Various ‘The Ladies at Joe Gibbs’ (VP) 4/5

Women reggae singers have been few and far between on the ground in the general history of reggae music which says more about their limited access to opportunities than anything whatsoever to do with the quality of their singing. A few years back, US re-issue label Heartbeat released an excellent anthology of women singers at Studio One and Trojan trumped this with a double CD that covered the 1970s and early 1980s that plugged the gap magnificently. Joe Gibbs’ label regularly released 45s and 12″ disco mixes of women artists and this new anthology is a terrific overview of those singers at a crucial time in Jamaican musical history. Pride of place goes to the duo of Althea and Donna who went to the highest echelons of the UK pop and reggae charts in the late 1970s with the anthemic ‘Uptown top ranking’ and here the full-length extended version is made available in all its glory. Of course the riddim was based on an earlier classic by Alton Ellis, ‘I’m still in love with you’, and this was reprised by another singer who regularly recorded with the Mighty Two, Marcia Aitken. This update was a minor hit at the time. Invariably, reggae singers of either sex would cover classic soul numbers and the sister of Alton, Hortense Ellis, offers an excellent interpretation of Ann Peebles’ southern soul anthem, ‘I can’t stand the rain’ in its 12″ version while Marcia Aitken and Ruddy Thomas collectively cover ‘Emotion’. There has always existed an intimate rapport between soul and reggae music and it is certainly true to say that US soul music heavily influenced the singers of the rock steady era. It should come as little surprise, then, that there would be a cover by Marica Aitken on the anthology of ‘Danger in your eyes’, a hit first time round for the Paragons featuring John Holt. A surprise inclusion is by one of the members of the I-Threes, Judy Mowatt, under her earlier name of Julie Ann with ‘The gardener’, which was a soul standard for the Staple Singers. Another addition of interest is the interpretation by Althea alone this time of a classic Studio One riddim in ‘Downtown thing’. Lovers rock was an ideal way for UK-based women singers to enter the reggae market and Joe Gibbs quickly sensed the gap in the field and the result was June Lodge’s ‘Someone loves you honey’ which has something of a Wackies groove in the instrumentation. Elsewhere a clear indication that women singers were equally adept at more cultural themes is illustrated on the bouncy rockers riddim of ‘Ina Jah children’ by Dhaima. What made these recordings special was the accompaniment of Kingston’s very top session musicians and these included the who’s who of reggae instrumentalists such as Sly Dunbar, Lloyd Parks, Cedric ‘Im Brooks to name but a few. It should be pointed out that these sides have been re-mastered from the original vinyl rather than master tapes, which are simply unavailable. As such on a top grade hi-fi system, they will not play at an equivalent sound frequency to the original vinyl, but for most sound systems having all these songs in one place will be sufficient and on most hi-fi units the sound is perfectly acceptable.

Tim Stenhouse