singer onto Top of the Pops. Prince Mohammed’s smooth deejay portion, ‘Cool Runnings’, is equally appealing, and it’s also worth seeking out Mikey Dread’s alternate DJ piece, the hilarious ‘Friends And Money’, one of the tracks that circulated in Britain on cassette tapes of Mikey’s radio show on JBC, which drew the interest of the Clash, who later toured and recorded with him. The international success of the re-cut ‘Money In My Pocket’ would ultimately see Gibbs negotiate a contract for Brown with A&M to very mixed results, but regardless of the major label outcome, ‘Money In My Pocket’ remains a landmark of crossover success.
‘Cool Out Son’
(Heavy Duty, 1979)
Mervin Smith Junior got his start as Junior Soul in the rock steady era, writing the hit ‘Solomon’ for Derrick Harriott. Fine work for Harriott and Sonia Pottinger followed, with ‘Glendevon Special’ and ‘The Hustler’ for the former among the best, but it was not until he hooked up with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in 1976 that he was able to realise his true potential through the success of ‘Police And Thieves’, later covered by The Clash on their self-titled 1977 debut.
Murvin’s debut album was well-received, though a planned follow-up and an international tour somehow fell through as Perry succumbed to various pressures. Gibbs was the next producer to work with the falsetto singer, and since the rage was for rebuilt Studio One and Treasure Isle classics, Errol Thompson placed him on a hot Gibbs re-cut of the immortal ‘Real Rock,’ which Murvin used as a launching pad to relate various symbolic proverbs.
The lead trombone line, most likely by Vin Gordon, provides an excellent musical hook, and as usual, the forceful drum pattern is fully to the fore. You can get a better idea of the anchorage provided by the drum and bass on the dub B-side, with Thompson freezing just enough of a snippet of Murvin’s reverberating vocals for us to know that this new version is “cool… cool… cool… cool… cool”. The only other Murvin track released by Gibbs was the appealing ‘reality’ tune, ‘Time Stiff’, which is also worth discovering. It’s a pity that no more emerged from the collaboration.
‘Keep On Knocking’
(Joe Gibbs, 1979)
Jacob ‘Killer’ Miller is best known for his fronting of the Inner Circle band, but his career was considerably more varied. Starting out as a pubescent hopeful at Studio One, where he voiced ‘Love Is Message’, he is also said to have been part of the Schoolboys, cutting ‘Tell Me’ for Bunny Lee in 1968. Though he hailed from the ghetto, Miller joined uptown club act Inner Circle around the same time that he hooked up with Augustus Pablo for a series of sublime roots reggae 7″s, and his output has always been split between hard-hitting original work recorded for various grassroots producers, and slick crossover material and cover tunes with Inner Circle, aimed at the international market.
Miller cut sparse material for Gibbs from 1975, including a preposterous re-cut of Marley’s ‘Soul Rebel’ retitled ‘I’m A Natty’ (which seemed to graft Bubbler’s cheesy synth parts atop the original Perry-produced rhythm, with Miller warbling slang-ridden new lyrics). His adaptation of Alton Ellis’ ‘I’m Just A Guy’ as ‘I’m Just A Dread’ was more three-dimensional, but the winner of the pack is ‘Keep On Knocking’, which rides a finely-arranged recut of the Wailers’ ‘Hypocrites’ rhythm, used earlier to fine effect for Trinity’s ‘John Saw Them Coming’ .
The 12″ version of Miller’s piece has a decent toast from U Brown as ‘This Old Man’; listen closely to the original 7″ mix for its hardcore clavinet sound and Miller’s murmured introduction, placing us with him in the studio with the “Tape rolling… getting down to the nitty gritty.” Also check the fantastic dub version, ‘The Entebbe Affair,’ on African Dub Chapter 3, which comes complete with banging gongs, synthesizer depth-charges, and other dramatic sound effects.
(Joe Gibbs, 1981)
As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, Jamaican popular music began shifting into a new phase. Although there were continuities that could be traced back to the ska years (and beyond), the emerging dancehall style shifted focus away from the gritty social protest of roots reggae and the dread harmony trios, making way for upstart vocalists that sang of everyday life.
Tall ghetto gangster Ripton Hylton started his career cutting sparse roots tunes under his own name in the mid-1970s, but became known as Eek-A-Mouse after repeatedly betting on a losing racehorse of the same name, only to miss the jackpot when the horse was finally victorious. He cut a couple of tough tunes for Carlton Patterson in the late-70s, as well as some equally tough self-produced work, and then recorded a few tunes for Joe Gibbs, each of which showcased his half-sung, half-deejayed delivery, peppered with nonsense sing-song slang of the “bong-bong-biddy-bong-bong, geng-geng-giddy-geng-geng” variety.
‘Virgin Girl’ would later be re-recorded to fine effect for Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes as the breakthrough ‘Wah Do Dem’, but the original Gibbs cut has an appealing durability that shows the futuristic quality of his early-80s output, undaunted by the changes then sweeping Jamaican popular music; Lui Lepke’s toasting portion, ‘Lovers Take Over,’ also points to the rising prominence of the deejay. The Mouse’s other track for Gibbs forms quite a contrast: ‘Once A Virgin’ is a dejected early take of the song that would later be reworked as ‘Modelling Queen’ for Linval Thompson, and the Gibbs cut is also worth seeking out if you’re only familiar with the more readily available later version.
(Joe Gibbs, 1981)
Cornell Campbell’s long and varied career stretches right back to the very foundation of the Jamaican music industry, since he voiced some of the earliest discs to ever be issued on the island, long before ska had even emerged. Primarily based at Studio One during the ‘60s, he was recruited into the Uniques by Jimmy Riley and subsequently enjoyed a long and fruitful working relationship with Bunny Lee (who rivalled him with Johnny Clarke), and also cut impressive material for a range of other producers on the side, including Yabby You, Harry Mudie, Roy Cousins and Ossie Hibbert, to name but a few.
Campbell began recording for Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson in 1979 and the collaboration had strong chemistry, with ‘Mash You Down’ a killer ‘reality’ tune voiced on a hot cut of ‘College Rock’, ‘Rope In’ chiming with Michigan and Smiley’s ‘One Love Jamdown’, and the original ‘Hypocrites’ warning of ungodly behaviour. Campbell and Jimmy Riley reformed the Uniques to cut an album for Gibbs, but Cornell’s ‘Boxing Around’ is the one that made the greatest overall impact.
The song rides a particularly spongy rhythm, giving Campbell ample room to admonish the scandalous behaviour of a loose girlfriend; Lee Van Cleef’s toasting portion on the extended 12″ gets a little lewd and the dub hones in on great horn line. Other prime cuts of the rhythm to check for including Barry Brown’s 1982 epic, ‘Them A Fight’, one of the last outstanding singles to surface from the Joe Gibbs stable before the legal worries began to bite.