A tardy prince, a punctual king

Dennis Brown and Bob Marley
Dennis Brown and Bob Marley (Photo credit: Jah works Radio)

Throughout today, Bob Marley’s 77th birthday, there will be many tales – some unnecessarily tall – told publicly about the King of Reggae. Similarly, on 1 February I heard many stories about the Crown Prince of Reggae, Dennis Brown, on his 65th birthday.

However, it is a story that I read some time ago of when their on-stage lives almost overlapped which has underscored a key differences between their respective levels of reggae royalty. This contrast could be crucial to why one is celebrated worldwide and the other seems to be revered mostly within a much smaller section of the reggae market. It is not the only one, I am sure, but it is very significant.

At a moment when he who would go on to be king and he who would go on to be prince could have performed together on the same concert in New York. Dennis Brown was late, and Bob Marley was on time and waiting in vain. The Tuff Gong’s work ethic and respect for time is legendary. I have read stories of his being first to board the tour bus, no matter how late he had stayed up the night before. And I have heard at least one story about it being impossible to be angry with Dennis Brown, no matter how late he was for an engagement, as he was so charming. As we talk again and again about what is wrong with the business of Jamaican popular music, we need to emphasise Bob Marley’s professionalism as much as we honour his lyricism.

To the story from September 1980. Dennis Brown was slated to perform at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, while Bob Marley was in town to put some muscle behind ‘Uprising’, what would be his final album release while alive. Bob’s admiration for Dennis, his favourite singer, has been retold repeatedly and, as the story was written, he wanted to pop in on Dennis’ set with two songs, which were duly rehearsed by Lloyd Parks and We The People Band. Dennis missed his flight from London, Marley was waiting outside in his car to a fantastic fan moment, Dennis’ appearance was rescheduled to the following week, Marley could not make it and on 23 September 1980. Bob played his final show at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Within eight months he was dead, Dennis Brown lived until 1 July 1999, and that was that. The moment was lost.

There will always be comparisons between Bob Marley’s and Dennis Brown’s popularity in Jamaica during the 1970s, when it seemed (I can’t say first-hand) that Dennis was the hometown favourite and Marley the international star, but more removed from the local sound system circuit. Apart from standard like “The Foundation”, “Revolution”, “Here I Come”, “Inseparable”, “Wolves and Leopards” and so many more, I can listen to Dennis’ take on “Little Green Apples over and over and over again, in any setting. I dearly wish to hear it on Klassique in Rae Town one more time, with the stars overhead, the smell of beer and weed in the air, the uneven lighting of street lamps, cell phones and headlights creating lights and shadows on bodies and buildings.

I play the Kaya and Confrontation albums by Bob Marley and the Wailers repeatedly, and there is a performance of “Zion Train” from the Deeside Leisure Centre, Wales, in July 1980 that is, for me, transcendental. When he sings the instruction “through to the bridge” to the band (a version is also in the studio album) it feels like a plea for company between the physical and spiritual realms. Listen to the varying treatments of the same words in two verses of “Jump Nyabinghi” and tell me if you feel, like I do, that Marley’s intonation makes two distinct songs of the same words and music within two minutes of each other.

But there is no parallel between the two when it comes on to making the best use of their time and it shows in their respective legacies. Talent is one thing, maximizing that gift is another.

Usain Bolt understood this and put in the work (although I think that although he is the best the world has ever seen, he has never been his absolute best on the track) and as he continues to transition into music, he has spoken publicly about the lack of professionalism – simply turning up on time – among some of the performers he has worked with or tried to work with. It is full time that as we celebrate Reggae Month we present being on time, rehearsing continuously and rewriting lyrics as equally important as hitting the right notes.

Can a Jamaican music culture fascinated with the latest drama and dressing fathom this? And then we complain that “farina a tek we music”. KMRT.

Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).

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