Joe Gibbs: Producer of a string of reggae hits
Monday 03 March 2008
Although most of the record producer Joe Gibbs' countless releases only sold in Jamaica, he had over a dozen UK hits, beginning in 1970 with Nicky Thomas's "Love of the Common People". But it was in the second half of that decade that Gibbs, and his masterful engineer Errol Thompson, dominated the Jamaican musical landscape.
In 1977, the year of the punk-reggae fusion, it seemed that every ghetto-blaster was pumping out yet another crisp, clear mix from the studio of Joe Gibbs and his seemingly unstoppable hit machine. The Jamaican import of his seminal "Two Sevens Clash" by Culture, a prediction of the change that the year brought, acquired the status of prophecy; when it finally received an official UK release, it was a chart hit. The next year Althea and Donna's irresistibly catchy "Uptown Top Ranking" made it to number one. And in 1979 Dennis Brown, Gibbs's star performer, as big a name on his native island as Bob Marley, finally breached the UK charts with "Money in my Pocket".
"Joe Gibbs produced some of the best reggae ever, and was one of the most successful record producers of all time," the broadcaster Dotun Adebayo said. "He was a real reggae giant. Yet he was always one of the most hardcore of reggae entrepreneurs."
So hardcore that when in 1978 the music writer Vivien Goldman printed the accusations of many of his artists that they had never been paid for their work, Gibbs punched her in the face. "It was in his Kingston studio, so I was naive to have gone there," she said:
But it didn't change my feeling about the music he made. In the punk era just seeing that Joe Gibbs red-and-blue label on a new Dennis Brown single gave you a feeling of exhilaration that you might be about to hear something that could
galvanise your life. Joe Gibbs wasn't really responsible for the Joe Gibbs sound – that was Errol T. But he knew a good sound when he heard it.
Joe Gibbs even gave a career break to Lee "Scratch" Perry, the greatest of all Jamaican producers. In 1967, when he installed a two-track recording machine in the rear of his Beeston Street television repair shop, he brought in Perry as his engineer. Their first success came the next year with one of the earliest rock steady tunes, Roy Shirley's "Hold Them"; meanwhile Perry wrote a number of local hits for the Pioneers for Gibbs before he left to set up his own label. Scratch's first release, "People Funny Boy", was a viciously satirical attack on his former boss's business practices. (Almost inevitably, Gibbs released an answer record using the same rhythm, "People Grudgeful".)
Jamaican record producers are frequently more like film producers, coming up with the finances and facilities and letting others do the creative work. Gibbs was almost an archetype of this. He replaced Perry with first Winston "Niney" Holness and then, in 1970, with Errol Thompson.
Gibbs's productions entered the early dub era, with a "version", as they were known, being put on the B-sides of singles. But it was the A-sides that really sold, with a roster of Jamaica's finest talent: the Heptones, Dennis Brown, Big Youth, Delroy Wilson, and Peter Tosh, who recorded the singles "Them A Fi Get a Beating", "Maga Dog" and "Arise Black Man" for Gibbs.
The Mighty Two, as Gibbs and Thompson styled themselves, came fully into their own in 1975: at Retirement Crescent in Kingston, Gibbs had built a 16-track recording studio and pressing plant. So began their golden period. Backed by the house-band, the Professionals, who included the powerhouse rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar, singles of the quality of Trinity's "Three Piece Suit", Junior Byle's "Heart and Soul" and Ruddy Thomas's "Every Day is a Holiday" would be released every week by the producer. Album sales also took off with the "African Dub" series, whose spacey sounds were beloved by white punk stoners.
The Mighty Two seemed to lose their way in the 1980s. Stung by a lawsuit over copyright infringement, Joe Gibbs moved from Jamaica to Miami later in the decade. No longer involved in recording acts, he spent his time marketing his back catalogue.
Joel A. Gibson (Joe Gibbs), record producer: born Montego Bay, Jamaica 1943; died Miami, Florida 21 February 2008.
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