You may have never heard of the name Joe Higgs or his music, but you have most likely witnessed his influence on the music world, while never actually realizing it. When Joe Higgs passed away at the age of 59 in December of 1999, the world truly lost one of the most innovative and important musical figures of all time. How can this be so, since many people do not recognize his name? Joe Higgs helped to not only shape reggae and some of its biggest practitioners, but he also created his own music with such heart and feeling that was rich in both message and power. Joe Higgs has gone under appreciated and overlooked far too long and now more than ever should be his time to finally shine. His vast body of work and influence deserves recognition, and for these achievements and merits, he warrants the respect he has certainly earned.
Respect Is Overdue
by Daniel & Seth Nelson (October 2000)
A case can be made to demonstrate that many musicians, especially in the world of reggae, are deserving of recognition and consideration of their careers. However, in Higgs' case, respect is not only long overdue, but "The Father of Reggae" is worthy of these accolades, not only for his wealth of songs, or his messages, or even for his over 40 year career as an ambassador of consciousness in music. But Higgs' career is entitled to this acknowledgement because without him and his embodiment of all suffering people, Jamaican music, and all people in general, would be without one of its true apostles.
Joe Higgs was born in Jamaica on June 3, 1940 and began music at a very early age. He teamed up with Roy Wilson to form the duo Higgs & Wilson and cut numerous songs throughout the 1960's, many of which were hits in Jamaica. Also during this time, Higgs became the teacher and mentor for local groups just starting out, some of which included Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, collectively known as The Wailers, and also Derrick Harriott, Bob Andy, and the Wailing Souls. It is important to recognize that Joe Higgs was not just a teacher of these greats and should not simply be remembered for these accomplishments; instead, there is more to him than just this. Higgs only released six albums in his career, and a wealth of singles since the late 1950s. In 1973, he toured with The Wailers for their first United States tour, replacing Bunny Wailer, who refused to tour. In 1975, he toured with Jimmy Cliff, as both percussionist and band leader, and opening musical act for the concerts. Higgs left Jamaica for Los Angeles, California in the 1980s, continuing where he left off by tutoring U.S. based reggae bands. When Higgs passed away on December 18, 1999, he was survived by 11 children and 12 grandchildren, many of whom are musicians themselves. Joe Higgs' influence is therefore carried on in many aspects, both musically, spiritually, fleshically, and monumentally.
With all of the insincere and empty music constantly being pumped out of radios, televisions or even computers, it is reassuring to realize that there is no fluff or filler with Joe Higgs' music; instead, he poured every last drop of his soul and emotion into every note and syllable, to not only express his own spiritual voice but possibly as a way to better other peoples' lives as well. A full examination of Higgs' tremendous body of work is essential and worthy of all fans, but here it is impossible to list every song and its potent message. Instead, there are overall recurring themes that stand out and not only reveal the true genius of Joe Higgs, but present his desire for the listener to digest and internalize these messages, and take them to heart.
It is tough to know exactly where to begin in trying to detail the wide spectrum of Joe Higgs' messages, as they all try to lend power to some aspect of life. The notion of love, not just for the relationship between two people, but also the devotion towards spirituality and for humanity as a whole, is a continual theme in his songs. A song like "Devotion" (Unity Is Power, 1979) demonstrates the universality of love, something that any person can experience. When you find the one love that you would devote your life to, it gives you fullness:My devotion has a definition Something in my mind kept me all the time If it rains, or if the sun shines Looking just for you baby, looking just for you babyJoe has the ability to capture the most basic needs of a person and translate this need into a song, offering great insight into this feeling. Expanding upon the love between two people, Joe Higgs delves into an even greater love, one which he feels the world is lacking, this love being the love of humanity. Nearly anyone can have love for one significant other, but to love all of mankind is a much greater feat, yet is vital according to Joe Higgs. With his "Neither Gold Nor Silver" song (Unity Is Power), he describes how this universal love can offer more riches than any amount of money:It's neither gold nor silver brought to you my love It was a love, a love, a wonderful love I love my brother without strife and I try to live clean Never take a brother's life, it's not a machine He can never be replaced, from a shop or a store Make the world a happy place, like it was your ownEveryone has probably been taught the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, but it seems that people fail to put this saying into action. With this song, Higgs' own Golden Rule refuses to accept the historic practice of placing money in higher regard than human life, and it is in fact by doing the reverse that everyone can attain a love of stellar proportions. This is a message of balanced respect, you do not necessarily have to love your enemy, but recognize that by giving everyone respect, the same will be returned to you. It is not too hard to decipher just from these few examples that Joe Higgs is a philosopher of the best kind, by incorporating essential and seemingly rudimentary ideas for the benefit of all people. The theme of spirituality, and in the case of Joe Higgs, his devotion towards Rastafarianism, also comes through in this song with the idea of unity, absolute respect and kindness shown to all.
The powerful lyrics of hope that recur in Higgs' music are also universal, offering everyone, especially the underdog some type of solace from the world. The underdog, a person constantly being overlooked, mistreated, abused and depleted, are the people who Joe Higgs wanted to embed the idea that no matter what problems arise, things can and will get better. "There's A Reward" (Life Of Contradiction, 1975) could easily be considered Joe Higgs' anthem and biographical song, detailing a life of often being mistreated and overlooked, yet still holding strong and having hope for his future:Everyday my heart is sore Seeing that I'm so poor But I shall not give up so easy There's a reward for me, there's a reward for me Though I'm bordered down with shame There's no one for me to blame But I shall not give up so easy There's a reward for me, there's a reward for me Sometimes I feel like a motherless child You know no one cares for me I've never known sympathy Sometimes I look to this world with a smile Man you hear what I sayThis underdog could be the person living in pure poverty in the world's worst ghetto, such as those that Higgs experienced while growing up in Jamaica, or any average city dweller who faces injustice, no matter what class, race, religion, or background; this song is for them. Joe makes no excuses for the situation that he is in and he also accepts the fact that there will be rough times in everyone's life, and yet still having the reassurance that better days must come. Strength can come by accepting one's position in life and not allowing this to conquer hopes and dreams. Growing up in the ghettos of Jamaica, certainly gave Higgs and so many others, reasons to be concerned and it probably seemed hopeless at times. However, by staying strong and holding to the belief that life will improve, Higgs himself was able to overcome his situation and create music to enlighten and uplift others in tough positions in life.
The notion of Joe Higgs as a teacher, encouraging students and compelling them to stand strong in the face of any obstacle is continued in a song like "Creation" (Triumph 1985), where through any adversity, including segregation, murder, and injustice, Higgs advises listeners to stand one's ground and keep one's convictions, even though the battle may be hard. A song like this also reveals another common image in Higgs' songs, namely that of Higgs being a larger-than-life figure standing amongst humanity and reporting truths as he sees them.
Size is an interesting topic when it comes to Joe Higgs. He was under six feet in height, and it is a little known fact that he was the composer of one of Peter Tosh's biggest songs, "Stepping Razor." In the song, Joe talks about respecting his small size and not mistreating him simply because of it:Being confident and proud of who you are, no matter what other people may find fault in, is something that everyone can appreciate and take to heart. This song may seem like a contradiction with Joe's notion of respecting others; however, when the line is crossed and one is being mistreated, standing upright is the only solution for truly respecting oneself.If you want to live, treat me good I'm like a walking razor, don't watch my size, I'm dangerous,dangerous If you are a bully, look pon me good I'm like a stepping razor, don't watch my size, I'm dangerous, dangerous
Many of Joe Higgs' songs contain messages of spirituality and especially Rastafarianism. The idea of standing strong despite adversity, and having a faith that the Most High will be able to aid in this strength, is demonstrated in a song like "So It Go" (from Triumph). This song shows that depending on others is not always possible and the belief that Jah (God) can help, becomes the only assurance that one can always count on:Jah help those who live in the ghetto and no have no friend Wake up in the morning without a cent to spend So it go, when you no have big friend So it go, when you no have big friend You run to your neighbor, if him have something to beg Wait to take a scrap if you don't have money to spend So it go, when you no have big friend So it go, when you no have big friend No man is an island and only the strong survive I say, living in the city is like fighting to stay alive So it go, when you no have big friend So it go, when you no have big friendAs the song title implies, poverty and hard times are an everyday occurrence, but with a devotion towards something greater than oneself, this helps to ease troubling situations. It is comforting, even to the most non-religious persons, to know that there is something out there that one can rely upon. Most people living today do not have a "big friend," possibly meaning governmental help, and so it is important to not dwell on what you do not have, but rather concentrate on the positive things in life, and for Joe this was spirituality. Bad times will come and so it go, but always look forward, because things will get better.
It seems appropriate, that with all of these lessons in life, involving love, devotion, respect, survival, and spirituality, to call Joe Higgs a masterful teacher, capable of consoling, advising, and guiding. Joe Higgs was of course the teacher of many early Jamaican musical groups who later went on to great things. As mentioned before, groups like The Wailers, the Wailing Souls, Derrick Harriott, and others, were all shaped and mentored by Higgs' tutoring. The Wailers were especially guided by Higgs and are now recognized as three of the top reggae musicians of all time. It should be no secret that Bob Marley, dubbed "The King of Reggae," continually captures more and more fame and people as the years go on, and he was even inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame as well. So what would one call the teacher of "The King of Reggae"? It is important to note that Higgs himself did not like to be known only as Bob Marley's teacher, but nonetheless this is what many people will remember him for.
It is a testament to Joe Higgs that large portions of his influence can be heard in the groups he mentored and guided over the years, both lyrically and vocally. Of course, Joe Higgs was much more than just a teacher of musicians, his lyrics also offer the listener courses in the lessons of life. He gave tirelessly and unselfishly into both his own music and helping others, and never asked for anything in return, with the possible compensation in knowing that people would take things away from his music and use them in their own lives. Higgs did not mean for the lyrics to be one-time teachings, but intended them as a way of passing the torch, instructing others to become teachers themselves and continue to try and better the world. In a song like "Family" (from Family, 1988), this instruction is expressed:Separation is the road to destruction Jah Jah children, you're slipping away Segregation is the road to destruction Jah Jah children, you're slipping away Talk to dat man, talk to dat man Talk to dat man, let them understand . . . So throw away the ba-ba boom boom And de bam bam, Jah Jah children you're slipping away So throw away the ba ba boom boom and de bam bam yeah Jah Jah children, you're slipping away Talk to dat man, talk to dat man Talk to dat man, let them understandThe wise philosopher comes across in this song not as an overly pushy preacher, but rather a sensical and straightforward speaker to "Jah Jah children," meaning all of the people of the world. He describes some of the ills plaguing the globe, such as segregation, guns ("ba ba boom boom" and "bam bam"), and violence, and the only way to solve these problems is to have dialogues with people and teach them, so they in turn will teach others and the level of positivity will increase as a result. This message is in the realm of anyone being capable of undertaking, as is the case with nearly all of Joe's teachings.
Many people have stated similar themes as those that Joe Higgs tried to get across, but it seems even more so with someone like Higgs, that these messages are more accessible by the fact that Joe was also an innovator when it came to the music that backed his lyrics, an apostle of sorts. Higgs is "The Father of Reggae" because he was there from the very beginning of modern Jamaican music; ska, rocksteady, and of course reggae. However, it is Higgs' addition of musics like jazz, country, gospel, blues and other forms into the Jamaican sound, that adds further to his innovativeness. Commercial success was not the aim of Joe Higgs, but much more importantly, his global message reaching as many open and conscious minds, seemed to have been Higgs' overall plan and is yet another example for why Higgs should be recognized and respected for his contributions.
By incorporating so many musics, any musical taste could be satisfied, and at the same time the message allowed to soak into the listeners. Reggae music, for the most part, was never, and still is not, a music striving for commercial success, but rather the message and its reception by fans carries its weight in gold. Is it any wonder that on every Joe Higgs' album, he surrounded himself with only the best musicianship, because it was clear that when Joe Higgs made an album, something special and unique was about to be created. Up until Higgs' death, he was still being the innovator, incorporating Celtic sounds and musicians with reggae, something that in the future will most likely feel as if they had always gone together, just as Higgs pioneered jazz and blues with reggae.
What then, is the proper recognition and respect that is due Joe Higgs? For starters, his works should be pulled from the ranks of obscurity and re-released to present them to a wider audience. A career that started in the 1950's has a tremendous body of music to be released and record companies should recognize that Higgs' music is important and overly deserving of careful and proper attention, to see that his message is delivered to awaiting fans. Of course, music fans should give Higgs a listen and experience for themselves exactly what he was saying and that great things can be learned from his messages.
Joe Higgs did not create many albums, but the few that he did should be viewed as books of wisdom, ready to be opened and provide guidance, strength, and positivity to all who choose to listen. Higgs provided a voice to the voiceless, championed truth, and transcended above class, race, sex, age, time, and religion, and created music that is still as relevant, crucial, and alive today as the day it was written and recorded. Joe Higgs is one of history's greatest singers and songwriters who did not just sing, but his voice and writings go straight to the heart and soul, and if you are willing, these are the words that are eternal. It may sound a bit cliche and idealistic to say that everyone needs the message that Joe Higgs taught, but in this case, it's the truth!
With all of the world's problems and the feelings of weakness, Joe's songs empower the listener to stand strong in the face of any evil, any problem, any situation. The lyrics offered throughout this modest tribute to Joe Higgs are there not only to educate and enlighten, but also to give many their first introduction into Joe Higgs. We hope that you will seek his music and messages out and will understand why respect to him is long overdue. What better way to end this look at the magnificent works of Joe Higgs, then with his own lyrics from "Unity Is Power" (Unity Is Power), a goal worth striving for. "We should all live as one, like the colors of the rainbow."
[For more information on Joe Higgs, visit The Official Joe Higgs Memorial Pages at: http://www.iration.com/joehiggs where you can view a full discography, biography, sound clips, and much more. Just as his songs reveal what he believed, his own words portray their own deep ideas. To search out these ideas, Joe Higgs was working on his autobiography before his death, with reggae/Wailers historian Roger Steffens. Some of what came about was published in The Beat magazine in Volume 19, Number 1 of 2000, in an article entitled "A Life of Contradiction: Joe Higgs in His Own Words." This offers great insight into Higgs' life and outstanding career, as well as the suffering and hope that his songs convey. You can subscribe to "The Beat" magazine, or order back issues, by e-mailing GETTHEBEAT@aol.com or writing to Bongo Productions, P.O. Box 65856, Los Angeles, CA, 90065.]
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