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 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’
Bunny Wailer: Blackheart Man
After Bob Marley passed away in May 1981, some fans wondered who would claim his crown. One candidate was Bunny Wailer, Marley’s ally in The Wailers when they were a vocal group rather than a backing band. Commercially and artistically, Bunny had a superb early 80s: he brought us the beautiful Sings The Wailers, a selection of classic Wailers tunes which updated their sound for a modern era, and the glorious Rock And Groove, which elegantly channelled his sound towards the rub-a-dub period that bridged the gap between roots and dancehall.
But nobody claimed Bob’s crown, nor did Bunny want it. As Neville Livingston, he had been in on The Wailers from the get-go and helped keep the group name at the forefront of Jamaican music in the 60s by fronting fabulous rocksteady records such as ʻLet Him Go’, ʻDancing Shoes’ and ʻSunday Morning’. Bunny was part of The Wailers’ first two great albums for Island Records, Catch A Fire and Burnin’, and had made the most thoughtful and spiritual of roots songs for his own revered Solomonic label during the 70s. Bunny didn’t need his late comrade’s title. He had nothing to claim or prove.
Along with Peter Tosh, Bunny had left The Wailers in 1973 and the musicians Bob played with still worked on Bunny’s superb singles for Solomonic deep into the 70s. Bunny cut a series of measured and utterly intelligent message songs, such as ʻLife Line’, ʻBide Up’ and ʻArab’s Oil Weapon’, before unveiling Blackheart Man in 1976, one of the greatest Rasta reggae records of the 70s.
He dropped musical bombshell after bombshell: the Protest and Struggle albums, the first of his mighty Dubd’sco collections, and singles that had fans salivating, such as ʻRockers’ and the heavyweight ʻRise And Shine’. Unions with Sly And Robbie and The Roots Radics band shifted him from the traditional Wailers sound into the 80s for Sings The Wailers and Rock And Groove; Tribute was his fine interpretation of some of Bob Marley’s best-known songs. Bunny took on the world of electro and rap with the singles ʻBack To School’ and ʻElectric Boogie’, and the latter became a big US hit when covered by Marcia Griffith under Bunny’s production banner: he had moved with the times, yet retained his essence.
Albums such as Rule Dance Hall and Liberation showed that his class was eternal, and he landed three Grammy awards in the 90s and was awarded Jamaica’s coveted Order Of Merit in 2016. While his recording activities slowed after 2009, Bunny has been involved in curating his long-unavailable classics, and remains the authentic voice and original figure of roots reggae. There is only one Bunny Wailer.
Peter Tosh: The Bush Doctor
The third member of the classic Wailers vocal trio, unlike the playful Bob Marley and the mellow and soulful Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh was tough-edged and sharp – it’s no coincidence that he sang ʻStepping Razor’. Perhaps the most talented instrumentalist of the three, Tosh would have found a living in music had he not had a great voice, playing guitar, keyboards, percussion and melodica. But while he was a fabulous singer of harmonies, he also owned a fierce and punchy lead vocal style to suit his more militant moods.
When The Wailers was in its “rude boy era” in the ska 60s, Tosh was believable in the role, delivering ‘I’m The Toughest’ and ‘Treat Me Good’, or condemning a wayward soul in ‘Maga Dog’. He also had a neat way with a traditional song, as in the ‘Jumbie Jamboree’ and ʻShame And Scandal’, where his rough, throaty tones took on a wicked, sarcastic smirk. He was also an early adopter of Rastafarianism in reggae, recording ʻRasta Shook Them Up’ in 1967, and his spiritual righteousness surfaced in his version of Nina Simone’s ʻSinner Man’, which also inspired his later militant single, ʻDownpresser’.
When The Wailers signed to Island in 1973, Tosh was co-writer of one of their most celebrated revolutionary calls, ʻGet Up, Stand Up’, and they cut further version of his earlier tunes ʻ400 Years’ and ʻStop That Train’. But Tosh felt Bob’s star was being promoted at the expense of the group, so he quit, taking much of The Wailers’ hard edge with him. Founding his Intel Diplo (ie, Intelligent Diplomat) label, he cut a series of fine singles, including ʻBurial’ and ʻLegalise It’, the latter of which would become the title track of his celebrated debut album for Virgin in 1976, followed by the typically fierce Equal Rights album in 1977.
Signing to Rolling Stones Records, Tosh made the Top 50 with a stunning transformation of The Temptations’ ‘(You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back’ featuring Mick Jagger on prominent backing vocals, from the album Bush Doctor, titled after one of Tosh’s nicknames (a bush doctor is wise man and purveyor of natural medicines). It was the first of four mighty albums he released for The Rolling Stones’ label, all of which were underground hits in the US, and one, 1981’s Mama Africa (1983), went Top 50 in the Billboard album charts.
Tosh’s final album was the energised No Nuclear War in 1987, which landed him a Grammy. The singer’s career was on an uptick, which made it all the more tragic that the great man was shot dead at in a botched robbery at his home in September 1987, another victim of Jamaica’s senseless violence.
Hear: ‘Legalise It’
Leroy Sibbles: Born To Move You
What a voice. Soulful, powerful, tender, light or heavy, Leroy Sibbles can do it all. And he was not even the only fabulous singer in his group, The Heptones. As if his singing, up there with the finest US soul singers, was not enough, Sibbles spent much of the 60s and 70s as a mainstay session player on bass, in a form of music where the bassline makes a song memorable.
Sibbles played on literally dozens of hits – and was also writing songs for his group, alongside its other members, Barry Llewelyn and Earl Morgan. The Heptones made their name at Studio One in the late 60s, hitting with the lewd ʻFatty Fatty’ and a naive-sounding cover of ʻOnly Sixteen’, but their true style quickly kicked in on the more serious ʻA Change Is Gonna Come’, ʻSoul Power’, ʻHeptones Gonna Fight’ and a magnificent version of The Impressions’ ʻChoice Of Colours’. The group released four albums and numerous singles before leaving Studio One in 1971 to freelance for most of the great producers in 70s reggae. Sibbles’ voice was completely mature now, and records such as ʻLove Won’t Come Easy’, ʻParty Time’, ʻBorn To Love You’ and ʻCool Rasta’ showcased it to the fullest, amid some of the finest harmony singing Jamaica had to offer.
The Heptones cut two albums for Island in the mid-70s. Night Food included the classic single ʻCountry Boy’, the fierce ʻDeceivers’, plus ʻBook Of Rules’, Barry Llewelyn’s philosophical dissertation that drew on a poem written in 1890 and was later “borrowed” by Oasis on ʻGo Let It Out’. Their second Island set, Party Time, included the heavyweight ʻStorm Cloud’ and a super cut of ʻI Shall Be Released’. Sibbles’ unmistakable voice also appeared uncredited on ʻDread Lion’ on The Upsetters’ remarkable Super Ape dub LP. He left The Heptones for a solo career circa 1978, and his records such as ʻThis World’, ʻGarden Of Life’ and a remake of ʻChoice Of Colours’ were perfect exemplars of the roots vocalist’s craft. His Now and Strictly Roots albums, for Micron in Canada, and Evidence for A&M, were superb modern reggae from a master.
Sibbles made several returns to The Heptones down the decades, and still has thousands of devoted fans worldwide, who admire both his glorious voice and those remarkable basslines that became the foundation stone for generations of reggae thrillers.
Beres Hammond: The Modern Force
The definition of modern soulful reggae, Beres Hammond stands alone in Jamaican music, having risen to a level of dominance and broad acceptability that most other singers could only aspire to. Now in his 60s, his recording career has eased back a little, but when he does release an album or a single, the impact is immediate, such is his legion of fans.
Hammond began his career in his teens during the 70s, cutting a few solo singles before joining the polished band Zap Pow in 1975. He immediately gave the group extra presence through his soulful style, influenced by US vocalists such as Sam Cooke and Bobby Womack, and their distinctively-packaged Zap Pow album (Island, 1978) became their definitive musical statement: the band stretched themselves across six long tracks, including the superb ʻLast War’, which Hammond co-wrote. When Zap Pow parted ways at the end of the decade, Hammond focused on his burgeoning solo career. Justifiably, his first album was called Soul Reggae.
He had gone solo at a tricky time: dancehall rapidly rose in the 80s to dominate Jamaican music, and DJs (reggae rappers) would rule it, not singers with smokey, wailing voices. But Hammond formed his own label, Harmony House, and spent much of 1985-86 atop the reggae charts worldwide with three appealing hits, ʻGroovy Little Thing’, ʻWhat One Dance Can Do’ and ʻShe Loves Me Now’, all fusing his melodic sensibility with the new dancehall sound. He endured a brutal robbery at his home in Jamaica, in 1987, which triggered a move to New York City, but he did not lose touch with the island’s vibe. In 1989 he enjoyed a Top 50 hit with ʻHow Can We Ease The Pain’, a duet with Maxi Priest, and a union with Penthouse Records, in Jamaica, in the early 90s saw success with ʻTempted To Touch’, ʻNo More Pain’ and ʻIs It A Sign’. Highlights as the 90s became the 00s included ʻCall On The Father’, ʻThey Gonna Talk’ and ʻI Feel Good’. The wider world acknowledged Hammond’s lasting impact by hearing him sing at the opening ceremony of the 2007 Cricket World Cup, and in 2013 he was honoured with the Order Of Jamaica for his contribution to the island’s music industry. Beres Hammond has tickled his fans’ fancy for decades – still totally committed, because he knows no other way.
Hear: ʻCall On The Father’ (aka ʻSerious’)
Joseph Hill: The Heart Lifter
The lead singer of Culture, Joseph Hill was one of the key figures who helped make reggae popular worldwide thanks to a series of 70s albums that entranced punks, hippies and roots folk alike. Culture, a vocal trio comprising Hill, Kenneth Dayes and Albert Walker, made their breakthrough in 1977 with Two Sevens Clash, an album that reverberated way beyond reggae’s heartlands. Riding powerful rhythms fashioned by producer Joe Gibbs and engineer Errol T, the group sang of pure Rasta concerns, and songs such as ʻI’m Not Ashamed’ and ʻNatty Dread Taking Over’ became anthems of their era. The group cut enough material for three albums with Gibbs, but swiftly moved on to a deal with producer Sonia Pottinger and Virgin Records for further heart-lifting albums Harder Than The Rest (1978), International Herb and Cumbolo (both 1979), sometimes credited as The Cultures. There was also a remix set, Culture Dub.
What made them so appealing? A big part of it was Joseph Hill’s voice and attitude, his energy and soul. Even when singing about suffering, his voice called you to your feet, urged you to feel what he felt, and picked up your mood. He was not the most polished vocalist, and nor were Culture the smoothest vocal group in Jamaica, but they had such spirit. The will to live through hard times and find a better world was present and unquenchable in all their performances. Every time you listened to Culture, you’d feel just that bit better.
The group continued to cut albums deep into the 80s and Hill maintained the name even after it had stopped being a vocal group. Producing his own material, he retained his roots stance yet also coped well with the rise of dancehall, recording numerous albums as well as working on singles for his own production banner. He continued to make records until his death in 2006. Culture lives on, fronted by this remarkable singer’s talented son, Kenyatta Hill. Not just harder than the rest, Joseph Hill and Culture were brighter, wiser and more spirited too…
Hear: ʻStop The Fussing And Fighting’
Marcia Griffiths: Really Together
The trouble with being a woman in reggae is that you are regarded as the target market, not the artist. You have to hustle hard to survive in the reggae world, and there are few females who have thrived in it for any length of time. Marcia Griffiths is one of a handful, and has the inner strength and faith needed to maintain her position through the years. And, of course, she is a fabulous singer.
Like so many of Jamaica’s great voices, Marcia Griffiths began her career at Studio One while barely into her teens. Her early records were of a high standard – ʻFunny’, ʻMark My Word’ and the superb ʻMelody Life’ among them – but all were dwarfed by her 1968 hit ʻFeel Like Jumping’, a masterstroke single that remains eternally contemporary. A move to Harry J records in 1969 was even more impressive; the producer had her cutting her wonderful singles, such as a shimmering version of The Beatles’ ʻDon’t Let Me Down’ and a wicked adaptation of ʻBand Of Gold’, and encouraged her to continue a partnership with Bob Andy, the superbly soulful singer and songwriter she’d worked with at Studio One. The duo scored a UK No.1 with ʻYoung, Gifted And Black’ in 1970, which also sold heavily in the US when Tamla picked it up for release. The pair hit again with ʻPied Piper’ the following year. They were lovers, and their closeness showed in romantic records such as ʻReally Together’.
By 1973 Griffiths was ready to move her career on, and she cut some fine soulful sides for producer Lloyd Charmers, including ʻSweet Bitter Love’ and ʻPlay Me’. More lasting unions with two diverse figures put her on her parallel paths. She began working for one of the very few female producers in 70s reggae, Sonia Pottinger, resulting in two albums that sold for years, Naturally and Steppin’, and Marcia joined The I-Threes, who sang support to Bob Marley.
For Marcia, this meant touring the globe, earning a reliable income for the first time, and being given full credit where it was due. Plus, they made their own fine records. Marcia continued to record throughout the 80s, her strong voice more than a match for the new electronic rhythms, and in 1990 ʻElectric Boogie’, produced by Bunny Wailer, made No.51 in the US. She was also cutting more records than most of her contemporaries in the duetting ragga style, enjoying reggae chart success after success for the Penthouse label. Strong, focused and with a lovely warm voice, she is still recording and touring, and is as respected and loved as ever.
Hear: ʻSteppin’ Out A Babylon’
Jacob Miller: Lost Leader
Jacob Miller is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a list of the best reggae singers, not because his vocal prowess was ever in doubt, but because he barely had time to fulfil his destiny, dying in 1980, aged just 28. But during his cruelly curtailed career, he proved himself capable of singing the toughest of roots tunes while still making an impact on the pop world. Ebullient, energised and never giving less than his best, had Miller lived, he might have become reggae’s biggest international star.
He recorded his debut single, ʻLove Is A Message’, while still a squeaky-voiced teen. By 1974, he was working with the underground legend Augustus Pablo, who produced Miller on a clutch of remarkable records which emphasised his youth but had grown-up appeal, among them the haunting ʻGirl Name Pat’, the assertive ʻKeep On Knocking’ and the undying classic, ʻBaby I Love You So’. The latter was backed by a mighty dub version, ʻKing Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’, which many fans saw as the definition of roots music. Miller did not stay long anywhere, however, and was soon recording for Joe Gibbs (I’m A Natty’), Channel 1 (ʻBald Head’) and, most importantly, Tommy Cowan, for whom he teamed up with the group Inner Circle, cutting rootsy classics such as ʻTenement Yard’, ʻTired Fe Lick Weed Inna Bush’, and ʻForward Jah Jah Children’.
With the mighty Fatman Riddim Section of Touter Harvey, and brothers Ian and Roger Lewis behind him – the latter two beefy guys, like Miller himself – Inner Circle seemed unstoppable. They racked up reggae hit after reggae hit, Miller’s voice now mature and his stage presence riveting, and his Jacob “Killer” Miller album was one of the biggest reggae records of ’77. Inner Circle signed to Island for Everything Is Great, a gold album that begat the title hit’s perfect fusion of reggae and disco. Just as his status as reggae’s next global icon appeared assured, Miller died in a car crash in Hope Road, Kingston, not far from Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong premises. He had packed so much into his short life – but his energetic best was just a hint of what he might have achieved.
Hear: ʻEverything Is Great’
Desmond Dekker: The Pioneer
Reggae’s first major international hitmaker, a chart star in the UK and US in the late 60s and early 70s, Desmond Dekker did not compromise for success. His songs, such as ʻIsraelites’, ʻ007’ and ʻIt Miek’, may have been hummed by housewives and schoolkids worldwide, but they were slices of Jamaican life and culture, and the fact that the lyrics were sung in dialect only makes it all the more remarkable that Dekker was able to sell them to an audience who knew nothing about the struggles of Jamaica’s poor.
Familiarity breeds contempt, and the brilliance of Dekker’s voice often passes unnoticed. Listen to his resigned tone in ʻ007 (Shanty Town)’, watching 1967’s rudies create chaos with their violence and the soldiers getting ready to pick them off. Hear his aching high tenor in ʻFu Manchu’, a record of dark, abiding oddness. Listen to him beg somebody to understand his pleas for order on ʻIt Pays’, or his glee in ʻIntensified’. Dekker was the master of his art.
His best records were cut with Leslie Kong, who produced him from 1963 after an audition at Kong’s ice-cream parlour in Kingston. His early records were picked up by Island for UK release, then he moved to a related imprint, Pyramid, in 1966. It was here that he enjoyed the bulk of his hits, some with backing vocalists The Aces, including ʻPickney Girl’, ʻIt Miek’ and ʻIsraelites’, and a shift to Trojan saw him score with Jimmy Cliff’s ʻYou Can Get It If You Really Want’ – a rare cover in Dekker’s catalogue of original songs. He was reggae’s biggest international star before Bob Marley broke globally, with ʻIsraelites’ hitting No.9 in the US and No.1 in the UK. But when Kong passed away in 1971, aged just 38, Dekker struggled to find a producer who understood him quite as well, and the hits dried up, though reissues of his classics still charted.
An attempt to update his style for the 2-Tone era at Stiff Records did not quite recapture his success, though he remained popular as a live act. Dekker died in 2006, having proved that reggae had massive international potential, and that you didn’t have to sell out to sell records.
Hear: ʻ007 (Shanty Town)’
Alton Ellis: Can’t Stop Now
When rocksteady swept away ska in the mid-60s, this slower, more soulful dance style had two rulers. One was Ken Boothe, the other was Alton Ellis. Both were highly soulful, but while Boothe was controlled, measured and in charge of his emotions, Alton’s approach was far rawer and more electric. It was like he knew he had only a couple of minutes to express his feeling, and he was going to make damn sure he did.
Ellis started his career in a singing duo with Eddy Perkins, hitting in Jamaica with the ballad ʻMuriel’. While he was strong when singing ska, criticising rude boys on records such as ʻDance Crasher’ and ʻThe Preacher’, he came into his own when rocksteady arrived in ’66 and the records he made with and without his backing singers, The Flames, at the Treasure Isle label made him a force to be reckoned with. ʻCry Tough’, ʻRock Steady’, ʻCan’t Stop Now’, ʻAin’t That Lovin’ You’, ʻGirl I Got A Date’, ʻBreaking Up’… these are lasting classics in Jamaican music. Flipping between the two great rival studios of 60s Jamaica, Treasure Isle and Studio One, Alton was in demand, with hit after hit declaring his unquenchable desire to free his soul. When reggae’s more urgent beat arrived, Alton scored with ʻLa La Means I Love You’, ʻLive And Learn’ and ʻTumbling Tears’, and so it went on into the 70s. His second album, Sunday Coming (1971), was brilliant from first to last, and partly reflected his ability to get down like the Americans could – a key feature of his live act at the time.
In the early 70s he cut cultural records full of ideas and fire, such as ʻLord Deliver Us’, ʻArise Black Man’ and ʻBack To Africa’. A move to the UK took him away from reggae’s focus a little, but he still delivered amazing sides such as ʻRasta Spirit’ and the gloriously easy ʻReggae With You’, and he’d cut digital ragga tunes, too, when that style arrived. During the 90s and 00s, his gigs became a celebration of all he and Jamaican music had been through. He passed away in 2008, aged 70, having given many fans some of the best times of their musical lives.
Hear: ʻI’m Still In Love With You’
Dennis Brown: The Crown Prince
There was only one singer with the title Crown Prince Of Reggae: Dennis Brown. (You can guess who was King.) He began his career at the age of 12, at Studio One, after being spotted at a talent show by the producer Derrick Harriott, who’d agreed to record him but didn’t get him into the studio quick enough. Brown’s debut single was ʻNo Man Is An Island’, the Van Dykes song that Harriott had taught him, and he racked up a series of hits at Studio One, sung like an adult in a fairly juvenile voice: ʻEasy Take It Easy’, ʻPerhaps’, ʻIf I Follow My Heart’… the US had Michael Jackson as its youth star, Jamaica had D Brown. But Dennis quickly grew serious and was soon tackling roots topics. His third album, Super Reggae And Soul Hits, finally saw Derrick Harriott taking a piece of the action, and was full of fine tracks.
Soon Dennis was everywhere in reggae, hitting with his first version of ʻMoney In My Pocket’, cutting a great interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s ʻBlack Magic Woman’ and scoring heavily for producer Niney The Observer on a slew of sizzling records, including ʻCassandra’ and ʻWestbound Train’, loosely based on the groove Willie Mitchell produced for Al Green in Memphis.
And so it went on throughout the 70s, with Dennis releasing a series of albums that remain classics: Visions Of Dennis Brown, Words Of Wisdom, Just Dennis and Wolf And Leopards among them, with the DEB (his initials, Dennis Emmanuel Brown) imprint issuing his own productions and records by other artists. Brown finally landed a UK chart smash with a remade ʻMoney In My Pocket’ in 1978; there should have been many more.
As the 80s arrived, Dennis never gave less than his best on record and at the gatherings of the faithful that were his live shows. He coped admirably with the sea change that was digital dancehall thanks to records produced by King Jammy (The Exit, aka History) and Gussie Clarke (a mighty combination single with Gregory Isaacs, ʻBig All Around’). But health problems hit him during the 90s, though he refused to reduce his workload, and in 1999 he passed away after contracting pneumonia and suffering a collapsed lung. The cause of death was a coronary failure, no surprise to his fans: he had sung his heart out for them for decades. Many other Jamaican singers have tried to emulate him, but there will only ever be just one Dennis Brown.
Hear: ʻHere I Come’
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