The leading second generation reggae vocal group, the potent and influential Black Uhuru was formed in Jamaica in 1974 by Derrick “Duckie” Simpson; after a couple of false starts, he enlisted Michael Rose, whose quivery voice makes him sound like a Rasta cantor, and recorded Love Crisis — competent but hardly distinctive (although the best track, “I Love King Selassie,” survived to become a live staple). (Black Sounds of Freedom is a remix of the same album.) After American expatriate Puma (Sandra) Jones joined to add haunting high harmony, Black Uhuru joined forces with Sly and Robbie; their riddims pushed the singing along with the force of a tank.
Showcase, a compilation of their early singles (“Abortion,” “General Penitentiary,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” etc.), is an unqualified classic. The album was reissued by Virgin (1980) as Black Uhuru and by Heartbeat (1980) as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Sinsemilla firmly established Uhuru as an album act. The record delivers a level of consistency only Bob Marley himself had achieved. Their breakthrough, however, came with Red. From the first track, “Youth of Eglington,” listeners — even those not particularly interested in reggae — had a compelling reason to discover Black Uhuru.
The band spent considerable time on the road. A live album (Tear It Up) recycles a lot of the material from Showcase and is only a so-so approximation of their in-concert excitement. But Chill Out, the next studio effort, is great. Rose had moved to New York and takes on the city in the title cut; “Darkness,” “Emotional Slaughter” and others reveal a departure from Rasta subject matter. The Dub Factor is a ferocious dub disc, more of which can be found on Sly and Robbie’s Raiders of the Lost Dub.
The release of Anthem was troubled. The original issue was remixed and revised for America; that version was subsequently re-released in Europe. In any case, it’s a spotty record, despite a couple of killer tracks (“Party Next Door” and Steve Van Zandt’s “Solidarity”). Sly and Robbie’s synthetics are more pronounced, perhaps to compensate for the weak material and convictionless performances. (Ironically, it won a Grammy award in the US.) A decent hits collection in the Reggae Greats series followed. Then Michael Rose left to go solo. After five years of scattered singles (and a short-lived change of name spelling to Mykal Roze), he finally released an album at the end of 1990.
On Brutal, Black Uhuru unveiled their new lead singer, Junior Reid, who displays an awkward tendency to mimic Rose. Sly and Robbie still provide backup; Arthur Baker is among the producers. While the Reid/Simpson songs attempt a number of different styles, not all are successful. (A companion dub LP, featuring mixes by Baker, Scientist and Steven Stanley is also available.)
Live in New York City, recorded at the old Ritz in the fall of 1987, is the last Black Uhuru album to feature the Reid-Simpson-Jones lineup. With backing provided by some of Jamaica’s top players (including guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, who now plays with Ziggy Marley, and drummer Santa Davis, who played with Peter Tosh), Reid’s spicy lead vocals and between-song improvs make this a perfect souvenir of the band’s ’86-’87 era. The set includes a lot of material from Brutal, as well as some of Reid’s solo numbers (“Shock-a-Lock,” “Foreign Mind”) and items dating back to Michael Rose’s days (“Emotional Slaughter,” “Solidarity”).
Puma Jones left the lineup and was replaced by Olafunke, a Jamaican-born soundalike; Positive shows the reconstituted group moving forward. The LP finds Reid coming into his own as a vocalist, and features a few songs that are strikingly original (Simpson’s apocalyptic “Fire City,” for example). Sly and Robbie continue to be the featured musicians, but producer Steven Stanley offers flourishes and variations on their familiar martial drums and bass lines. While there are echoes of the old Black Uhuru on Positive, a new band identity and sound are slowly emerging. An okay dub version of the LP has also been released, first as a limited-pressing LP, then on cassette with an added cut. (The Positive CD contains four dub mixes.)
On 28 January 1990, Puma Jones, 36, died of cancer and was buried in South Carolina, her birthplace. She was one of the great women of reggae, Rasta, black pride and women’s rights, and one of the only females to be part of a predominantly male group that reached such international acclaim.
Ironically, around the time of Jones’ death, Black Uhuru released Now, featuring what is considered to be the band’s original lineup: founder Duckie Simpson, Don Carlos (a solo artist for many years) and Garth Dennis (ex-Wailing Souls). Revisiting the group’s early vocal-trio sound, this reunion album is highlighted by more richly produced remakes of three songs from Love Crisis: “Army Band,” “Peace and Love” (originally titled “Willow Tree”) and “Heathen” (aka “Eden”). Despite the different sound (compelling, but less biting than usual), the message — militancy, prophecy, truth and rights — remains, as does the lyrical punch, in songs like the anti-crack “Reggae Rock,” the romantic “Thinking of You” and “Take Heed.” A cover of “Hey Joe” rounds out the album, with roots reggae, pop harmony and rock guitar.
Now Dub is a dub version of the LP that stretches the limits of the form. A Guy Called Gerald’s genre-bending remix of “Reggae Rock” is a crazyhouse version that fixes Uhuru’s floating vocals to pounding bass and a wall-pulverizing drum beat. The dub of “Hey Joe” is even more astonishing.
Resuming his solo career, Junior Reid had a massive Jamaican hit in 1989 with “One Blood,” which became the title track of his slick, electro-reggae album the following year. (Puma Jones sings backup on a bizarre cover of “Eleanor Rigby.”) Covering a few other bases, Reid appears on Coldcut’s 1988 “Stop This Crazy Thing” and did a guest turn on the Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free.”