In the late 1970s and early '80s, Gregory Isaacs, the Jamaican singer with the plaintive, soulful, vulnerable voice and the laid-back delivery – best heard on his signature tune "Night Nurse" – was considered the natural heir to Bob Marley's reggae crown. Yet he never quite managed to cross over to the mainstream.
A song stylist whose only rival was his friend Dennis Brown, he created the template for the influential Lovers Rock style with "My Only Lover", issued on his own African Museum label in 1973, and became known as the Cool Ruler and Lonely Lover, after two of the albums he subsequently released on Virgin's Front Line reggae imprint and Charisma's Pre subsidiary.
In 1982, the year after Marley's death, Isaacs signed to Mango, part of Chris Blackwell's Island operation – a move which seemed tailor-made to propel him to the top. Night Nurse, his first album for the company, charted in the UK, while the suggestive, irresistible title track became a club and turntable hit around the world.
But the singer spent half of 1982 in jail for the possession of an unlicensed firearm, though he claimed he had acquired it as protection from would-be robbers, "just like you have a jacket to protect you from the cold." This fanciful defence didn't withstand closer examination, since Isaacs had been arrested many times previously and continued to attract the attention of the Jamaican police.
Indeed, his rude boy persona, complete with fedora hat, silk shirts and designer suits, was not just a posture since he not only dealt drugs, but also used and abused crack. As a result of his addiction, Isaacs slowly lost most of his teeth, which in turn affected his once exquisite voice. "Drugs are a debasing weapon," he said in 2007. "It was the greatest college ever, but the most expensive school fee ever paid – the Cocaine High School. I learnt everything, and now I've put it on the side."
Despite his trials and tribulations, Isaacs remained a prolific writer and recording artist and made a further 50 albums over the last 25 years. After being diagnosed with lung cancer and cancelling a tour last year, he battled back and performed at The Big Chill festival in Herefordshire in August.
He was born in 1951 in a rough area of Kingston called Fletcher's Land, and was brought up by his mother in Denham Town, another poor part of the Jamaican capital. "From since I was growing up, I liked love songs – Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson. That was the kind of songs getting the girls dancing," said Isaacs, who began entering local talent contests in the mid-1960s, sometimes in partnership with his younger brother Sylvester. The boys took after their mother, who also had a fine singing voice. "We had a rented Rediffusion radio, with a switch on the wall," he recalled. "My Mama used to iron clothes at home on Sunday evening, and listen to rhythm and blues."
After winning a talent show at Kingston's Queen Theatre, he made his recording debut in 1968 with "Another Heartache", a duet with Winston Sinclair. He then formed the Concords, a vocal trio modelled on the Melodians. They recorded a couple of sides for the producer Rupie Edwards, who decided to concentrate on Isaacs as a solo artist, though the singer saw little financial reward. Following a similar experience with Prince Buster, he decided to set up African Museum, at first with Errol Dunkley and then on his own. "If I produce myself, I'm gonna exploit no one, just myself," he said.
However, even after the success of the Lovers Rock singles "My Only Lover" and "All I Have Is Love", he still freelanced for other producers, including Alvin "GG" Ranglin, Gussie Clarke and Lee "Scratch" Perry. He also recorded Roots Reggae material and dealt with socially conscious issues on tracks such as "Babylon Too Rough", "Black A Kill Black" and "Mr Cop", as well as "Slave Master", his contribution to the soundtrack of Rockers, the Theodoros Bafaloukos film in which he appeared alongside other reggae performers like Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace, Jacob Miller, Big Youth, Burning Spear and Dillinger in 1978.
Isaacs' penchant for drugs and his tendency to walk on the wild side didn't prevent him from exorting the virtues of Jah Rastafari, and he saw no contradiction in the split-personality nature of his lifestyle or his repertoire. "Bob Marley was one of my favourite artists," he said. "He sang politically conscious lyrics, yet he sang love songs too. So it didn't really change what I sang about, because rasta fall in love, you know? In life, you have deeper depths and higher heights."
Following the six months he spent at Kingston's General Penitentiary – an experience documented on Out Deh!, also on Mango/Island in 1983 – he appeared on The Tube backed by the Roots Radics band, who had become such an essential part of the easy-on-the-ear, slick sound and style of his albums Lonely Lover, More Gregory and Night Nurse. Unfortunately, two drug busts and a spell in rehab stalled his progress in the latter part of the '80s, though 1988's Red Rose For Gregory showed that his gorgeous voice could also shine in a dancehall setting.
In 1997, "Night Nurse" finally became a Top 20 hit when covered by Jamaica's number one rhythm section, SlyDunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, with the Simply Red maiman Mick Hucknall on vocals. Ten years later, Isaacs' signature song served as the smooth, soothing soundtrack to a TV advert for cough syrup.
"When people hear the name Gregory Isaacs, I want dem to think of 'Night Nurse' and 'Red Rose For Gregory' and 'The Cool Ruler'," he said. "I love it when somebody comes up to me and say, 'I love your songs'. 'Night Nurse' is about a man and a woman. Only love can conquer war and it's good for people to make love. The Gregory Isaacs feel is universal, trying to uplift who I can uplift. I sing music on a worldwide basis. That is made to be accepted in thy sight."
Gregory Anthony Isaacs, singer, songwriter and record producer: born Kingston, Jamaica 15 July 1951; married (one daughter, three sons known of); died London 25 October 2010.Reuse content