U-Roy – Happy 75th Birthday

Around 1979, I was clumsily attempting to cultivate an interest in reggae but – with only brief snatches of John Peel and David Rodigan to guide me – was becoming more and more frustrated. Fortunately, that summer I got a job in a factory in Tottenham. The vast majority of the shop-floor workers were of West Indian origin and, as well as being the best workmates anyone could hope for, they were more than happy to help me develop my taste. One particularly accommodating colleague, Ken (no doubt greatly amused by a white boy’s interest in Jamaican culture) suggested I get the big tune of the moment, Horace Andy’s Natty Dread a Weh She Want. I had no idea where to buy it, but Ken drove us (in his rumbling 1972 Ford Capri) down to Third World Records in Stoke Newington, and out I came with a splendid 12″ Disco 45.

The tune was great, but better still was Tappa Zukie’s toasting over the version. My work colleagues thought I was crazy to like all the dub stuff over the mainstream “lovers rock” (“A party is nothing without girls and the girls check for lovers”) but that’s what I liked. For me, Tappa Zukie was my king for a while, though It soon dawned on me that he wasn’t exactly original. In fact, the whole of Natty Dread a Weh She Want was based on an earlier tune, Soldering by The Starlights, with some guy called “Big Youth” toasting over it.

Though gutted to discover my hero was a bit of a thief, it was becoming clear that reggae’s genealogy is complex and incestuous — and, importantly, everyone seemed OK with that. The more I looked, the more “borrowing” I found. A particularly extreme example is Up Town Top Ranking, very familiar to UK listeners since it reached number one in the main UK charts in 1978. It’s actually a copy of Three Piece Suit by Trinity, both cuts using the backing track of Marcia Aitken’s I’m Still In Love With You Boy.

And that’s a cover of Alton Ellis’s I’m Still In Love from 1967. But it doesn’t stop there: Althea and Donna’s hit has been covered several times, including once, magnificently, in German.

The point was that these “answer” records were intended to be ephemeral, never the lasting contribution to cultural history that my European background had conditioned me to expect. Many were cut direct to fragile acetate disks that weren’t intended to last. I was gradually understanding all of this — and tracing the roots of each track became an obsession. The trail that took me from Tappa Zukie to Big Youth inevitably lead to The Originator of toasting, U-Roy.

Born Ewart Beckford, 75 years ago today, in Kingston, Jamaica, U-Roy began as a deejay in 1961. He worked his way around the Kingston sound systems through the ’60’s and, spotted by Duke Reid, started releasing singles in 1970. Of the earlier stuff, it’s hard to imagine anything more joyful than Rock with I. By the mid-1970s, Beckford was internationally known — and  that’s when I caught up with his back catalogue. The 1976 release, Natty Rebel, shows a move away from good-time fun and a greater emphasis on a more serious roots feel. For me, the high point in his output was the work he did on versions of many Linval Thompson tracks, such as Joyful Locks from the middle of the decade.

As the great dub poet Oscar Wilde said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and U-Roy has been flattered more than most. It’s all out of utter respect — I-Roy even named himself in U-Roy’s honour — and from the certainty that he was, and remains, one of the greats of reggae. One of just a handful of artists, producers and deejays who made the genre so enthralling throughout the ’70’s: like the looping and warping echoes of a King Tubby dub, the beauty of the recycling and cross-breeding of ideas and sounds is both the essence and the paradox of true reggae.

Always the same but always different. Never permanent but always there.

Happy Birthday, Ewart — and thank you, Ken, for starting me off on the right track.