One of Jamaica’s most beloved and prolific artists, the late Dennis Brown has left behind a slew of classic songs and myriad hits, a rich musical legacy born of a career that spanned over 30 years. Born Dennis Emmanuel Brown in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1957, his childhood home virtually destined him to a future in the music industry. He grew up on Orange Street, the heart of the island’s music scene, with most of the major recording studios a mere stone’s throw away. As the stars and future hitmakers paraded by day and music pumped out of the studios, the child could not help but be entranced. It was truly serendipitous that Brown himself had a voice that would set the studios ablaze. It didn’t take long for the producers to discover his talent and by the time he was 11, the youngster had a first hit to his name, with a cover of the Impressions’ “No Man Is an Island.” It was the beginning of a successful, but not exclusive, partnership (Brown also scored with “If I Had the World” for producer Prince Buster). However, Dodd was responsible for Brown’s debut album, 1970’s No Man Is an Island, and its follow-up the next year, If I Follow My Heart.
Now entering his teens, the singer was ready to start making the studio rounds on a regular basis, cutting songs with a clutch of different producers. The album Super Reggae & Soul Hits gathers some of his work during this period and features a mix of superb, if lightweight, covers alongside a number of self-penned classics, all cut with producer Derrick Harriott. 1975’s Best Of gathered a similar selection of material recorded for Joe Gibbs earlier in the decade. In 1972, the 16-year-old entered Gibbs’ Duhaney Park studio and recorded the song that later established his international reputation, “Money in My Pocket.” However, it wasn’t Gibbs himself who oversaw this session, but a young engineer/producer who had replaced the recently departed Lee Perry. Twenty-year-old Niney “the Observer” Holness had stunned the island two years earlier with his seminal “Blood & Fire” single, a roots classic. Now he was presented with a teenager best known for his sweet ballads and silky lovers cuts. Regardless, the two young men immediately clicked and by 1973, Brown was recording exclusively with Holness. Their work together virtually defies belief, as hits rained from the sky and the pair redefined the roots genre in their own image.
Wolves and Leopards
Perhaps it was simply a matter of timing as the teen was determined to leave his youthful balladeer image behind, and Holness was offering the perfect opportunity to present himself in a more mature light. The young producer was seeking a singer to help bring his own musical vision to fruition and Brown was malleable enough to make that happen. Or perhaps it was just fate. In any event, over the next two years, Jamaica was rocked by a stream of seminal songs, all released via Holness’ own Observer label. The haunting “Westbound Train,” the powerfully emotive “Cassandra,” the evocative “Africa” — the list goes on and on. Many of these were bundled up, along with a few unreleased songs, on 1975’s Just Dennis album. Brown cut his last song, “Tribulation,” with Holness that same year. At this point, Brown’s reputation was established; an awed Bob Marley was even ecstatically calling him the best reggae singer in the world. Brown’s own songwriting was now razor-sharp, and whether taking on cultural themes or lovers’ concerns, his lyrics and delivery were always emotionally potent. Now he was ready to strike out on his own — or so he thought. Over the next year, the teen sensation made the studio rounds, recording a handful of songs for the likes of Phil Pratt and Sydney Crooks. But it was evident something was missing and by the end of the year, Brown had returned to Holness’ side. The pair began recording again early in 1977 and their chemistry was still as strong as ever. The 1978 album Wolf & Leopard, titled after one of their hits, compiles most of the seminal string of singles the two men unleashed, including such masterpieces as the poignant “Here I Come” and the title-track.
The Heartbeat label has helpfully compiled all of the pair’s work across two albums — Some Like It Hot and Open the Gate — while Cleopatra’s two-disc The Golden Years: 1974-1976 draws heavily from this material (into 1977, regardless of the title). In 1978, the 21-year-old singer was now determined to stand on his own and set up his own label, DEB. Although it folded the following year, during that time Brown released a clutch of his own singles, as well as those by other artists, and a number of albums. The latter include his own excellent So Long Jah Rastafari and Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours. Although the latter was produced by Gibbs and Errol Thompson, Brown himself was now also moving into production, and his work behind the board is featured on a number of DEB releases. It really was a stellar year, with the singer also one of the highlights of the One Love Peace Concert that year, as well as being one of the major draws at the first-ever Reggae Sunsplash. Upon DEB’s closure, Brown again began the studio rounds, cutting singles for a wide variety of producers, including Bunny Lee, Ted Dawkins, and Ossie Hibbert. And Joe Gibbs, of course, with whom he had continued recording even during DEB’s lifetime. 1978’s Visions of Dennis Brown contained some of the fruits of their labor, and unusually, many of the album’s strongest tracks never graced a 45, helping to push the sales of this stunning record even higher. The following year, a resurrected “Money in My Pocket” gave the pair a mega-hit and spawned the Words of Wisdom album, which also boasted the classic “Ain’t That Loving You.”
By 1979, Brown was already a legend, even though he’d barely reached adulthood. In addition to his work with Holness, he had a virtual shop’s worth of successful singles to his credit: “Man Next Door,” “Cup of Tea,” “Equal Rights,” “How Can I Leave,” “Funny Feeling” (a duet with DJ Trinity), and many more. And the hits just kept coming. Unbelievably, it took until 1981 and interest spurred by that year’s Gibb-produced Spellbound album for a major label to finally show serious interest, and Brown finally inked a deal with A&M. By this point, the singer had emigrated to London and it was there where he recorded his next two albums: Foul Play and Love Has Found a Way. But perhaps the move abroad was unwise, for although Foul Play in particular contained some classic roots, Brown seemed to be losing touch with his audience. The Prophet Rides Again did little to change this situation, with the vinyl’s A-side pushing into instantly forgettable light R&B.
Inevitably, perhaps, it spelled the end of Brown’s deal with A&M and the demise of his relationship with Gibbs. Back in Jamaica, however, the island had given roots the heave-ho in favor of the exuberance of DJs. Brown had already stuck a toe into these fresh waters back in 1979 when he had recorded a duet with Trinity. Now the singer would wade back in, first as a contributor to DJ Brigadier Jerry’s 1983 album Live at the Controls at Jack Ruby Sound Ocho Rios J.A., and then alongside a similarly intrigued Gregory Isaacs for the Prince Jammy-produced Two Bad Superstars Meet. The success of that record demanded a follow-up and in 1985, Judge Not duly arrived to further acclaim. During this time, Brown also cut singles with the likes of Gussie Clarke, Sly & Robbie, and Starlight Productions, all on the cutting edge of the new scene. Meanwhile, the rise of DJs had prompted a group of veteran vocalists to join forces and retaliate with truckloads of their own releases. Brown, Gregory Isaacs, and John Holt were among the leading co-conspirators. It was a clever plan, based on the theory that DJs were only succeeding because there wasn’t enough fresh vocal material in the market. Now the market would be flooded, with the vocalists each releasing around six albums a year and as many singles as they physically could. Compared to Isaacs (estimated to have released over 400 albums and counting), Brown was pretty lax, releasing a mere 100 or so full-lengths and over 200 compilations. Many came from his own new label, Yvonne’s Special (named in honor of his wife), but the singer also cut records for just about every label who would let him. The flaw in this plan was that quantity took precedence over quality, and fans should choose carefully from among the clutter. However, Brown continued to release much material of note throughout the rest of the ’80s, as well as continuing his chart success with a string of seminal singles.
1985’s Prince Jammy-produced Slow Down and its follow-up, The Exit, are both classic albums recorded at the beginning of the digital age and showcase the singer’s vociferous talent across cultural themes and into the passion of lovers, all cut through with a simmering dance beat. Co-producing with Trevor Bow, that same year Brown also offered up the much rootsier Wake Up. The following year’s Brown Sugar, released by Sly & Robbie’s Taxi label, compiles seven superb hits (and three 12″ remixes) from this period. 1986 also saw the release of a collaborative album with Horace Andy, Reggae Superstars Meet, bringing together two of the most beautiful voices in reggae’s history. The decade was seen out by the mega-hit “Big All Round,” a duet with Gregory Isaacs that was produced by Gussie Clarke, which helped spur the trio to record the full-length No Contest, again boasting both solo tracks and duets. Clarke helped Brown inaugurate the new decade with the stellar Unchallenged album, which boasts a fiery guest appearance by Mutabaruka and the sweet vocals of Beres Hammond.
Across the decade some of the artist’s most intriguing work was in collaboration with other artists. 1991’s One Man One Vote, a recording by an artist’s collective led by Mikey Bennett, found Brown singing alongside Cocoa Tea and Third World’s Bunny Clarke. That same year, he recorded the excellent Victory Is Mine album, cut with producer Leggo Beast. Brown reunited with Tea and, joined by Freddie McGregor, recorded the Legit album, which boasted solo cuts as well as trio numbers. But there was also a series of truly disposable albums, notably 1993’s abysmal General, a whole album of MOR covers done MOR style. Yet that same year, the singer reunited with Holness for Cosmic Forces, a crucial record powered by Sly & Robbie’s rhythms in a deeply rootsy, totally dancehall mode. The Riddim Twins were also featured on the following year’s Light My Fire, which, while not quite as innovative as Forces, is essential as one of the final recordings by the classic lineup of the Roots Radics. 1994 also was graced by Nothing Like This, which was co-produced by Brown and Junior Reid. And amidst this flood, Brown was continuing to provide the dulcet singing to complement DJ’s toasts.
Back in 1991, the singer had stormed the dancehalls in the company of Twist, Brian, and Tony Gold. The next year, Brown’s otherwise mediocre Blazing album was set alight by a version of “Fever,” a duet with Maxi Priest that also featured the gruff tones of Shabba Ranks. Then, in 1994, Brown recorded a full collaborative album with Beenie Man and Triston Palma: Three Against War. The singer also cut singles with a host of other hot DJs during this period, among them Bounty Killer, Tiger, and Fabiana, joining forces with Roger Robin, Peter Hunningale, and Saxon later in the decade. At the same time, Brown’s success as a soloist also continued unabated across a further string of hits. 1994 saw the release of the Flabba Holt-produced Blood Brothers and its follow-up, the far superior Milk and Honey. (The RAS label’s May Your Food Basket Never Empty fills up a CD of Brown’s recordings with Holt.) Equally entertaining was another reunion with Holness, 1996’s Dennis, while producer Musclehead bundled up a batch of hits for You Got the Best of Me that same year and tossed in some new intriguing versions of old classics to boot. As the decade deepened, the artist’s output continued unabated — singles and albums flew out of the studios in breakneck fashion. These include: Tribulation (produced by Alvin Ranglin), Hold Tight, Bless Me Jah, the Gussie Clarke-overseen Stone Cold World, and a clutch of albums all claiming to be Brown’s last.
Perhaps it was to maintain this output that Brown first started using cocaine. Addiction eventually followed, and with it inevitable bodily ravages. Still, few expected it to end in his death. But on July 1, 1999, the unconscious singer was rushed to a Kingston hospital with a collapsed lung. This is not usually a fatal condition, but Brown was so weakened from drug use that he expired on the table. Jamaica had lost one of her greatest stars. Dennis Brown’s legacy, however, was in no danger as new compilations, best-of collections, and reissues continued to appear regularly.