Absolutely The Best of Dennis Brown
People would often ask Bob Marley about his favorite reggae singer. More often than not the answer the undisputed king of reggae offered was Dennis Brown. When Marley died, many in and out of reggae thought that Brown would fill at least some of the niche left by the reggae giant. They started calling Brown “The Crown Prince of Reggae.”
Dennis Brown was prolific in many things. His impressive dreadlocks nearly came down to his knees. When he passed on at the tragically young age of 42, he left behind 13 children. He had also released close to (some estimates say more than) 100 albums and over 300 singles in a career that spanned 30 years. He toured relentlessly.
Brown’s father, Arthur earned renown in Jamaica as a comedian and actor. “I think his father had something to do with the direction that his performances took, which were all about having a good time and a good show,” fellow artist Linton Kwesi Johnson postulated to the London Times.
By the time he was nine years old, Brown would perform with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, one of Jamaica’s musical institutions. Another of the Island’s musical legends, Coxsone Dodd of Studio One took Dennis under his wing. In 1969, at 12 years old, they launched Brown on a solo career with a reggae version of the Impressions “No Man Is An Island.” The recording drew comparisons to American teen stars like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, earning him the title of Jamaican music’s boy wonder. The record propelled the pre-teen Brown onto the charts, and he never strayed too far from them for the rest of his life.
Initially, Brown fell into the very popular reggae subdivision of “lovers rock,” using the rocksteady beat of Marley and the Wailers, but with lyrics that accentuated the romantic rather than the conscious or political. This style fit his maturing tenor, a sweet-sounding instrument that called to mind smooth soul artists like Al Green.
By the mid-70s, when most of the songs on this CD came out, Brown had well and truly hit his stride. Here you’ll hear Brown in the best voice of his 30-year career. He had hits with songs of love and loss like “You and Your Smiling Face” and the acknowledged classics “Westbound Train” and “Money In My Pocket,” a top ten song in England.
Around this time, Brown also injected a conscious vein into his music. He put out songs of political and cultural importance and Rasta vibes like “Africa” and “Wolves and Leopards.” “That song,” noted filmmaker and songwriter Don Letts told the London Times, “which is essentially an anthem to black people, is so radical you feel it should have been a Bob Marley tune. It shows the full extent to which Dennis could deliver songs with incredible messages.”
One listen to the sinuous, minor key meditation on unity “Some Like It Hot” also illustrates Brown’s way with a melody and lyrics with a social message. “Here I Come,” with its plea for “love not hatred” and biblical quotes became his signature tune, the one that opened his concerts for a decade. For Brown, the songs just had to come naturally, whatever the subject.
“It’s not some bandwagon I jump on and say ‘I’m going to write socially conscious songs because that’s cool, that will get me some respect,’” he once told the Toronto Star. “There are reggae singers who look at it like that, but I get my respect from making music people enjoy, all kinds of people from the judge to the herb man…People don’t want to hear about oppression and heaviness all the time. Everybody wants to feel love, wants to feel good about themselves and that’s what I bring to them.”
When Bob Marley passed on in 1981, most of the reggae community thought Brown would wear the dreads of a mainstream reggae superstar. It surprised few when he signed to A&M records that year, but people waited to see if this excursion into Babylon would dilute his music. What came out were two albums of the strongest reggae released on a major label. Neither sold as well as people hoped, however. His third A&M album had one side of good strong tunes with the rest marked by such absurdities as tracks with KC and the Sunshine Band.
After that, he lost the support of the major label. He went back to his previous habit of putting out several albums a year on various labels. In reggae circles, his popularity remained undiminished. As popular as he was in Jamaica, he found an even larger audience in Africa. Along with Marley and Peter Tosh, he was one of the headliners in Jim Lewis’ film “Heartland Reggae.”
While Brown never broke into the mainstream the way Marley did, he did exert a quieter influence on both reggae and pop. He spent a good portion of the 80s in England, both recording and producing. As a producer, he helped develop artists ranging from Junior Delgado to Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler. He took a variety of acts into the studio, including the Mortals and John Holt (with whom he duets here on “Fancy Make Up”).
As a recording artist, he became hugely influential on the third generation reggae bands that grew up in England during the 70s, like Aswad, Steel Pulse and UB40. “We all grew up listening to Dennis,” noted Ali Campbell of UB40 to the Times of London. Astro, the group’s toaster, added “Girls would melt as soon as they heard his voice. Many a relationship was forged on the dance floor to his music.”
In the 90s, Brown became a fixture on the bills for both the Reggae Sunsplash festival that played annually in Jamaica and on the touring Sunsplash shows that traveled around the world. His Light My Fire album earned him a Grammy nomination in 1995.
Despite his honeyed voice and outstanding stage presence, Brown was plagued with asthma his entire life, a situation that wasn’t helped his smoking habits. He died of respiratory failure on July 1, 1999. To illustrate his status among Jamaicans, he became the first musician to be buried in Kingston’s National Heroes Park, alongside such notables as Marcus Garvey and former Prime Minister Norman Manley.
As Mikey Bennett, one of the producers who worked with Brown summed it up, “Dennis Brown was the best thing that every happened to a reggae song.”