Gregory Isaacs – Coming in Rough in ’95
by Howard Campbell
An impish grin curls across Gregory Isaacs’ lips, his head bowed when the questions about his well-publicized battles with cocaine come up; how it has affected his career and if he’s still dependent on drugs. “Bwoy, mi nah really deal wid dat right yah now, mi ithren,” he says in that low, familiar nasal tone, “cause wi get to much bad publicity; anything Jamaican people hear dem believe right away, dem nuh inquire.”
You can’t blame Isaacs for wanting to erase the memories of the darkest period in his life. Since his first run-in with the authorities eight years ago for cocaine possession, the self-proclaimed “Cool Ruler” has experienced a decline of sorts in his career.
At 44, he’s still capable of rocking the crowds with a seemingly endless number of Lovers Rock hits (as seen at the White River Reggae Bash two years ago), and is still able to charm the ladies with his legendary onstage rapport. Though he has had a clutch of minor hits in recent times, the chartbusters that fans have come to associate Gregory Isaacs with have dried up; and many point to his experience with drugs as being the reason for the current dry patch.
“Things a pick up right ya now,” says Isaacs with a smile, leaning back behind the desk in his office where walls are dotted with several accolades and awards from various music organizations. “A jus fi mi tek mi career in hand; mi nah concentrate pon nuh negative publicity right now.”
Judging from the various forms of musical matter strewn around his African Museum base, things aren’t as “negative” with Gregory Isaacs as some make it to be; his fax machine contains a distributor’s request of selections from his extensive discography while an itinerary of a European tour featuring himself and Dennis Brown lies on his desk. Beyond the closed door, the turntables of the adjacent record shop (operated by his son) blare the best the Isaacs’ catalog has to offer.
Today’s Gregory Isaacs has a distinctly different appearance from the one who churned out hit after hit to be one of Jamaica’s most consistent performers. The gleaming waves of a condition processor has replaced the shoulder length dreadlocks he wore during his heyday in the seventies and eighties. Nor does he sport the felt hats that, along with the custom-made linen suits, were his trademark attire in that period of chart dominance.
“A good sheep always change him wool,” is how Isaacs describes his decision to go “baldhead.” “People nuh fi watch dat, mi a born Rasta, mi live up to the morals and principles of Jah.”
Some of those “principles” came under close scrutiny in the mid-eighties when Isaacs was at the height of his popularity. Court appearances splashed across the pages of the island’s daily newspapers revealed Isaacs’ dark side–a man struggling to deal with the trappings of success, success that was put on hold after he was forced to surrender his passport, dismissed from the Jamaica Federation of Musicians and separated from his wife, June.
But, as Isaacs says, he has the potential to bounce back and that’s exactly what he plans to do in the coming months with the release of two new songs, one of which is a collaboration with close friend Dennis Brown.
“Mi a tek di career more seriously now. Mi have a PR firm a look ’bout things, have some good lyrics, strong melody; mi a get airplay but it coulda better still.”
Airplay was the least of Gregory Isaacs’ problems 20 years ago when the Denham Town-born vocalist ruled the roost, his crooner’s style a refreshing contrast to the numerous Marley clones of the seventies.
As a boy growing up in west Kingston, Isaacs was entranced by the singing of Rock Steady legends Alton Ellis, John Holt and Bob Andy, and the soul of American acts like The Drifters and The Platters.
His own entry into the music business came in 1972 with the release of his first single, “Another Heartache,” for Dynamic sounds.
Though the release of “My Lover” marked the debut run of his new African Museun label, it wasn’t until the smooth “All I Need is Love” in 1974 that Isaacs had his first real hit. And they just kept coming and coming.
Hits for various producers (Rupie Edwards, GI, GG) reflected the non-committal wandering of the Jamaican artiste of the time, but when Isaacs linked with a duo with a growing reputation called Sly and Robbie, things really took off.
“We had a good understanding from a long time,” says Isaacs of his relationship with the top-flight producers. “So it wasn’t strange when things start click.”
The Taxi Gang produced “Soon Forward,” one of Isaacs’ most memorable songs and one of the big hits of 1979, a banner year for Jamaica’s new sensation who counted other notable hits such as “Tune In,” “Turn me On,” “Mr. Brown,” “What a Feeling,” and the appropriately named “Number One” and “Top Ten.”
The success of those records led to a contract with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, which was responsible for distributing the Night Nurse and Showcase albums.
Isaacs is at a loss to explain whether that remarkable rise was one of the reasons for his addiction but he does concede that it cost him things money can never replace–respect, friends and privacy.
He remembers his first bout with cocaine as being “very nice but dangerous,” adding that the continuing hounding of the press did not help his fight against addiction. “Is a double standard thing with Jamaicans,” he charged. “Anytime dem catch the ‘big man’ with dem thing deh, nuttenn nuh come outa it, but the small man nuh so lucky.
“I lose my freedom through it,” he continued. “I lose my freedom through it and wouldn’t encourage anyone fi try it.”
Credit to the man, Isaacs has been “clean” for the last five years following extensive medical treatment. Now if he could only find a physician to administer similar treatment to his ailing career. While critically acclaimed songs like “Rude Boy” and “One Man Against the World” hold their own in the dance halls, Isaacs has not had a chart hit since 1988’s “Rumours,” an autobio-like song that earned him an award from the British company Greensleeves for being that year’s Best Reggae Song.
“Bwoy, a jus’ de self-confidence wha’ mi have inna meself a go carry me through, yuh nuh; and mi a go mek it ’cause me a God youth and mi have faith.” He also has faith in his new singles. “Work up a Sweat” and “Be Mine Tonight,” on which he teams with Brown and Journeyman Roots singer Junior Delgado. Isaacs’ eyes light as he talks about his fresh material, which he describes as “rough.” “Dem a come fi feed the hungry.”
His extensive European tour began in early December with shows in Greece with other major stops coming in Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The name of one of his favorite destinations (Britain) perks Isaacs up from his easy chair. “Mi a look forward fi see the fans again, but bwoy mi look forward especially to England; mi love London, love England.”
Isaacs (glancing at his watch) then adjusts his lanky frame and leads the way out into the record store where the other half of the tour, Dennis Brown, awaits. The two exchange pleasantries, at which time Gregory cuts a genial smile and says: “Mi still have the potential, yuh nuh, a jus’ fi them gi me the chance fi show that.”
His gaunt figure then disappears into a nearby variety store to have his waves redone.