❉ A more soulful side of ’70s reggae, reviewed by We Are Cult’s Paul Matts.
You could be forgiven for thinking reggae music in the 1970s was purely about roots rock rhythms or barren dub landscapes, using the mixing desk to deconstruct the sonics. However, there was a hugely popular strand of reggae that is often overlooked on many a compilation album, or media article. The soul music of the seventies, especially that of the east coast of the United States, was received with open arms in Jamaica. It often outsold local records. Inevitably it infiltrated the Kingston scene.
Jamaica had already been influenced by the rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues sounds of North America. These sounds fused with Jamaican beats and roots to give birth to ska. And this was by no means the only time the United States of America and Jamaica combined musical cultures.
When Errol Brown took his place in the Chosen Few line up in 1973, he brought with him a knowledge of modern soul music and its emotive tone. ‘Island Soul’ was the term used to christen this evolution. It was smooth, colourful, had razzmatazz and shine.
The origins of The Chosen Few can be traced back to Jamaican vocal harmony outfit The Federals, who enjoyed hits during the latter rocksteady era with Penny For Your Song and Shocking Love. Lead singer Dave ‘Scotty’ Scott and Franklyn Spence subsequently departed, joining Richie MacDonald and Noel ‘Bunny’ Brown in the newly formed Chosen Few in 1968. The quartet attracted the attention of long-time key figure of the Kingston music scene, Derrick Harriott and soon had an island hit with Psychedelic Train. However, Scott soon left the band and enjoyed solo success as a vocalist and deejay. This included Stop That Train, featured on classic The Harder They Come film soundtrack.
The Chosen Few went on to have another hit with Shaft, included in this collection, as well as providing the backing vocals on the massive Have You Seen Her, the 1971 worldwide hit for The Chi-lites. Clive ‘Busty Brown’ Smith then restored the band to a foursome, with Errol Brown replacing Richie MacDonald soon after. Thus, the classic Chosen Few set-up was in place.
The three albums featured in this collection were released with this line up. All were issued on Trojan Records in the UK, and Crystal or Groovemaster in Jamaica. Doctor Bird Records have put together a package of the Hit After Hit, Everybody Plays The Fool and The Chosen Few In Miami albums in their entirety, as well as bonus cuts including material recorded with producer Lloyd Charmers. As ever, there are excellent sleeve notes and period photographs. Enjoy …
The first disc contains the group’s debut long player Hit After Hit, issued in 1973. A confident title, comprising of a series of covers of well-known hit records plus one original.
The decision to open with The Stylistics’ You’re A Big Girl Now makes sense given the capability of the Chosen Few’s falsetto voices. It’s a sprightly cover of a sprightly number and is followed up instantly by an alternative, mainly instrumental mix. A little strange, maybe, given one of the vocal prowess of The Chosen Few. However, it is in-keeping with much of the reggae of the 1970s.
Indeed, further Stylistics songs are included on Hit After Hit. People Make The World Go Round, released as a 45 credited to ‘Errol Brown and the Chosen Few’, has social comment and observation. The gorgeous love song Ebony Eyes is one of the best cuts on offer and was in turn credited to ‘Bunny Brown and the Chosen Few’!
Shaft is track number three. An early hit for the new line-up, and a reggae do-over of Isaac Hayes’ original. It does lack the dramatic swoop of Hayes’ version, but the groove is more chilled (naturally) and the breakdown section particularly effective. A further Isaac Hayes number, Do Your Thing, closes the album later on. A darker sounding tune, with deeper vocals over a smoldering backing delivering a positive lyric emphasizing choice and rights.
A curious but inspired choice for a cover tune is Stranger On The Shore, written by and a hit for Acker Bilk. The Chosen Few produce a fantastic, full-on version. Rich vocal harmonies weave a tapestry behind the golden voice of Noel Brown, who works in tandem with Errol’s more resonant tone. I’m Sorry is uncluttered, with a succinct lyric brought to life by a vocal again showcasing the quartet’s golden tones. The Burt Bacharach tune Mexican Divorce (a hit for the Drifters) was extremely popular with Jamaican audiences, and was also covered by a whole multitude of acts, including Prince Buster and The Gaylads.
A stand-out cut is the version of Main Ingredients’ Everybody Plays The Fool (Sometime). A cracking tune, and a belting interpretation. A sharp dramatic opening, and a similarly sharp woodwind-organ riff. The spoken vocal gives way to further skilful, soulful vocal tapestries – the main strength of The Chosen Few, allowing the band to undertake any song they like and truly make it their own. It is also the title of the group’s second album.
The one self-penned tune of the album, I Wanna Go Home, is funky, with nice flashes of wah-wah guitar and trombone giving the cut a nice edge.
The remainder of the first disc consists of six bonus tracks cut with Derek Harriott and four numbers with Lloyd Chalmers. There is a skinhead boss reggae strut to the soulful Why Can’t I Touch You and this backing is continued on the traditional Um-Ba-Ya. Subtlety takes over with the wonderful and chilled Time Is Getting Hard and this continues with You Are Everything
However, the most exhilarating track (for me) on disc one is the exciting Am I Black Enough For You. A hit originally for Billy Paul, it is a funky reggae workout with a message. Again, credited to ‘Noel ‘Bunny’ Brown and the Chosen Few (as is the following cut, Fat Boy). A message still relevant in 2020, of course.
The final four tracks are all smooth, silky, soulful tracks recorded by Noel ‘Bunny’ Brown. Carole King’s Too Late, The Stylistics’ You Are Everything and Stoned In Love. They are quality cuts, with the golden voice of Brown, and Chalmers production skills, seemingly made for each other.
Disc two comprises of the follow up long player, 1975’s Everybody Plays The Fool, and 1976’s The Chosen Few In Miami. However, sandwiched between the two is a gem of a bonus cut – (I Can’t Get Enough Of That) Collie Stuff, a re-working of a Kool and the Gang track, Funky Stuff. Talk about unpacking the funk trunk. It has a hard driving party vibe. A further version of the track, (I Can’t Get Enough Of That) Reggae Stuff, is on Everybody Plays The Fool and was also released on Groovemaster Records as a 45.
The formula of taking well known hits and giving them an Island Soul makeover was retained, and once again, works. Some of Smokey Robinson’s biggest hits are featured in I Second That Emotion and Tears of a Clown. The former works especially well, a great song performed with real gusto worthy of a place alongside the original, and for that matter, Japan’s superb 1980s cover. The voices are well suited to Smokey’s material, as they were The Stylistics covers on the first disc; at times, they sound identical to the main man himself.
Tony ‘Prince Tony’ Robinson handled the production duties on the album, which was released on Groovemaster in Jamaica, and Trojan Records in the UK.
There are silky soul numbers in My Thing and Queen Majesty. There is a further hit cover version, The McCoys’ Hang On Sloopy. The slower Make Way For The Young Folks works particularly well, with the Browns’ voices linking with flutes, guitars and keys perfectly.
The Chosen Few In Miami was issued in 1976. Production was by Miami resident ‘King Sporty’ Williams and it has a real sheen and polish. Indicative of the way hit records in the seventies were sounding at the time, with plenty of strings, wah-wah rhythm guitar and tight musicianship. Unsurprising given the fact the band had been touring the United States a-plenty and members of KC and the Sunshine Band appear on the album. With all of this and ‘King Sporty’ producing, it is little wonder In Miami heralded the dawn of the ‘Miami Sound’ in 1976.
The album leans very firmly into funk and soul territory, rather than the reggae-based soul of the first two long players. Indeed, the bright reggae of Night And Day and a version of Elton John’s Daniel are the only reggae numbers on offer.
In comparison to the earlier albums, the policy of taking already popular hits and reworking them was eased a little. The original songs are written by a combination of the Browns, and producer ‘King Sporty’ Williams. Aside from Daniel, Clarence Carter’s Drift Away is the only other example. It is handled with respect and skill, as one might expect.
The sharp and tight funk of Wandering and Funky Buttercup find the Sunshine Band very definitely on comfortable, home territory. Why Can’t We Live raises the funk tempo even further. The closing track Hit Me With The Music gives more than a muscular hint of James Brown in its grooves, whilst the slower, silky smooth In The Rain balances the predominantly lively feel.
The album represents a watershed moment for The Chosen Few. The moment the sound took on a deliberate soul funky, at times Philly, style.
My personal preference is for a harder, tougher, strutting style of roots reggae. However, there is much to enjoy here. The Chosen Few made records people liked, and sold in numbers as a result. The vocal skill of display on The Trojan Albums Collection is second to none, and the production of Harriott, Robinson and Williams give each record smooth qualities. There was another side to reggae in the 1970s, away from the dreadlocked, rastafari rooted vibe. It may be lighter and poppier, but is very much worth checking out.to get a full appreciation of the sounds on offer from Jamaica at the time.
❉ ‘The Chosen Few: The Trojan Albums Collection’ (Doctor Bird DBCDD061) was released 7 August 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ 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.