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Reggae’s Crown Prince Dennis Brown Deserves a National Honor

Stan Evan Smith
Senior Music Writer

“Everybody saw him as a touchstone when it came to how a reggae song was sung effectively. And he grew up and was steeped in the song of the day. -Dermott Hussey-XM/Sirius satellite radio

Dennis Emanuel Brown (1957-1999)

Had he lived, Dennis Emanuel Brown or D. Brown, as he was affectionately known, would have celebrated his 54th birthday on Feb. 1, 2011. Brown was Jamaica’s third child prodigy after ska/rocksteady legends Delroy Wilson and Errol Dunkley. Brown’s thirty year singing career saw him progress  from ‘Boy Wonder’ to ‘Teen Sensation’, and finally the ‘Crown Prince of Reggae.’ It is time for the government of Jamaica to recognize Dennis Brown’s important contribution as reggae music’s ‘ultimate stylist’ and his distinction of being reggae music’s most influential stylist, with a national honor in recognition of his monumental contribution to the development of Jamaica’s reggae music.

If Bob Marley, who hailed Brown as the best reggae singer in the world, was Reggae’s Classical Troubadour then, Dennis Brown is, as producer and songwriter Mikey Bennett, who produced two albums with Brown, and wrote, arranged, produced and remixed several international hits, including Cyndi Lauper’s “Hey Now” (Girls Just Want To Have Fun), J.C. Lodge’s, Telephone Love, Gregory IsaacsRumours” Maxi Priest’s Close To You,” “House Call” with Shabba Ranks,” and “Grooving to Midnight” with Roberta Flack, reggae music’s quintessential singer or “the reggae singer’s singer.”

His contribution to Jamaican music renders him an important architect of reggae as much as Marley was.  Brown’s vocal stylebook is the most dominant vocal force in reggae. His unique style has shaped and defined what many success­ful singers and sing-jays in reggae, imitated to achieve success and thus defined what a reggae singer is all about; making him, arguably the most influential voice in the history and development of the genre of reggae music. No other singer in history of Jamaican music, save Alton Ellis, had the disproportionate impact, on vocals and singers, the way Dennis Brown did.

‘Boy Wonder’

A Young Dennis Brown

Brown’s  vocal influence was so pervasive that his peer Freddie McGregor, who actually began singing before him, told this writer in an interview that he had great problems trying to find “my own identity in terms of sound” because he could not help but to try and sound like Dennis Brown.” According to McGregor it took him years of recording before he was able to establish his own identity as singer.

Brown’s greatest contribution to the world of music was to shape, develop and define the intimate soul of reggae singing. Yet, though Brown has the distinction of being reggae music’s most influential stylist he is the greatest Jamaican singer to never “hit the big time” in his musical career…That however, is changing.

Though Brown never achieved the international recognition and success of Marley, or had similar record sales, he was nominated twice for a Grammy Award. That award remained elusive as he never won.

However, as the Crown Prince of Reggae, Brown continues to, like Marley, the King of Reggae Music, receive more international recognition after his death than when he was alive. The international success of Nas and Damian Marley’s collaboration album, “Distant Relatives,” released in May 2010, features “Land of Promise,” a Brown rework of his 1980s international hit “Promised Land.” It was produced by British super reggae band Aswad, and has reignited interest in Brown’s music.

In April 2010, National Public Radio (NPR), the U.S. equivalent of the BBC in the United Kingdom, listed Brown among its 50 Great Voices. In 2010, 11 years after his passing Brown’s music also began to chart on iTunes and Amazon. On Amazon in April three songs charted at No. 1 with “Love and Hate,” No. 3 with “Milk and Honey” and No. 4 with “Bless Me Jah.” On iTunes, Brown’s signature concert opening tune,” “Love and Hate’ charted at No. 3.

While Amazon is fourth most dominant online music store in the United States, iTunes is the dominant online music store in the United States. More importantly, digital sales account for one-third of global music sales, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) Digital Report 2010.

“Let Me Be The One”

Brown’s Album Nominated For The Reggae Grammy…Posthumously

Brown’s latest release “The Crown Prince of Reggae: Singles 1972 to 1985,” a compilation published by VP Records, debuted Dec. 3, 2010, at No. 10 on the Billboard Magazine Reggae album chart. This is Brown’s second album charting on Billboard.  His 1982 pop reggae album ”Love Has Found Its Way,” on A&M Records, peaked at No. 36 on the Billboard R&B Album chart, and the single “Love Has Found Its Way” peaked at No.  42 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart in 1982.

Brown was born on Orange Street, a ghetto in the downtown Kingston section of Jamaica on February 1, 1957. His father, Arthur Brown, was a well-known actor in Jamaican theater circles. Very little is known about his mother. Brown attended Central Branch Junior Secondary School in West Kingston. At age 11, he became a child prodigy singer, performing his first concert with the Byron Lee & the Dragonaires band in Kingston. Because of his diminutive size, Brown had to stand on beer crates in order to sing into the mike.

Dennis recorded his first song in 1969. This was the beginning of a 30-year musical career or “a journey” as he described it. On his journey, he sold out concerts in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Central, South and North America and established a reputation as a pioneer of reggae music.

His final concert was in Salvador, Brazil, in June 1999. Brown died July 1, 1999, in Kingston, Jamaica, from respiratory heart failure. He was 42. He was a member of the tribe of Joseph in the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a branch of the Rastafarian faith.

Dennis Brown’s Resting Place @ Jamaica’s National Heroes Park

Brown was given an unofficial burial in the National Heroes’ Circle in Kingston, where he rests with Jamaica’s heroes. At his funeral, then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson promised that a national honor would be bestowed on Brown. The government of Jamaica has yet to honor Brown with a national award for his monumental contribution to the development of Jamaica’s music. It is long overdue.

Leaders in the music industry described Brown’s impact:

Mikey Bennett explained to this writer in a 2000 videotaped interview, the importance of Brown’s vocals to the development of reggae’s unique vocal styling.

“To grasp the importance of Brown’s contribution to Jamaican music, what he did and how he did it has to be understood. Brown’s voice was big, with a gilded edge and his vibrato was unbelievable. His inimitable style, with its slow tremolo gave his vocals an almost perfect tone and timing. He was able to transmit his charismatic personality with his voice, and epitomized a reggae singer”.

Bennett described Dennis Brown as a singer who also possessed “that rhythmic quality to his voice, his tone and timing, the smoothness with which he dominated the (reggae) rhythm track, making every song he sung sound like a Dennis Brown song (original),” and as such his vocals possessed the best Pop/R&B/Soul sensibilities of any Jamaican singer, yet it was totally Jamaican. “It was the perfect bridge between the dominant American Rhythm & Blues and Jamaican singing…(That) if extracted from Jamaican music, would still, have Jamaican singers probably sounding like American R&B singers.”

As reggae singer Freddie McGregor said, “Its tremolo…If you listen to … a church organ, you would always hear tremolo, that sort of vibrato with sounds soulful and deep. That vibrato sound brings out that soulfulness within vocals.”

Bennett said of Dennis Brown on his classical vocal performances, the listener felt that that particular song could never have been done better by anyone or even Dennis Brown on any other occasion so it gave the listener this “moment in time feeling” and this made them feel better for having experienced it.

Singer Richie Stevens, whose career Brown inspired, noted “Dennis Brown was the standard for Jamaican music … he helped carve out that cornerstone of Jamaican music.”

Willie Lindo, who produced possibly Brown’s finest work his “Inseparable” album, said “every singer who came after Dennis Brown, regardless of their pitch, wanted to sound like Dennis Brown.”

Described by Ibo Cooper, formerly of 3rd World as “Jamaica’s ultimate stylist” Ruddy Manning of the reggae group Home-T 4 noted “when Dennis Brown came he brought a Jamaican style to song.” What made Dennis Brown so attractive and appealing to the young emerging Jamaican singers was the way he delivered a song both on record and in concert.

Unlike most of Jamaica’s leading vocalists of his era who were influenced by R&B, jazz and blues, Brown was inspired by Jamaican ska/rock-steady and like himself, child prodigy, the  late Delroy “saddle head” Wilson.

In an interview at the Ritz in Manhattan in 1989 during his ”Good Vibrations” tour, Brown told this writer that Wilson influenced him in much the same way he (Brown) motivated and inspired the generation that came with him and after him. He spoke of his fascina­tion with Wilson’s phrasing and slurring. He also talked about how, in his early years, he practiced to sound like Wilson. That influence is evident in several of reggae’s premier singers, such as Frankie Paul, Luciano, Richie Stephens, Nitty Gritty, Pinchers, Sanchez, Bushman, George Nooks, Prince Malachi and Maxi Priest.

Priest acknowledged Brown’s influence to Don Cornelius on TV’s “Soul Train” when he was asked who was his greatest music influence. He responded simply, “Dennis Brown.” Priest even verbally rebuked a disrespectful fan during a moment of silence in memory of Brown during his “Spirit of Unity” performance at Louis Armstrong Stadium in Queens, N.Y. Priest deeply respected Brown’s importance.

~~Dennis Brown…Doing What He Did Best~~

Jamaica gave birth to reggae in the 1970s and Brown evolved with the genre to become the most dominant vocal force in Jamaican music. Before his death, he became the last link between the great solo singers of his generation and the emerging one. He dominated the music scene as a hit-maker, and with his uninterrupted longevity and influence, created a solid foundation for reggae singers.

His reputation as a live performer was memorable and won him fans around the world. Two of his most significant career-defining performances were the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1979 and his electrifying performance at Reggae Sun Splash at the Crystal Palace in London in 1983. These tour de force performances helped establish him as a sterling international stage presence.

Though Brown did not achieve the international success of his peers Marley and Peter Tosh, his talents, efforts and dedication won their respect as well as fans. Michael “Ibo” Cooper, former leader of the popular reggae band Third World summed up Brown’s importance to the world of music in a video interview with me this way, “Dennis Brown made his mark on music … his music will have an impact on generations to come; the way Beethoven had an impact on Europe and Fela had an impact on Africa,” Cooper further added, “When the future comes, Dennis will be one of the greatest names in music as a whole.” Brown is just beginning to get the respect internationally, something that Tosh and Marley saw a long time ago.

Brown’s contribution to Jamaican music, though well-known, is still undervalued. However, Brown was aware of his own contribution to Jamaican music. He told Jenny Shadeo, then-host of the  New York TV Show “Viddyms,” “I think I played an important part in establishing the music globally.”

Brown’s accessible, affable personality and his broad and infectious smile endeared him to fans the world over. “Next to Bob Marley… I don’t think we will see a second to him in our lifetime,” said promoter Michael Barnet, describing Brown as “the Michael Manley of reggae music.” He was “charismatic and charming, a crowd-pleaser where he went.”

From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, no other singer in reggae had as many hit songs, or inspired more imitators than Brown. He recorded more than 200 singles and approximately 70 albums during his career. His hit-making ability and his career declined in the mid-90s, as a host of reggae singers adopted his style. By the late ’90s, with his career fading, he continued to tour feverishly, wrote prolifically and recorded nonstop.

♫…The Hit Maker…♫

From his first hit song “No Man Is an Island” in 1968 to his last hit song “Stop Fighting (so early in the morning),” Brown worked with all the major producers in reggae and crafted hits for them. The conventional wisdom was that all a producer had to do to get a hit song was to voice Brown on a rhythm track.

His association with major reggae record producers dates back to his early years with the Studio One Record and its creator Sir Coxsone Dodd. Dodd describes Brown as “God’s gift” because he could sing everything. He worked with the leading producers of the day, such as Derrick Harriott (“Black Magic Woman”); Bunny Lee; Willie Lindo, (“Inseparable”); Lloyd Charmers; Gussie Clark (“Foundation”); Bennett (“Death Before Dishonor); Niney (“West Bound Train”); Joe Gibbs (“Money in My Pocket’); King Jammy; and Sly and Robbie (“Sitting and Watching”).

The ’70s to late ’80s were Brown’s most dominant and commercially successful era. His career went international, with his songs competing with each other on ethnic charts in cities in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean. As one of the most sought-after reggae acts for live shows and recordings, he commanded what was then a staggering $25,000 to $35,000 per show (working three nights a week) and a percentage of the gate receipts.

He signed a recording contract with Herb Alperts’ A&M Records in the United States, which produced three of the finest reggae albums ever made. “Foul Play,” “Love Has Found Its Way” and “The Prophet Rides Again” received critical acclaim. In major cities such as New York, he played mainstream venues like the Red Parrot and the Apollo (two sold-out shows the same night).

Brown received his first Grammy nomination in 1994 for his album “Temperature Rising” and his second — of which this writer had the honor of writing the liner notes — posthumously for “Let Me Be the One” in 2000.

The rich musical legacy of Dennis Brown is a testament to his gift as an artist and the music genre he helped pioneer. His music will live forever. February 1, 2011, which would have been Brown’s 54th birthday, should be the year he’s honored for his contributions to Jamaican music and culture. Brown should be given a national award.

Happy Birthday, Crown Prince

This is an updated edition of a cover story first published by Stan E. Smith, Music editor in 2000 in Caribbean Style Newspaper. The article was also published in 2008 in Jamaicans.com; www.jamaicans.com/music/articles_reggae/reggaes-crown-prince-shou.shtml.

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