Judge Dread

Look in many authoritative books on Jamaican music and you will find little or no entry for Alex Hughes, a man more familiarly known as Judge Dread.

Maybe the editors and contributors to the said tomes didn’t consider a white, ex-bouncer from Snodland in Kent relevant to sunny Jamaica and its 50-year plus history of popular music. But they would be wrong, as there can be no doubt that Judge Dread popularised the music through out the early 1970’s, and pushed more reggae in to the mainstream charts, than any other artist – and at the same time filled the coffers of Trojan Records way beyond their wildest dreams. Marley may have been shifting some units for Island Records back in 1973, but he didn’t climb the silver ladder of the Top Twenty like the good Judge, and he got promotional airplay, which is something Mr. Dread never managed.

The story starts with Alex the bouncer, working the door in various West Indian clubs around the West End of London in latter part of the 1960’s where he got to know visiting Jamaican stars of the time.  Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan all passed through the portals guarded by Alex on their way to perform for the ever-increasing UK audience, latterly filled out by white appreciators of the music in the form of the skinheads.

In 1969, Prince Buster had scored both sides of the Atlantic with an extremely risqu?? reggae number entitled ‘Big 5’, which used as its template Brook Benton‘s soulful classic ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ of all things! The art of the double-meaning or just basic filthy lyrics had long been part of West Indian culture, something inherited from the British sailors of pirate days whose ribald drunken shanties would rattle round the salubrious taverns. This combined with the West Indian down-to-earth outlook to create songs of basic human desires that are still sung in calypso and mento form through out the islands, although by the 1960’s in Jamaica the ska uprising had confined these artists to either hotel circuits or back to the rural towns.

Traditional mento songs would feature thinly veiled lyrics with song titles such as ‘Don’t Touch Me Tomato’, and the enormously popular (in both senses) ‘Big Bamboo’, along side more normal fare encouraging the dancers to drink and be merry. The ska era also threw up a good number of near the knuckle ditties with ‘Want Me Cock’ from Owen and Leon Di Silvera, which gained release simultaneously on two labels in the UK, one imprint opted for the blunt in-your-face original title while the other tempered it down as ‘Me Want Woman’. Prince Buster carried on this tradition with ‘Big 5’ and although produced a heavy seller, never followed up the opening obviously created for this type of rude, or ‘slack’ in Jamaican terminology, outing.

So enter the newly-named Judge Dread who not only picked up where Prince Buster left off, but even took his very name from one of Buster‘s most popular songs, and with a little convincing of Trojan Records, stepped in to the studio. The resulting ‘Big 6’, recorded in London, hit the hallowed UK Top Twenty, climbed to number eleven in 1972 and stayed in the nation’s favourite chart for 27 weeks. It also gained release in Jamaica where it fared well against the indigenous recordings and converted a few locals to the London reggae sound.

‘Big 6’ had received no air play whatsoever, due to its extremely rude nursery rhyme lyrics, written by Judge Dread in collaboration with his manager and friend Fred Lemon. Lemon, who always remained very much in the background, was a mainstay and writing partner for the Judge through out the majority of his career. The record grew in reputation via youth clubs, school playgrounds and nightclubs, but never on the radio. Some bought it as a novelty record, some as a reggae record, while others bought the disc unheard and splashed out on the single based on the praise given by word of mouth.

Summer 1972 found many a schoolboy sniggering under his desk as he read the lyrics which were printed in the teen-pop magazines of the day alongside a picture of a bearded smiling white guy. Many reggae fans grabbed the disc and viewed it in the same vein as Nora Dean‘s saucy reference to a young man with something more than normal in his undergarments, ‘Barbwire’. These record buyers reeled back aghast to find a grinning resident from Snodland was the perpetrator rather than an ‘authentic’ Jamaican singer. The BBC ban and their general distaste for Jamaican product gave very little problem to the sales of ‘Big 6’, and much to the board of director’s disgust, their very blacklisting of the record pushed more people in to wanting to sample the delights of the good Judge. It was naughty, and you weren’t allowed it there fore you wanted it all the more and the sales continued unabated.

On ‘Big 6’ Judge Dead is speaking (you can’t really call it singing) with an almost Jamaican lilt, which he would drop as his confidence grew and a very British Medway Towns accent would appear across the ensuing couple of singles. Although he was actually a very reasonable singer on tracks such as ‘Molly’, a song about a ‘big girl’ that could almost be considered clean and worthy of airplay, though the flip side of the single, a re-reading of Lord Kitchener‘s ‘Dr Kitch’ was decidedly not for general consumption.

The choice of rhythm track used for the follow up single to ‘Big 6’, the obviously titled ‘Big 7’, was already familiar in Jamaican circles, and had seen action for vocalist Slim Smith on an outing called ‘My Conversation’. Using a favourite rhythm track could do nothing but enhance sales as reggae collectors took note and bought on the strength of owning another version, while the general public enjoyed another helping of cheeky music hall fun. ‘Big 7’ zipped up the Top Twenty to stick at number eight in January 1973, and spend 18 weeks in the national chart. The dye was set and the obligatory ‘Big 8’ was issued in April 1973, spending ten weeks in the charts and peaking at number fourteen.

With two albums under his belt containing the hit singles, a few more recordings in a similar style, and the odd revamped music hall novelty track such as George Formby‘s ‘Granddads Flannelette Nightshirt’, Judge Dread was on a roll by 1974.

A move to Creole Records brought forth ‘Big 10’ in 1975 which grabbed a respectable number fourteen in the national charts. But a more British music hall style of imitation, almost The Two Ronnies to reggae was in the offing. Tracks such as the retake of the sweaty Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg lusty ‘JeT’aime, which the Judge lampooned quite brilliantly, and Swedish singer Sylvia’s party hit ‘Viva Espana’, cunningly revamped in Judge Dread style as ‘Y Viva Suspenders’ were issued and found chart placings.

In an attempt to crack the radio play, an old Jonathan King number ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’ was recorded and released under the alias of Jason Sinclair. It didn’t cause much of a ripple in the roots-reggae market of 1977, or make any impact on the magic top twenty, although the ‘5th Anniversary EP’ which had the track as one of its four cuts did manage to briefly hit number 31.

Whether the great British public grew tired of him, or his inspiration dissipated is a matter of debate, but his songs lost their na??ve cheeky charm and became more strident to get the point across, such as the blatant ‘Up With The Cock’ from 1978 and a dreadful (no pun intended) cover of ‘The Hokey Cokey’. From this point the hits were gone and Judge Dread disappeared from recording, although he reappeared as a live stage act in the 1980s and continued to parade his increasingly lewd music hall reggae to appreciative crowds through out the UK and Europe.

The 1990’s saw him becoming a sizable draw at ska revival nights and his career definitely seemed on the up, until with alarming suddenness he was struck down on stage by a fatal heart attack while performing in Canterbury, Kent.

Judge Dead spent a total of 95 weeks in the national charts – the only reggae artist to beat him was Bob Marley with 136 weeks – something of a triumph for a white ex-bouncer from Kent who never heard a single one of his records played on the radio.

Alex Hughes/Judge Dread 1942-1998

Michael de Koningh