The Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs, is one of the best-loved and most durable reggae singers. Highly prolific (he writes nearly all his material) and business-savvy (he runs his own Jamaican label, African Museum), Isaacs’ voice is still the key to his success. His delivery is marked by a combination of ice and fire rare even among soul singers — an urgent longing, tempered with cool control. Although comparable to a Jamaican Al Green or Marvin Gaye, Isaacs is a completely unique stylist. His repertoire is equal parts lovers rock and Rasta protest; the link is his seductive delivery. Whether he’s urging romance or reform, the call to action will give you goosebumps.
Like many popular reggae performers, however, Isaacs’ recording career is a confusing jumble. His early work involved a number of producers. Sensational, for instance, has one side produced by Rupie Edwards and one by Ossie Hibbert, resulting in a mix of hits (“Black and White,” “Mr. Know It All”) and duds. Extra Classic compiles his work with Pete Weston and Lee Perry, as well as his first self-produced sessions. While also spotty, the record offers early proof of Isaacs’ authority and strength as a songwriter.
Isaacs’ career began to move under the guidance of producer Alvin Ranglin. Their collaboration is chronicled on the two excellent Best Of collections. Though available only as Jamaican imports, these consistently strong LPs are worth finding, and crucial for fans. Another Ranglin/Isaacs session, In Person (which includes the UK hit, “Love Is Overdue”) is available on Trojan, along with an LP produced by Sidney Crooks, All I Have Is Love. Both are of mixed quality, but Trojan took the best from each and combined them with a third batch (produced by Winston “Niney” Holness) for The Early Years, good all the way through.
For his next career phase, Isaacs chose to produce himself. Despite weak covers of the Temptations’ “Get Ready” and Billy & Vera’s “Storybook Children,” Mr. Isaacs has bold, assured singing and at least one classic, “Slave Master.”
Virgin’s Front Line label then released two inconsistent albums, subsequently culling the best tracks for an edition of the Crucial Cuts series; still, it’s pretty weak. The outstanding Soon Forward, however, launched his collaboration with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The title song of that record also appears on the Showcase EP, released on Sly and Robbie’s Taxi label, which adds a version of Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver.” Although tight and lively from start to finish, the record allows Isaacs’ personality to be somewhat overshadowed by the duo’s fine playing. Besides his work with Sly and Robbie, Isaacs began an association with Roots Radics, another fine Jamaican session band, that would last several LPs.
The Lonely Lover and More Gregory contain his finest middle-period work. Both feature excellent backing (divided between the Radics and Dunbar/Shakespeare) and a steady stream of high-quality material. Best of all, Isaacs is singing at the peak of his form. More, in particular, firmly establishes his loverboy persona in an easygoing groove that lasts for all ten cuts. Once Ago pairs the two records on CD and cassette.
In contrast, Isaacs’ work on Island is marred by inconsistency. Both Night Nurse and Out Deh! boast first-rate singing and playing (by Roots Radics), but the material is erratic, frequently weak — more a series of gestures than songs. To compensate, perhaps, two live albums were released around the same time. The song selection — an essential greatest hits — is similar on both, but the Brixton set has the edge, featuring a horn section and a more enthusiastic performance.
A short period of inactivity was broken in 1985 by the release of Private Beach Party. In a clear effort to lighten the load, Isaacs enlisted the help of an outside producer, Augustus Clarke, and several songwriters. The result is his best album in years — a fresh, diverse package.
Easy maintains his rule; the sensual crooning is as lilting and refreshing as a cold mint julep on a Caribbean beach. In “Cool Ruler Come Again,” Gregory announces that “he was only taking a nap.” Both the title track and “Love Is Overdue” are absolute Gregory.
Isaacs remained prolific, recording LPs of his own material with a variety of producers for a few small labels. While none of these mid-’80s releases are particularly distinct, each of them demonstrates nicely how Isaacs’ smooth and sexy formula is as dependable as Smokey Robinson’s, and how his professionalism and talent have withstood the test of time.
Isaacs had a big late-’80s hit with “Rumours,” which then turned up on Red Rose for Gregory. This is the lonely lover of days gone by, complete with his famous sexy moans and mannerisms. From the title track to the evocative “Teacher’s Plight” to “Rough Neck” (on which he’s joined by the Mighty Diamonds), Gregory is in his glory.
Isaacs’ next huge hit was “Big All Around,” another in a series of collaborations with Dennis Brown. The pair included that song on their joint No Contest, a mixture of solo performances and duos. Their sensual voices, with rootical foundations in Gussie Clarke’s state-of-the-art production, makes this album a must. “Easy Life” and “Jealousy” are crucial combination tracks. The earlier Judge Not only pairs Isaacs and Brown vinylistically: each man keeps to his own side of the platter. Lacking the collaborative fire of No Contest, it’s rather boring.
My Number One is a compilation. Come Again Dub is the companion to Call Me Collect.