Such was the Cool Ruler's universal sway. Only Dennis Brown came close to Isaacs' appeal across black London's musical tribes, or rivalled his slick-suited package of righteous dread and pure carnality. And Isaacs was certainly slick, combining immaculate three-piece whistles with beaver hats artfully angled across the dreadlocks. It was the embodiment of his duality: the flashy Saturday-night window dressing that drew attention to his special songs and the unique manner in which he delivered them.
Isaacs leaves behind a catalogue of around 500 albums from a 40-year career, at least 300 of them full of original studio material utilising some of Jamaica's finest producers and studios. While such an output isn't necessarily unusual for a reggae star--so much of the island's music business was "work for hire" so the more songs you sang the more you'd get paid--the consistent quality of Gregory's material defied logic.
No matter whom he recorded for, it seemed his trademark tones--halfway between a croon and a groan--would wrap themselves around the silkiest lovers' or the bouncingest steppers with absolute conviction. "Slave Master," "Private Beach Party," "Night Nurse," "Rumours, My Only Lover," "Tune In," "Loving Pauper," "Mr Brown," "Love Is Overdue," "Black A Kill Black," "Permanent Lover," "Lonely Soldier"... these might not have troubled the pop charts, but became late-night classics, far more relevant to the sound systems than, say, Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff. Yes, the standard did tail off towards the end, but from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s he rarely put a foot wrong.
Rather than the jail sentences (for drugs and guns offences, from 1982 onwards) and the unpleasant outbursts that studded his diminution to a crack-addled shadow of his former self, the tunes are what he should be remembered for. There's an old reggae compilation CD, Reggae Refreshers Vol 2, that features Isaacs singing his own song, Border, live on stage. In five minutes it tells you everything you need to know about what he did and how much his audience loved him.
It's a swaggering roots rocker, rhapsodising the return to Africa and subsequent Rasta salvation, but put across so louchely it could almost be about the pleasures of the flesh. Then for a long passage he simply stops singing and the whole crowd takes it up word for word. Then by way of thank you and farewell, as the band brings it to a close, he says, "Yuh like it?" And he's gone.
Gregory Isaacs died in London, October 24, after a long battle with lung cancer.
Lloyd Bradley is the author of reggae meisterwerk Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King.