Obituary: Dennis Brown

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The Independent Culture
THE NAME of Dennis Brown was such a guarantee of vocal and recording quality during the 1970s that his sobriquet "The Crown Prince of Reggae" was truly deserved.

Although he was second only to Bob Marley in Jamaica's heart, his fan base remained almost entirely within the ethnic community; his talent was accepted as a given and it was always assumed that it was only a matter of time before he crossed over to a wider audience: but, despite hitting the UK pop charts in 1979 with "Money in My Pocket", Brown never greatly broadened his market.

Like many reggae performers of that era, Brown considered himself to be an "entertainer". In Brown's case this reflected his background: his father was a nationally acclaimed comedian in Jamaica. "I think his father had something to do with the direction that his performances took, which were all about having a good time and a good show, not gunshots and licking people down," said Linton Kwesi Johnson, the poet and academic. "He was very much thought of as a peace-and-love Rasta. But he was also one of the great child stars that reggae music produced. It's all there in the first album."

That record, No Man is an Island, was released on the Studio One label in 1969, when Brown was 12 years old: the assurance of his achingly felt vocal tone on the album's dozen songs is extraordinary for one so young, and it is hardly surprising that he became a teen sensation - "the Michael Jackson of reggae". Perhaps most important of all, his sunny personality was so engaging that the very idea of Dennis Brown would bring a smile to people's faces.

Like many Jamaican musicians, Brown had been educated at Alpha Boys' School in Kingston, a kind of ghetto version of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts. As a nine-year-old he would sing with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, often standing on beer boxes because he was so small. After a memorable performance as the singer with the Falcon Band at a Christmas morning concert at the Carib cinema in Kingston in 1968, he came to the attention of Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, the sound system operator who had started Studio One.

Brown had the facility to step between the sweetest, most heart-tugging romantic laments and serious Rastafarian cultural themes. "He embodied the joyous spirit of the golden age of conscious reggae, a life-affirming presence in the flesh and on wax who made your day a little bit better when you saw him," said the writer Vivien Goldman.

Although he wrote many of his own songs, Brown was also a great interpreter of other writers' material, one of his most achieved covers being his version of Peter Green's "Black Magic Woman" for the producer Phil Pratt. For his own DEB label, he recorded a stream of tunes, as well as producing artists of the calibre of Junior Delgado. But it was his work for the producers Joe Gibbs and Winston "Niney" Holness for which he was best known.

For Gibbs he recorded great cultural hits like "Cup of Tea" and "Slave Driver", and at the end of the 1970s three outstanding albums - Visions, Words of Wisdom, and Joseph's Coat of Many Colours. Although Gibbs had produced "Money in My Pocket" in 1972, Brown recorded it a second time for Niney - the hit version. The raw rhythms that were Niney's special flavour pushed Brown's extraordinary voice to peaks of creative excellence.

"Wolf and Leopards" was another especially creative endorsement of their collaboration. "Even today that always raises a cheer in a blues dance," said Linton Kwesi Johnson. "That song, which is essentially an anthem to black people, is so radical you feel it should have been a Bob Marley tune," commented Don Letts, the Rastafarian film director. "It shows the full extent to which Dennis could deliver songs with incredible messages. Yet he ended up succumbing to the wolves."

By the early 1980s there were rumours of Brown's forsaking Rastafari's "weed of wisdom" for cocaine, an addiction that only became more extreme when he took to the crack pipe. In recent months a possibly apocryphal tale had Brown locked in a dressing-room by a Jamaican promoter, wary that the advance payment he had given him, immediately blown on cocaine, would result in his fleeing the venue. The smoking of crack can only have exacerbated a lifelong asthmatic condition, and it is perhaps no surprise that Brown died in his sleep from "respiratory problems".

But his spirit had managed largely to overcome the drug. At the end of last year, the photographer David Corio shot a session with him in Manhattan. "It was a brilliant day. He brought along an acoustic guitar and sang about a dozen tunes: Nat `King' Cole, early Curtis Mayfield, a wide range of material. He was such a sweetheart."

Dennis Emanuel Brown, singer: born Kingston, Jamaica 1 February 1957; married (13 children); died Kingston 1 July 1999.

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