In “The Gregory Isaacs I Knew,” music photographer Dennis Morris recalls the time he spent with Isaacs and all the details that made him reggae’s “Cool Ruler.” Isaacs died on October 25, 2010 at age 59. Here is Morris’ touching account:
I first met Gregory in 1977 in the yard outside Joe Gibbs’s recording studio in Kingston, when I was over there photographing Bob Marley. Gregory was just hanging around and we got talking. He was very laid back, very warm, a humble man, but he had a vision of where he wanted to be and what he wanted his music to sound like.
Singers used to just hang around the studios for a chance to sing on a cut, and they’d get paid one fee, no royalties, even if it sold thousands. Gregory was an astute businessman. He got paid properly. He had the voice and he had the vision. Before he started wearing the suits, before he made any money, he was already the Cool Ruler in his head (the title of an Isaacs LP from 1978). Very few people have that whole vision, the sound, the songs, the image, but Gregory had it.
In the 80s, I would bump into him and Dennis Brown when they passed through London to do shows. They were very close buddies and now they’re both gone. It’s sad. The reggae scene was a small, close little circle back then. People would hang out together in the same few places. Bob [Marley] was big, the biggest, and I really thought Gregory might cross over in a similar way when he got signed by Virgin, but I’m not sure he wanted to go that way. I always had the feeling that he was satisfied with his life, with his level of success.
I shot the Soon Forward album cover for him in 1979. He was a very sharp dresser, the sharpest. The ladies loved him. They loved how he looked, his whole vibe, and that beautiful voice. I always compared him to Al Green. He had that effortless soulfulness to his voice. I like his conscious songs best – “Soon Forward”, “Mr. Brown”, “Black Liberation Struggle” – just classic songs about struggle and hope. Then, “Night Nurse”, of course, which is the Gregory Isaacs song everybody knows. That took him to a whole other level.
Success brought its problems for Gregory, of course, like it did for Dennis Brown. What a lot of people don’t understand is that these guys come from real poverty, and when they make it, a lot of people they grew up with become dependent on them, too. It’s about survival. When you come up through that kind of poverty and struggle, you never really escape it. You have to put something back. So I know Gregory had some problems, but when I hung around with him they never came up. He had his inner demons and he dealt with them his own way.
I saw him in New York five years ago and he was in a pretty bad way. He did not look well but he didn’t mind me seeing him like that. He knew that I knew where he had come from, what he had come through. We had a positive chat. Where he was going from there, though, I’m not sure even he knew. I was deeply saddened when I heard of his death, but I was not really surprised.
How would I sum up Gregory Isaacs? He was a great artist, one of the great voices of popular music. And he was the essence of cool. He knew how to be cool and steady. If ever a title suited a person, it was Gregory. He really was the Cool Ruler.
For original article, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/dec/12/gregory-isaacs-obituary-by-dennis-morris
Photo by Dennis Morris.