By Ron Shillingford
The first time I saw Gregory Isaacs perform was on a freezing January night in 1980 at an icy leisure centre in Maidenhead, an hour’s drive west of London. He was about three hours late and some people had already left by the time he came on around 1am. Already a huge fan, despite his late appearance in front of a sparse crowd and clearly intoxicated in some way, it was a wonderful experience and I was hooked. I even proudly wore my Gregory Isaacs International Fan Club badge despite teasing from mates.
I was blessed to see the Cool Ruler perform all over London and once in Jamaica for the next decade but got tired of watching him as his voice and delivery deteriorated. Nevertheless, Isaacs made a huge contribution to the soundtrack of my life with some of the finest reggae ballads and social conscience songs ever composed. The fact that mainstream publications around the world gave him an obituary in 2010 when he died aged 59 from lung cancer is testament to the respect he gained. On the seventh anniversary of his death, Oct. 25, 2017, I happened to be in a nightclub celebrating a friend’s birthday. They played a Gregory Isaacs selection and the whole club sang every word in unison.
David Katz in The Guardian, summed Isaacs up superbly: “He scored many hits during the 1970s and 80s, including the perennial favourite Night Nurse, and remained active as a recording artist, live performer and producer in the decades that followed. Although best known for romantic ballads, delivered with a hint of vulnerability, he also excelled at songs of social protest and work that expressed unwavering pride in his African heritage. However, his long-term drug use and involvement in criminal activity led to long periods of incarceration and repeated arrests, hastening his physical decline.”
Some of his early albums were sublime with a maturity and eloquence way beyond the normal comprehension of a ghetto yout’ raised in Denham Town, Kingston. Born in 1951, starting out, Isaacs had some success on local talent shows and with other performers but really made his mark when he teamed up with another singer, Errol Dunkley. Isaacs’ first singles success was with “My Only Lover” in 1973, credited as the first ever lovers rock song. The whole of Jamaica was crooning with him the lyrics:
“People say that you're too young, too young
Too young to be my lover, oh, yeah
But never judge a book, oh, no
By only looking at the cover”
A succession of gems followed for the artist also known as the Lonely Lover including “All I Have Is Love”, “Lonely Soldier”, “Black a Kill Black” and “Extra Classic” and by 1974 he had another big hit with “Love is Overdue”. By the end of the decade he had worked with many top producers and was much in demand on tour in the US and the UK and was only surpassed on the reggae scene by Bob Marley and Dennis Brown.
More golden years followed in between incarceration and drug addiction with “Night Nurse” making the crossover into UK chart success. It was even used on a TV advert for a flu medicine of the same name for a while. There are numerous C0ol Ruler tracks that can never die. “Soon Forward”, “Top Ten”, “Rumours”, “Out Deh!”, “Sunday Morning”, “Number One”, “What A Feeling” and “Mr Cop” are some of the most popular but every album throws up brilliantly written, wonderfully composed tracks that touch the listener in a magical way.
The 1981 album More Gregory with such classics as “Substitute”, “Border”, “Front Door”, “Hush Darling” and “Permanent Lover” remains an all-time favourite. I literally played it at least once a day for a year.
The opening verse to “Front Door” resonates with heart-broken lovers worldwide:
“I gave her back the key to her front door
'cause it seems she didn't care about me anymore
I gave her all the love I had and she spilled it, yeah
So I packed my things into a shopping bag and decided to quit”
“Slavemaster”, “Love Overdue”, “Tune In”, “Mr Brown”, “Breaking Up” and “Loving Pauper” all have a special place in my collection too.
Well before his passing, I’d stopped watching him perform live, partly because he was a shell of the once charismatic Cool Ruler everyone loved and admired. Missing teeth and crackling, nasally voice made him almost the Uncool Ruler. He looked and sounded like a much older man.
Despite his faults, Isaacs was a genius which is why the Jamaican government posthumously awarded him the Order of Distinction (Officer Class) last year. His memory and good works live on through the Gregory Isaacs Foundation, set up by his wife June Wyndham and there is a blue plaque to commemorate his life at 59 Weald Lane, Harrow, the house where he died.