Judy Mowatt – Leading the Charge of Sisterhood – 1996
By Howard Campbell. V14#5
A visitor to Judy Mowatt’s home is in for a fairly long walk before he or she reaches the spacious front porch which houses a piano. Mowatt’s not pounding the keys today; she’s enjoying some peace and quiet at the back of the home near the hills of St. Andrew, Jamaica, not too far away from where she was born in the small village of Gordon Town.
An admitted lover of the soil, Mowatt’s cozy back room hideaway is surrounded by a small farm of sugarcane and bananas. Gospel music wafts through the air as she appears, barefoot and bareheaded, her locks complimenting her African-style blouse. A photo of Emperor Haile Selassie greets you upon entering, with another postcard-sized photo of the Wailers, circa the Uprising album, occupying one of the shelves of a nearby cabinet.
“I think that’s the last group photo,” she says with a reflective smile. “It certainly brings back a lot of memories.” Mowatt than makes her way into the dining room, and returned shortly after with a promotional flyer of an upcoming charity show, geared toward aiding her troubled “sisters” at a penal institution on the outskirts of Kingston. For years, she has been known for her work as part of the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s soulful backup trio, as well as a solo act, but these days Mowatt is part of another group trying to make a difference.
“All along, the female prison has been part of my heart. I can remember when it was a coed institution. I campaigned and got a typewriter for them,” she stated. “That was Orlando Wong’s (now known as dub poet Oku Onoura) first typewriter, so it has always been a pet project of mine. Mowatt is busy getting things in place for the fundraising concert to benefit the Fort Augusta prison. The show was scheduled to feature top Reggae acts, favorite R&B singer Betty Wright, and Matlaak Shabazz, daughter of slain Muslim leader Malcolm X. Mowatt did not hesitate to show her exuberance about the lineup.
Take a listen to her highly regarded Black Woman album and one can readily identify with Mowatt’s affection for the less fortunate. That record was released during her years on the road with Bob Marley and the Wailers and was done at a time when Mowatt herself was undergoing personal stress. “In life, you are always going to have adversities and trials, and during that time I was facing different kinds of problems in my life,” she explained. “I was also looking into myself and trying to make a transition from who I was. At that time I [came up with the idea of] the Black Woman album.”
“…you are always going to have adversities…during that time [with the Wailers] I was facing different kinds of problems in my life.”
Black Woman, with its high-pitched cry of an oppressed woman searching for a better day, has become a calling card of sorts for the embattled woman. While another album, Working Wonders, was nominated for a Grammy and an NAACP Image Award in 1986, it is Black Woman that holds a special place in Mowatt’s heart: “It’s a form of consolation and strength for sisters who were experiencing what I was experiencing back then.”
Some of the songs on Black Woman will be included on a compilation of her most popular hits scheduled for release later this year by a Japanese company, along with other new material. “I feel I need to do some more recordings, but I’m one of those people who needs to work with someone who knows what to do in the studio,” she says. “I move faster when I am not working alone.” Stagewise, much of Mowatt’s live performances take place along the North Coast at the height of the winter tourist season, particularly in Negril, a longtime Reggae haven.
Even though she had minor hits as lead singer for the Gaylettes, a trio that did covers of Dusty Springfield and the foreign R&B groups, Mowatt was ushered (along with Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths) into the spotlight as a member of the I-Threes. Mowatt uses the term “sister” regularly and speaks a lot about God and the need to be spiritual, something that has been a way of life for her since she first embraced the way of Rastafari in the early ‘70s after hooking up with Bob and his merry bunch. She was not a total unknown, having worked as a session singer for Sonia Pottinger’s Tip Top Records and scoring with the ballad “I’m Alone” at the start of the decade. During her time with the Gaylettes, she idolized Rita and Marcia who were already established singers.
“I had always wanted to meet them, especially sister Rita,” says Mowatt. “I remember one evening we were at Studio One doing back up work for Horace Andy when sister Marcia asked us to harmonize for her on a show she was doing later in the night. We did a version of ‘Remember Me,’ a Diana Ross song; the vibe was so nice that we never wanted to part.”
Those “vibes” caught the attention of Rita’s husband, Bob, who immediately brought in the trio for session work on his third Island album, Natty Dread. “It was a time when everybody was saying His Imperial Majesty was dead, and Bob was making a reply to that news with a song called ‘Jah Live.’ It was our first time on wax as a trio.” While recording Natty Dread, they decided it was important to find a name for the group that would have significance to their movement. “We came up with a lot of different names until we decided on We Three,” Mowatt recalled.” “But brother Bunny Wailer suggested I Three because, he said, ‘Jah is the I within the Three.’”
“…brother Bunny Wailer suggested [the name] I Three because, he said, ‘Jah is the I within the Three.’”
As part of the I-Threes, Mowatt embarked on the Wailers’ North America tour, which was to become a routine for her over the next seven years. “Those days were heavenly,” she says with a widening of the eyes. “We moved from working 500-seaters to playing 80,000-seat arenas in a matter of two years. It was phenomenal. In those days, we were Bible students. We knew that the work that we were sent to do was ordained by the Almighty God.”
Since Bob’s death, the I-Threes have not performed often, but they came together last year for the Natural Mystic tour in commemoration of Bob’s 50th anniversary. “It’s not just a working relationship, it’s a sisterhood,” she says of their special bond. “The advice we give to each other pilots us through the challenges we face.” Mowatt’s biggest challenge at the moment was getting the news out for her concert, her second to benefit the troubled prison. “When you have a dream to help humanity, it is not easy because it becomes everybody’s dream,” says Mowatt, ruffling through her documents. “And there’s no better way to feed these people than with the food of music.”
Look for sister Judy Mowatt this summer as she tours as one of the headliners of the Sunsplash World tour ’96, which begins in New Orleans, LA, on June 27. Her uplifting and soulful performance is sure to bring a smile to your face, calm your spirit, and get you up on your dancing feet.