Murvin Junior Smith: Singer whose song 'Police and Thieves' struck a chord both in his native Jamaica and in 1970s London

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.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Sport
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
News
people
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape