Higgs, 59, Reggae Performer; Taught a Generation of Singers
By JON PARELES
Joe Higgs, the mentor to a generation of socially conscious reggae
singers, died on Saturday at Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles.
He was 59 and lived in Los Angeles.
The cause was cancer, said his biographer, Roger Steffens.
Mr. Higgs sang, wrote songs and taught singing and stagecraft to major
performers including Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and the Wailers. As a
singer, he brought a streak of jazz syncopation to reggae rhythms, and
was a strong proponent of songs that held messages about faith and
"Reggae is a confrontational sound," he said in "Roots Rock Reggae" a
1977 documentary film by Jeremy Marre. "Freedom -- that's what it's
asking for. Acceptance -- that's what it needs."
Mr. Higgs grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. He made his first single, "Oh
Manny Oh," in a duo, Higgs and Wilson, with Roy Wilson, in 1960, and
it sold 50,000 copies. It was one of the first records pressed in Jamaica;
its label, West Indian Records, was owned by Edward Seaga, who
became prime minister in the 1980's.
In Mr. Higgs's yard in Kingston's Trench Town area, he began tutoring
Marley as a singer and performer in 1959 and worked with other
members of the Wailers, including Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, as the
group began recording in the early 60's.
In 1972 Mr. Higgs won Jamaica's Tourist Song competition with
"Invitation to Jamaica," receiving a trip to New York for his first
American performances. When Bunny Wailer left the Wailers in 1973
Mr. Higgs replaced him for an American tour. He wrote "Stepping
Razor," which became Tosh's signature song.
In the mid-1970's Mr. Higgs was the band leader for Mr. Cliff, touring
internationally and recording duets with him, including "Sound of the City"
and "Sons of Garvey." He also made his first album, "Life of Contradiction."
Mr. Higgs continued to record in Jamaica. In 1983 "So It Go," which
protested the plight of the poor, was banned from radio airplay, and he
could not get bookings to perform. He went to Los Angeles, where he
remained in self-imposed exile. He tutored American-based reggae
musicians and toured North America and Europe.
The Wailers band accompanied Mr. Higgs on his 1990 album "Blackman
Know Yourself." Recently he had been working at U2's Dublin studio
"Green on Black," a collaboration between reggae musicians and Celtic
Mr. Higgs is survived by 12 children, among them a daughter, Marcia
Higgs, a rapper, and a son, Peter, a studio guitarist.