Friday, May 1, 2009

Junior Murvin - Reggaes Sweetest Voice?

Junior Murvin was born Murvin Junior Smith. His father was a tailor and singer of ballads from St. James in Montego Bay. When he died Junior's mother relocated the family to Port Antonio in the parish of Portland, where she was originally from. Junior began his singing career after going to school in Port Antonio and then in Montego Bay where he graduated and proceeded to do mechanics at the Montego Bay Technical High School.
He was gifted with a unique, feather-light falsetto voice and sang on stage shows in Montego Bay with backing from either A.J. Brown or E.T. Webster. His main influences in his youth were ballads and soul classics by the likes of Billy Eckstein, Nat King Cole, Ben E. King, Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Roy Hamilton and Curtis Mayfield, after whom his own falsetto was, modelled.
His recording career began as Junior Soul, where he first recorded "Miss Kushie" in 1966 for the Gayfeet label, and then "Slipping" and "Jennifer". He also released songs on Derrick Harriott's Crystal label, and in 1972, he scored a minor hit with "Solomon," (which was written by him and later was re-recorded, and became a hit for Harriott himself), but he was dissatisfied with its level of success so he returned home and spent a period of time working on his guitar playing and song writing.
By 1976, he was ready to take another shot. He took along his self-penned anthem "Police and Thieves" to Lee 'Scratch' Perry (now running his own Black Ark studio ) and together they developed and recorded the song, which on release took just weeks to become a chart-topping reggae anthem of the summer in Jamaica and England, both of which were in the throes of intense racial unrest. With this success Murvin and Perry went on and co-wrote some more material and completed a full album.
Junior, who sees writing songs as "how we get to our reggae foundation" is quoted as saying of writing the album as…

"it's a biblical form it come to me spiritually - difference is that I find myself a sing from proverbs - me can't sing nothing impossible and nothin go happen - always come reality or when it come from proverbs a come to teach to tell the youth a nah do that. Me never did know still until when me get older me really find out... and then Winston Barnes (a Jamaican broadcaster) now start call me that on the radio, 'me a proverbs man'. It come so to, like they come in a message y'know you have to put them together. It might take a time to put them together sometimes three or four weeks, like when you build a house you have to build it strong".

Perry had recently contracted to do work for Island Records and Police & Thieves was released at the beginning of 1977. This album is regarded as one of Perry's finest productions, and the album spawned further singles in "Tedious," "Roots Train," and "False Teachin'." At the same time, the emerging punk rock movement was professing affection for reggae's rebellious spirit, and The Clash became the first band to take that affection and put it on record when they covered "Police and Thieves" on their seminal debut album released in the same year.
This success with "Police and Thieves" prompted Murvin to cut two more singles for Perry using that riddim, "Bad Weed" and "Philistines on the Land." But neither reached the same dizzying heights of success. He also released covers of Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (as "Rasta Get Ready") and "Closer Together," and cut a few tracks for producer Joe Gibbs, including the moderately successful "Cool Out Son." In 1978 he released "Load Shedding." A G.G. Ranglin-produced single. Unfortunately, the magical combination of Murvin and Perry would never finish another album together. Although they recorded more material with Murvin's new backing band, the Apostles, and released a 12" single in 1980 ("Crossover" b/w "I'm in Love"), Perry's increasing mental difficulties would culminate in a nervous breakdown and the destruction of his studio. Murvin continued to record off and on through the '80s without Perry, he made an album with Mikey Dread called "Bad Man Posse", with the title track asking young men to stay away from bad posses in this turbulent time. A tune as relevant, if not more so today, than it was then. He recorded again in the mid-eighties with red-hot dancehall mastermind Henry "Junjo" Lawes, and released the album "Muggers In The Street", The title track yet another re-cut of "Police And Thieves". From this LP also came the singles "Strike And Demonstration", "Poison Dart", "Jamaican Girl". Soon after this, in 1986, he began a project with another prominent dancehall producer Prince Jammy. The album "Apartheid" was released along with the singles "On The Level" on the Boxing riddim, "Lawman And Gunman" and the heavy "Cool Down The Heat" over the riddim that Nitty Gritty masterfully sang "Run Down The World". The following year he cut a couple of singles for King Tubby. "Signs and Wonders" released in 1989 was his last album as he decided to once again retreat from the public eye. In the years since, Murvin has remained active on a low-profile basis, recording singles for various local sound systems in Jamaica, and also for his own small label, based in Port Antonio. In the mid-'90s, he completed an album called "World Cry" for the independent Sunvibes label, and He also released the single, "Wise Man," on the London-based Dubwise label in 1998.
After a gap of nearly 10 years last year saw the release of "Inna De Yard", for Earl Chinna Smiths Makasound label. This release sees Murvin hitting the target spot again, with an excellent fusion of meditative roots, soul and jazz, as he reworks some of his old songs originally cut at the Black Ark. There are also a couple of soul covers to boot in the shape of Bill Withers "Ain't No Sunshine", which throws in Nyabinghi drums for a lovely feel that adds another dimension to the legendary song, and also one from one of Murvin's biggest influences, Curtis Mayfield, with "Gypsy Woman". Murvin's voice sounds as great as ever and hasn't faded or degenerated at all over the years, but unfortunately I doubt he'll ever recapture the heady heights of what was his greatest defining moment.

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