Sugar Minott: Reggae singer who championed Lovers' Rock in Britain and the dancehall genre in Jamaica

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the sweet-voiced reggae singer Sugar Minott made the UK Top 5 with his easy-on-the-ear cover of a Michael Jackson B-side, "Good Thing Going" in the spring of 1981, he became one of the leading voices of the soul-flavoured Lovers' Rock genre so popular in Britain at the time. First released on Hawkeye, the London reggae label run by former Trojan Records employee Roy Forbes, but based on a little-known 1974 version by Zeita Massiah, "Good Thing Going" sold so many copies that it was picked up by RCA, not only for British distribution but across Europe and further afield and went on to chart in several countries.

Then living in London, Minott appeared on Top Of The Pops and issued a follow-up single, a Lovers' Rock adaptation of "Never My Love", the Addrissi Brothers composition popularised by The Association in the 1960s, which stalled just outside the Top 50 in the autumn of 1981. Minott never troubled the mainstream charts again but continued recording, writing and producing, and played an important part in the development of the dancehall genre in Jamaica.

"I try not to be a specialist," he told Chuck Foster, the author of Roots, Rock, Reggae. "I sing all kinds of songs. Political songs, lovers rock, dancehall, soul. I can identify with different kinds of people."

Born in 1956, Minott came from a tough ghetto background. In his teens he began entering talent contests in Kingston and, encouraged by the reaction, gave up school. He spent his time hanging around sound systems and became a "selector" – the Jamaican term for DJ. "I was just following this music thing all the way," he said. "I admired people like Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown and Delroy Wilson."

In the late 1960s he met Tony Tuff and Derrick Howard and formed the African Brothers, a vocal harmony group who struggled to make ends meet and broke up after several singles, most notably in 1974, "No Cup No Broke" for Studio One, the label run by the sound-system operator turned producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. Minott stayed on at Studio One, learned the tricks of the trade and contributed guitar, percussion and backing vocals to many recordings. He was also given the chance to showcase his songwriting and the honeyed tones which earned him the nickname and eventual stage name "Sugar" on a series of re-voicings over Dodd's vintage rhythm tracks, including "Vanity", "Hang On Natty", "Oh Mr DC" and "Jah Jah Children".

This development effectively provided the blueprint for the dancehall genre and makes Minott a significant figure in the history of reggae music, yet he received little income for his efforts. "I signed a one-year contract with Coxsone but I reached a stage that I couldn't see nothing coming out, financial wise," he recalled. "I decided to stop with Studio One and get together with some musician friends I knew a long time, pay them on trust and form a company called Black Roots production and Youth Promotion."

Not content with issuing his own roots albums such as Ghetto-ology and Roots Lovers on Black Roots and then licensing them to labels on a one-off basis, Minott was also committed to helping new Jamaican talent. He produced records by the vocalists Yami Bolo, Barry Brown, Freddie McGregor, Michael Prophet, Junior Reid, Tenor Saw as well as the UK-based Trevor Hartley, and the toasters and DJs Jah Stitch, Ranking Joe, Captain Sinbad and Ranking Dread, while his Youth Promotion sound-system helped popularise dancehall on the island.

As well as spending considerable time in London, where he recorded a version of Bread's "Make It With You" with Carroll Thompson, Minott worked in New York, making the Wicked A Go Feel It album there in 1984. He also collaborated with Jamaica's premier rhythm section, bassist Robbie Shakespeare and drummer Sly Sunbar, and made the "Rub A Dub Sound Style", "Devil's Pickney" and "Herbman Hustling" singles with them in the mid-'80s.

One of the most versatile and prolific singers to come out of Jamaica, with a career that spanned the roots, lovers' rock, dancehall and ragga genres, he freelanced for other producers such as Prince Jammy and Donovan Germain and guested on a reggae reworking of Radiohead's "Exit Music (For A Film)" on the Radiodread album credited to the Easy Star All-Stars in 2006.

Minott was suffering from angina pectoris. His new album, entitled New Day and featuring Toots Hibbert, Ranking Trevor, Sly Dunbar and Bongo Herman, is due out at the end of the month.

Lincoln Barrington Minott, singer, songwriter, producer, sound-system operator: born Kingston, Jamaica 25 May 1956; married; died Kingston, Jamaica 10 July 2010.