When Garnett Silk burst on the reggae scene in the early 90s he was being hailed as a future superstar, to be mentioned in the same breath as his legendary Jamaican predecessors. With such international hits as “Hello Mama Africa” and “It’s Growing”, Silk was rapidly making his mark. Sadly, that immense potential was snuffed out far too quickly. He was an immensely talented singer-songwriter and the world is a poorer place without his presence although his work is still widely played and his son Garnett Silk Jr. has followed dad into a music career.
Born Garnett Smith on 2 April 1966, in Mandeville, Manchester, Silk began his musical career at 12 as a DJ under the name Little Bimbo. He spent his early years on sound systems such as Destiny Outernational, Pepper’s Disco, Stereophonic and Soul Remembrance.
He recorded his first track in 1985 and two years later "Problem Everywhere" was released. An album of material from this period (Journey) was later released. In 1988, he joined Sugar Minott's Youth Promotion label, releasing "No Disrespect", and working regularly with Tony Rebel. The pair began performing as a duo around the sound systems to much acclaim. The Garnett Silk Meets the Conquering Lion: A Dub Plate Selection album dates from about this time and features a clutch of exclusive recordings the DJ cut for the sound system from the mid-1980s through the end of the decade.
Silk would record a plethora of songs at producer Courtney Cole's Ocho Rios studio, amongst them were the hits "Mama," "Seven Spanish Angels," and a cover of the Johnny Nash classic "I Can See Clearly Now". Roof International would posthumously bundle up these early singles and other material for the Nothing Can Divide Us album, which the VP label picked up for the US.
By 1992, Silk was in Kingston in the studio with producer Bobby Digital, recording his debut album It's Growing. Split between deeply cultural themes, spiritual songs, and romantic numbers, the album went on to become one of the best-selling in Jamaica that year, and he had his first major hit single with "Hello Mama Africa" which topped the reggae chart in Britain.
Over the next two years, he recorded with most of the major Jamaican producers, on his own and in partnership with Tony Rebel. He cut a swathe of songs with King Jammy, including "Fill Us Up With Your Mercy" and "Lord Watch Over Our Shoulders."
Gold, released in 1993 by the UK Charm label, bundled up more hits from this period. He also recorded for Sly & Robbie, including the deeply religious "Thank You, Jah" and the haunting "Green Line." But the pace was becoming too much and Silk collapsed during a show at the Ritz in New York City, suffering from low blood pressure and exhaustion. He was forced to cancel all his scheduled appearances for the next six months, most crucially of all, what would have been his debut at Reggae Sumfest.
When he returned he re-joined Steely & Clevie and cut the "Love Is the Answer" single, another massive hit. "Fight Back," produced by Richie Stephens, was next up. By then, the singer was ready to re-take the stage, headlining that year's Reggae Sumfest and Reggae Sunsplash festivals. His set at the latter event was captured for the Live at Reggae Sunsplash 1994 album, released in 1999 by the Tabou1 label.
Having signed an international distribution deal with Atlantic Records, Silk now entered Tuff Gong studios with producer Errol Brown and the cream of Jamaica's session men to begin work on his second album. He'd recorded ten songs and the album was nearing completion when he went home to visit his mother. Silk had borrowed a pair of guns from his attorney after his home had been burgled, but had no idea how to use them. Sitting with a couple of friends at his mother's house in Mandeville, on 9 Dec., one offered to show him how they worked, at which point the gun accidentally misfired, hitting a propane tank and setting the house ablaze. The singer, his friends, and his two brothers made it out safely, only to discover that Silk's mother was still trapped inside. Silk rushed back into the house to save her, but it was too late and both were lost in the fire.
Many artists have recorded tributes to Silk since, including Macka B and there are many compilation albums. In 2000, Atlantic finally released The Definitive Collection, a two-CD set showcasing the ten tracks the singer had recorded during sessions for his unfinished second album. Silk's nephew Anthony Cruz recorded a tribute album in 2013, featuring cover versions of 15 of his songs.