RIP Gregory Isaacs, The Cool Ruler

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Gregory Isaacs

Gregory Isaacs 1951-2010

One of the most difficult aspects of being a recording artist is that you must compete with all the music previously created – it’s all still here. How can you update an existing form? In some ways, it is harder to come second, and to try to improve or change things that have been a big influence. In the 50 or so years of rock music, we can now reflect on different strains and styles within the music. It’s too vague to say “rock music” when you can now name all the sub-genres that have arisen over the years.

Gregory Isaacs created a genre within a genre, Lover’s Rock, a softer, more romantic approach to roots reggae in the late 70s. The Cool Ruler died this week at age 59, after a long battle with cancer.  I am not an expert on his bio but was a fan of his career, and enjoyed the utterly massive song “Night Nurse,” and others like it (the follow up “Private Secretary”). I would describe “Lover’s Rock” as combination of a moderately fast roots reggae beat with a soft tone and romantic lyrics!  I have songs of his dating back to 1969 on Trojan compilations, but the definitive album is Night Nurse. I would also recommend his tribute to Dennis Brown, “Gregory Isaacs sings Dennis Brown.” He had an amazing voice just like Dennis Brown, and this was a particularly great album.

Download/listen to my five favorite songs by Gregory Isaacs after the jump…

“Night Nurse”
“Private Secretary”
“Cool Down the Pace”
“Number One”
“Hold On To What You’ve Got”

Isaacs came to the fore in the mid-80s, when the future of reggae was in question, if not doubt.  Bob Marley had died and all the air went out of the balloon for the scene.  Who would pick up the mantle?  As it turned out, no one, but one of the positives was that it enabled new artists to change the tone of the music.  Pop-leaning reggae was always bigger in Jamaica than the more serious, religion and politically-charged roots music, but now Gregory, Yellowman, Johnny Osbourne and Barrington Levy had redefined the scene with some big hits.  Even Peter Tosh came out with the relatively frivolous “Johnny B. Goode.”  The music became more electronic too, with Prince Jammy rising in prominence when Half-Pint hit.

While Gregory Isaacs’ music may have held less lofty goals than the rasta/roots movement, he had a lot of fans and he absolutely changed the world for the better.

A few tributes:

Reggae author David Katz’s Obituary from The Guardian
Mojo Magazine
KCRW Interview with Roger Steffens
Zimbabwe Mourns the Cool Ruler
All Music Guide

Thanks to my friend Pat McKay of Sirius XM’s The Joint for linking my birthday to the Cool Ruler’s every year! Vibes also to longtime reggae journalist and friend Amy Wachtel, who used the name “Night Nurse” on the radio and in print for many years.

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