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

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?