Gregory Isaacs is one of reggae music’s most distinguished singers. Famous as the “Cool Ruler” for his outstandingly smooth and moving voice, Isaacs recorded many successes during the 1970s and 80s, including the lasting favourite “Night Nurse”, and remained dynamic as a recording artist, live performer and producer in the decades that followed. Even though his best known for romantic ballads, delivered with an insinuation of helplessness, he also excelled at songs of social protest and work that expressed a resolute pride in his African heritage.
Gregory Anthony Isaacs was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 15 1951 and grew up in the poor neighbourhood of Denham Town. As a boy, Gregory was inspired by American soul artists such as Sam Cooke and Ben E King, by local acts and, above all, by the singing of his mother (whom his father abandoned when Gregory was a child). Encouraged by his peers at school and his teacher, he entered talent contests and soon became involved in the music industry, making his first (self-produced) recording in 1968; a duet with Winston Sinclair called “Another Heartache”.
After a brief period as part of a Motown-style trio named The Concords, who split in 1970, Isaacs launched his solo career. He founded African Museum with the singer Errol Dunkley, and had his first significant success with “My Only Lover”, often labelled the exemplary “lovers’ rock” song.
By the late 1970s, Isaacs was one of Jamaica’s major stars and frequently touring the United States and Britain. His casting as a street hustler in the 1978 movie Rockers aided to create the outlaw persona that would lead him later to claim of having been arrested more than 50 times.
As his songwriting abilities developed, Isaacs shifted attention to address social injustice, in work that expressed longing for his ancestral African homeland, and grew dreadlocks as a sign of his commitment to the Rastafarian faith. At Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, he completed the anthem-like “Mr Cop” in 1976 and the censorious “Black against Black”, which decried self-destructive ghetto violence, and “Slave Master”, which became something of anti-colonial anthem in the slums of Kingston: “Every time I hear the music and I make a dip, a dip, Slave master comes around and spank I with his whip, the whip, But if I don’t get my desire, Then I’ll set the plantations in fire.”
Mainstream success, however, did not come until the 1982 album Night Nurse. The cheekily suggestive title track reached only number 32 in the UK charts, but it was a huge underground and club hit. But just when Isaacs might have capitalised on his biggest hit, he become caught in drug dealing and consumption, and found himself serving a six-month sentence in a Kingston jail.
He was said to have both used and dealt crack cocaine. He struggled with addiction to various drugs – most of them far harder than the native ganja, or marijuana – eventually losing most of his teeth and the full range of his once-sweet voice. “Drugs are a debasing weapon,” he once said. “I graduated from the Cocaine High School. It was the greatest college ever, but the most expensive school fee ever paid.”
He returned in 1988 with the digital dance hall-era hit “Rumours”, one result of a fruitful period of collaboration with the producer Gussie Clark, and continued to record up to three albums a year during the last two decades of his life, appearing at festivals such as Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash and the Notting Hill Carnival as a respected if somewhat weakened elder statesman of Jamaican music. Nevertheless, he kept a faithful fan base, both at home in Jamaica and overseas.
“When people hear the name Gregory Isaacs, I want dem to think of ‘Night Nurse’ and ‘Red Rose For Gregory’ and ‘The Cool Ruler’,” he said. “I love it when somebody comes up to me and say, ‘I love your songs’. ‘Night Nurse’ is about a man and a woman. Only love can conquer war and it’s good for people to make love. The Gregory Isaacs feel is universal, trying to uplift who I can uplift. I sing music on a worldwide basis. That is made to be accepted in thy sight.”