Gregory Isaacs: farewell to the cool ruler

David Katz pays tribute to reggae singer Gregory Isaacs

Gregory Isaacs, who died of cancer in October, aged 59, was one of the most popular reggae singers of all time. A regular on the Jamaican hit parade during the 1970s and 80s, Isaacs brought reggae into far-flung territories through widespread international tours. The romantic focus of his best-known works, delivered with an effortless smoothness, earned him the epithet “the Cool Ruler”, and although the sensual “Night Nurse” and “My Number One” remain perennial favourites, he also recorded outstanding songs of social protest and celebrated his heritage by naming his record label African Museum. Despite his incredible popularity, Isaacs was also often on the wrong side of the law, and the dozens of arrests and long periods of imprisonment that resulted from his longstanding cocaine habit hastened his demise.

Born in 1951, Isaacs was raised by his mother, a tailor, in Denham Town, Kingston, after his father migrated to the USA. Inspired by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and local artists like the Melodians and Alton Ellis, the teenaged Isaacs made an impression on school talent shows, often with his younger brother Sylvester. In 1968, he recorded the self-produced “Another Heartache” with neighbour Winston Sinclair, and “Ballroom Floor” for Prince Buster, the latter after an introduction by gangleader Lester Coke (aka “Jim Brown”, father of the infamous “Dudus”); to make ends meet, Isaacs was also selling marijuana for Toddy Livingston, father of fellow singer Bunny Wailer.

Isaacs’ first significant hit, “All I Have is Love”, was recorded for Phil Pratt in 1973. At Lee Perry’s Black Ark in 1976, a dreadlocked Isaacs voiced the socially conscious “Mr Cop” and “Black Against Black”.  The Mr Isaacs album furthered such themes. But the real breakthrough finally arrived in 1978, when Isaacs signed to Virgin Records for the Cool Ruler album, and appeared in the feature film Rockers. The Lonely Lover and More Gregory albums solidified his reputation, while 1982’s Night Nurse brought unprecedented success. But then came significant spells behind bars for possession of an unlicensed firearm and cocaine.

An unstable period followed, as Isaacs remained in the grip of hard drugs. A 1987 coke bust was a blessing in disguise: it led to rehab and the hugely popular dancehall LP Red Rose for Gregory. His inability to abandon drugs altogether resulted in patchy releases, missing teeth, and a reputation for unreliability. Nevertheless, Isaacs retained a hugely loyal fan base, both at home in Jamaica and overseas.