Jamaica in the 1970s was a nation in turmoil. The economy was in decline, gangs roamed the streets at the behest of politicians and the murder rate soared. The song "Police and Thieves" caught the mood perfectly; sung by Junior Murvin and produced by Lee "Scratch" Perry, it was certainly Murvin's finest moment, and arguably Perry's, too. It was a bigger hit in the UK than in Jamaica when it was released in 1976, and its standing as an unofficial theme song of the Notting Hill Carnival – which was also plagued by violence in the late '70s – was helped by the Clash's spiky cover version the following year.
Murvin Junior Smith was born in about 1949; his father was a tailor and singer from St James in Montego Bay, but when he died Murvin's mother moved the family to Port Antonio in the parish of Portland, east of Kingston, the area she was from. Murvin was supposed to study mechanics but instead embarked on a musical career. "From mi born me start sing y'know, when mi small me just have a talent, when I was growin' up reach all seven or nine years old, used to sing Billy Eckstine songs and those big songs," he recalled. As well as Eckstine, he was also inspired by artists like Nat "King" Cole, Curtis Mayfield, Ben E King and Sam Cooke.
He moved to Kingston, living with an aunt in Trenchtown. "There I get to know Delroy Wilson, Stranger Cole, the whole a the Wailers, Ken Boothe ... Boothe always say 'youth you have to come harder y'know, cause me know you have it'." He began as Junior Soul, recording first for Sonia Pottinger's Gayfeet label with "Miss Kushie" in 1966. He joined several live bands playing to both locals and tourists and was in the Hippy Boys singing with Max Romeo for a time and later the Mighty Falcons doing Mayfield, Stylistics and Chi-lites covers.
He played the hotel circuit and Kingston clubs like Merritone Discotek and The Sombrero, until the mid-1970s, when he had the idea for a song that would convey the anguish of the Jamaican people in a time of violence and chaos. He changed his name at Lee Perry's suggestion to Junior Murvin, as there was another Junior Soul, in New York.
He had met Perry years before when "Scratch" had been auditioning singers for Coxsone Dodd's Studio One. Murvin was looking for a producer for the song he had in his head, and thought Perry was the man: "Only he could manage that heavy hardcore." Together at Perry's Black Ark studio the two developed "Police And Thieves", Murvin improvising lyrics as the backing band played. As Perry had recently signed a deal with Chris Blackwell's Island label an album of the same name followed, containing such classic tracks as "Roots Train", "Solomon", and "Rescue Jah Children". Murvin had found his ideal collaborator: "Lee Perry's four tracks sound like eight track, some time it sound like 100 track."
The song quickly became a rehearsal-room favourite of the burgeoning Clash. They hadn't planned to put it on their debut album, but during a break in recording hit upon an arrangement they liked. Six minutes long, double the length of the original, it was the first fusion of punk and reggae and became a staple of the band's incendiary live sets. "They have destroyed Jah work!" Murvin complained.
"Now I think what a brass neck we had to cover it," Joe Strummer recalled in 1999. "But I'm glad we did because it worked, and it led on to great things in the future with Lee Perry and Bob Marley hearing it, and being hip enough to know we'd brought our own music to the party. It must be said that Mick Jones is a brilliant arranger: any other group would have played on the offbeat, trying to assimilate reggae, but we had one guitar on the on, the other on the off. I mean, he really set it up. He's a genius."
In 1980 the original entered the UK singles chart, reaching No 23 after being used in the film Rockers. Murvin went on to record with artists such as the Mighty Two, Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson. In the early 1980s he made an album with Mikey Dread, Bad Man Posse, whose title track exhorted young men to stay away from gangs. He also worked with Henry "Junjo" Lawes, the title track of whose album Muggers In The Street was a reworking of "Police And Thieves".
But he never repeated the success of "Police and Thieves", though he did gain a new audience with his song Cool Out Son, used by Electronic Arts for the soundtrack of the PS3 and Xbox game Skate 3 in 2010. The song found a new life on soundtracks, such as Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, as well as in the Reno 911!: Miami film, performed by Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. As well as the Clash, it has been covered by Boy George, among others, while the Orb recorded a version with Perry.
Murvin continued to tour, though his visit to Europe last summer was cancelled when he broke his leg. Though the cause of his death has yet to be announced, he had been receiving treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure. He is survived by five children and eight grandchildren.
Murvin Junior Smith, singer and songwriter: born Saint James, Jamaica c. 1949; five children; died Port Antonio 2 December 2013.