‘Roots Rock Reggae’ reviewed

❉ A quality compilation featuring some of Jamaica’s leading talent.

The role of the compilation album is crucial. In all sorts of music. Jazz, blues, rock n roll, heavy metal. The reggae genre is no exception. Early examples were the Club Ska 67 and Club Ska 68 budget price selections released by Trojan Records in the late 1960s. The Tighten Up series of compilations that followed shortly after, again issued by Trojan, were a key reason why the music of Jamaica became established in the UK. And worldwide. Working class youngsters, music lovers and sound systems got hold of these records, bouncing tracks by The Pioneers, The Upsetters, Dandy Livingstone and more. A door had been kicked open. These compilations had given the world a true gift.

More compilation records were issued throughout the 1970s, on various labels. And this method remains the best way for aficionados to discover new acts, old gems and obscure material. One such album was Roots Rock Reggae, produced by Phil Mathias. Originally released by Creole Records in 1978, Roots Rock Reggae (Creole Records CTLP 124) is the subject of a much-expanded re-release from Doctor Bird, a division of Cherry Red Records responsible for the reissue of classic Jamaican sounds.

Comprising 14 tracks, the album featured some of Jamaica’s leading talent. The repackage includes excellent period photographs and sleeve notes from Tony Rounce, largely based on a 2020 interview with Phil Mathias himself. The first disc in this double CD collection features a digital release of the Roots Rock Reggae album together with half a dozen bonus tracks. All are either produced by Phil Mathias himself, or produced by another on behalf of Big Phil or Revue Records.

When you read the track listing, it is noticeable how many big names in late 1970s Jamaica music are present. Leroy Smart, Sugar Minott, Delroy Wilson, Cornel Campbell, Ranking Joe, Jah Stich are all here. Credence for Mathias, and testament to his role in developing the careers of such artists. Roots Rock Reggae was released to showcase the island’s talent at the time, remember. Known and unknown.

Take Delroy Wilson’s Consider Yourself. The effortless class of Wilson’s voice shines through on this lively, engaging number. Delroy was a big star in Jamaica in 1978. As was Studio 1 vocalist Cornel Campbell, with his distinctive falsetto voice showcased on the memorable My Country.

Cornel’s work with producer Bunny Lee in the late 1970s gave his career a further golden period. It is the second track on the disc, following the In Crowd’s breezy Riding High, which kicks off proceedings. Quality cuts all, giving the original vinyl album a strong start. They are supplemented by an urgent slice of deejay roots courtesy of toaster Jah Stich, with Love and Harmony.

A name unfamiliar to many might be the Main Attractions. Their delightful, soulful Once Upon A Time is full of expression, beautiful vocal and tasteful, subtle organ. A fantastic song. It proceeds another big name, Leroy Smart, with his strong, confident Miserable Woman.

Ranking Joe, a ubiquitous deejay who has appeared on many a Jamaican compilation, delivers a typical verbal assault on Think About Tomorrow, with tongue firmly placed in cheek with the line ‘You get to be smart – like Leroy Smart!’ Warning – further humorous verse is also contained.

The fore-mentioned Baby My Love is sequenced on side two, as is Sugar Minott with the brisk In The Residence. The original album closed with the brooding Never Get Weary by the unknown Wellesley Braham. Wellesley sits comfortably alongside seasoned professionals like the In Crowd and bona fide stars such as Sugar Minott, Leroy Smart and Delroy Wilson on Roots Rock Reggae 2. He also has a 12-inch mix on side two with Press Along.

The bonus tracks include three 12-inch mixes, two from Bim Sherman. Phil Mathias quickly caught the 12-inch mix bug and released them a-plenty. Why Won’t You Come On has a great chorus and hook, led by Sherman’s distinctive ethereal voice, and holds the listener’s attention and interest throughout its extended form. Sherman has another 12-inch cut with Lighting And Thunder, featuring a great stereo listening experience mixed in towards the end of the cut. He recorded a strong line of roots cuts in the seventies and spent time in London, working with Adrian Sherwood on his cutting-edge UK reggae label, Hit And Run and U-Sound. He also joined Ari Up of The Slits in the New Age Steppers.

Another largely unknown act were The Majestrians. So Many Times was recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Arc studios, and although not a big seller, is well worth inclusion here. Again, beautifully soulful, almost dreamlike. Mathias would use a variety of recording studios according to the track’s requirements. Baby My Love, for example was recorded at Joe Gibbs’ studio, as the bass sound obtained there was particularly deep.

Wise Man by Junior Dan has a dirty reggae funk vibe. A further bonus track, the 12-ich deejay dub of Blood A Go Run by Leroy Brown and the Black Traps, is worthy of a mention. A bit more self-indulgent, and full of echo, reverberation and production technique.

Bim Sherman features immediately on disc two with the strong single Golden Locks, one of the best tracks in this collection. Released as a 7-inch in 1976, it once more showcases Sherman’s other-worldly voice. He makes a fourth and final appearance later with 12-incher Tribulation.

Junior Dan crops up once more with a 12-inch mix of Red, Gold and Green, complete with singalong ‘na, na, na’ chorus. Dan was originally the bassist with Generation Gap, the house band at Randy’s Recording Studio in downtown Kingston.

Dan also played bass on the first Gorillaz album, with Damon Albarn. He nailed the killer bass line on Clint Eastwood, for example.

Over half the tracks on the second disc are 12-inch mixes. The format had evolved from the 1950s when acetate discs were being used as a way of allowing sound system DJs to play tracks such as Easy Snappin’ by Theophilus Beckford. Recent developments had taken dub mixes from 10-inch vinyl representations of the work of Lee Perry and such like to the 12-inch records showcasing results from the mixing desks of Phil Mathias and others. These early mixes are a fascinating insight. The Stubbs’ To Sweet To Let Go captures the cacophony of a sweet backing vocal, groove and song being allowed to stretch right out. When Your Smiling by Freddie McKay and Trinity seems to be gliding along nicely when suddenly a deejay interruption cuts the track into with an attack of toasting, in turn paving the way for a laid back, spacious jam. Sweet.

The 7-inch format crops up to keep things in perspective, however. Tony Tuff’s Next Door Neighbour is a magnificent roots track, pure and simple. A tale of a battle with his neighbour as our hero plays his music too loud! Relate to that, anyone?

Help Us Jah, by the relatively unknown Leroy Brown and The Black Taps, is full of fantastic, rustic, grinding rhythm. The extended mix of a roots reggae gem that rarely sees the light of day is included here. Awesome.

That major character in the story of Phil Mathias and his reggae world, Fil Callender, brings the collection to a close. Fil’s gentle, emotive tones give us a sweet piece of lovers’ rock with Island Music. A fitting close to a great collection of innovative 12-inches, dirty grooves and roots reggae and lovers rock pearls.

Phil Mathias was a record producer at a time in Jamaican music when the world was well and truly taking notice. His relationship with several crucial players in the scene became exceedingly productive, culminating initially in the artists and musicians featured on this quality compilation. Possibly even more significant is the role of the 12-inch record in showcasing his talents further, and Doctor Bird’s collection is a testament to the man and his work.

‘Roots, Rock Reggae’ (Doctor Bird DBCDD058) was released 10 July 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.

Feature image: Delroy Wilson.

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