Born in Jubilee Hospital in the heart of Kingston, Jamaica on February 1st 1957, Dennis grew up with his mother in Chocomo Lawn, an area just north of the downtown area of the city, close to the heart of the island's recording industry. His father, Arthur was a comic actor who also penned scripts for the popular radio show, 'Life In Hopeful Village' in which he starred alongside another of his sons, Basil. Given such strong links with the entertainment business, it is hardly surprising Dennis soon began to display talents of his own talents, and in an interview with British weekly, Black Echoes in 1979, he recalled how he received encouragement from friends and family, while also revealing a surprisingly varied source of musical inspiration…
'People used to tell me - when I was about eight - 'Oh Dennis, you have a lovely voice', and I'd sing them lots of ballads, a couple of Pop songs. I thought more or less that I'd always be singing for the older folks - not really for the young people. I've always felt it inside me that I would like to be a star. It's a long way to stardom. It's a lot of work. It's the business, y'know. Nat 'King' Cole was my greatest influence as a singer. His voice was so full of the kind of deep expression, which I found exciting and helpful to listen to, but Brook Benton was another singer I really rated in them times. Smokey Robinson too. There were a lot of singers like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Tony Bennett, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding… a lot of singers I really liked. I also listened to a lot of the harmony groups like the Impressions - with Curtis Mayfield - and the Platters, the Drifters.'
Listening and learning from such an eclectic mix of accomplished performers helped the young singer develop a sophisticated style that belied his tender years and after his singing prowess had impressed both teachers and fellow pupils at Central Branch Primary, he made his stage debut, at the tender age of ten. Typically, it was no ordinary affair, but rather a 'Grand Charity Ball', held at the National Arena on 9th December 1967, with fellow artistes that evening comprising celebrated South African vocalist, Miriam Makeba, US singer, Adam Wade and leading local acts, the Virtues and Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. And it was the latter that was soon to play a significant role in Dennis' development as a performer, as the band's bass-playing leader snapped up the so-called 'Boy Wonder' for a series of shows at which 'Little Dennis Brown' performed on the same bill as numerous major US and Jamaican stars.
By early 1970, the association with Byron Lee had run its course and for the next year or so, the young singer regularly performed with the Falcons, a local band with which he also made his recording debut. According to Dennis' own recollections, his initial 45 had been a Derrick Harriott-produced song entitled 'It's a Crime', which 'did pretty well in the charts and in sales' and reached 'the number nine position for about a week', but with no evidence of such a disc existing, let alone making the local listings, the accuracy of this statement has to be open to question. Nonetheless, it is certain that during this period he was regularly appearing with the Falcons on Harriott's popular 'Musical Chariot' show, while also making trips to the recording studio to cut a number of songs that in time would see issue either as singles or on the 1972 collection, 'Dennis Brown Sings Reggae And Soul Hits'.
During his association with Harriott, Dennis had become familiar with the Van Dykes' 1964 US hit, 'No Man Is An Island' and when, around the summer of 1970 he was signed to Clement 'Coxson' Dodd's esteemed Studio One operation, he recorded his own version of the number. The single swiftly became the first of a number of significant Jamaican hits for Dennis, while his relationship with the producer had other benefits, as he recounted in 1979:
'I was always with singers like Horace Andy, Errol Dunkley, the Heptones and Delroy Wilson. But it was Alton Ellis who taught me how to play the guitar. He was the first one who told me that I should learn to play an instrument because it would assist me in getting my music together more. It was he who inspired me to summon up the courage to ask Downbeat [Coxson Dodd] for a guitar. Alton was the one who showed me the very first chords. We used to be together, sing together - especially me and the Heptones, we all learned harmony together. They taught me a lot too where music is concerned. All of them encouraged me a great deal.'
Over the next year or so Dennis cut a series of sides for Dodd, culminating in the best-selling albums, 'No Man Is An Island' and 'If I Follow My Heart', issued in '72 and '73, respectively. Aside from his Studio One work, he reunited with his former mentor, Derrick Harriott who issued a number of the singer's works from the 1970 sessions, including the chart hits, 'Lips Of Wine' and a version of the Rays' Doo Wop classic, 'Silhouettes'. Other producers to benefit from Dennis' growing popularity included Phil Pratt for whom the singer cut the best-selling 'What About The Half' and 'Black Magic Woman', and Lloyd 'The Matador' Daley, who issued the popular 'Baby Don't Do It'. Subsequent sessions for Augustus 'Gussie' Clarke, Clive Chin and Joel A. Gibson (aka Joe Gibbs) produced further hits in 'In Their Own Way', 'Cheater' and 'Money In My Pocket'' - a run of successes that reinforced the youngster's reputation as the island's most promising young talent.
During this time, Dennis also regularly performed on stage at venues around Kingston, perfecting his craft while working with leading local bands, the Now Generation and, later, the Soul Syndicate, but by the summer of '73, the strains of work had taken their toll and the young man took a few month's break from his hectic schedule. The resultant hiatus provided the opportunity to pen a number of new songs that would soon take his career to a new level and in an interview with pioneering British Reggae journalist, Chris Lane, Dennis provided a fascinating insight into his inspiration for the songs that became instrumental in his transformation from child prodigy to serious 'adult' act:
'I was inspired to write 'Westbound Train' when I went out one night for a walk. When I returned I found a note from a girl I had and most of the words of the song are from that note. I wrote 'Cassandra' because I actually know a girl called Cassandra. I wrote 'Conqueror' when I was ill. A couple of months ago I was suffering from exhaustion from overwork so I had to rest for some time - that was why there were rumours that I was dead, because people didn't see me for so long. 'Conqueror' has a double meaning, I felt I had to conquer my illness and also I wanted the guys to treat their girls better, which is why I say they shouldn't call the sisters 'Leggo Beasts' and 'why do you deal with brutality'.
'Westbound Train' was the first of these sides to see issue, the single topping the local charts for weeks on end late in '73, although the triumph was marred by Dennis' ongoing health problems that led to a prolonged spell in hospital. Yet despite being in a frail condition, the young singer remained determined to capitalise on the success and at a late night session at Randy's studio, he cut the similarly styled follow-up, 'Cassandra', which duly became another big seller in the Spring of '74. Soon after, 'I Am The Conqueror' provided Dennis with his third major hit in a row, with this trio of Niney-produced 45s establishing a solid foundation for a career that as the decade unfolded went from strength to strength.
Dennis worked with a variety of producers throughout the mid-Seventies, although it was his collaborations with Winston 'Niney' Holness that continued to prove the most successful, with a slew of best selling singles culminating from their work together in the studio. Yet, for all their triumphs on the home front, international recognition remained largely elusive and it was not until after the singer reunited with Joe Gibbs that the breakthrough eventually came. The pairing initially resulted in a series of superior 45s along with the exceptional 'Visions' long player, but the popularity of such work was all but eclipsed by a subsequent reworking of their very first hit together, 'Money In My Pocket'.
Issued in the UK on the Lightning label early in 1979, the remake entered the mainstream charts in the Spring before finally peaking at number 14. With proof of Dennis' cross-over appeal finally established, he was promptly snapped up by WEA Records, with his work assigned to the company's newly created Reggae imprint, Laser, but while a number of impressive singles and albums followed, further forays into the British Pop listings failed to materialise, and in 1981 Dennis parted company with the record major.
Soon after, he signed with another significant US-based operation, A&M, which immediately succeeded where WEA had failed - his acclaimed 'Love Has Found A Way' long player returning the singer to the UK charts in the Summer of '82. Soon after, the album's title track broke into the Top 50, with the follow-up, 'Halfway Up Halfway Down' climbing to number 56 that September. Another two collections for A&M followed, although arguably the best of Dennis' early Eighties work was cut with Sly & Robbie at Channel One, with the Riddim Twins overseeing the creation of such seminal sides as 'Sitting And Watching', 'Have You Ever', 'Hold On To What You've Got' and the magnificently defiant 'Revolution'.
Dennis' popularity showed no signs of waning with the dawn of the Digital era that followed soon after, with the popular duet with John Holt, 'Wild Fire' and the Prince Jammy-produced 'The Exit' highlighting the consummate ease at which he adapted to the new style. Since Bob Marley's passing, Dennis had enjoyed a friendly rivalry with Gregory Isaacs for the mantle of Reggae's most popular living performer, but with his health now increasingly affected by a hectic work schedule and a change in musical tastes in Jamaica, the hits began to dry up. With the new DJ-centric Ragga style dominant throughout the Nineties, the triumphs were few and far between, although there remained glimpses of his talent throughout this time, both in the studio and on stage, with international tours ensuring his status as one of Reggae's biggest live draws.
In the Spring of '99, Dennis embarked on a Brazilian tour, along with fellow Reggae acts, Gregory Isaacs, Max Romeo and Lloyd Parks, but soon after arriving in South America, he began complaining of breathing difficulties. After returning to Kingston, he spent a week in Miami, but upon his arriving back home on June 30th, suffered a cardiac arrest and was rushed to Kingston's University Hospital. Over the next few hours, doctors frantically attempted to save his life, but sadly their efforts ultimately proved futile and around 7 o'clock on July 1st, he was pronounced dead, with the official cause given as respiratory failure from pneumonia.