DENNIS BROWN : CROWN PRINCE
February 1, 1957 - July
(This article originally appeared
in Reggae Report in 1997)
Brown on Record by Lee
Dennis Brown is often called the Crown Prince of Reggae, a tribute to his 70's status as the leading star in reggae after Bob Marley. Many, however, would dispute the lowliness of that ranking. No performer has been as consistently at the top of the charts as long or as often as Dennis Brown and the only artist who has made a bigger contribution to reggae is Marley. Marley, in fact, once called Dennis Brown his favorite singer.
In the 26 years that Brown has been singing, he has produced over 100 albums and hundreds of singles but perhaps more critical, he was instrumental in integrating a cultural consciousness with popular reggae. Brown certainly didn't introduce African and Rastafarian themes to reggae but he was the first star with a career based on love and popular songs to embrace the deeper themes of Marley, Big Youth and Burning Spear. Over the years, more than any other artist in almost any genre, Brown has shown that romantic love, love of God and love of cultural heritage are not all that different.
Like dozens of other reggae artists, Brown's career began at Clement Dodd's Studio One. The teenaged Brown hit big with "No Man Is An Island" and "If I Follow My Heart" in 1969 and the smooth, masculine, confident sound of his voice was already present. Although the albums that resulted from these first sessions suffered from poor material ("Little Green Apples," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," etc.), both If I Follow My Heart (Studio One, 1970) and No Man Is An Island (Studio One, 1970) have good moments but neither is listenable all the way through.
Brown spent the next several years learning his craft and recording frequently for a variety of producers, including Derrick Harriott, Herman Chin-Loy, Sidney Crooks, Prince Buster, Randys, Phil Pratt and GG Ranglin. Many of the songs he recorded through the early 70's were pretty lightweight, but he also began to demonstrate the talent that would come to rule reggae. Highlights would include "What About the Half," "Cheater," the original "Money in My Pocket," and "Songs My Mother Used to Sing." Musical Heatwave (Trojan, 1993) provides an excellent overview of this era while Money in My Pocket (Trojan, 1981) fills in some of the gaps. The Harriott produced Sings Super Reggae & Soul Hits (Trojan, 1972) and Superstar (Micron, 1973), produced by Brown and Crooks were the only LPs released at the time and they both show an artist still experimenting with his talent.
In 1974, Brown made his first sessions with legendary producer Niney the Observer that led to a collection of records that rank with the Lee Perry-Wailers sessions for intensity and power. Songs like "Africa," "Whip Them Jah Jah," "Cassandra" and "Tribulation" are some of the greatest recordings ever made. Niney's hard, jagged production (major credit due to the Soul Syndicate here) challenged Brown's voice to achieve an intensity he had only suggested previously. Unfortunately, the legacy of these recordings is somewhat confused. Some Like It Hot (Heartbeat, 1992) and Open the Gate (Heartbeat, 1995) collect nearly all of Brown's Niney productions on two discs. Various permutations of these sessions can be found on Deep Down (Observer), Just Dennis (Trojan, 1975), Westbound Train (Third World, 1977), Greatest Hits (Rohit, 1987, reissued by JA Classics in 1994), My Time (Rohit, 1987, reissued by JA Classics in 1994), Go Now (Rohit, 1990, reissued by JA Classics in 1994), If I Didn't Love You (Jama
Wolf & Leopards (DEB, 1976) mixed a couple of Niney productions ("Here I Come" being the most well-known) with self-produced songs ("Emmanuel," "Children of Israel") and collaborations with Ossie Hibbert and Castro Brown and it showed the youth beginning to mature. Wolf & Leopards and it's follow-up, Visions (Joe Gibbs/Shanachie, 1976) not only showed a confident and talented artist but also showed an artist who had sufficient inspiration and craft to create two consecutive albums in which every song was a gem. That kind of consistency was as unheard of in the 1970s as it is today.
Visions also marked the beginning of an extended affiliation with producer Joe Gibbs. Gibbs' label was responsible for some of the best and most innovative music of late 1970s and early 1980s, chiefly due to the studio band led by Lloyd Parks, arrangers like Clive Hunt and Willie Lindo, engineer Errol Thompson and artists like Brown. At their best, this group put together songs and albums that were ablaze with energy. Vision, Words of Wisdom (Joe Gibbs, 1978) and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Joe Gibbs, 1982) are an extraordinary trio of albums complete with brilliant musicianship and inspired singing. If some of the rawness of Niney's productions had been sacrificed it was replaced with virtuosity and power. Even relatively minor albums like Best of Dennis Brown 1 (Joe Gibbs, 1980, recreations of Niney's hits), Best of Dennis Brown 2 (Joe Gibbs, 1982) and Stagecoach Showcase (Joe Gibbs, 1982) had a latent fire in them. Spellbound (Joe Gibbs, 1980), Joseph's Coat of Many Colors (DEB, 1979) and
Gibbs and Brown also launched an ambitious attempt at crossover success in 1981 when Brown signed with A&M. Foul Play (A&M, 1981) and Love Has Found It's Way (A&M, 1982) did not attempt to break the charts with some hybridized rock/reggae/funk/disco mix but instead presented reggae's best singer singing strong material backed by some of reggae's best musicians. The results were two outstanding albums that failed to achieve their goals (although Love Has Found It's Way spawned a pair of moderate English hits). The final album in the group, The Prophet Rides Again (A&M, 1983) contains one side of typically brilliant Brown with one side of tepid funky reggae. It, too, failed to chart and none of these wonderful albums are available today.
The ending of the relationship with A&M coincided with Gibbs' financial disintegration and by 1984 Brown was recording for his own Yvonne's Special label (DEB Music was his first self-produced label) and for producers Sly & Robbie, Gussie Clarke, Tad Dawkins, Trevor Bow, Bunny Lee and Delroy Wright. Satisfaction Feeling (Yvonne's Special, 1984) and Revolution (Yvonne's Special, 1985) are both strong compilations of singles from 1983-85 that demonstrated that when he was paying attention and the circumstances were right, Brown was still the best there was. At the same time, Judge Not (Greensleeves, 1984 with Gregory Isaacs), Brown Sugar (RAS, 1986), Slow Down (Greensleeves, 1985), Wake Up (Natty Congo, 1985), Hold Tight (Live & Learn, 1986), Reggae Superstars Meet (Striker Lee, 1985 with Horace Andy) and Wild Fire (Natty Congo, 1986 with John Holt) all showed a Dennis Brown who could surround one or two wicked tunes with eight or nine pieces of lukewarm mush. Like many other reggae stars, Brown was
It wasn't until 1988 on the Willie Lindo produced Inseparable (J&W, 1988) that Brown was able to find his voice again. On this album and others like Good Vibrations (Yvonne's, 1989), Over Proof (Greensleeves, 1990) and Unchallenged (Music Works, 1990), Brown didn't match the fire of his Joe Gibbs or Niney produced sessions but instead presented the carefully crafted presence of a supremely talented professional. His voice no longer capable of achieving the riveting drive of his glory years yet when compared to contemporaries like Gregory Isaacs or John Holt, Brown has lost a lot less of his native ability over the years.
In the last half-dozen years, the quality of Brown's albums is directly related to the quality of the songs and the production. Nothing Like This (RAS, 1994), produced by Junior Reid, Friends for Life (Shanachie, 1992), produced by Black Scorpio and Blazing (Shanachie, 1992), produced by Michael Bennett are all excellent albums that reward repeated listening. Light My Fire (Heartbeat, 1994), produced by GG Ranglin is overproduced and on Legit (Greensleeves, 1993), Visions of the Reggae King (Gold Mine, 1994) and Three Against War (VP, 1994) he sounds like he's going through the motions.
The 1990's are also responsible for a group of albums produced by Lloyd Charmers that show Brown at his worst. Sarge (Charmers, 1990), Another Day in Paradise (Trojan, 1992) and Rare Grooves, Reggae Rhythm & Blues (Body Music, 1993) are mid to slow tempo American soul/pop songs covered by The Crown Prince of Reggae. An argument could be made that Brown is sufficiently talented that anything he records is worthwhile. I'd agree, but these albums test that argument.
The 1990s have also seen an unprecedented series of reissues, many of which have been discussed above. In addition to those mentioned, Classic Gold (Rocky 1, 1993) reprises the best of the Joe Gibbs years while Hit After Hit (Rocky 1, 1996) fills in some of the gaps and Classic Hits (Sonic, 1992) mixes up Sly & Robbie, Niney and Bunny Lee productions in a strange, yet satisfying compilation.
Now, in 1996, Brown seems to be stepping to center stage again. In addition to headlining the U.S. edition of Reggae Sunsplash, there have been seven new Dennis Brown albums this year. Four are compilations, and Songs of Emmanuel (Yvonne's, 1996) has one of his worst songs ever ("Girl from Ipanema") mixed in with an otherwise successful album. Milk & Honey (RAS, 1996) and Can It Be (VP, 1996), on the other hand, are two of the best albums he's done in years and demonstrate that Brown still has the master's touch. ??
Often referred to as "Emmanuel, the Crown
Prince of Reggae," Dennis Brown was Bob Marley's favorite
singer. He was in his teens when his career began, recording
initially (and typically) for Coxsone Dodd, scoring big with a 1968
cover of "No Man Is an Island" (the Impressions) in 1968.
In the '70s he made a series of exciting albums for Joe Gibbs
and had a U.K. hit with his classic "Money in My Pocket." From
1977 to 1982 he recorded for Joe Gibbs, in his peak period
producing such classics as "Revolution," "Have You Ever
Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)," "The Promised Land,"
and "Sitting and Watching." A live album was cut in Montreux
in 1979, a year after he was featured in the film
Heartland Reggae. With a no-nonsense, straight-ahead style, Brown
is capable of wrapping a love song in a crooning caress or inciting
a crowd (as he did memorably at the 1983 Sunsplash in
Montego Bay) to heights of uncontrolled hysteria. He continues
to be one of Jamaica's classiest and most riveting
performers. -- Roger Steffens, All-Music