Reggae’s Crown Prince Should be Honored
Dennis Emanuel Brown (1957-1999)
Stan Evan Smith
Dennis or D. Brown, as he was affectionately known, had he lived, would have celebrated his 51st birthday February 1st 2008. Brown is arguably the greatest singer in the history of Jamaican music, yet he has the distinction of being the greatest Jamaican singer to never “hit the big time” in his musical career.
Brown never achieved the international recognition like Bob Marley, or had similar record sales. Though he was nominated twice for a Grammy Awards he never won. However his contribution to Jamaican music makes him just as much an architect of reggae music as Bob Marley. Producer and songwriter Bennett, who produced two albums with Brown, praised his vocals because he possessed “that rhythmic quality to his voice, the smoothness with which he dominated the (reggae) rhythm track, making every song he sung sound like a Dennis Brown song” and as such his vocals “were the perfect bridge between the dominant American Rhythm & Blues and Jamaican singing… (That) if extracted from Jamaican music, would still, have Jamaican singers probably sounding like American R&B singers.”
Brown was born on Orange Street, a ghetto area in the downtown Kingston section of Jamaica on Feb. 1, 1957. His father, Arthur Brown, was a well-known actor in Jamaican theater circles. Very little is known about his mother. Brown attended Central Branch Junior Secondary School in West Kingston. At age 11, he became a child prodigy singer, performing his first concert with Byron Lee & the Dragonaires band in Kingston. Because of his diminutive size, Brown had to stand on beer crates to sing into the mike.
Brown grew from “boy wonder” to teen sensation and finally to the “Crown Prince” of reggae. He recorded his first song in 1969. This was the beginning of a 30-year musical career or “a journey” as he described it. On his journey, he sold out concerts in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central, South and North America and established a reputation as a pioneer of reggae music.
His final concert was in Salvador, Brazil, in June 1999. Brown died July 1, 1999, in Kingston, Jamaica from respiratory heart failure. He was 42. He was a member of the tribe of Joseph in the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a branch of the Rastafarian faith.
Brown was given an unofficial burial in the National Heroes’ Circle in Kingston, where he rests with Jamaica’s heroes. At his funeral, then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson promised that a national honor would be bestowed on Brown. To date this has not been done. The government of Jamaica has yet to honor Brown with a national award for his monumental contribution to the development of Jamaica’s music. It is long overdue.
Aside from Marley, Brown is the second most influential artist in reggae music. If Marley is reggae’s classical troubadour, then Brown could be considered the chief architect with his distinctive vocal styling, and the singer who gave the genre its defining sound. As songwriter and producer Mikey Bennett noted, Brown is “the reggae singer’s singer.” Brown’s seminal albums “Inseparable” and “Love Has Found Its Way” remains two of his greatest works.
To grasp the importance of Brown’s contribution to Jamaican music, what he did and how he did it has to be understood. Brown’s voice was big, with a gilded edge and his vibrato was unbelievable. His inimitable style, with its slow tremolo gave his vocals an almost perfect tone and timing. He was able to transmit his charismatic personality with his voice, and epitomized a reggae singer.
Leaders in the music industry described his impact this way: singer Richie Stevens, whose career Brown inspired, noted “Dennis Brown was the standard for Jamaican music … he helped carve out that cornerstone of Jamaican music.”
Willie Lindo, who produced possibly Brown’s finest album “Inseparable”, noted “every singer who came after Dennis Brown, regardless of their pitch, wanted to sound like Dennis Brown.”
Unlike most of Jamaica’s leading vocalists of his era whose most significant influences were R&B, jazz and blues legends, Brown was inspired by local ska/rock-steady child prodigy Delroy Wilson.
Brown told me in an interview at the Ritz in NYC 1988 that Wilson influenced him in much the same way he motivated the generation that came after him. That influence is evident in several of reggae’s premier singers, such as Frankie Paul, Luciano, Richie Stephens, Sanchez, Bushman, George Nooks, Prince Malachi and Maxi Priest.
Priest acknowledged Brown’s influence to Don Cornelius on TV’s “Soul Train” when he was asked who was his greatest music influence. He responded simply, “Dennis Brown.”
Jamaica gave birth to reggae in the 1970s and Brown evolved with the genre to become the most dominant vocal force in Jamaican music. Before his death, he became the last link between the great solo singers of his generation and the emerging one. He dominated the music scene as a hit-maker, and with his uninterrupted longevity and influence, created a solid foundation for reggae singers.
His reputation as a live performer was memorable and won him fans around the world. Two of his most significant career-defining performances were the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1979 and his electrifying performance at Reggae SunSplash at the Crystal Palace in London in 1983. These tour de force performances helped establish him as a sterling international stage presence.
Though Brown did not achieve the international success of his peers Marley and Peter Tosh, his talents, efforts and dedication won their respect as well as fans. Michael “Ibo” Cooper leader of the popular reggae band Third World summed up Brown’s importance to the world of music. “Dennis Brown made his mark on music … his music will have an impact on generations to come; the way Beethoven had an impact on Europe and Fela had an impact on Africa,” Cooper said. “When the future comes, Dennis will be one of the greatest names in music as a whole.”
Brown’s contribution to Jamaican music, though known is still undervalued in much the same way Tosh’s guitar skills influenced a generation of musicians is unaccredited. However Brown was aware of his own contribution to Jamaican music. He told Viddyms’ TV Show host Jenny Shadeo “I think I played an important part in establishing the music globally.”
His accessible, affable personality and his broad and infectious smile endeared him to fans the world over. “Next to Bob Marley… I don’t think we will see a second to him in our lifetime,” said promoter Michael Barnet describing Brown as “the Michael Manley of reggae music,” who was “charismatic and charming, a crowd-pleaser where he went.”
From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, no other singer in reggae had as many hit songs, or inspired more imitators than Brown. He recorded more than 200 singles and approximately 70 albums during his career. His hit-making ability and his career declined in the mid-90s, as a host of reggae singers adopted his style. By the late ’90s, with his career fading, he continued to tour feverishly, wrote prolifically and recorded nonstop.
From his first hit song “No Man Is an Island” in 1968 to his last hit song “Stop Fighting (so early in the morning),” Brown worked with all the major producers in reggae and crafted hits for them. The conventional wisdom was all a producer had to do to get a hit song was to voice Brown on a rhythm track.
His association with major reggae record producers dates back to his early years with Studio One Record and its creator Sir Coxsone Dodd, who describes Brown as “ God’s gift’ because he could sing everything. Brown worked with the leading producers of the day, such as Derrick Harriott (“Black Magic Woman”); Bunny Lee; Willie Lindo, (“Stop Fighting”); Lloyd Charmers; Gussie Clark (“Foundation”); Bennett (“Death Before Dishonor); Niney (“West Bound Train”); Joe Gibbs (“Money in My Pocket’); King Jammy; and Sly and Robbie (“Sitting and Watching”).
The ’70s to late ’80s were Brown’s most dominant and commercially successful era. His career went international, with his songs competing with each other on ethnic charts in cities in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean. As one of the most-sought after reggae acts for live shows and recordings, he commanded what was then a staggering $25,000 to $35,000 per show (working three nights a week) and a percentage of the gate receipts.
He signed a recording contract with Herb Alperts’ A&M Records in the United States, which produced three of the finest reggae albums ever made. “Foul Play,” “Love Has Found Its Way” and “The Prophet Rides Again” received critical acclaim. In major cities such as New York, he played mainstream venues like the Red Parrot and the Apollo (two sold-out shows the same night). He recorded prolifically, unwisely causing himself to be overexposed and toured extensively.
A series of bad management choices, unfortunate timing, a lack of focus and strategic planning, shady business practices by his producer Joe Gibbs, who allegedly undercut the A&M record contract provisions, and the latent effects of drug addiction, ushered in the decline of his career.
The decline of Brown’s popularity coincided with the dawn of DJ dance-hall music, characterized by the domination of sing jays and DJs in the1990s. The reggae torch was passed to a new breed of singers, such as Garnet Silk, Freddie McGregor, Richie Stevens, Sanchez, Beres Hammond, Luciano, Coco Tea, Maxi Priest and Frankie Paul.
Brown continued recording, in search of a hit, and received his first Grammy nomination in 1994 for his album “Temperature Rising” and his second — of which this writer had the honor of writing the liner notes — posthumously for “Let Me Be the One” in 2000.
The rich musical legacy of Dennis Brown is a testament to his gift as an artist and the music genre he helped pioneer. His music will live forever. February 1, 2008, which would have been his 51st birthday, should be the year he’s honored for his contributions to Jamaican music and culture. He should be given a national award.
Happy birthday Crown Prince.