Lovers rock — the softer side of reggae

By Howard Campbell Observer senior writer

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

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In August, it will be 50 years since Jamaica gained Independence from Britain. Today, the Jamaica Observer's Entertainment section reflects on the influence Jamaican pop culture has had on that country in REGGAE BRITANNIA, a weekly feature leading up to the Golden Jubilee.

IF reggae promoters wanted to 'ram' a dance in the late 1970s, they most likely had to 'draw' for the latest ballads coming out of London's West Indian underground music scene.

As it caught on, the British media coined this mellow sound lovers rock.

Ska, rock steady, and roots-reggae had their genesis in Jamaica but lovers rock was conceived in Britain by black Britons.

While there was a saturation of roots music on radio and at dances, the softer side of reggae always enjoyed a substantial following in Britain.

The rock steady songs of the 1960s had made Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson and Ken Boothe stars in the Caribbean community.

Boothe maintained his popularity in the 1970s with Silver Words, followed by Everything I Own which entered the British national chart in 1975.

Most of its early exponents were first-generation Brits of Jamaican parentage, but many point to Barbados-born Dennis Bovell as the father of lovers rock. Raised in London, Bovell played in rock bands early in his career but moved into reggae production by the mid-1970s.

In 1977, Bovell along with John Kpiaye and Dennis Harris of the DIP record company launched the Lovers Rock label. Its first song, I'm In Love With a Dreadlocks Man by Brown Sugar, was a minor hit.

It featured a 15-year-old singer named Caron Wheeler, who would later find international acclaim as lead vocalist for the group, Soul II Soul.

Lovers Rock had strong follow-ups with singer Tim Chandell whose album, Loving Moods Of, sold over 50,000 copies, big numbers for a small label.

Bovell also produced Silly Games by singer Janet Kay which went number two on the national chart in 1979.

It did not take long for the trend to catch on in Jamaica where so-called roots and culture was still dominant. Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, who had recorded mainly roots hits, made the switch to lovers rock with remarkable returns.

Brown launched his DEB label in England and began producing several lovers rock artistes including Isaacs. His own song, Money In My Pockets, reached number 14 on the British chart in 1979.

Two years later, Sugar Minott, a member of roots-reggae's new wave, entered the British chart with Good Thing Going, a cover of an obscure Jackson Five song. It eventually stalled at number four and remains Minott's biggest hit.

Lovers rock exploded in the 1980s with British artistes leading the way, thanks to vital support from the prolific Fashion label. It was a decade that produced homegrown singers Maxi Priest, John McLean and Guyana-born Deborah Glasgow.

The biggest lovers rock hit of the period, however, was done by Boris Gardiner, a bassist who played on some of the biggest rock steady hits of the 1960s. His cover of American country singer Mac Davis' I Want to Wake Up With You topped the British national chart in 1986.

Like other reggae offshoots, lovers rock has a fragmented fan base in Britain today. Dennis Bovell leads a dub band that tours with firebrand dub poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, while the hits have long dried up for Fashion and its contemporaries.

In 2000, Afro-British singer Sade paid homage to the sound with her album, Lovers Rock. Recently, Bitty McLean, a former UB40 engineer, hit it big with his cover of soul singer David Ruffin's Walk Away From Love and Make It With You, originally done by Bread.

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