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Gregory Isaacs, Jamaican reggae artist, dies at age 59 

Mr. Isaacs maintained that he owned the guns for protection from robbers and political violence, which had engulfed Jamaica in the late 1970s, "just like you have a jacket to protect you from the cold." 


Gregory Isaacs, who died on Tuesday at age 59 in London, England, possessed one of the most recognisable and beloved voices in reggae over a career that spanned five decades.

Though he’d been in ill health for a long time, he succumbed to lung cancer contracted in the past year. During the past couple of decades, his wounded and beguiling voice had deteriorated into a shadow of its former self as a result of cocaine and crack use. Nevertheless, even in its diminished state, producers in Jamaica and around the world continued to utilise the voice to connect their beats to the essence of reggae itself.

Isaacs’ vocal abilities were unique. Certainly not a technically gifted singer, his songs brimmed with his incomparably persuasive phrasing. Best known for his irresistible appeal to ladies, “The Cool Ruler,” as he was known, featured a sly tenor croon that verged on melodic speech, particularly in later years. These same qualities helped him to convey more serious topics or even boastful attitude with equal conviction. Perhaps the highest compliment that could be paid to him is that his voice was inimitable.

Issacs began recording in 1968 and found his first success in the early ’70s as he refined his persona to match the roots reggae of the day with romantic subjects. By 1975, he was working with the greatest producers of the era, recording hit after hit — often on his own label, African Museum — which remain beloved in the reggae canon. Isaacs moved more towards social criticism during his tenure with Virgin Records’ Front Line label in the late ’70s, and during this time, became a major star in Britain.

‘Night Nurse,’ his signature song and one of reggae’s archetypal tracks, speaks volumes of his career. Recorded in 1982, Isaacs’ languidly pleads for a nurse to “quench his thirst” over top of a slow-rolling bass line and catchy, understated synth hooks. Though, it was never a big hit in radio, it’s one of those songs which have reached the four corners of the world; wherever reggae is being played, ‘Night Nurse’ is never far away.

With the song released by Island Records, who eagerly signed him after Virgin inexplicably dropped him, Isaacs’ future seemed bright. However, he spent six months of the year in prison on a weapons conviction, which slowed his momentum. ‘Night Nurse’ was the beginning of a pattern in which his addiction to cocaine and subsequent troubles with the law hampered his career. Sadly, this struggle dominated many decades of his life, though he cleaned up in his last years.

Isaacs continued to make fine music and remain popular among reggae fans. When able to perform, he did so spectacularly. His 1984 album, ‘Live at the Academy Brixton,’ witnessed the depth of his fans’ love as the audience sang prolonged sections of his hits back to him. Even as he continued to slide into drug problems in the late ’80s, he was a major figure in dancehall of that era, recording anthems ‘Rumours’ and ‘Red Rose for Gregory,’ which portrayed menacing and romantic sides of his personality respectively, for a new generation of listeners.

In later years, his health problems caused him to lose his teeth and thicken his once-nimble voice. However, he continued to record steadily and perform when he could, overcoming the obstacles that his criminal record presented.

His last full-fledged album, ‘Brand New Me,’ came out in 2008, fittingly on the African Museum label. One of his last recordings was just released this month: the title track on Juno-winning Canadian reggae artist Dubmatix’ ‘System Shakedown.’

“I wrote the music specifically for Gregory,” Dubmatix said. “I wanted to reproduce the original early ’80s sound of ‘Night Nurse,’ ‘Number One’ and others. He did a quick demo and sent it over. Two nights later, I spoke with him as he was in the studio voicing the song. For me, it was a highlight musically working with one of the legends I grew up listening to in the ’80s — I never did know that he was ill.”

In remembering Isaacs’ matchless voice, reggae fans also acknowledge his volatile yet perceptive character. Perhaps the most prolific reggae singer of all time, Isaacs, even at his most mundane, had a particular point of view that brought a strong sense of drama to his songs. His death will undoubtedly spark many reappraisals of (and reissues from) his long career.

“His voice ruled the dancehalls of the ’80s,” said Dubmatix. “His legacy will continue through those incredible works of art.”


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