The Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment Desk continues with the 26th in its series during Child Month highlighting some of Jamaica’s young performers who shot to stardom.
IMPRESARIO Michael Barnett labels Dennis Brown as the ultimate child star. And, as co-conceptualiser of the ‘Inseparable: Dennis Brown and Friends’ concert series, he had unfettered access to reggae’s crown prince.
“Dennis Brown was the ‘Boy Wonder’ who later became the ‘Crown Prince of Reggae’. When Dennis was a young lad, his parents were in the theatre business so he developed this stagemanship from them. As a young boy going to Central Branch Primary School [in Kingston], the kids there used to give him money to sing for them and perform for them. He used to be on the choir,” Barnett, who is a disc jockey on Kool 97 FM, told the Jamaica Observer.
Brown’s prodigious talent was discovered when he was only eight years old.
“There was a programme going on, I think with Mr Edward Seaga in West Kingston, where they had a boys’ club, and through the boys club Mr Seaga saw him as a talent and took him to Byron Lee and asked Byron Lee to include him on the show ‘Nuggets For The Needy’. It was a big charity show kept once a year. When Byron Lee heard Dennis voice, he put him on the show — Dennis was around eight years old at the time. This was a big show taking place at Regal Theatre in Cross Roads. He was singing a song called Solomon; they had to put him on milk crates to reach the microphone. So part of the song says: Solomon was the wisest man, but he didn’t know the secret of a woman. Girl, leave soul alone; ‘cause I’m a big man in this town. Can you image an eight-year-old on milk crate singing ‘I’m a big man in this town’? It was pandemonium in the place... the place tear up, and the rest is history,” he said.
Born on February 1957, Dennis Brown was influenced by Delroy Wilson (whom he later cited as the greatest influence on his vocal style), Errol Dunkley, John Holt, Ken Boothe, and Bob Andy.
His first hit song, Lips of Wine, was released in 1968 and produced by Derrick Harriott. His next stop was Studio One where he released two hit-laden albums that included songs such as No Man is an Island and If I Follow my Heart.
In 1973, 16-year-old Brown erupted with a string of hit songs that announced him as a bona fide star.
Cassandra, Africa, No More Shall I Roam, and Westbound Train are still tops on the ‘D Brown’ hit parade. All were produced by Winston “Niney” Holness.
Brown, in a 1997 interview with the Jamaica Observer, acknowledged his time with Holness as some of his most creative.
“I would sey Niney is the best producer I work wid. He was more like a big brother; wi had a lotta good times making music,” said Brown.
Another Brown/Holness collaboration that hit it big was Wolf and Leopards, the singer’s most commercially successful of his 70-odd albums.
Throughout the late 1970s he had a fruitful partnership with producer Joe Gibbs that yielded hits like Ghetto Girl, How Could I Leave, Money in my Pocket, Should I, and Say What You Say.
Dennis Brown was said to be Bob Marley’s favourite singer. He was an inspiration and influence for many reggae singers, including Barrington Levy, Junior Reid, Frankie Paul, Luciano, Bushman, and Richie Stephens.
According to Barnett, the inaugural Inseparable concert was held on Saturday, May 28 1988 at the Oceana Hotel in downtown Kingston. Twelve of the cabaret-styled concerts were held in the next four years, the last taking place in Mandeville on January 30 1992.
Dennis Brown died in July 1999 after a brief illness. He was 42.
Barnett also started Heineken Startime, another popular live series on which Brown appeared regularly. He said fans of the singer are still loyal to him.
“He was the singer’s singer as 90 per cent of the Jamaican singers used Dennis Brown’s voice to learn how to sing. He had a teaching voice. I believe Dennis Brown is the most-loved Jamaican artiste by Jamaicans,” he added.
In 2011 Brown was posthumously recognised with an Order of Distinction (Commander Rank) for his contribution to Jamaican music.
He is interred at the National Heroes’ Park in Kingston.