Black Uhuru

The original line-up of Black Uhuru was formed in 1974 and comprised of Derrick ‘Ducky’ Simpson, Garth Dennis and Don McCarlos. All three lived in Waterhouse, West Kingston. Ducky was known as Uhuru (which means freedom in Swahili) even before forming the band.

Their debut single was a cover of Curtis Mayfield‘s ‘Romancing The Folk Song’, recorded at Dynamic studio and issued on the Top Cat label. Like their handful of other early singles, it met with limited success.

Thereafter group went their separate ways; Garth left to join the Wailing Souls and Don changed his last name to Carlos before embarking on a solo career. Ducky sang on a couple of Wailing Souls’ tracks himself, but spent time rehearsing with another local youth named Michael Rose, who’d sang with a band called Happiness Unlimited on the north coast for a while, then recorded a few sides for Niney the Observer, including the original ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. Rose sounded like Dennis Brown at first, but would soon develop into an original and hugely influential singer in his own right.

After Garth‘s departure, Errol Nelson from the Jayes was invited to sing harmonies and it was this second line-up ‘ with Michael Rose on lead vocals ‘ that recorded for Prince Jammy, who lived in Waterhouse and had recently started out in production for himself.

Jammy, real name Lloyd James, worked as an engineer for King Tubby, whose studio was in nearby Dromilly Avenue. Michael had already voiced ‘Born Free’ for him before revisiting Tubby’s with Uhuru to lay down tracks for the band’s debut album, ‘Love Crisis’, which Third World Records released in the UK.

A handful of 12′ singles announced its arrival, including a cover of Bob Marley‘s ‘Natural Mystic’ b/w ‘Sorry For The Man’ and ‘Bad Girl’ b/w ‘African Love’, featuring Prince Hammer, together with the classic ‘I Love King Selassie’, written by Rose.

Released in 1977, ‘Love Crisis’ failed to make much of an impression despite its wealth of strong, original material and obvious musical qualities. Third World simply couldn’t match major labels like Island or Virgin in terms of distribution and promotion, and in any case this was a new group competing for attention in an already over-populated field, and with no recognisable faces in its line-up.

Uhuru‘s ‘Identity’ however, couldn’t have been more clearly defined as they assumed the mantle of ghetto revolutionaries and chanted black liberation (and also black pride) with dignified assurance. Less melodic than other roots trios like Culture or the Mighty Diamonds, Uhuru had a militant air about them, and led by Rose‘s mournful wail, were anything but radio-friendly by comparison.

The title Greensleeves chose for their 1981 remixed version of ‘Love Crisis’ ‘ ‘Black Sounds Of Freedom’ ‘ was therefore well suited. Jammy‘s set was received more enthusiastically the second time round since the group had already flirted with international success. This had coincided with the arrival of Sly & Robbie, Jamaica’s foremost rhythm section and veterans of innumerable reggae sessions, including those for ‘Love Crisis’.

Sly Dunbar had been a friend of Michael and his older brother Joseph for years. In fact Sly & Robbie had launched their own Taxi label with the singer’s solo ‘Artibella’, and would have produced Uhuru‘s debut themselves had they not been touring with Peter Tosh. The pair were to play an integral role in Black Uhuru‘s fortunes from now on, but first came two stirring reality tracks, ‘Wood For My Fire’ and ‘Rent Man’, recorded for Dennis Brown’s DEB label, both of which created quite a stir after their release on 12′.

The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place after Errol Nelson became disenchanted with financial matters and rejoined the Jayes. His spot was taken by American Sandra ‘Puma’ Jones, who’d left for Jamaica in 1977 to be a social worker after obtaining her masters degree at Columbia University, NY.

Puma had sang with US reggae singer, Jack Miller, before joining Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus, with whom she performed at the 1978 ‘One Love Peace Concert’ in Kingston. Legend has it that she was overheard singing along to a Bob Marley album by Michael and Ducky, who just happened to be passing by at the time.

Her presence created a different dynamic within the band, although she could hardly be accused of diluting their message with her Afro-centric dress style and Rastafarian beliefs. Decamping from King Tubby’s to Channel One, this third Black Uhuru line-up lost no time recording tracks for Taxi, including ‘Shine Eye Girl’, ‘Abortion’, ‘General Penitentiary’, ‘Plastic Smile’, ‘Leaving To Zion’ and a definitive reworking of ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’.

Sly & Robbie‘s arrangements offset Uhuru‘s plaintive harmonies against some thunderous, late rockers’ style backdrops, gifting them a rhythmic power base that helped the band reap instant acclaim from grassroots fans. The result was a bunch of singles that swept all before them in 1979, and which Sly & Robbie later compiled under the heading of Showcase before licensing them to Virgin, who re-titled their album ‘Vital Selection’.

Virgin missed out on Black Uhuru‘s second album for Sly & Robbie, which the duo issued on Taxi shortly before signing with Chris Blackwell‘s Island Records in 1980. ‘Sensimelia’ was again recorded at Channel One, and voted ‘Album Of The Year’ by readers of Black Echoes and Melody Maker once reissued by Island.

Propelled by Sly Dunbar‘s imaginative use of syn drums, tracks like ‘Happiness’, ‘World Is Africa’, ‘No Loafing’ and ‘Sensimelia’ introduced Uhuru‘s music to a global audience already familiar with Jamaican roots reggae acts like the Wailers, Burning Spear and Culture.

That Uhuru were being widely tipped to take over Marley‘s international profile after his death in 1981 speaks volumes about their popularity at this stage of their career. The group’s then current set, ‘Red’, was later nominated as one of the twenty-five best albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine on the strength of tracks like ‘Youth Of Eglington’, ‘Journey’, Carbine’ and the irresistible ‘Sponji Reggae’. They were also touring extensively by now, and with Sly & Robbie in support, had succeeded in establishing themselves as one of the biggest draws on the reggae circuit.

Sly & Robbie were promoted to virtual band members on Uhuru‘s next set, ‘Chill Out’, released in 1982. The Riddim Twins’ reputation had spread way beyond Jamaica by this point (especially after working with Grace Jones), and the way they wove funk influences into the reggae mix ‘ particularly on ‘Right Stuff’ and the title track ‘ lent ‘Chill Out’ a more futuristic sound than anything heard from the trio thus far, despite the growing sense of desolation conveyed by songs like ‘Darkness’ and ‘Eye Market’.

Island also released a live album and accompanying video, ‘Tear It Up’, that same year, which they’d recorded during the band’s 1981 European tour. Uhuru had shared tour dates with both the Rolling Stones and Police by this time, and were playing rock venues in-between recording tracks at Island’s newly appointed Compass Point studios in Nassau.

These sessions resulted in ‘Anthem’, which Island first released in early 1984, but then withdrew in favour of an alternative version remixed by Paul ‘Groucho’ Smyrkle and that boasted fresh artwork, as well as a new song called ‘Solidarity’.

Tracks like ‘Party Next Door’ and ‘What Is Life’ were more upbeat than some of their past material, whilst ‘Someone Is Watching You’ featured Bernie Worrell on clavinet. ‘Botanical Roots’ and ‘Bull In A Pen’ were among the other highlights, and few were surprised when ‘Anthem’ won the inaugural reggae Grammy that year.

Alas, Black Uhuru had split up four months earlier after an ongoing dispute over song-writing credits. ‘Me and Michael got into some serious legal battles for those songs’,Ducky would later explain, ‘because I wrote ‘Shine Eye Gal’ when Michael was just a kid; I wrote ‘Sistren’ from off a my first woman and ‘Abortion’ from the first girl I lived with, yet Island still credit those songs to him”

Uhuru‘s contract with Island had expired in the meantime, leaving its members to count the costs of some effective, but costly promotion over the previous four years. Michael Rose went to farm coffee and wouldn’t resurface until several years later, after signing with RCA and then recording tracks for his own Grammy Rose label.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineties, when roots music was back in favour once more, that he would truly put the seal on his comeback. By that time Uhuru had been through two further transitions, beginning with the appointment of yet another young Waterhouse singer, Delroy ‘Junior’ Reid, in the wake of that 1984 split.

Junior had recorded his debut single, ‘Speak The Truth’ for Hugh Mundell in 1979, aged thirteen. Three years later he sang lead vocals on an album called ‘Mini Bus Driver’ for Negus Roots, credited to ‘Voice Of Progress’, then recorded an album for Prince Jammy before freelancing in earnest as the dancehall era got underway.

Michael Rose may have influenced Junior‘s sing-jay vocals, but they were also partially inspired by UK MCs, such as Smiley Culture and Papa Levi, as demonstrated on his runaway 1984 hit, ‘Original Foreign Mind’. Other reality-based songs like ‘Youth Man’, ‘Poor Man’s Transportation’ and ‘Babylon Release The Chains’ would provide the ideal credentials for him joining Uhuru, although in essence both parties could strengthen one another, since the group needed his voice and material, yet had the name and reputation he still lacked.

Junior was on a US tour with Sugar Minott, Michael Palmer and Half Pint when he got the call from Ducky, who invited him back out on the road without stopping to explain that Island weren’t involved anymore! After making his live baptism with them in Manhattan, Junior rallied to Uhuru‘s cause by returning to some of the same venues he’d just performed in as a solo act, then began writing new songs such as ‘Fit Yu Haffi Fit’, which Sly & Robbie released on Taxi as a 12′ single in 1986.

The Rasta-infused, health conscious lyrics and bruising, heavyweight sound of ‘Fit Yu Haffi Fit’, plus its cutting-edge style of production won over a lot of doubters where Uhuru‘s latest line-up was concerned.

Their next single would be ‘Great Train Robbery’, produced by Arthur Baker and the band’s second near chart success after ‘What Is Life’ had narrowly failed to make the UK Top 50 two years earlier. A snarling rock guitar and dense, rhythmic sheets of sound distinguished ‘Robbery’, which rose to the dizzy heights of No. 62 in England after RAS issued it on 7′.

Its release reinforced the perception of Uhuru as musical adventurers but tended to alienate some of their grassroots following, who’d assumed Reid‘s influence would align them more closely with what was happening in the dancehalls.

The ensuing ‘Brutal’ set, which RAS issued later that same year, was nevertheless eagerly awaited, and warmly received overall. Highlights include ‘Dread In The Mountain’, which Junior had called ‘Chanting’ when first voicing it for Delroy Wright, former Taxi single ‘Conviction Or Fine’, ‘Brutal’ itself and ‘Let Us Pray’ ‘ all of them sung over typically robust rhythms from Sly & Robbie, and tailored to fit in with developments on the international scene whilst upholding Uhuru‘s penchant for uncompromising roots music.

Also, Ducky and Puma sing one track each, belying the observation that ‘Brutal’ lacked variation. In fact three different sets of engineers participated, with Jim Fox of Lion & Fox mixing five of the tracks in Washington; Stephen Stanley overseeing others at Music Mountain in Jamaica and Arthur Baker readying ‘Great Train Robbery’ for release in New York.

The welcome afforded ‘Brutal’ meant that ‘Brutal Dub’ didn’t lag far behind. Computerised rhythms were all the rage in reggae music by then and conventional dub collections considered pass?? until ‘Brutal’‘s ten tracks were so murderously reconstructed on this album. Fans of Uhuru hadn’t heard such arresting dubs of the band’s output since Sly & Robbie‘s ‘Disco Dub’ and ‘Raiders Of The Lost Dub’ sets from five years previously, and the policy of issuing dub versions to Uhuru albums would continue for at least another decade.  

Puma left on the grounds of ill health after ‘Brutal’ and was replaced by Olafunke, who sang on Uhuru‘s next RAS album, ‘Positive’, released at the start of 1988. ‘Positive Dub’ followed in spring amidst reports of dissent within the ranks and the success of ‘Stop That Crazy Thing’, which Junior had voiced in London with Coldcut.

Two further albums, ‘Live In New York’ and ‘Love Dub’ (to which no corresponding vocals were found) resulted from this already revamped line-up, together with two songs (‘Nah Get Rich And Switch’ and ‘Pain Pon The Poor Man’s Brain’) credited to Uhuru, but released on Junior‘s newly inaugurated JR label.

Junior then signed with Big Life and in-between laying tracks for his next solo album, recorded a cover of the Rolling Stones’‘I’m Free’ with the Soup Dragons, thus earning himself a Top 5 hit in the UK during 1990, and an appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’.

Uhuru meanwhile, were left in crisis. Puma had died that January of cancer, whilst Ducky was again without a singer after discovering Junior had visa problems. When he couldn’t make an awards show in California because of this, Ducky was helped out by Don Carlos and Garth Dennis, who just happened to be on the same bill.

This is how the original line-up reformed, and whilst Junior went on to have a worldwide hit with ‘One Blood’, build his own studio and re-establish his solo career, Ducky, Don and Garth signed with US label Mesa and delivered four albums for them in total, including ‘Iron Storm’ from 1991, which featured Ice T on one track.

This arrangement didn’t last and by 1997 there were two different Black Uhurus in existence ‘ one led by Ducky Simpson, and the other by Garth and Don, who were eventually defeated in court over the rights to the name.

Don reverted to solo work and Garth rejoined the Wailing Souls whilst Ducky recruited Andrew Bees and Jennifer ‘Nyah’ Connally, then returned to his roots in Waterhouse, where Prince (now King) Jammy produced ‘Unification’, released on Five Star General at the end of 1999. Hailed as the most cohesive Black Uhuru album in years, it was followed by the equally impressive ‘Dynasty’ a year later.

The Black Uhuru story couldn’t end there of course, and whilst there have been no further studio recordings as I write, it’s impossible to tell what twists and turns will develop in future. By way of illustration, Michael Rose rejoined Black Uhuru in the summer of 2004 and the band began touring with Sly & Robbie once more, thereby picking up where they’d left off twenty years earlier and sounding just as dangerous as ever’

John Masouri