Born in 1939, he found a love of singing through the local church choir where he was first tenor. His mother played piano in the church and his father was a professional soldier. Winning his first talent contest in 1958 set Owen on the road he would follow for next forty-five years, and made him the most popular singer in town at the time.
Recording 'Please Don't Let Me Go' for future Island boss Chris Blackwell was his break-through on the record scene and the disc rocketed to the number one slot across the small island. Issued in London on the Jazz imprint Esquire's subsidiary label Starlite, as the flip-side to 'Far Love', (a heart-rending ballad), his gritty R&B sound was just what the newly arrived Jamaican immigrants wanted to hear on a cold Saturday night in Brixton.
Owen also has the distinction of having the first solo-artist album issued in the UK of urban Jamaican music. Starlite issued 'Owen Gray Sings' in 1961, just as Blue Beat released 'All Star Top Hits - Jamaican Blues', a collection of Coxson productions. Both albums were pressed in tiny quantities and sunk without a trace in the singles dominated market and are now very highly sought after by collectors.
Citing major US R&B artists such as Fats Domino and Little Richard as his favourite singers, Owen shook the foundations with his JA take on the rough and rugged Rhythm & Blues so favoured by the sound system crowd as the 1960's dawned.
Following his sessions with Blackwell, he quickly became hot property, with a series of plaintive ballads balanced by rousing rock n' roll sides, recorded for all the big names of the day, namely Leslie Kong, Prince Buster, Duke Reid and Coxson Dodd.
His 'On The Beach', a tribute to the Sir Coxson The Downbeat sound moved many feet as did the raucous 'Mash It', which both found issue in the UK on the Melodisc subsidiary Dice and Esquire-Starlite respectively.
Realisation soon dawned on Owen that he couldn't ever really move out of the confines of the Jamaican music system if he stayed in Kingston, so in May 1962 he arrived in London looking to further his career.
A subsequent contract with Emile Shalit's Melodisc Records resulted in a fine clutch of London-produced recordings issued by Blue Beat, with notable groovers, such as 'Do You Wanna Jump' and 'She's Gone To Napoli' finding some dance-floor action for him. The former being recorded with the British based Les Dawson Combo, who had absolutely nothing to do with the laconic comedian of the same name.
In 1964, he toured Europe singing popular soul and ballad numbers with a white band, The Big Four and also reunited with fellow ex-pat Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records vied with Melodisc for a share of the West Indian music market in the UK. Among his first recordings for his new label were a version of Frankie Ford's 'Sea Cruise' issued on Fontana, a fine version of Ike & Tina Turner's 'Gonna Workout Fine' and 'Shook, Shimmy and Shake', both of which were issued on the Aladdin subsidiary, an imprint that specialised in hopeful club-Soul and Pop hits Island also issued a few more tracks of his via their main label, with 'Help Me' b/w 'Incense' from 1966 being without doubt his finest Soul recording.
Owen then moved on to lay a few sides for London sound system operator, 'Sir' Clancy Collins. These were just as the new sound of Rocksteady had supplanted Ska and they found little favour at the time. Collins issued the recordings such as 'I'm So Lonely' on his distinctive maroon and silver label called unsurprisingly 'Collins Downbeat', while others were licensed to the newly launched Trojan and issued on the company's Blue Cat imprint. Among these were 'These Foolish Things' and 'Always', both of which indicated, by their laidback, balladeering style, the direction in which Owen was heading. Sadly, once again Owen, although giving a first-rate performance just didn't find the acclaim he deserved.
Prior to the release of the Blue Cat 45s, he had also laid a few tracks for Trojan Records in 1968, produced by one Robert 'Dandy' Thompson and intended for a solo LP of his, but the project faltered and the songs appeared on the Brother Dan All Stars LP, 'Follow That Donkey'. Trojan did issue his 'Reggae With Soul' album in 1969, a patchy affair, with the highlight being his take on the Bob Andy gem 'Too Experienced'
The new Melodisc Fab imprint did gain a minor hit with him as lead singer with the Maximum Band, where their take on the old evergreen 'Cupid', made some inroads up the Reggae charts in 1968. Some more up-tempo tunes were recorded for Fab the following year, with the best being 'Apollo 12', a firm favourite with the white skinhead contingent as it had the obligatory fast jump beat they favoured, courtesy of the Rudies band. But to the complete opposite Owen went for the gospel side of things with 'Swing Low' and even film-score tunes such as 'Three Coins In The Fountain', which only had very limited audiences mainly with older West Indians.
Owen had also been recording for the Pama Records Group from 1968, with issues mainly on their Camel sub-label, the best being 'Woman A Grumble' (having the Pama pop-hopeful 'Girl What You Doing To Me' as its top-side) and 'Don't Sign The Paper', both which had the old 'Gray magic', with pumping beat and fiery vocals. He also covered King Floyd's soul classic (and club smash) 'Groove Me' in a fine Reggae style before being transferred across to Pama's commercial and chart-hopeful label Pama Supreme in 1970. Unfortunately Pama Supreme's ambition of riding the mainstream charts like its main rival Trojan Records, failed, and the lightweight happy-Reggae of such songs as 'Summer Sands' shifted few units. The singer had also recorded for London based independent label Ackee in 1970 as 'Omen', sadly the omens were not good and the lacklustre records sunk without trace.
In 1972 Owen signed a three-year contract with Island Records with an eye to following Jimmy Cliff up the charts with bright and breezy Reggae numbers. Unfortunately, covers of the Rolling Stones' 'Tumblin' Dice', Cliff's own 'Suffering In The Land' and John Lennon's 'Jealous Guy' made no impact with either Reggae crowd or the general music-buying public.
A brief stint in New Orleans followed, before he decided to return to his native Jamaica in 1974. With the rise of Roots Reggae, Owen shifted style to the Rasta sound of the day, although he had already shown allegiance with the new movement back in 1972 with his 'Hail The Man' single, praising Haile Selassie the Rasta-God on earth.
While resident in Jamaica Owen cut 'Bongo Natty' with producer Edward 'Bunny' Lee, which took him way up both the JA and UK Reggae charts. He followed it with an album of the same name, which found UK release on the Third World label in 1975, and gained him considerable acclaim among serious Reggae fans.
Owen was also hitting with singles both sides of the Atlantic, most notably 'The Children A Cry' (1976), which put his masterful vocal on top of a fine rocking rhythm. It should be noted that Owen wrote much of the content of his album and the hit singles. Having found his roots-stride, another strong collection of tracks for one of the top UK-based producers, Clement Bushay followed and were issued by Trojan as the 'Fire and Bullets' LP in 1977.
By this time, the Island contract had expired and with no interest shown by the label in furthering Owen's career, the performer felt let down by the major. This added to the blow of Trojan Records going into liquidation, leaving him penniless in terms of royalties for 'Bongo Natty' which they had issued as a single two years earlier.
The singer did once again put trust in Trojan, albeit the 'new Trojan' in 1978 when they issued his 'Dreams of Owen Gray', a collaborative effort with fellow Jamaican. Alton Ellis. The LP heralded Owen's move towards recording 'big people's music', that being gentle tunes aimed at the very lucrative older generation of West Indians.
Through the 1980's he slipped from the Reggae-public's gaze and less inspiring works such as a take on Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' for Pama in 1982, did the fiery voiced and talented singer few favours. For the remainder of the decade he was very much in the background and as the 1990's rolled in he could be found on smooth albums covering old love-songs aimed at the 'more mature' UK based West Indian community.
A typical example being his album 'True Vibration' from 1998 for Jet Star, which was marketed as a celebration of his 40 years in the music business. The whole album was covers of Soul and Pop classics, superbly sung and crafted at London's Cave Studio, but beyond the 'big people's music' market, sales were disappointing.
There is no doubt Owen has a great gift and is a rare talent, exemplified by his blistering early R&B work, the super-soul Island recordings and militant tough roots tunes. Very few singers can stand in three camps and excel in all of them - Owen did, and we can only hope that soon he will again lay down some of the 'Gray magic' in this faceless music-world of computer-producers.
MICHAEL DE KONINGH