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Reggae Legends

Gregory Isaacs

Gregory Isaacs

By Tom Pryor
Published September 9, 2005

Gregory Isaacs is one of reggae’s all-time greatest singers, a master of subtle phrasing and sly innuendo who’s voiced some of the music’s best-known hits.

Despite his thin, sometimes strained voice, Gregory Isaacs is one of reggae’s all-time greatest singers, a master of subtle phrasing and sly innuendo who’s voiced some of the music’s best-known hits. A prolific recording artist and performer, Isaacs has penned classic roots anthems, as well as truly sappy lover’s rock, and his persona has always veered between these two poles of conscious Rastaman and put-upon loverman.

But no matter which side of Isaacs manifests itself onstage, he’s a riveting performer, driving crowds to a frenzy with the smallest of gestures. For this he’s been dubbed “The Cool Ruler” and is one of the best-loved favorites of Jamaican audiences, who have stuck loyally by the singer even when his turbulent personal life got in the way of the music.

          Isaacs recorded his first solo single, “Another Heartache,” in 1969. He scored his first big hits in 1973 with “All I Have Is Love” and “My Only Lover,” when his heartbreak-choked voice first connected with Kingston’s incurable romantics.

          Around this same time, Isaacs founded his African Museum label and began to record more “conscious” tracks. He addressed the social and economic inequalities that pressed down on Jamaica’s working class in songs like “Innocent People Cry,” “Thief A Man” and “Black A Kill Black.” The culmination of this direction was 1977’s classic Mr. Isaacs, a full-length album built around some of Channel One’s hardest rhythms. 

But Isaacs hadn’t forgotten about the ladies, either, and he churned out some of the smoothest lover’s rock favorites of the late ’70s on albums like Soon Forward. By the early ’80s, Isaacs had been signed and dropped by Virgin Records, and was now on the Mango label, for which he recorded Night Nurse in 1982. This album would provide Isaacs with some of his biggest international hits to date, and cement his status as reggae’s leading loverman.

Throughout the ’80s Isaacs would continue to score hits as dancehall went digital. But by the '90s, Isaacs’ cocaine abuse caught up with him, ravaging both his voice and his teeth. While today the “Cool Ruler” is clean, and continues to record and tour,  his voice is a shadow of what it once was.

Recommended Recordings

Mr. Isaacs (Blood and Fire)
Night Nurse (Mango)
Red Rose For Gregory (Ras)