Perfect Sound Forever

U-Roy (1942-2021)


By Eric Doumerc
(June 2021)


Ewart Beckford was born in 1942 in Jamaica and grew up in the Jones Town area of Kingston. He became interested in music at a fairly young age, and as a teenager, he would often sneak out of his grandmother's house to go to sound-system dances: "Dance was just something I have such love for that I would sneak out and go anyway. No matter if she lock me out, and I have to sleep outside, I would reach dance somehow. That was my sort of fun" (Barrow 123). Ewart Beckford was about 14 at the time, and one of his favorite sound systems was Doctor Dickie's Dynamic, a sound he would later deejay for. He first took the mike on that sound, introducing singers and announcing future events on the PA system. The music played at the time on Jamaican sound systems was mostly American R'n'B, artists like Louis Jordan, for instance.

One of the early deejays who influenced young Beckford was an artist called Count Machuki, who played for the Downbeat sound system: "There was a guy, a bredren who used to play sound system at that time by the name of Count Machuki. Well, he was a man who I used to love to listen to. He used to play for Coxsone's Downbeat, and then he left and was playing for Prince Buster's, right, but whenever you been to a dance and been listening to this man, it was like, ya know, you never hear anybody like that before. This man phrases his words, in time, he doesn't crowd the music when he's talking or things like that, so you can always hear what the vocalist got to sing and this really was a man who I used to say, I'd like to be like this man. Don't crowd my music when I'm talking to the people. That's one of the important things" (Morri and Foster 29-30).

Beckford, who had acquired the nickname "U-Roy" (after one of his cousins failed to pronounce his first name), found a job as a timekeeper in a cement factory and continued to attend sound-system dances. In 1969 he made his first recordings for Lee Perry ("Earth Rightful Ruler"), Bunny Lee ("King of the Road"), and Keith Hudson ("Dynamic Fashion Way"). He then recorded two sides for Lloyd Daley in October 1969 ("Sound of the Wise" and "Scandal"), but it was with the producer Duke Reid that he was to achieve real success.

After deejaying for Sir Coxsone's Downbeat, U-Roy played for Sir George the Atomic, a sound he had already worked with, but he eventually started deejaying for King Tubby's Hi-Fi, a sound that was playing a lot of music produced by Duke Reid and Coxsone.

At the time, the sound engineer King Tubby (Osbourne Ruddock) was experimenting with different techniques, and he would let U-Roy practice over his dub plates at his sound system dances. King Tubby soon found out that he could erase certains sounds from a track thanks to his mixing board, and then put them back in to produce a special effect. He famously described it as being "like a volcano in your head." King Tubby had several of his experiments transferred to soft wax (acetates) and played them at one of his dances, and legend has it that the crowd asked him to play them over and over again.

One day, John Holt, lead singer with the Paragons, attended one of King Tubby's dances and heard U-Roy talk over one of his songs. Impressed with what he heard, Holt told Duke Reid and that he had to record this new deejay, who was sounding like nobody else.

Duke Reid told King Tubby that he wanted to meet this new phenomenon, and one day in 1970 U-Roy went to Duke Reid's studio, Treasure Isle, to record several tracks. The first tracks he cut were "Wake the Town" and "Rule the Nation," followed by "Wear You to the Ball" (based on a John Holt song). The first two tracks went to the top of the charts of both radio stations at the time (Radio Jamaica Rediffusion and Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation) at numbers one and two, and a few weeks later, "Wear You to the Ball" became number three. So U-Roy occupied the first three slots on the Jamaican charts for several weeks and became a household name. He even made the cover of Swing magazine in October 1970. The deejay phenomenon had arrived, and Jamaican music would never be the same.

U-Roy is often credited with popularizing "toasting," a type of deejaying based on the American jiving tradition. As U-Roy himself said, that tradition was developed in Jamaica by early deejays like Count Machuki. Machuki, who is considered as the pioneer of Jamaican deejaying, remembers how he had to come up with a constant flow of catchphrases to catch the dancers' attention at the sound system dances where he was deejaying: "I used these words to sell our local recordings: 'French Canadian home-cooked musical biscuit.' And folks dig it, you know, and so I found myself preparing something new to say to the folks. I developed jives like 'I'm hard to catch, I'm hard to hold.' I found that people go crazy, so, you know, I keep digging, digging, I came up with 'Whether you be young or old, you just got to let the good times roll, my friend!'" (Johnson and Pine 70).

The tradition that Machuki helped to develop was in fact based on the American "jiving" tradition initiated by American disc jockeys who played jazz and blues records in New Orleans and Miami. The early Jamaican deejays like Count Machuki, King Stitt, and King Sporty were heavily influenced by the "live jive" of these American radio deejays, and the famous reggae producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd is reputed to have been instrumental in bringing that tradition back to Jamaica. According to Duke Vin, who operated one of the first Jamaican sound systems in the 1950s in England: "It first started when Sir Coxsone went to the United States and heard those disc jockeys on the radio.... They started to toast and slang, on the radio ... then he carried back the idea to Jamaica and tell Winston Machuki: 'This is how we want to do it on the mike' ... over the sound ... and that's where it started. Winston Machuki was the first man who started to toast on a mike on a sound system. Then you have Opie and Stitch, follow on from Matchuki ... all used to play for Coxsone" (Duke Vin interviewed by Steve Barrow in 1978, liner notes to Keep on Coming Through the Door).

Count Machuki was soon joined by King Stitt (or Stitch) and Sir Lord Comic, two deejays whose lyrics often consisted of catchphrases, shouted interjections, and wisecracks seamlessly strung together. These early deejays had developed the early jiving and talkover tradition, but U-Roy was to take it further, to extend it in a very smooth way, for example in his "Rule the Nation":

This station rules the station, with version!
Yeah! Here I come again!
You can do it, baby, do it!
Do it like you never do before!
You can keep on coming through the door!
Rock it, baby, rock it!
You can grab it, baby, grab it!
Move, brother, move! Make a move!
Move and groove, brother, groove!
U-Roy's style consisted of inserting his vocals into the gaps left in the recordings he was working with, so that the overall impression was that the singer and the deejay were in the studio at the same time, working together, whereas in fact, U-Roy's vocals were added later. This was particularly effective on his "Wear You to the Ball" as he inserted his live jive into the snatches of the John Holt vocals.

U-Roy's versions were usually found on the B-sides of various 45s, as was customary at the time. The idea was to generate a certain amount of excitement and to re-create in a studio the atmosphere of a live event or dance. The same formula was used for the 45s "Wear You to the Ball," "Wake the Town," "Tide Is High," and "Your Ace from Space."

U-Roy recorded about thirty tracks for the producer Duke Reid, backed by Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, and some of them eventually appeared on his seminal LP Version Galore, which came out on the Trojan label in 1971, and on the album With Words of Wisdom (Virgin, 1979). These early tracks were "versions" of rocksteady hits by Eric "Monty" Morris, Alton Ellis, the Melodians, the Techniques, the Paragons, and other successful acts from the late 1960s.

U-Roy revitalized these rocksteady songs and gave them a new lease on life, at a time when reggae had become the new popular music in Jamaica and when Rastafarianism was proving more and more popular with young record buyers.

In the early 1970s, U-Roy recorded extensively for various producers like Glen Brown, Lloyd "The Matador" Daley, and Alvin Ranglin. Among these early reggae songs we could mention "On Top of the Peak" (for Alvin Ranglin), "Earthquake" (for Lee Perry, 1971), "Kingston 12 Shuffle" on the Tuff Gong label (a version of the Wailers' "Trenchtown Rock"), "You Keep on Running" (1972), and "The Higher the Mountain" (for Gussie Clarke, 1973).

A particularly outstanding toast was "On Top of the Peak," produced by Alvin Ranglin and released as a 45 in 1972. On the B-side was the instrumental "Rack-A-Tack" by the Typhoon All-Stars, Ranglin's house band. U-Roy's approach on that 45 seemed to illustrate his motto: never crowd your music. He lets the music play and inserts his vocals in a very sparse manner and uses his voice as an instrument.

By the mid-1970s, U-Roy's style was being challenged by new deejays like I-Roy and Big Youth, who had developed a new approach with Rasta-influenced lyrics and a deeper, bass-heavy sound, in other words a "dreader" approach. U-Roy adapted to the new style and recorded several albums for the producer Prince Tony Robinson (Dread Inna Babylon, Natty Rebel, Rasta Ambassador and Jah Son of Africa), which were released on the Virgin label and made the deejay very popular in England with a new generation of record buyers.

The Dread Inna Babylon album remains an undisputed classsic with titles like "Chalice in the Palace," "The Great Psalms," "I Can't Love Another," and "Natty Don't Fear," a version of the Techniques' "You Don't Care." U-Roy even versioned the Wailers' "Rude Boy" ("Dreadlocks Dread"). Stellar backing by Skin Flesh and Bones and the Soul Syndicate rejuvenated the old classics U-Roy was dusting off.

One of the tracks that really stood out at the time was "Chalice in the Palace," a version of the Chosen Few's "Queen Majesty," itself a new rendering of the old rocksteady classic by the Techniques, who had been inspired by Curtis Mayfield's "Queen and Minstrel." A classic love song was thus turned into a subversive tirade when U-Roy suggested that he would like to sit with Queen Elizabeth II and smoke marijuana with her in Buckingham Palace. Peter Tosh was to express a similar ambition years later with his "Buck-In-Hamm Palace." U-Roy blasts his way through the track, telling his listeners that he wants to "dub out them society."

On the Dread Inna Babylon album, Prince Tony and U-Roy worked with an underrated singer from the 1970s called Barrington Spence, who had the uncanny ability to sound like Ken Boothe. Spence did the vocals for two tracks on this album : "You're Just Another Girl" (by Ken Boothe) and a version of the Wailers' "Rude Boy" ("Shoo Be Doo").

1976 saw the release of Natty Rebel, an album that featured a version of The Wailers' "Soul Rebel" (with vocals by the Gladiators), as well as a new rendition of an old R'n'B hit by Phil Phillips ("Sea of Love"), also recorded by the Heptones at one point. Other toasts like "Badie Boo," "Babylon Burning," and "Have Mercy" (a version of the Mighty Diamonds' hit) completed the set. "Babylon Burning" was a spirited rendition/version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary," also recorded by Tina Turner in the 1970s, but also included a few words from the song "Turning Point" by Tyrone Davis (1975):

Take a bow!
Here I come again!

Big wheel keeps on turning and
Proud Mary keeps on burning!

Big wheel keeps on turning,
And Natty Dread keeps on earning!

Big wheel keeps on turning,
And you're not sleeping cause Babylon burning,
Burning, burning, burning!

Don't spread no propaganda!
Just take a look over yonder!
And you could see some sizzling, sizzling, sizzling fire
Right on yah!

(I've reached a turning point, Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord, in my life)


The critical reception of the Dread Inna Babylon album led to a period of touring for U-Roy, both in the USA and in England. In 1976 he toured the U.S. as an opening act for the Mighty Diamonds and the Maytals: "U-Roy would come on stage in an orange cape and go through three songs in as many minutes before disappearing again, oblivious to any cries for more. [...] A small and very gentle man whose fierce eyes belie his sweet nature, he would tell you that his favorite song was his own 'Chalice in the Palace,' which postulates a ganja session with Elizabeth II. Few of the young reggae fans who came out those nights to see Toots realized they were witnessing the comeback of a legend, and usually let U-Roy go without calling for an encore" (Davis and Simon 104).

In August 1976, U-Roy appeared at the Lyceum, in London, backed by the Revolutionaries, and gave spirited renditons of "Babylon Burning," "Chalice in the Palace," and "Wear You to the Ball." These tracks were released on a live 12-inch record by Virgin, the kind of treatment few deejays could boast of at the time.

By the 1980s the dancehall style had revolutionized reggae and its methods of production with the release of Wayne Smith's "Under Mi Sleng Teng." By then, U-Roy was already considered a living legend and had a substantial following in Europe and in America. But he was again being challenged by new approaches and new styles. He recorded two albums for two former deejays turned producers: Line Up and Come (1986) for Tappa Zukie and The Seven Gold (1987) for Prince Jazzbo.

The album produced by Tappa Zukie featured outstanding tracks like "Dancehall Memory," which recycled an old Studio One riddim and had the deejay reminisce about the good old days of dancehall, namechecking pioneering deejays like King Stitt in the process.

On "Line Up and Come," U-Roy rode one of the most famous dancehall "riddims," Stalag 17, and announced his triumphant return after several years away from recording studios.

These two albums showed that U-Roy was perfectly able to hold his own and adapt to digital rhythms, dominated by synthesizers and drum machines, with a stark and minimalist sound. Most of the songs on The Seven Gold are in fact versions of songs by Horace Ferguson like "Sensi Addict" (which became U-Roy's "Musical Addick"). Some of these titles were released on the album Music Addict (RAS, 1987). On toasts like "I Originate," "I Feel Good," "Reggae Party," and "Waterboot" U-Roy showed what he was capable of. U-Roy adapted surprisingly well to the new sound and on "I Feel Good," his delivery fits the bouncy feel of the track marvellously well. Likewise, "Jah Jah Call You" and "Haul and Pull," based on two different mixes of the same track ("Great Stone" by Horace Ferguson), provide "natural" vehicles for U-Roy's fiery and smouldering delivery. The final track, "Waterboot," has U-Roy playing on the various associations of various words ending with "boot," and his delivery nicely complements the bubbling keyboard and grumbling bass line. "Waterboot" sounds like an average track on first listen, but it eventually grows up on you. The tracks "I Originate" and "King Tubby's Skank" had been recorded before, but they do not seem out of place on this album, which relaunched U-Roy's career in the late 1980's. For this album, U-Roy rode riddims associated with songs by Horace Ferguson like "Sensi Addict" and "Great Stone." Ferguson was a promising artist who sounded a lot like Horace Andy and was part of the Jazzbo stable of artists.

In 1991, U-Roy released the album True-Born African (Ariwa, 1991), which was produced by Neil Fraser (the Mad Professor) and featured very good versions of "English Girl" by Sister Audrey and "Country Living" by Sandra Cross, as well as outstanding tracks like "Jump Up Soca" and "Your Wish Is My Command." "Jump Up Soca" saw U-Roy venture into Trinidadian waters, and it worked surprisingly well.

U-Roy recorded two other albums for the Mad Professor, Smile a While (1993) and Babylon Kingdom Must Fall (1997), and they really contributed to relaunching his career with a new generation of fans, which led to extensive touring in Europe in the 1990's.

Serious Matter, a series of duets with various artists, came out in 2000, followed by Now (Original Press, 2001), Rebel in Style (Original Press, 2003), and Old School/New Rules (Original Press, 2006).

2012 saw the release of Pray Fi Di People, followed by Talking Roots in 2018 and Rebel in Styylle in 2019.

U-Roy also made an invaluable contribution to Jamaican culture by starting his own sound system, King Sturgav, and nurturing local talent in the process. The Franco-Welsh deejay and sound system operator James Danino, aka Sir James, had this to say about U-Roy's sound system: "Sturgav was created in the mid-1970s and was one of the few sounds that was created by an artist rather than by an owner or promoter. The name itself is the combination of U-Roy's name with that of two of his sons' names, Stewart and Gavin. The name is often confused with Stereograph Sound, even by artists voicing dubplates for the sound or talking or singing on the sound."

Stur Gav was created as a Rub A Dub sound, which in those days meant it played strictly Jamaican music as opposed to sounds like Gemini Disco, for example, who played a mix of Jamaican and American music. Though U-Roy was usually at the session if he was not on tour abroad, he tended to take a backseat and let other entertainers take care of most of the microphone duties and only picking it up himself occasionally to the delight of patrons all over.

The sound employed some of the best selectors in Jamaica, starting in the 1970's with Jah Screw, who was followed by Inspector Willie. Ranking Joe was the first resident artist and was soon followed by Charlie Chaplin and Josey Wales. Brigadier Jerry would also make regular appearances when not working with 12 Tribes sound JahLoveMusik. In the early 1980's, when slackness became prevalent, U-Roy insisted that no outrageous material be spoken or sung on his sound, and though you might hear some slightly sexy themes, slackness as such was always prohibited. The 1980s also saw the arrival of resident artists Little Twitch and General Trees.

Though in Jamaica any time two sounds appear at a dance together it is implicit that the dance will be competitive, 1982 is the year that Sturgav appeared at its first official clash versus Turbotronic, a sound that appropriately featured rival DJ I-Roy. It is widely accepted that Sturgav won that clash and went on to win most of the clashes where they appeared. The early 1980s also saw the sound travelling abroad to America and featuring high-profile residents and guests such as Junior Reid, Don Carlos, and U Brown. In the second half of the 1980's U-Roy moved to America and the sound was on hiatus, only performing very rarely over the next decade. By the late 1990s U-Roy had moved back to Kingston and put the sound back into action and artists like Charlie Chaplin, Josey Wales, Little Twitch, and General Trees were the resident artists for most of its shows in Jamaica as well as abroad. The sound never changed its focus and remained a true Rub A Dub sound playing a variety of music that focused heavily on the Studio One hits whether in their original format or as recuts. U-Roy created a sound that was respected across the whole world as one of the greatest Jamaican sound systems ever and a sound that consistently featured great selectors, residents, and guest artists.

U-Roy died on February 17, 2021, in Kingston. He had been awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 2007.



References:

Barrow, Steve. Liner notes to Keep on Coming Through the Door: Jamaican Deejay Music 1969-1973. Trojan, 1988.

Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica. 1977. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.

Gayle, Carl. "Straight to the Nation's Head." Black Music, January 1976.

Greene, Jo-Ann. "U-Roy." www.allmusic.com.

Johnson, Howard and Jim Pines, in association with Channel Four. Deep Roots Music. London: Proteus Books, 1982.

Morri, Sister and Chuck Foster. "U Roy: Words of Wisdom," The Beat, Vol. 8, N. 1 (1989).

Thompson, Dave. Reggae and Caribbean Music. Backbeat Books, 2002.



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