Gregory Isaacs: Cool Ruler

Cool Ruler

Gregory Isaacs, the Cool Ruler of reggae music, finally lost his battle with lung cancer on Monday October 25th. He was fifty-nine years old and spent his final hours with wife Linda and other family members at their house in south London, where he passed away peacefully. After a memorial service held in London on November 10th, his body was flown to Jamaica where he was awarded a state funeral.
There were many sides to Gregory’s talent. The epitome of gangster cool in his fedora, tailored suits and silk shirts, he was the classiest, rebel rude bwoy Jamaica’s ever seen, and a genuine reggae legend no matter what style he was singing in. The fact that he wrote nearly all of his own songs despite recording so many of them would be enough to single him out as a major star but that unhurried delivery of his had a lot to do it with it too, since it possessed a vulnerability that sent his legions of female admirers into raptures – just listen to the screams on his ’84 live album from the Brixton Academy and then try telling anyone he wasn’t reggae’s leading male sex symbol.
Maybe that was due to the influence of singers like Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and John Holt, which he absorbed in-between trying his hand as an electrician and cabinetmaker in his teens. At seventeen he cut his first-ever recording [Another Heartache, shared with Winston Sinclair] then joined a vocal trio called the Concords, which recorded a handful of sides for Rupie Edwards’ Success label. It was Edwards who produced Gregory’s earliest solo recordings like Lonely Man and Far Beyond The Valley, which contain all the essential trademarks of his latter-day, laconic vocal style. This was shortly before he and Errol Dunkley launched the African Museum label and Gregory started producing many of his own hits – something few other Jamaican singers have managed to any notable degree. When you consider his self-productions included hits like Slave Market, Thief A Man, My Only Lover [which was his own personal favourite], My Time, Top Ten, Tune In, Poor And Clean, Wailing Rudie, Front Door, Cream Of The Crop and Love Me With Feeling it’s a wonder he ventured onto anyone else’s label at all, except the ever-prolific Isaacs also voiced for many of Jamaica’s top producers, including Phil Pratt [All I have Is Love] and Alvin “G. G” Ranglin who gave him his first No. 1 hit in Jamaica with Love Is Overdue back in 1974.
Songs for Lee “Scratch” Perry [Mr Cop], Niney The Observer [Slave Master], Micron, Sly & Robbie and Ossie Hibbert – who produced such classics as Storm, Set The Captives Free, Mr Brown and Mr Know It All – helped establish him as a reigning superstar of seventies’ reggae in the latter part of the decade, by which time he’d founded his own distribution set-up in tandem with Bunny Wailer, and signed to Virgin Records’ Frontline label for the albums Cool Ruler and Soon Forward. A cameo appearance in the film Rockers coincided with him signing to Charisma. He then transferred to Island Records for his best-known hit single and album Night Nurse, whereupon he did time in jail for possessing an illegal firearm. This sealed his bad boy reputation, yet Gregory was far from being the only successful artist on the island to carry a weapon – most sessions being paid for in cash during those days. He celebrated his release with Out Deh, by which time the dancehall era was well underway. He and his close friend Dennis Brown would rule reggae dances for the next decade, despite the impact of deejays and computerised rhythms.
Gregory’s choice of lyrics and rhythms proved well nigh impeccable most of the time but then he sang every one of his songs with feeling, and also the kind of insight gleaned from keen observation and empathy. At times it was as if he was looking into our souls. His songs resonate with us as if we’re living them ourselves, which of course we are. That’s the beauty of what Gregory did. He told it like it was, no matter whether the beginning, middle, or end of a relationship, or even yearning for one before it started. He spoke of love simply and truthfully like all the best poets, and yet this is a man who was raised in a single parent home in the West Kingston ghetto of Denham Town, where the odds against him becoming a world famous singer were millions to one. He saw poverty and violence at close quarters, and knew what it was like to feel helpless and betrayed at the hands of the system. This is the other part of his greatness, because Gregory also articulated black history and the realities of surviving everyday hardships to remarkable effect. We’re talking about songs like Tenement Yard, Black A Kill Black, Set The Captives Free, Universal Tribulation, One One Cocoa, and Slave Master – songs that have stood the test of time and made him a true champion of the underprivileged.
As well as being a powerful and eloquent spokesman for the underprivileged, Gregory also made his life story part of the folk process. His speciality was in portraying himself as an outlaw on unforgettable songs like One Man Against The World, Talk Don’t Bother Me, General Penitentiary and Rumours. The latter was the crowning glory of a four year period spent recording for Gussie Clarke – a spell that yielded Big All Around [shared with Dennis Brown], Let Off Sup’m, Red Rose For Gregory, Report To Me, Mind Yuh Diss Rude Boy, Rough Neck, Private Beach Party and several best-selling albums. Rumours, both real and imaginary, will follow him for most of his career. Some revolved around his drug habit – an open secret declared on the cover artwork of his King Tubby produced set Warning and Tad Dawkins’ single Hard Drugs. The Ruler wrote about his frailties with rare honesty and whilst most commentators claim his latter-day output was dogged by inconsistency, you wrote him off at your peril – especially in light of those many hits for Xterminator, Pickout, Star Trail, Steely & Clevie, King Jammy’s, Bobby Digital, Stingray, Mafia & Fluxy, Junior Reid, Black Scorpio, High Power, Ruff Cutt, Vizion, World Records and even Acid Jazz.
Admittedly he did slow down from the late nineties onwards, and that’s when the years did seem to take their toll. By that time he’d become a hero to an entire new generation and seen his appeal span all age groups, whilst transcending every passing phase. That he achieved this without compromise is highly significant. The majority of younger Rasta artists wouldn’t have been able to resist voice songs like Slave Market without succumbing to anger and aggression. Not so Gregory, who could write stark, accusing lyrics but then deliver them with such laidback soul they would soothe and educate the listener, rather than alienate them. That’s a rare skill but then Gregory knew about the use of light and shade better than anyone. To pretend there wasn’t a darker side to his character would be foolhardy but I met him many times over the years and whilst he was a reluctant interviewee he could be witty, charming, gracious and dare I say it – even a little shy at times. Our condolences then, to his family and closest friends, whilst his music stays forever in our hearts.


About johnmasouri
John Masouri is a long-time author and music journalist specialising in reggae and its many off-shoots including dub, ska, roots and dancehall. The author of Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley's Wailers, published by Omnibus Press in 2008, he is currently working on a biography of reggae singer Peter Tosh, due to appear next year. In addition to book projects, he continues to write articles and reviews for Reggae Vibes (France), Riddim (Germany) and Echoes - formerly Black Echoes - which is renowned as Britain's No. 1 black music monthly. His work has also appeared in Mojo, Music Week, the Guardian, the Observer and the NME, as well as magazines in the US, Caribbean and Japan.

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