Unless you're a reggae devotee, you might have assumed that the heyday of Jamaica's most famous music ended with the death of the legendary Bob Marley in 1981. After that, Marley's elegance seemed to have been overtaken by the louder and often lewder strains of dancehall reggae. But the thousands gathering to bid farewell to Gregory Isaacs this weekend know better: thanks to Isaacs' silky vocals and stage mastery he was called the "Cool Ruler" the reggae born at the time of the Beatles still pulses strong. Isaacs "kept the tradition of pure singing alive," says Jamaican musicologist Vaughn "Bunny" Goodison. "He remained endeared to the people."
The body of Isaacs, who died of lung cancer in London on Oct. 25, was flown last week to the Jamaican capital, Kingston, his birthplace, in preparation for what will in effect be a state funeral on Saturday, Nov. 20, at the National Indoor Sports Centre. That's no surprise: Isaacs was a national treasure, a commercially and critically acclaimed reggae artist who recorded 500 albums in his 40-year career. The most famous, Night Nurse, which contained his most popular single (of the same name), was fittingly released a year after Marley's death, a sign that Isaacs would keep the genre going.
And that is perhaps Isaacs' most valuable legacy. He preserved authentic reggae over the past three decades, not just its gracefully offbeat sound but its quirkily dignified demeanor, which Isaacs retained whether he was pining for lost love or railing at social injustice. "Gregory never bowed under the pressures of what turned out to be the downward slide of the music to the very sad state it is in today," says Frankie Campbell, leader of the popular and long-lived Jamaican reggae band Fab Five. "He never stood for the violence, the aggression, the degradation of women, the homophobia" for which so many dancehall stars, like Buju Banton and Elephant Man (a.k.a. O'Neil Bryant) have been internationally criticized (although certainly not all dancehall reggae has that reputation).
Not that Isaacs, who was raised by a single mother in Kingston's violent Denham Town ghetto, didn't have his own demons. Night Nurse was a thinly veiled reference to his cocaine addiction, which he never really kicked until his later years, his drug use eventually leading to the loss of some of his teeth. He was arrested at least twice for cocaine possession and once served a brief prison sentence for illegal gun possession. But his music "was never vulgar," says Goodison, who in the coming weeks will air a tell-all interview he conducted with Isaacs in 1990. Like other friends, Goodison remembers his benevolence as well as his wicked wit. "In spite of his flaws, Gregory was a humanitarian, a social worker, a lover at heart. He would help you out in a practical way at the drop of a hat."
Isaacs, who made his first recording in 1968, brought a Sinatra-style cool to reggae as a songwriter as well as a singer. "Gregory was always a gentleman," says Howard Duperly, a Jamaican American who hosts a reggae radio show on Miami's WDNA-FM. "He often came out in a suit and a hat that was the Gregory ambience. He had a charismatic quality." The New York Times once called Isaacs's "the most exquisite voice in reggae," a suave gift that could be plaintive on hits like "Love Is Overdue" (his other nickname was "Lonely Lover") and defiant on anthems like "Wailing Rudy."
After cancer claimed Marley at the young age of 36 and fellow reggae star Peter Tosh was murdered in 1987 dancehall began its ascent under the deejaying artist King Yellowman (a.k.a. Winston Foster). "A lot of artists who weren't necessarily singers per se found out that they could incorporate a lot of [rap-style] chanting in the music to create a sensation," says Goodison, "and we saw the rise of what became known as 'singjays.' Gregory and [reggae singer] Dennis Brown," who died in 1999, "were the two main artists who withstood the onslaught."
Isaacs withstood it long enough to inspire younger artists including Isaac Kalumbu, known as King Isaac, who was an impressionable teen in Zimbabwe when he first heard reggae, including "Zimbabwe," Marley's tribute to African independence. Kalumbu was especially taken with Isaacs, and he recalls saving up his lunch money to buy the album Lonely Lover. It prodded Kalumbu to study ethnomusicology and write his own reggae songs, which brought him to Jamaica, where Isaacs agreed to record with him. Earlier this year the two released a new CD, Isaacs Meets Isaac.
This week Kalumbu, who is also a Michigan State University music professor, was among a host of reggae acts paying tribute to Isaacs in a Kingston concert. "I wrote a song for him, 'Secret Admirer,' which he quite liked but could not [record] due to ill health," says Kalumbu, who performed it at the show. He'll also be among the throngs of mourners at the Sports Centre who have been asked by Jamaica's Minister of Youth Sports and Culture, Olivia "Babsy" Grange (herself an alumna of the All Saints Primary School in the slum of western Kingston that Isaacs attended) to bring a red rose, in honor of Isaacs' 1988 hit album Red Rose for Gregory.