Music: Junior Delgado: a millennial dread

Who made the most frightening reggae record ever? And why isn't he a household name? Let Phil Johnson tell his story
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A bearded, thick-set man in an orange suit that looks famous all by itself is crossing a London street just around the corner from Euston Square. He moves unhurriedly, with an impressive disregard for oncoming traffic, pausing in the middle of the road to wave to an acquaintance. Even black cabs approach with unusual respect, for truly, you would not wish to displease Junior Delgado.

Delgado is every bit as admired as his suit suggests he ought to be, though up to now his fame has been confined to devotees of "old school" reggae. He is one of the great survivors of that heroic period of Jamaican music in the Seventies which is as important to the history of popular music as that of New Orleans or Memphis in the Fifties. Now, with a bit of luck, Delgado's circle of fame may widen a bit.

He has a new album out on Big Cat Records featuring contemporary dance music versions of some of his most celebrated old tunes. Next year, it will be followed by a second album, produced by On-U Sound's Adrian Sherwood.

There's also a single - a version of The Specials' "Ghost Town" - planned to bridge the gap at Christmas; an unlikely but apt seasonal gift. Delgado's song "Sons of Slaves", recorded for Lee "Scratch" Perry in 1974 and reprised on the new album, is one of the very greatest of all reggae records, as apocalyptic a mix of social commentary and millennial dread as you could imagine. Fittingly, its incendiary rhythms can be detected in The Specials' original "Ghost Town", completing the circle of influence and indebtedness.

When theories of authorship are applied to reggae music, it is usually the producer or the studio that gets assigned the authorial role rather than the artist (Bob Marley being an exception here). Furthermore, as Jamaican producers such as Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs worked largely from their own studios, their status was akin to that of a Hollywood producer, director and studio rolled into one. Accordingly, the artists fronting their records were routinely given the status of bit players on contract, although roles were never fixed and artists often went on to become producers themselves.

Junior Delgado (born Oscar Hibbert in West Kingston in 1958, and nicknamed Delgado - Spanish for "skinny" - by his friend and fellow reggae artist Dennis Brown) is one such singer. He may not have been - like Gregory Isaacs, say - a singer of genius, but he has written and performed on more than a handful of songs which rank with the best reggae records ever.

Following teenage work with Perry, Joe Gibbs, Rupie Edwards and Augustus Pablo, Delgado formed a creative and business partnership with Dennis Brown to become an artist-producer himself. His 1978 debut album for Brown's DEB label, Taste of the Young Heart, was a compendium of some of his greatest hit singles of the period, so good that it is still selling 20 years on - when it can be found in the shops. Even in Delgado's own store, Incredible Musik in London's Drummond Street - one of those specialist record shops which appear not to have any records in them, anyway - the cupboard is bare.

"They got it on order right now," he says. "It's like gold dust, that album, natural gold. It's my pension, believe me!" This is Delgado's constant refrain, so frequent that it takes the place of punctuation in his conversation. "Believe me!" he says, and you do, for he is a very persuasive man.

The story of the album illuminates both the canny mixture of art and commerce that is so important to reggae, and the forces which led Delgado to relocate his business from Kingston to Euston.

"We were making all this music and so Dennis comes up with the idea of his own label," he says. "I said, `Let's try it', and so we release this song on the DEB label, "Party Time", and we sell 5,000 off the back of a car, just driving around Kingston and selling it on a 7-inch single. From that we start producing and making music for ourselves, believe me! That's the way Taste of the Young Heart comes - we make a 7-inch, export it to England. When it picks up a buzz, they release it on a disco 12- inch... Then they make the LP. Castro Brown [the manager of DEB Records' operation in Battersea Rise, south London] phoned me in Jamaica and he says it's the first time he's ever sold a thousand LPs in one day. So that's why I will never be ungrateful for England."

Delgado followed Dennis Brown in moving here in 1979, but his admiration for all things English, while enthusiastic, is not entirely uncritical.

"England is a leading country, from long time, but I don't think they should have guys sleeping in the streets, believe me," he says. "Let me tell you, that guy Tony Blair is doing a good job, and I think he will get those people off the street if they allow him. He's a great man and they should let him."

Sitting in the restaurant, Delgado is happy to tell the story of "Sons of Slaves" from years ago. Indeed, he soon starts singing it. "It was with Upsetter, Lee Perry, Scratch. He take me to his studio, the Black Ark, because he had heard me sing and he wanted to record me the very same day.

"I did more than an album for him over a period of six months or so. He's a genius, I know from the very first time, believe me. Chinna Smith was on rhythm and lead guitar; Boris Gardiner on bass, and I think it was Ansel Collins on the keyboards. The words, it's I who write them, believe me, and I was a teenager then. Dennis Brown, and Barry and Morgan from the Heptones sings the 'armony."

The subject of the song is slavery, and in just a few lines Delgado manages to move from Africa to the New World with a vividness of imagery that is absolutely compelling. The inspiration, he says, came from what he knew of history.

"From the things you read about the guys like John Hawkins, who took us away, and the people who wanted to try and trade and buy slaves, in Africa you know? Scratch, he came up with some lines too, like the one about the sailing ship; believe me, that's his lyric."

When the completed song was played back over the speakers in the studio, even Delgado was taken aback with its power.

"Like frightened," he says. "It make me feel well naive, like what have I done here? And coming through speakers it sounds [he adopts a massive voice] monstrous! It was Upsetter! It was a magical moment, believe me!"

The album `Fearless' by Junior Delgado is out now on Big Cat Records. The original version of `Sons of Slaves' is available on the Lee `Scratch' Perry Trojan double CD, `Open The Gate', or as a 7-inch single on Black Art Records