Pop Music: Return of the lover

Gregory Isaacs is back in town. Below, Phil Johnson runs him down eventually, while Nick Coleman, right, reflects on a wayward career

Waiting for Gregory Isaacs is a bit like waiting for Godot, except, one feels, there's always a chance that Godot might turn up, even if he is slightly harder to get on his mobile. With an interview arranged for lpm at his new record company, Acid Jazz, in Soho, there's a cheerful feeling among the staff that, you never know, Gregory might actually show, but nobody's taking bets on it. Gregory is famous for living in Caribbean time, even when, as now, he's domiciled in Deptford. When he was billed as appearing at the Malcolm X Centre in Bristol a while back, and still hadn't gone on stage by 2am, a friend of mine asked the promoter if he was in the building yet. "No," he was told, "but he's definitely in the country." (He arrived about 4am and, of course, played a blinder).

The one o'clock appointment passes and the photographer and I go for lunch. The word is that Gregory's definitely left Deptford, but the mobile's turned off and neither the minicab firm or his minder Mikey (Dread) Campbell can be contacted. The photographer departs and I go around the corner and see a film. When I return, everyone is still very hopeful. After all, he was exactly five hours late for his video and it's now 6pm - we cock our ears for the sound of a mini-cab in the street outside. As he was nine hours late for his album-cover shoot, there's a superstitious feeling that he might appear by about 10pm but I have to leave. In the end he turns up exactly on time, four days later.

It's difficult to communicate the greatness of Gregory Isaacs' voice. He's the best reggae singer ever, bar none; a honeyed vocal sound and an effortless, laconic delivery are his irreducible trademarks. He's a balladeer and his preference for slow tempos led to the invention of Lovers Rock, though with Gregory a romantic ballad is as likely to include references to the river Jordan as it is to catalogue the virtues of the girl he is addressing. He usually writes his own material and since the early Seventies he has made countless albums, many of them wonderful, especially those from the late Seventies to the early Eighties on his own African Museum label, Virgin and Pre. Though in pop music the auteur theory is usually reserved for the discussion of palefaces with something urgent to say (and an optional nasal twang to say it with), Isaacs' collected works are as of a piece as the films of John Ford: he's got a vision, a stylistic signature and themes-a-go-go. Unfortunately for his commercial or critical clout, he's also a reggae singer.

But although he's The Cool Ruler and the Lover Man supreme, Isaacs is also a rude boy, big-style. He's no stranger to guns and, in the Eighties, he did time in Kingston's notorious penitentiary. In the 1979 film Rockers, he played a street criminal who crow-barred tourists cars for a living. Bad drugs, they say, may well be a factor in his dilatory dealings; there are even rumours of gangster business. But until the prison spell, his quality control remained, for reggae, remarkably high. Afterwards, things got sloppy, with more albums than were necessary, on more labels than one could easily keep track of. Even now there's a couple of competitors for his Acid Jazz debut in the shops, but Private Lesson is so very good, and so back to the roots, that it deserves serious celebration.

Label boss Edward Piller, who confesses to a plan whereby Gregory is to be banged up in a hotel so that he is forced to keep appointments, dismisses reports that Isaacs is difficult to deal with. "A lot of people said to me 'What are you doing, why work with Gregory Isaacs?' But from my experiences, he has been very easy," he says. "I didn't pay him a penny - he didn't want money - but afterwards, I was so pleased that I gave him a good, fat amount, probably more than he's seen for some time. I'm amazed to find us in possession of an album by an artist who is known all over the world, and who can walk in off the street and I can sign him."

The album was recorded in Acid Jazz's old Denmark Street studio, which the Beatles once used, with a British reggae band MD'd by Clifton "Bigga" Morrison. Gregory was struck, it is said, by its resemblance to Kingston's Studio 1 - "He was a bit cynical at first," says Piller, who produced, "but as he heard the music unfold his attitude changed." The backing is impeccably old-school, with Hammond organ trills and trombone harmonies.

Eventually, a few days later, I get through to Gregory on his mobile (the minicab, I imagine, nosing steadfastly through the South London night), with the album playing in the background. He's as Gregory as one could have guessed, giving very short answers to increasingly lengthy questions. "Yes, I enjoy the studio and I enjoy working with the producers," he says. "Yeah! It's like Channel 1 man!" Why does he always sing so slow? "I always stick to my roots, seen? It's an inborn concept, too true." Why does he always sing love songs? "Because love songs gather my interest since early childhood. Love songs have always been there, because only love can conquer war." Where does his love of words come from, his delicious lyrical conceits? "Well, from early childhood. My greatest subject in school was composition." Is he the founder of Lovers Rock? "Well, that's what they say, it's my ID." Did he maybe think Acid Jazz was a jazz label? "No, not really. It's a very excellent company and they concentrate on the kind of music I concentrate on: the roots." How come he hasn't changed his style over the years? "Original is original and duplicate is duplicate, seen?" Well, bye-bye then, Gregory. "Thanks to you and to all of your readers," he ends touchingly. Eat your heart out, Bob Springsteen.

n 'Private Lesson' (Acid Jazz) is released on 4 September. The single 'Feeling Sad Tonight' is out this week

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