From versatile voices such as Bob Marley’s, to the soul- and gospel-tinged style of Toots Hibbert and the fully committed, utterly convincing messaging of Winston Rodney, the best reggae singers of all time are a varied bunch proving that the music has much more to offer than the obvious stereotypes. Whether they fronted bands or made a name for themselves as a solo artist, here are the 10 best reggae singers of all time
Bob Marley: Natural Mystic
There’s the image, pinned to numerous students’ walls. There are his songs, which spoke to the world not only of love, but of struggle and redemption. There is his role as the prophet who took reggae to places it had never been heard. There’s his unique status, as the first global “rock” superstar who came from the so-called “third world”. What is often forgotten about Bob Marley is the versatility of his voice: being one of the best reggae singers of all time is what made it all possible.
Bob Marley conquered all the styles of Jamaican music that had developed from the early 60s onwards until his untimely death in 1982: he was a ska star with The Wailers; he sang silky soul with the same group, matching the glories of The Impressions and Moonglows, the US vocal groups they looked up to. He sang gospel. He made glorious rocksteady songs that revealed his ability to be both cheekily salacious, romantic and political. He sang folk tunes, went a touch funky in the early 70s, and then proved that a Jamaican voice could reach the whole world.
To do all that and succeed, he would have to have been blessed with a wonderful voice. To then use that voice to make your belief system understood and respected throughout the world is unique. Bob was an amazing singer, the sort that compels you to listen, and which you recognise the moment you hear it. Whether welcoming you to his you’re-all-invited bash that is ‘Jamming’, or lost in the supernatural connection to the universe that is ‘Natural Mystic’, Bob was in full command of his material and the music – and your soul. Other singers have covered his songs, but they just can’t reach the heights he did as one of the best reggae singers in history. He had it all.
Hear: Bob Marley And The Wailers, ‘Sun Is Shining’
Winston Rodney: Rasta’s Ambassador
Winston Rodney would not smash wine glasses with his vocal range. He would not make girls faint when he sang quietly of love, as he rarely did. He never even tried to compete with the US soul singers for sock-it-to-you power. But if you want the sort of vocalist only Jamaica could deliver, one whose heart and feeling is in every word he ever uttered, one who knew what it was he was trying to say and why he was saying it, the lead voice of Burning Spear would be at the top of your list as one of the best best reggae singers the island had to offer. From a quiet, almost softly-spoken delivery to a crying wail, this roots pioneer has spent the best part of 50 years spreading the message of Rastafari and Garveyite beliefs, and is plainly the same voice he was when he started: involved, committed and utterly mesmerising.
Hear: ‘Throw Down Your Arms’
Toots Hibbert: Living Legend
He’s been marketed as a kind of folk icon, a soul man and a gospel singer. He is all of them, yet the fact remains that Frederick “Toots” Hibbert is, simply, one hell of a reggae singer. In his voice, you’ll hear the sound of the Jamaican churches in the late 50s. You’ll hear someone celebrating a wedding. You’ll hear the cry of the prisoners in jail. You’ll hear the countryside, green and lush. You’ll hear the packed dancehalls, sweaty and loud. All Jamaican life is in his work.
Toots won fame as the lead singer of the vocal trio The Maytals, alongside Raleigh Gordon and Jerry Mathias. In 1963-64 they cut ska hits for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, went on to score more for Byron Lee and Ronnie Nasralla at BMN, took a brief break while Toots sorted out some legal difficulties, then returned in 1968 to record with Leslie Kong, who produced the majority of the songs they are best remembered for, including ‘54-46 That’s My Number’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Pressure Drop’ and more. Reggae fans worldwide revelled in them. When Kong passed away suddenly, in 1971, the group joined Dynamic Sounds and cut the likes of ‘Louie Louie’, ‘It Was Written Down’ and the classic Funky Kingston album in 1974. The Maytals disbanded in the late 70s and Toots now tours with a band tagged The Maytals. He remains one of the best reggae singers in history: the epitome of a living legend.
Hear: ‘Louie Louie’
Bunny “Rugs” Clarke: Third World, First Class
Third World were one of reggae’s biggest 70s and 80s crossover successes, scoring with a cover of O’Jays’ ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’, ‘Try Jah Love’ and ‘Cool Meditation’, mixing roots, US disco-funk and throbbing dub in one handy package. They were regarded as “uptown” more than ghetto, and somewhat smooth, though did more than their fair share in dispensing the reggae prescription, particularly in the Americas. So it is perhaps surprising that many critics failed to notice that their lead singer, Bunny Rugs, was one of the best reggae singers of the era.
If you are seeking soul, look no further; tender and powerful by turns, he could have fronted any US R&B act to great acclaim. Instead, he delivered the band’s material to perfection, and Third World’s international outlook suited a singer who had lived in both New York and Kingston, Jamaica (he cut fine solo records in both cities in the mid-70s), and who knows what might have been had he elected to stay a solo act? As it is, his beautiful voice was heard on some of reggae’s biggest hits of the late 70s, even if many fans didn’t know his name.
Hear: ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’
Delroy Wilson: Cool Operator
Delroy Wilson started recording in 1963 as a squeaky-voiced 13-year-old. He had the ability to put a song across, but didn’t yet have the vocal chops to make you realise how good he was – hence vital songs such as ‘Oppression’ and ‘I’ll Change My Style’ went largely overlooked. By 1966, however, Delroy was already sounding mature, as the likes of ‘Dancing Mood’ and ‘Impossible’ made clear. His Good All Over album (1969) lived up to its title, and Delroy had become an expert in making you listen, his brilliant phrasing undoubtedly influencing numerous Jamaican singers.
An unbroken string of classic singles, running from the rocksteady era to deep into the 70s, made him one of the best reggae singers of all time. Whether offering the all-too-brief lovers gem ‘Cool Operator’, the roughneck roots tune ‘There Will Be No Escape’, or the silky, reggae-for-grown-ups cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I’m Still Waiting’, Delroy made every song his own.
Hear: ‘Dancing Mood’
Ken Boothe: Mr Rock Steady
In the strange world of reggae it is possible to be lauded and overlooked simultaneously. Ken Boothe found fame as one of rocksteady’s greatest voices, thanks to the likes of his version of The Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, the elegant ‘The Girl I Left Behind’ and a mighty cover of Kenny Lynch’s ‘Moving Away’. It was no false hype that a 1967 album was called Mr Rock Steady. Boothe had – and still has – massive power in his voice, like a Southern soul man, but used it sparingly, preferring to ensure that every word was understood and every song was given respect.
A union with producer Lloyd Charmers brought him two UK pop smashes in the early 70s: a cover of David Gates’ ‘Everything I Own’, and the original ‘Crying Over You’. Boothe remained in touch with the grass roots, however, as the likes of ‘Artibella’ and ‘Black Gold And Green’ made clear. His star faded as the rockers era arrived in the late 70s, though he continued to make fine records, and recent revivals have belatedly given him the acclaim he deserved as one of the world’s best reggae singers.
Hear: ‘Is It Because I Am Black’
Janet Kay: Bringing The Sun Out
Lovers rock had two kids of press coverage in the 70s: bad and none. This music was bought by swooning schoolgirls and incurable romantics, and its depth tended to get overlooked. Born in the UK at a time when a portion of the reggae audience didn’t get into roots reggae in the 70s, the sound was dominated by female vocalists and the aim was to place the sort of soul delivered by the likes of Deniece Williams and Margie Joseph in a reggae context.
Finding the sort of vocal skill Williams could deliver was always going to be difficult, but in the teenage Janet Kay, lovers rock had one of reggae’s best female singers: someone who shared her astronomical top register but managed to be every bit as sweet-sounding as her soul counterparts. Kay’s record, a cover of Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You’, was strong; further lush outings, such as ‘You Bring The Sun Out’ and an interpretation of Billy Stewart’s ‘I Do Love You’, worked beautifully, and her UK No.1, The Dennis Bovell-produced ‘Silly Games’, was, for many listeners, the pinnacle of lovers rock: hear her fly. And if you want to hear more of the best reggae singers from the lovers sphere, try Louisa Mark and Carroll Thompson.
Hear: ‘Silly Games’
Frankie Paul: Mr Prolific
As dancehall took over Jamaican music in the first half of the 80s, many older reggae singers struggled to adjust to the change, and newer voices that arrived were mostly required to ride the rhythm rather than display their vocal personality. However, some remarkable singers, such as Leroy Gibbon, Junior Reid and Jack Radics, to name just a few, did make their talent known above the electronics – and none were more distinctive than Frankie Paul.
Born blind, Frankie’s talent was apparent from a young age, and he cut his first single in 1980, at the age of 15. His phenomenal voice developed from a Stevie Wonder-influenced style into a remarkably versatile instrument – he was just as happy introducing one of his records in the style of a US radio DJ as he was wailing the powerful chorus. His hits were legion (he was so huge in 1987, for example, that he cut more than 30 singles that year) and many of his records were anthemic, such as ‘Worries In The Dance’ (1983), ‘Pass The Tu-Sheng-Peng’ (1984) and ‘Shub In’ (1986).
During the late 80s he made a series of wonderful, totally confident records for producer King Jammy in a digital rocksteady style, among them ‘Sara’, ‘Casanova’ and ‘I Know The Score’. A contract with Motown was mooted but never materialised, so the wider world never got to acknowledge him as one of the best reggae singers of the decade, and his releases were so frequent that, eventually, he fell out of fashion. During the 90s he was less successful, though he still issued dozens of records. In the 2010s Frankie was plagued with health problems, though he was still in fine voice when he took the mic. He died in 2017.
Hear: ‘I Know The Score’
Dawn Penn: Comeback Queen
As in so many areas of life, women don’t get treated equally in reggae. The talent is there, but opportunity isn’t. And where there is little money and often little support for a family from the “baby father”, many women sacrifice their dreams to bring up their children.
Dawn Penn has proved one of the best reggae singers of either sex, but it took two entirely separate careers for the world to realise just how brilliant she is. Her musical odyssey started when she was just a sweet-voiced teenager, cutting the glorious ‘Long Day Short Night’ for producer Prince Buster, a sensitive rendition of ‘To Sir With Love’ for Bunny Lee, and, in 1966, ‘You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)’, a version of a Willie Cobb blues record that became her biggest hit of the period and a reggae classic with a much-versioned rhythm track. Her moaning, soulful, youthful voice was the record’s greatest asset.
She continued recording until the end of the 60s with limited success, but left Jamaica, apparently retired from music, having seen little financial return for her efforts. Out of the blue, however, she returned to the reggae business in the early 90s. Now in a very different landscape, she remade her greatest hit for Play Studio One Vintage, an album in which the leading digital producers of the era, Steely & Clevie, recreated reggae landmarks in an updated style. Her new version of ‘You Don’t Love Me’ became the reggae hit of 1994, and at last Penn received her due as one of the world’s best reggae singers. Since then, she has brought her brand of Jamaican soul and style to Lee Thompson’s Ska Orchestra, and has appeared to huge acclaim at Glastonbury, as well as regularly releasing fine music, including the languid, modern R&B-tinged ‘Chilling’, in 2015.
Hear: ‘You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)’
John Holt: The Master
A precursor of the kind of cool Gregory Isaacs specialised in, John Holt was a reggae colossus and a master of every style the music had to offer. He began his career in the ska era and, four decades later, would pack out London’s Royal Albert Hall in the company of a symphony orchestra. He rose to fame in Jamaica with the exceptionally talented vocal act The Paragons, recording classics such as ‘Riding High On A Windy Day’, ‘Happy Go Lucky Girl’ and the original version of ‘The Tide Is High’, which Holt wrote and which later took Blondie and Atomic Kitten to the top of the UK charts.
The Paragons were Jamaica’s silkiest vocal outfit by some distance, with Holt fronting their recordings more often than not; towards the end of the 60s he was working as a solo artist too, cutting gems such as ‘Ali Baba’, ‘OK Fred’, ‘Tonight’ and many more, and he entered the 70s as one of the best singers of the era. Holt made everything look easy, and his Time Is The Master album found him working with heavyweight reggae rhythms and an orchestra at the same time, a style that led to him recording several albums with Trojan in a similar style; his 1000 Volts Of Holt, 2000 Volts Of Holt, etc, series was kept in press for years on end. He had a UK Top 10 hit with a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ in 1974, and was generally regarded as the unflurried voice of Jamaica’s uptown.
However, there was more to Holt than this. In the mid-70s he scored heavily with the hard-hitting ‘Up Park Camp’, and his 1977 album Roots Of Holt was an example of how to be heavy and classy simultaneously. In 1983 he teamed with the pioneering dancehall producer Junjo and cut ‘Police In Helicopter’, a song about the eternal struggle between the authorities and ganja farmers that was a huge hit wherever there was a reggae audience. Further fine singles for the Parish and Jammy’s labels, among others, upheld Holt’s reputation as one of the best reggae singers throughout the digital era. He could perhaps have enjoyed a longer run of pop hits had he been better marketed, but Holt didn’t really need it: he was a legend anyway.
Hear: ‘Police In Helicopter’
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