They Call It Lover’s Rock!
Ah, Valentine’s Day. What better time of year to consider reggae’s romantic side? Lovers’ Rock was a style of reggae music that emerged in the mid- to late-1970s. It typically featured slower rhythms, sweeter vocals and a focus on romantic lyrics. It was also a style initially dominated by female singers. While the foundation for Lovers’ Rock had been set by the slower pace of rocksteady in the late 1960s and the practice by many Jamaican crooners of covering popular love songs of the era in a reggae style, most reggae experts point to the birth of Lovers’ Rock as the year 1975 and, specifically, a pair of key British singles: “Caught You in a Lie” by 14 year-old singer Louisa Mark, and “Tenderly” by the “First Lady of Lovers Rock” Ginger Williams. Jamaican music historian Steve Barrow described the sound as “essentially Philly/Chicago soul ballads played over a fat reggae bassline.”
The genre would get its’ name from the London-based Lovers’ Rock record label, which produced several hits that came to define the style. What was particularly unique about Lovers’ Rock (the genre) is that it actually began outside of Jamaica. However, several of these UK-produced hits began finding success back on the island which, in turn, inspired several established reggae artists to jump on the wagon. Gregory Issac, Freddie McGregor, Larry Marshall and Dennis Brown are some of the more commonly referenced names, while predecessors like Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis and John Holt had already developed mellower styles that would nestle in comfortably with the newly-emergent trend. Sugar Minott even recorded a song called “Lovers Rock.”
Though Lovers’ Rock was dismissed by reggae purists as the Adult Contemporary of Jamaican music or “your parents’ reggae” (and they had a solid argument), the style persisted throughout the 1980s and 90s, especially in Jamaica where it continued to chart extremely well. Indeed, Lovers’ Rock remains popular today and its influence can be heard in everything from classic Sade to modern R&B. As any savvy rock/pop group knows, it makes good commercial sense to include at least one ballad on your album, a fact seemingly not lost on even the most current reggae and dancehall artists, almost all of whom still recognize the appeal of Lovers’ Rock.
For a taste of classic Lovers’ Rock, you can hear several prime recordings from the 70s and 80s, newly added to our Austin Reggae Fest Playlist this week.
ATX Sound System’s Top 10 Reggae Love Songs
In keeping with this week’s Valentine’s Day theme, we thought we’d share a list of our favorite reggae love songs (all of which you can hear on the Austin Reggae Fest Playlist). These are tunes we use to “nice up the dance” when it’s time to turn the lights down low.
1. The Techniques – “Queen Majesty”
Winston Riley may be better known for his productions, such as the legendary Stalag Riddim (Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), but his band, despite its ever-changing lineup, also recorded some classic reggae sides. Their defining hit, “Queen Majesty”, is a beautiful take on the classic theme of a love forbidden by social strata.
2. Gregory Isaacs – “Night Nurse”
Not just one of the greatest reggae love songs of all time but one of <i>the</i> great songs of all time. The title track from Isaac’s most well-known album, it also features the mighty Roots Radics as his backing band.
3. Suzette – “To Sir With Love”
This theme theme song to the 1967 movie starring Sidney Poitier (as a reluctant teacher assigned to a class of tough East London kids) was a massive hit for UK pop singer Lulu. But that same year, it was given a rocksteady makeover–by the Lyn Taitt Orchestra (aka Lynn Taitt & The Jets) and another mononymous singer named “Suzette”–that became the preferred version among the UK’s mods and soul boys. “Suzette” was later revealed to be none other than Dawn Penn, future singer of “No, No, No”.
4. The Paragons – “The Tide is High”
There have been plenty of good covers of this one down the years but the original is still our favorite.
5. Brown Sugar – “I’m In Love With a Dreadlocks”
The rise of Lovers’ Rock in the late 1970s had little in common lyrically with the socially-conscious roots themes dominant in Jamaica at the time. That is, until this South London trio (famously, featuring a teenage Caron Wheeler, later of Soul II Soul fame) recorded their classic ode to a Rasta boyfriend. An absolute diamond of a single.
6. Bob Marley & The Wailers – “Turn Your Light Down Low”
Marley’s 1978 album Kaya is usually acknowledged as his “love” album–and it contains some undeniably classic love songs, such as “Satisfy My Soul” (an update of the early Wailers track “Don’t Rock My Boat”) and “Is This Love”–but it’s this unexpected slow-burner from Exodus (recorded during the same period as Kaya) that reveals Marley at his most sensual and romantic. It was said to have been written for Cindy Breakspeare (Miss World 1976 and mother of Damian Marley).
7. Carlton & The Shoes – “Love Me Forever”
Produced by Sir Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, this familiar riddim (later heard on tracks by everyone from Big Youth to Sugar Minott to Brigadier Jerry) was first recorded in 1968 for this timeless gem sung by one of the more-overlooked talents to come out of Studio One, Carlton Manning.
8. Popcaan – “Waiting So Long”
To encounter a dancehall lyric singing about abstinence is a rare and special thing, matched only by Poppy’s remarkably heartfelt pining on the chorus here. Either that, or he’s just so turned on by this girl that he’s ready to give her a ring, like, right now if it means he can finally get her into bed. Either way, a perfect modern love song.
9. Keith Douglas – “Cool Down Amina”
Released in 1982 on Fashion Records, a successful UK label and recording studio started by the owner of legendary London record shop Dub Vendor, vocalist Douglas was just one of several Jamaican artists that recorded for Fashion during their visits to England. This is Lover’s Rock so smooth, it even has a flute on it.
10. Cornell Campbell – “Girl of My Dreams”
Using the same riddim as his hit “Queen of the Minstrel” (a quality love song in its’ own rite, even if it did borrow thematically from “Queen Majesty”), the falsetto-voiced Campbell re-fashions a gem even more love-struck than his own original version.
11. Clancy Eccles – “Fattie Fattie”
Bonus track: Not to be confused with the Heptones’ song of the same name, Eccles’ 1968 hit for Trojan demonstrated (and celebrated) the fact that love comes in all sizes.
This Week’s Austin Reggae Fest Spotify Playlist
Click here to hear the dub sounds we have been listening to the last few days.