Roots Reggae & Lover's Rock
by Eric Dourmerc
Fred Locks (b. Stafford Elliott) was born in 1955 in Jamaica and entered the music business in the late 1960’s when he recorded a number of singles for the Studio One label as a member of a group called The Lyrics ("Girls Like Dirt," "Hear What the Old Man Say"). The bouncy rock steady number "Hear What the Old Man Say" was quite effective too. The group also recorded a version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" for the Randys label, and a song entitled "Sing Along," which they produced by themselves around 1971.
Elliott was christened a Catholic, but as he was moving towards Rastafarianism, he left home around 1969 and started living in Harbour View and growing his dreadlocks.He took on the name Fred Locks around that time and became a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a Rastafarian organisation. In 1975, the Twelve Tribes financed a recording session which led to the release of "Black Star Liners," a song which was to become his best-known track and a reggae anthem both in Jamaica and in England. The popularity of the song led to the release of an album entitled Black Star Liner or A True Rastaman, which contained tracks like "I Got a Joy," "Wolf Wolf," "A True Rastaman" and "Sing Along," a recut of the Lyrics' 1971 Randys recording. The album was very successful and made Locks a household name in reggae circles.
Locks tried to release a follow-up to his first LP, but this did not happen and his career suffered as a consequence. In fact, this long-lost LP finally resurfaced in 2000 and was released as The Missing Link.
In 1978, a various artists compilation entitled Love and Harmony was released and contained an eponymous track by Locks.
Locks was also at the time a member of the Creation Steppers, a roots harmony trio which included Willy Stepper and Eric Griffiths. In 1980, they went to England for a short tour and met Lloyd Coxsone, who ran one of the most popular sound systems in London at the time. Lloyd Coxsone ended up producing several songs by the group like "Love and Only Love" and "Homeward Bound." In 1982, Lloyd Coxsone released the group's Love and Only Love LP on his own Tribesman label, with tracks like "Cut-Eye," "Voice of the Poor," "News Carrier" and the tracks mentioned above. The LP was very popular and Locks seemed to have found a new audience in England. Locks resurfaced in 1995 with the Culturally album, followed by Never Give Up in 1998 on the Exterminator label. Glorify the Lord was released in 2008. In 2012, a boxed set containing four albums (Black Star Liner, Black Star Liner in Dub, Love and Only Love, and The Missing Link) was released by VP Records.
Fred Locks' success can be attributed to his ability to remain faithful to his roots while adapting to different approaches and styles over the years. Indeed, his first LP established him as a classic roots singer, while his work with the Creation Steppers signalled a new approach. His resurfacing in 1995 saw him adapt to modern methods of production.
Fred Locks achieved cult status very early in his career when a song entitled "Black Star Liners" which was released in 1975 in Jamaica and then later on in England . The song was about a prophecy supposedly made by Marcus Garvey about the repatriation of black people to Africa :"Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbour (x2)That song and the LP that followed made Locks a household name in reggae circles and defined an era. Most of the songs on that first album are deeply Rastafarian in orientation and uncompromising in their approach. The tune entitled "The Last Days" is about the apocalypse while "A True Rastaman" defined the qualities expected of a Rasta and echoed Bob Marley's "Rat Race": "So Jah say/Rasta doesn't work for the CIA." The song entitled "Sing Along " was an inspired recut of the 1971 Randys track and "I Got a Joy" was characterised by an optimsitic and upbeat tone.
I can see them coming, I can see Idrens running.
I can hear the elders saying ‘These are the days for which we've been praying!’
It's repatriation, black liberation,
Yes, the time has come: black man, you're going home.
Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbour.
I can see them coming, I can see Idrens running.
I can hear the elders saying "These are the days for which we've been praying !"
Marcus Garvey told us that freedom is a must,
He told us that the Black Star Liners are coming one day for us.
Seven miles of Black Star Liners coming in the harbour."
In 1980, Locks and the group he was in at the time, The Creation Steppers (Eric Griffiths, Willy Steppers) went to England for a short tour. Locks had already met the London sound system owner and producer Lloyd Coxsone. Coxsone visited Jamaica regularly then to cut records at various studios and operated at the time one of the most important sound systems in London. He also owned his own label, Tribesman, and had been instrumental in the development of a new sub-genre of reggae music known as "Lovers' Rock," a synthesis of soul music and Jamaican reggae popularised by musicains like Matumbi and Louisa Marks. Coxsone decided to bring Locks to England as his Black Star Liners LP had made a big impact in England. After a short tour, the Creation Steppers recorded several tracks for Coxsone and an LP was released in 1982: Love and Only Love. That LP contained tracks recorded at various studios in Jamaica and featured the cream of Jamaica's musical talent then. These tracks were all recorded with Coxsone's sound system in mind and are thus highly danceable. So, the tracks gathered on that LP were the result of the meeting of a highly successful sound system owner and a Jamaican harmony trio searching for a new voice. All the tracks are remarkable, but certain songs stand out, like "Love and Only Love," "Cut-Eye," "Homeward Bound" and "News Carrier." One of the most impressive songs was "Cut-Eye," which tackled the theme of the discrimination Rastas were the victims of in Jamaica as ordinary Jamaicans would ignore them or look down their noses at them:"Cut-eye, cut-eye can't cut-eye to you,According to the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage, the phrase "cut-eye" means to treat someone with contempt by actually closing your eyes and turning your face away when you pass them. The Creation Steppers' LP was subtle and varied with tracks like "What You Supposed to Do" and "No Further Woman" by the other members of the group, which contrasted with Locks' more religious and orthodox approach.
Penny, penny can't buy new shoes,
And I don't care what you do,
And I don't care what you say.
You go round scandaling my name,
Because you want I to feel ashamed.
Just because I'm a natty dread,
I say you pass I and you hold your head.
You keep on telling lies on me,
Because I don't move in your company,
But I don't feel no way, I naw go cry,
And when you pass, I'm gonna cut your eye."
Locks resurfaced in 1995 with an album entitled Culturally, produced by Philip Smart. That LP showed that Locks could adapt to the modern reggae sound and his singing was particularly effective on a version of the traditional "Breaking Up" riddim originally used by Alton Ellis. Locks' version was entitled "How I Care" and proved that Locks could sing love songs with as much conviction as roots anthems. A similar approach was adopted for the track entitled "Natty Dread Loves You" which recycled another Coxsone riddim (" Give My Love a Try" by Barry Brown) for a conscious tune entitled "Know What you're Fighting For."
The Culturally album, with its warm and rootsy sound, was a spectacular come-back for Locks and was followed by Never Give Up in 1998, produced by Philip Burrell. The title-track reasserted Locks' commitment to his Rastafarian faith. Burrell's echo-laden and atmospheric mix made for a modern but still rootsy sound which fitted Locks' voice perfectly on songs like "Dreadlocks Princess."
In 2001, the Sip a Cup label released a 45 rpm ("Mission for the King/Weeping and Moaning").The track "Mission for the King" used Burning Spear's "Door Peep" riddim and showed that Locks' voice was still very strong. Later on, an eponymous album was released with other highlights like a great version of the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon" and a recut of his 1970’s track "A True Rastaman," entitled "So Jah Seh." Glorify the Lord followed in 2008.
In 2012, a new album entitled Music is My Calling came out on the Irie Sounds label and was produced by the American musician James Lord. Tracks like "Never Give up on Jah Love" and "Ababajahnoy" (with the deejay Binghi Ghost) are solid conscious tunes while "Pretty Face (Dirty Ways)" and "Fatal Attraction" deal with more worldly concerns. This album undoubtedly proves that Fred Locks is still on a very interesting musical journey and that music is indeed his calling.
Allsopp, Richard. Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1996.
Gayle, Carl. "Marcus Garvey Meets the Rockers Uptown," Black Music (February 1976).
Ketola, Justine Amadori. Review of Music is My Calling , reggaeville.com (16 March 2012).
Larkin, Colin. The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae (London: Guinness Publishing, 1994).
Interview with Fred Locks, reggaevibes.com.
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