There’s been more than one “lost” Joe Higgs album over the years. One was supposed to have come out on Island Records in the early ‘70s and include “The World Is Upside Down.” It never happened. Another, recorded with the Irish band Hothouse Flowers and other musicians, was slated for release back in the ‘90s, but disappeared with the collapse of the label involved. This album, or a version of it, has now finally seen the light of day under the title Joe Higgs: Godfather of Reggae—and was well worth the wait. The original recordings were produced by Donai Lunny in 1997 and 1998, and executive producers Wayne Jobson and Lee Jaffe helped to finally see the project through. In keeping with Joe’s unique approach to collaboration (as witness his album with The Wailers Band, Blackman Know Yourself from 1990) this is as much a group effort as a solo release, but it carries the unique imprint of Joe Higgs on every track.
Unlike the early albums Life of Contradiction recently reissued by Pressure Sounds, or 1979’s Unity Is Power (which did come out on Island but wasn’t the same as the earlier projected album) or his later releases on American labels, this album sounds incredibly contemporary and not locked into any previous era of Jamaican music. Traditional Irish instrumentation, rock guitar, cool sax and pop background vocals blend in a worldly mix with Joe’s unique vocal style for a sound that draws from many elements while holding true to the reggae root. As always, Joe re-works a few earlier tunes of his own like “Dear Mother,” “She Was the One,” “Vineyard” and “Ah So It Go” — all in very different arrangements from those previously released. There is also a nice take on Bob Marley’s “Caution” and a version of Van Morrison’s “Stoned Me.” A couple of the songs (“Willow” and “Mistakes”) trade vocals with the band, with Joe seeming more like a guest vocalist sitting in.
There’s an exciting, live experimental feel to the music, as if the participants were trying to suss out each other’s musical approaches, akin to the energy of the recently released Complete Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan and The Band. The instrumentation is at times unusual for reggae, which adds to the loose, relaxed comforting feel. I particularly love “Talk Your Talk,” which combines elements of dancehall and a verse from Bobby Day’s “Over and Over,” but still comes out sounding like pure Joe Higgs. Most impressive are previously unreleased songs like the exuberant “Working It Out,” the determined “Never Let You Go,” the wistful “You Don’t Have To See Me” and the simply joyous “So Fantastic.” I would have bought the album just for the song “When I Hear the Melody,” so reminiscent of all that was great in the music of Joe Higgs.
Higgs, who passed in 1999, was a big part of reggae’s history. One of the earliest Jamaican recording artists (with his early singing partner Roy Wilson), he went on to school a generation that included Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff (whose bandleader he was the first time I saw Cliff live in 1975) and The Wailing Souls. A few years back, one of Joe’s fans in Europe put together an amazing collection online, including rare Higgs and Wilson singles, solo singles that were never gathered on albums and delightful obscurities—an incredible amount of music that has for the most part never been officially released. And now this album joins previous releases like Triumph and Family to help fill in some of the gaps from this foundational reggae singer.
Joe Higgs Godfather of Reggae is available on Amazon and iTunes