Listening to Black Uhuru

I’d really love to be able to sit down with Chris Blackwell and ask him what he thinks happened to reggae music from the mid-1980’s onwards.  From the mid-70’s onwards, labels like Blackwell’s Island had worked assiduously to cultivate a white audience for Jamaican music, the UK had unearthed a number of hugely promising ‘local’ bands like Aswad, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse,  top Jamaican acts were touring the world, the US market was starting to open up and reggae seemed to be integrating itself into the mainstream.

And then, in the space of about five years, the tide receded and – in international terms at least – reggae resumed its status as  a ‘local’ phenomenon that only occasionally made waves in the wider world.  Toasters and DJ’s and  seemingly a million songs about ‘Water Pumpee’,  Sting’s cod-reggae songbook, ‘Lovers Rock’ and European post-punk bands  like The Slits, Psychedelic Furs and The Ruts/Ruts D.C producing dub versions of their stuff……all very weird.

Of course, the untimely death of Bob Marley was a major factor in all of this.  Marley was the one true international superstar Jamaica had produced and  reggae’s poster boy.  For all that the critics waxed lyrical about Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, Culture and The Wailing Souls etc, Marley’s tragic demise was a hammer blow to Jamaican music in the international markets.

The question was, who was going to step up to the plate?  To some extent, it depended on how and via whom your records got out to the wider world.  For example, The Wailing Souls were making a succession of brilliant records throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but none of them except 1979’s  ‘Wild Suspense’ appeared on a ‘crossover’ label like Island or Virgin.  In the UK, their albums seemed to emerge via Greensleeves for a while, but although Greensleeves had a distribution deal with EMI, they seemed, frankly,  much more interested in servicing the tastes & needs of the black community than they were in crossing over to a wider (and whiter) audience.

In the early ’80’s, the one band that everyone perceived as being ‘the next big thing’ were Black Uhuru. The band had been running in one form or another since 1972, with Don Carlos an early member.  The band’s leading light, however was Duckie Simpson, who recruited Errol Nelson and lead singer Michael Rose to the band.  Their first album, ‘Love Crisis’ was released in 1977 but  Nelson left the following year and was replaced by ‘Puma’ Simpson, a native of South Carolina.  This ‘classic’ line-up of Rose, Simpson & Jones began working with Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare and  were quickly signed to the duo’s new Taxi label, providing Taxi’s first ever release  with their ‘Observe Life’ single.  This was the first of a whole string of successful singles including ‘General Penitentiary’  and ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner?‘    Many of these were collected as the band’s second album, ‘Showcase’.   The success of the Sly & Robbie sessions led to the band being signed by Island Records in 1980 and, beginning with their first Island album ‘Sinsemilla’, the band quickly acquired the approval of European and American critics, allied to increasing record sales.

Next came ‘Red’ (1981) an album that virtually defined Uhuru’s sound, with Rose’s increasingly assured delivery rising out of the unison and harmony vocal passages and Sly & Robbie’s underpinning thunder forming a rock solid foundation.  This, allied with the social awareness manifest in their anthemic songs propelled them to even greater heights and they toured in Europe and the USA with considerable success.  Ironically, though, whilst still perhaps thought of in Jamaica as a ‘singles’ act, Black Uhuru’s reputation elsewhere was based on their albums.  They projected a militant stance and their recorded output – unlike Bob Marley’s – was never  really ‘softened’ by the inclusion of  any love songs.

Serious t’ing – the classic Black Uhuru line-up; (L-R) Duckie, Puma, Michael

The band toured ‘Red‘ on both sides of the Atlantic and I first caught up with them at Birmingham’s long-demolished Bingley Hall, where most of Handsworth seemed to be in attendance.  One guy was actually hanging from a cross-beam that overhung the stage and the band refused to come on until he removed himself. ‘Come down off the beam, Rasta!‘ bellowed the m/c and in the end he did, to general applause.  Once the show got going (about 2 hours later than scheduled, as I recall), Black Uhuru were formidable but, to be honest, a trifle humourless. 

1982 saw two Uhuru releases – a live album/video; ‘Tear it up’ and a new studio collection, ‘Chill Out’.  Following Bob Marley’s death the previous year, many were expecting Black Uhuru’s blend of militant Rastafarian politics, top-line studio production and compelling live shows to propel them into the role of reggae’s leading practitioners.  Island released multiple versions of ‘Darkness’ from ‘Chill Out’ as a single, but the expected breakthrough never came, despite extensive touring. 

Caught the band for a second time  at Leeds University Students Union, where future broadcaster and son of Rochdale, Andy Kershaw,  was at that time  Entertainments Officer.  It would probably be fair to say that the black communities in Chapeltown and elsewhere in Leeds didn’t take kindly to the idea of Black Uhuru being in town and them being denied entry, so they came out to Headingley anyway and found their way in any which way they could – usually illegally.   In the end, the packed house was probably only about 75% ticket holders, but the band put on a tremendous show so nobody really cared.  Condensation ran down the walls in rivers whilst clouds of ganja smoke rose to the ceiling.  I couldn’t really hear Robbie Shakespeare’s bass so much as feel it through the soles of my feet.   Memorable.

Black Uhuru in action, Rockpalast, 1981

In 1984, Black Uhuru released ‘Anthem’ , probably their strongest album since ‘Red’ and again toured widely, but the perception was growing that they hadn’t really grasped the torch abandoned by Bob Marley and weren’t really crossing over to wider audiences.  Island really gave them a huge push in both America and in Europe, but their sales and their reputation remained resolutely mid-table.  Whatever they were planning next came to nothing as Michael Rose fell out with Duckie Simpson and left the band to resume his solo career and  (so I was told) run a coffee farm  in the Blue Mountains north of Kingston.  Cups of java aside, this turned out to be  a case of diminishing returns for both parties.   Rose’s solo career was thereafter restricted to intermittent and purely local success in Jamaica whilst Uhuru replaced him with Junior Reid, but were then dropped by Island and pretty much fell off the international touring bandwagon

And that was pretty much that, although the band has stuttered on in one form another to the present day, whilst never coming close to regaining their former reputation.  Sadly, Puma Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 and died the following year.

Taxi Records have now released an audio record of Black Uhuru from their final ‘big’ tour.  Recorded at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in 1984, it shows the trio + Taxi House Band (including Sly & Robbie) in stellar form.  Entitled simply ‘Chicago 1984’, it’s a great live document of a band who, ever so briefly, seemed to have a glittering future ahead of them but somehow contrived to blow it.  They left behind a considerable recorded legacy and this new release is a welcome addition to that.

After Black Uhuru (during their Island/Taxi years), there was never to be another Jamaican band who would come close to emulating Bob Marley’s crossover success.  International audiences eventually embraced Roots Reggae, Rockers & Dub thanks to Marley’s pioneering, but no other Jamaican trend –  Dancehall, Lovers Rock, Reggaeton  or any other such variation – has ever come close to the international impact created by Bob Marley and those who came in his wake – Black Uhuru, Peter Tosh, Third World, Inner Circle, Culture et al.  Reggae has resumed its role as the defining popular music of Jamaica but as the Roots & Rockers performers grow old and pass on, it is hard to envisage how reggae will ever regain the centrality it once enjoyed in the lives of non-Jamaican rock fans around the world.

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