Pressure Sounds | Savage Jaw

Joe Higgs - Life Of Contradiction

Come On Home
Got To Make A Way
Wake Up And Live
Life Of Contradiction
Who Brought Down The Curtains
There's A Reward
Hard Times Don't Bother Me
My Baby Still Loves Me
She Was The One
Song My Enemy Sings
Let Us Do Something
Freedom Journey

 Joe Higgs is a genius! Just ask Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Eric Gayle.

"Let us talk about Joe Higgs, a brother,, a talent, almost a spirit whose voice finds its way to the heart for all times and whose message has kept alive hopes that would otherwise surely die." Ronnie Burke

Many artists hope to change the way we see the world through their work but Joe Higgs is one of the very few who have actually achieved this. 'Genius' is a term used far too often to describe the most ordinary of talents and too many average recordings are lazily termed 'classics'. However there is one man, and one album, that indubitably deserves these descriptions. that man is Joe Higgs and the album is 'Life Of Contradiction'.

"Those of us who recall the birth od reggae are already familiar with Joe's long standing place in Jamaica's musical history. beginning as a member of the now disbanded Higgs & Wilson team whose early hits 'Manny Oh' and 'There's A Reward' are still cherished collectors items Joe moved from strength to strength to maintain his position as one of our most gifted and prolific performers." Ronnie Burke

Joe Higgs was born 3rd June 1940 in Kingston, Jamaica and grew up listening to a wide variety of musical influences:

"When I was a boy in Jamaica I used to listed to American music a lot. I love a lot of musicians, singers here also in America. From all parts of the world. I love Chinese, Japanese, Italians most of all. To me the greatest singer in that realm was Mario Lanza. Including the great Caruso... I listened to all kind of music." Joe Higgs

In the late fifties, as Rhythm & Blues fervour gripped the island, Joe formed the vocal duo Higgs & Wilson with Roy Wilson. Together they recorded their first single 'Manny Oh' for Edward Seaga's WIRL (West Indies Records Limited) label and in 1960 it became one of the first 'local' Jamaican hits. Edward Seaga moved into politics and Higgs & Wilson moved to Studio One where they continued their hit making career with songs such as 'There's A Reward' and 'Mighty Man'. They also recorded for Prince Buster, Duke Reid, King Edwards, Lindon O. Pottinger and Leslie Kong. Joe worked as a solo artist too and in 1966 he sung the original versions of 'I Am The Song My Enemy Sings' and 'Change Of Plan' ('Come On Home') for Studio One.

"At that time Roy (Wilson) had gone to live in the United States. When my partner left Jamaica in the sixties I did start go solo with Carlos Malcolm. I sing with Lynn Taitt. I sing with The Soul Brothers." Joe Higgs

After Roy Wilson left Jamaica to live in America Joe continued as a solo singer but he sung live with many of Jamaica's top bands and always recorded sparingly. In the seventies his recordings with Rupie Edwards 'Mother Radio' and Harry J, including the monumental 'The Wave Of War' and 'World Upside Down', were not only very popular but also never strayed far from Joe Higgs' anointed path of musical messages. In 1973 the self produced 'Invitation To Jamaica' for his own Elevation label won the song competition sponsored by the Jamaican Tourist Board.

"His experience with top bands like Carlos Malcolm, Lynn Taitt & The Jets, The Soul Brothers and many more added even more to an already impressive career. It was during this period that Joe Higgs made his presence felt with favourites like 'World Upside Down', 'Let Us Do Something', 'Song My Enemy Sings' and many more. Ronnie Burke

Although Higgs & Wilson were huge stars in Jamaica Joe Higgs defied any preconceptions regarding his star status and coached local youngsters, including The Wailers and The Wailing Souls, from his Kingston 12 neighbourhood in harmonising and singing techniques:

"Yes a lot of people don't know that. It's true... Bob Marley was with The Wailers. He wasn't the lead singer. I taught him how to sing." Joe Higgs

Joe later toured the USA playing with Bob Marley & The Wailers in 1973. Bunny 'Wailer' Livingstone, although he had not officially yet left the band, did not travel because of his dislike of touring and Joe Higgs deputised for Bunny as the group began to introduce reggae music to a new audience.

"It therefore seemed an obvious choice when he emerged as victor in the Jamaican Tourist Board song competition which he followed with a memorable tour of the USA as a member of Bob Marley & The Wailers." Ronnie Burke

The Wailing Souls too learnt much from Joe Higgs and to this day refer to him as 'The Maestro'. Joe Higgs had educated them, not only musically, but also in the ways of the music business, and he joined the group for a brief period in the mid seventies. As Atarra (Amharic for 'to purify') Joe wrote and produced 'Brimstone And Fire' which was released on the Micron label. Pete Weston also released Joe's debut long playing set, the seminal 'Life Of Contradiction', on his Micron label in Jamaica.

Originally recorded under the auspices of Chris Blackwell for Island Records in 1972 Joe Higgs was given the rights of 'Life Of Contradiction' after three frustrating years. The album was finally released in Jamaica in 1975 and in the UK on the fledgling Grounation label the following year.

"Well Joe Higgs, the problem... I really got close with him and I really wanted to work out something. He's fantastic! But he's really a problem image wise to promote. I couldn't see a direction. I don't think the market is ready for a Jamaican folk singer (reggae wise of course). But he's great. I like him very much..." Chris Blackwell

"So I was on hold. They had no plans for me. So the first album I submitted to them they didn't want it... They sponsored it and they find they didn't want it. So after sitting down for like two or three years and I was getting a fixed amount a month like I was on hold... They were concentrating on Bob Marley... That's all I can tell you. It's because of some strategy why I never got a deal and I had to walk on." Joe Higgs

It was obvious, despite the supposed difficulties with 'image' and 'marketing', that this was a unique collection coming from a completely different direction to any other reggae releases of the period. Joe had first recorded some of the songs in the sixties but it was as if he was now able to realise a vision of his own music that had previously been denied to him. His musicians of choice were the hugely talented, yet relatively unsung, Now Generation band that included Earl 'Wire' Lindo, Mikey Chung and Val Douglas but Joe needed what he termed a "guitar decorator" as well:

"I can play guitar but what kinda guitar can I play? OK, I can play rhythm guitar. I have the rhythm to accompany me but inside this rhythm I always hear a bass line or other things I can't do. Some of them I can. One of the things I always hear is a decorator, a guitar decorator, who I'm not able to be... I asked for that and Island Records gave me Eric Gale." Joe Higgs

But it wasn't necessarily straightforward with jazz virtuoso Eric Gale and the new textures that he gave to Joe Higgs' music were not always the result of harmonious working relationships:

"... and we got together and started working but Eric, at the time he didn't like it. He didn't like the reggae 'cause he think it was too slow and it was boring... he was trying all the time to change things and I said f**k no you can't do that. This is how it is. And even while he was doing something different he was impressed..." Joe Higgs

The set was one of the first releases on the newly formed Grounation label, a subsidiary of Vulcan, one of the many independent companies that had sprung up after the collapse of Trojan Records. By this time overground interest in the music and its performers was at an unprecedented and previously unimagined level and 'Life Of Contradiction' placed Joe Higgs in the higher echelons of reggae artists alongside Bob Marley & The Wailers, The Mighty Diamonds and Burning Spear with reggae's new audience.

However, some of the music's established commentators who had been aware of Joe Higgs' music already felt that, despite their giving five star reviews, the album was "flawed by the style of rhythmic instrumentation" as it had been recorded three years before being released. With over thirty years of hindsight such considerations might seem trivial but reggae was then moving the boundaries forward on an almost daily basis with Bunny Lee's flyers, the revolutionary sound of the Hookims at Channel One, Augustus Pablo's Rockers and the music emanating from Lee Perry's Black Ark. An album with rhythms and arrangements that dated from three years previously, and that included updated versions of some of Joe's ska hits, sounded like music from another era... which of course it was. And while much of the music from the period has not stood the test of time anywhere near as well 'Life Of contradiction' stands out now because of its timeless feel. It has got better and better over the years and has assumed its rightful place as one of the best Jamaican albums ever released.

The two extra tracks on the CD release, 'Let Us Do Something' and its instrumental counterpart 'Freedom Journey' by Joe Higgs and Karl Masters were both originally released on Joe's own Elevation label in 1972.

"When I did 'Let Us Do Something' I played almost everything on that including guitar..." Joe Higgs

"Elevation. See my photograph here, (on the label). Produced by me. This was my personal label. this was even my hand. I did it with my hand (the lettering on the label). The idea of Elevation was into this darkness and solitude no man could stop the source of my elevation to the light that comes in my head to bring a smile on my face. That's what Elevation means. If I don't tell you that you wouldn't know it. Out of my head I am my own source. That elevates me in life." Joe Higgs

Soon after the release of 'Life Of Contradiction' Joe left Jamaica to tour the USA as the bandleader with Jimmy Cliff:

"...It was said all over the place that he had lost his roots and he wanted to get back into that mode so he came and he got in touch with me in Trenchtown and he asked me to put his band together and he need substance, roots, apparently he thought I would be the most proficient person so I felt gladly. Did all of that for him. I led the band and we started touring." Joe Higgs

And Joe continued to tour and record until his untimely death on the 18th December 1999.

Joe Higgs was one of Jamaica's finest ever singers and songwriters whose output over his entire career was always of the highest musical and lyrical quality. In the sixties he was pivotal in the shift of Jamaican R&B into ska, and the inspiration, through generously passing on his knowledge and understanding, to an entire generation of artists. In the seventies, as reggae music gained prominence worldwide, he continued to promote and propagate its popularity through his own works and his work for others. Joe Higgs was instrumental in establishing the music of Jamaica as a recognised and acknowledged art form and his undisputed masterpiece is the 1972 album 'Life Of Contradiction'.

"'Life Of Contradiction' continues the Joe Higgs tradition. It is an everlasting testimony to the rewards of strength, courage, talent and above all else love." Ronnie Burke

"Let us do something..." Joe Higgs

Harry Wise - December 2007

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