For a performer who only lived 42 years, Dennis Brown packed as much music into his life as he could. He seemingly hopped out of the cradle and onto Jamaican club stages; he also cranked out records at an unyielding pace. In the mid-’60s, he played West Kingston charity balls and banged on beer boxes with Byron Lee’s Dragonaires until the band’s leader made him a full-fledged member. He was nine.
His association with Lee brought him to the attention of the Falcons, who hired him as vocalist. A fortuitous gig at the Tit-for-Tat club caused Studio One impresario Coxsone Dodd to take notice of this confident, silky-voiced kid. In 1969, when Brown was 11, Dodd produced him delivering the Van Dykes’ soul hit “No Man Is An Island” and the subsequent album of the same name.
Certainly, to come of age in 1970s Jamaica meant voicing social and political injustices, and as Rastafarianism and dub were transforming what had been a music heavily informed by U.S. soul into a cultural force, Brown was right on time. The legendary Niney the Observer credits his beginnings as a producer to work on Brown’s 1973 “Westbound Train,” which borrowed from Al Green. Brown’s lyrics became increasingly message-oriented and Niney’s productions were stark, giving extra heft to such tunes as “Africa” and “Tribulation.” By the end of the ’70s, a monster hit for producer Joe Gibbs, “Money In My Pocket,” brought Gibbs added notoriety and led to Brown’s move to major label A&M in 1980.
Despite the deeper excursions with Niney, the gushing dreads and the politics, Brown was always a mainstream artist, and his inking with a U.S. label guaranteed him international stardom. He moved to London and continued to record and produce; his 1982 album, Love Has Found Its Way, with production assistance from Gibbs, brought him pop success on a level rarely achieved in all of reggae as the title track climbed U.S. R&B charts. By decade’s end, he had moved back to Jamaica, aimed his music at a younger market, sang duets with Gregory Isaacs and continued traveling the world.
Unfortunately, with stardom came a cocaine problem, something he denied repeatedly to the press. After touring in Brazil in 1999, he complained of chills and fatigue on the plane ride home. Within days he was dead. AIDS, pneumonia and the wears and tears of addiction have all been cited as possibilities; no one is certain, as there was no autopsy. Almost as much of a mystery is his recorded output, which is overwhelming in terms of sheer amount. One hundred albums is a safe estimate.
Money in My Pocket: Anthology 1970-1995 (Trojan)
Some Like It Hot (Heartbeat)
Just Dennis (Trojan)