A homage and party by Stan Mission
Sometime, Jamaican time, on Thursday 18th February, 2021 another talented and original musician passed away: Ewart Beckford, known to most people by his stage name, U-Roy. He was also dubbed “The Originator” for his unique and innovative singing style, and was greatly revered by all who love roots reggae music. That much we know because, within hours of the announcement of his death, international news and social media were awash with tributes to the great man. Fulsome obituaries appeared in the newspapers and on news sites, all basically repeating a similar – and strikingly limited – set of wiki-facts. I read quite a number of these articles before the repetition got to me. Let the dead bury their dead. I decided just to turn on my record player and listen again to the man’s music. Two or three days passed, before a friend contacted me to ask whether I would like to share my thoughts on Daddy U-Roy for this blog; I said yes, and then started to worry that I might simply end up repeating all of the words, “facts” and sentiments which are already out there on the internet in such abundance:
So, this is my attempt to avoid that trap by writing about my own response to U-Roy and his music, from the perspective of my own personal experience.
Imagine, if you can, a world without the internet. Imagine! There is no Wikipedia, Twitter, BBC Sounds App, YouTube or Spotify; a world in which, unless you can afford to go to the cinema, the only available moving images are those to be watched – in real time (with no pause or catch-up) – on a thing called television; unless you are privileged, there is only one of these devices per household. People are offered a choice of just three highly curated channels. You watch the afternoon wrestling on ITV with your granny, because, well, because that’s what’s on. It is a very small window indeed, and many people only have black and white pictures to watch through that window. The daily newspapers only carry black and white images. People keep scrapbooks in order to create a personal archive of image and text in hard-copy: the only form of copy there is. There are a couple of radio stations playing music, but, largely, it is an uninterrupted schedule of family-friendly, commercial pop. If you want to listen to any other music, you must buy the record. Apart from very occasional articles in Sounds, Melody Maker, or – by far the best hope in this regard – New Musical Express, everything you know about contemporary music, and the musicians involved, will have to be gleaned from close – sometimes forensic – scrutiny of the record cover and sleeve. Who are these people and what are they trying to tell us? The strange and restricted world which I am asking you to imagine is Britain in the mid-1970s. In that place and time, there was just as much ignorance, mystery, myth and speculation flying about on “the grapevine” as ever there is today on the web; the main difference being that it all moved around much more slowly in the 1970s, when “word of mouth” was pretty much the only way in which news of developments in the cultural underground, any form of outsider art, could be passed on; that is, at walking pace, and one conversation, gig or show at a time.
My memory is a bit hazy from this distance but I’m fairly sure I first heard U Roy in 1976; two of his songs – “Natty Rebel” and “The Great Psalms” – were included on a Virgin roots reggae sampler entitled “The Front Line”.
It was advertised as “An album for the price of a single. 69p.”; this “Front Line At 69” record sported a very stark, monochrome image on its front cover: a strong black fist, in Black Power salute, grasping one of the clusters of spikes on a length of barbed wire, and with blood trickling down the wrist and forearm. There are some glorious tunes from a number of wonderfully talented artists on that album – Johnny Clarke, Keith Hudson and Delroy Wilson to name just three – but it was the U-Roy cuts that really grabbed my attention; he took the music I thought I was beginning to understand and lifted it somewhere else entirely: he extended the form whilst totally respecting its grammar. This man layered an energy over the top of the dubby riddims which was propulsive and compelling; his tone was confident and joyful; his message was serious and meaningful; old, wise but still energetic; his intent was not in doubt; his phrasing and delivery were pitch perfect. Of course, I didn’t think any of this pretentious nonsense at the time; I just went “Wow!”. With all due respect to the excellent Dave and Ansell Collins, this was a dubby-jazz-steppahs “Double Barrel” with a stoned-Rastaman-James Brown in the vocal driving seat encouraging us towards righteous ways. Squared! Cubed!! I knew from someone, or had picked up in NME somewhere, that this man was a “legend” – unbeknownst to me at the time, he must only have been about 30 years old, and already legendary to those in the know – but all I had to go on was the music itself.
Just the music until, that is, I bought myself a copy of the “Dread In A Babylon” LP.
This sleeve was very different from the sampler cover; on it, front and back, a man was photographed squatting in a ghetto yard behind a massive ganja pipe, wreathed in clouds of smoke and looking highly contemplative, serious and suspicious of the camera. The man whom I assumed to be U-Roy – but couldn’t be sure, it didn’t say – looked old and wild. To a polite boy from the uniformly grey, grey Kingston Surrey, the red, green, gold, and all colours in between, of back-a-yard in Kingston Jamaica looked highly exotic and exciting.
That Virgin sampler wasn’t my first introduction to reggae music. Since 1970 or 71, I had in my early teenage record collection an album of covers by uncredited session musicians of a dozen mainstream-UK-pop-chart-scraping hits such as Israelites, Long Shot Kick The Bucket, My Boy Lollipop, and The Liquidator. I associated reggae, bluebeat and ska in the late 60s and early 70s with skinhead culture, and, as a nice boy from Surrey who spent many Saturday afternoons quivering on the terraces under The Shed at Stamford Bridge, I was frightened of skins, but I loved the music and played that LP endlessly. The album was called “The Wonderful World Of Reggae” (“Twelve Great Tracks for only 14/6”) on the economy-range Music For Pleasure label. On the front cover, two cartoon figures dance in bright clothing; both are wearing flared trousers and kipper ties; both have pink skin and bouffant, almost afro, hairdo’s; one of the figures sports an improbable moustache. On the back cover, there are a couple of paragraphs, written by someone called Barry Kirsch, which attempt to introduce this new and emerging musical phenomenon known as “reggae” (often, in those days, rendered phonetically as “reggay”). “Soul is dead”, “soul is finished”, Barry starts off absurdly. The remaining two or three hundred words which follow this frankly silly pronouncement are barely less inane. In this introduction to the new music from Jamaica, Jamaica itself does not warrant a mention!
1976, the year in which “The Front Line” was released was a musical and cultural Year Zero in the UK, with single releases by The Damned (“New Rose”) and The Sex Pistols (“Anarchy In The UK”) heralding the arrival of a whole new ethic: DIY, angry, proudly untutored. Every teenager knew straight away that something big was brewing. Throughout 1977 and ’78, at almost every punk gig I attended, the tunes playing over the house PA between bands were roots reggae and dub. Things connected up in those brief years of punky-reggae-party; things started to make sense; music and politics started to mingle to powerful and liberating effect. Barriers came down and the curators of cultural taste were routed, at least for a time.
I guess that Mr U-Roy just kept on keeping on during this period, recording sides for King Tubby and many others, and making regular appearances for various sound systems at the dancehall . I didn’t enquire. There was really no way to enquire. I now know that he left JA and went to live in Santa Ana, Orange County, California for a spell of about ten years before returning to his homeland, but I believe that that was in the 80s. Ewart was born in Jones Town, which borders Trench Town and Denham Town in the ghetto-slums of Kingston, in the parish of Saint Andrew; it’s a place where, as Bunny Wailer describes it, “Town just lead straight into Town”. U-Roy stayed close to his impoverished roots. For all I knew over the intervening decades, he might have been shot like so many other prominent figures in the Jamaican music business. I didn’t enquire. He was legendary, mythical, as old as the hills. What use is biographical detail in the case of a legend, living or otherwise? And where would you find it anyway?
Now we are told that U-Roy died aged 78, and I realise that he was only 15 years my senior. They say that you should never meet your heroes but in the last few days I have searched out, for the first time, various extended interviews with U-Roy, recorded in his later years. They reveal a remarkable man: relaxed, affable, honest, humble, forthright, tough, positive, joyful, grounded and grateful to Almighty Jah for all his blessings. There is no false modesty in his assessment of his own achievements and legacy – he is clearly rightfully proud of what he has done and the global recognition which his work has earned him – but he displays at the same time an extraordinary lack of ego for someone held in such high esteem in their chosen field, let alone anyone in music, show business or the performing arts generally.
U-Roy readily acknowledged his early influences, primarily Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, and Louis Prima (“He was a white man but …”) ; often his own vocal inflections, phrasing and cadences could be described as Sinatra-esque; in other words, his style had “flow”. Flow like never before – truly – and very seldom since. Toasting, DJing, MCing, sing-jaying, rap … go back to the root; go back to the base of the trunk, and there stands the Mighty U-Roy. On record. Timeless. One Love because love is lovely and war is very ugly. Blessings. On the hour every half hour.