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Joe Higgs: The Godfather of Reggae

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL
Observer senior writer

Sunday, July 02, 2017

This is the 20th in our daily series highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage. Each day, one personality will be featured, culminating Independence Day, August 6.

 

In the bowels of Trench Town's shanties during the 1950s, many impoverished youth were blessed with talent. There was cricketer Collie Smith, future impresario Junior Lincoln, and Joe Higgs.

The last is usually referred to as 'Godfather of Reggae' because of his work as a pioneer singer and mentor. As a member of the duo Higgs and Wilson, he was among the first to score a hit song (Manny Oh) from the community.

Produced by Edward Seaga, Manny Oh inspired other budding entertainers from Trench Town to record, including a group called The Wailing Wailers.

Higgs was a mentor to the group which first recorded for producer Clement Dodd in 1964 and became world-famous as The Wailers. He fine-tuned their harmonies and image and prepared them for inevitable stardom.

“We looked up to Joe Higgs. He was something like a musical guardian for us. He was a more professional singer because he was working for years with a fellow named Roy Wilson as Higgs & Wilson. They had a lotta hits and they had the knowledge of the harmony techniques, so he taught us [The Wailers] them. And he helped in the studio to work out our different parts,” said Bunny Wailer.

Higgs' own career took a backseat as he guided other young acts. But he still found time to write and record songs like There Is A Reward For Me, which may have influenced a much more famous song — Mother And Child Reunion by Paul Simon.

The diminutive Higgs also wrote Stepping Razor which was later famously covered by Peter Tosh, one of his protégés from The Wailers. He recorded the song for the 1967 Festival Song Competition.

In the early 1970s as reggae took off internationally, Higgs toured with The Wailers and Jimmy Cliff.

Joe Higgs died at age 59 in December 1999 in Los Angeles, California where he lived and was revered for his groundbreaking work.



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