❉ The spirit of ’69 is alive and kicking in this collection of early boss reggae tunes, writes Paul Matts.
Hot on the heels of recent Doctor Bird excursions into the back catalogue of Joel Arthur Gibson (Joe Gibbs) comes a collection based around the Reggae Fever album by vocal duo The Inspirations. Issued on Gibbs’ Amalgamated Records in 1970, Reggae Fever featured twelve tracks, including four instrumentals. It was initially issued in the UK only; its Jamaican release, confusingly, came much later.
Most of the songs included were versions of already huge hits – for instance the closing trio of The Melodians’ Sweet Sensation, Clancy Eccles’ Fattie Fattie and Harry J Allstars’ The Liquidator. Even casual reggae fans are familiar with such material. Therefore, decision to release the album in 1970 was a curious one – The Inspirations had plenty of quality material of their own and had indeed recently struck gold with one of the most important reggae tunes of all time – Tighten Up, released on Lee Scratch Perry’s Upsetter imprint. It set the sonic, with its double-beat drum pattern and thrilling vibrancy, for the new boss reggae chapter, and obviously led Trojan’s Tighten Up series of compilations.
Follow up material by The Inspirations with Scratch inevitably failed to scale the same heights, and the duo moved to Gibbs and Amalgamated to record and release their debut album, Reggae Fever. However, what makes this Doctor Bird collection fascinating are the bonus cuts rather than the original album. After the success of Tighten Up boss reggae was to become the sound in the house parties of London and Birmingham, as well as in Kingston. The sound, embraced by the youth of working-class estates, had a tough edge, bounce and strut. The children of the Windrush Generation were sharing Jamaican sounds with their white neighbours.
What we have here is a large and quality selection of early boss reggae tunes. The kind embraced by the original skinheads, Suedeheads and youth of 1969. The spirit of ’69 is alive and kicking in this collection.
Firstly, the Reggae Fever long player. The Inspirations were Trevor Shaw and Billy Dyce (aka Ransford White). Production was carried out by young hotshot George ‘Niney’ Boswell alongside Gibbs. It has a fresh feel, with an exciting urgency to it. For instance, the version of The Liquidator has a funkier backbeat which gives a variation from the original. It is the final track on Reggae Fever and is performed by The Destroyers – Joe Gibbs’ studio band on the album. It is one of four instrumentals.
Proceedings open with one such cut, the confident strutting Mad Rooster. This organ-led number has a deft lightness of touch to it. Organ-led instrumentals were common and popular in the early, post rock steady early days of reggae. The Destroyers were ostensibly The Hippy boys, and issued material under several monikers, which also included The Cobbs and The Scientists. Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett was the bass player, famed for his time with Bob Marley.
The first Inspirations cut is Ease Up, a Jamaican hit for Lee Graham and Wesley Martin of The Bleechers. Like all the covers, it has a bright, energetic vocal sound which has depth and resonance in the solo parts, and fullness and strength in the harmonies. The backings are edgy, and have hard, sharp instrument isolations among in the mixes. It is unlikely any listener will prefer these versions to the original 45s – most of which were released in the year or so preceding Reggae Fever. For example, Wet Dream by Max Romeo. But they give an alternative interpretation, and highlight the vocals of Shaw and Dyce, and the production of Gibbs and Niney.
There is just one original track. The superbly titled Why Do You Laugh At My Calamities. The rough beauty of the verse provides the perfect backing to the song’s protestations of harsh treatment, sung with real conviction. The conviction that comes with a self-penned lyric, maybe?
The Inspirations have five further self-penned tunes in the bonus cuts. The bright sound of The Train Is Coming juxtaposes the sad lyric. A Message To My Girl is a belter. Trevor Shaw and Billy Dyce could write songs, for sure. Three more cracking originals follow, including the fantastic, smouldering, strong thrust of the hit, Take Back Your Duck. Again, the quality of these raises the question of why Gibbs opted to release an album of covers, rather than a long player made up mainly of original material.
Anyway, elsewhere The Versatiles have two cuts, as does Stranger Cole. Both quality acts and familiar names to Doctor Bird fans. Stranger appears without his long-time musical partner, pianist Gladstone Anderson, on What Mama Na Want She Get and We Two. The Versatiles’ classic, Lu Lu Bell is always a very welcome inclusion.
The second disc is a joy. The Reggae Boys had a thrusting sound that appealed to the council ran areas of the UK, with its cocky but subtle vocal nuances. Their pure, almost celestial voices were easy to mistake for more celebrated groups like The Pioneers. The Reggae Boys issued material under several aliases. Like the Soul Mates. Them A Laugh And Ki Ki is an obvious standout. As well as being another great title, it was a very popular hit 45 for Amalgamated in 1969 and a regular on Trojan compilations.
In one way or another, The Reggae Boys contribute over a quarter of the disc’s content. A highlight is the thumping boss tune, Mama Look Deh. Aggressive strut, vocal sweetness. Perfect. Likewise, The Wicked Must Survive, which bookends disc two with its original and organ mix.
Another skinhead favourite was Wreck A Buddy by the Soul Sisters, who boasted the naughty and suggestive Nora Dean among their ranks. Even if she recited the phone book it would sound filthy and rude, and to the tune of Little Drummer Boy, the lyrical content of Wreck A Buddy is X-rated. Another famous boss reggae 45 – for a mixture of reasons.
There are numerous instrumentals on the second disc, credited to The Hippy Boys, The Destroyers, The Cobbs and The Scientists. All basically one and the same, remember. Among the musicians guesting is Ansell Collins, before he achieved worldwide fame alongside Dave Barker with Monkey Spanner and Double Barrell. Ansell is credited on several cuts here, including three of the ‘new to compact disc’ tracks, Professor In Action, Hot Buttered Corn and Space Doctor. As one might expect, Ansell’s keyboard is the lead instrument. The other two tracks getting their CD debut are also instrumentals, Pressure Tonic and Unknown Tongue, both credited to The Destroyers.
A final highlight is Ernest Wilson’s reading of the superb Stax song Private Number, originally a hit for Judy Clay and William Bell. Wilson was a member of vocal group The Claredonians, and his rugged, bouncy boss version of this holds up to the original. And that’s really saying something.
The Inspirations split shortly after Reggae Fever, with Trevor Shaw becoming Jimmy London and finding success with the Bridge Over Troubled Water opus, which contained many island hits. Billy Dyce pursued a solo career. But by writing and recording Tighten Up with Scratch (RIP, King) earlier in the career, they inspired the spirit of ’69 and its boss reggae sound. Many such cuts, unknown or possibly forgotten by many, are happily included here by Doctor Bird.
❉ The Inspirations: ‘Reggae Fever’ 2CD (Doctor Bird DBCDD087) released 10 September 2021 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £11.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicestershire, England. His debut novel, Toy Guitars, was published in July 2021 by New Generation Publishing. Other works include the novella Donny Jackal and short stories Revenge Can Be Sweet and One More Season. Paul is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punk Globe, Punk Noir and Something Else magazines, specialising in punk and Jamaican music. Occasionally, he dabbles in other genres too. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/.