Joe Higgs - Unity Is Power

One Man Kutchie
Unity Is Power
Gold Or Silver
Love Can’t Be Wrong
Small World
Think Of The Moment
Sadness Is A Part Of My Heart
Sons Of Garvey
Invitation To Jamaica

Joe Higgs, one of reggae's most influential forces, truly lived a life of contradiction - hence the title of his first album. I was privileged to know him for the last 20 years of his life. I found him to be a deep, albeit often contentious thinker, a man who devoted much of his life to the education of others at the expense, perhaps, of his own widely respected career.

His road was as bumpity as a Jamaican back country trail, with dashed hopes and a sprinkling of triumphs, enough to earn him the sobriquet of "The Father of Reggae Music" while living mostly in poverty. We met initially at Jimmy Cliff's home in Kingston in June of 1976 in the dawning daze of the national state of emergency. Shortly before I had my pocket picked in Bob Marley's tiny Tuff gong shack by one of the music's biggest stars. Shaken up, Joe and Jimmy assured us that my wife and I were safe with them, which led to several hours of reasoning about Rasta, politricks and the Vietnam War.

During three years of interviews for a now-aborted autobiography, Joe told me of his origins. "I was born on June 3rd, 1940, same as Curtis Mayfield. My father was a fireman on a ship, he was a triplet, and his mother had 23 sons; three twins and two triplets among 23 kids - all boys! My father was the only one who stayed in Jamaica."

His music interest began early, enamoured of jazzmen like Billie Eckstein, Louis Jordan and Louis Armstrong, and blues and r&b masters like John Lee Hooker and Screaming Jay Hawkins. At 16, in the Mico Practicing School for Teachers, the principal, Mr. Ivan Shaw, ridiculed Joe after he sang in a morning assembly for wanting to enter the National Singing Contest. Two weeks later, Joe won and was once more made to sing in the quad as the principal apologised to him in front of the entire school. But his world was not genteel. And he was no angel. "I was exposed to all types of crime, and sometimes you'd steal things just to live. From my earliest days I wanted to be someone who would accomplish something in life. When I was a youth I would try hustling too. I knew about shoe making, mixing mortar, carrying stones and cement, common labour work to make some money." In the late 50's he said "A guy named Errol told me he'd like me to teach Bob Marley to sing and [play music. He wasn't doing anything to get anything back, no money changed hands." And when the nucleus of the Wailers formed, Joe said he was "teaching them to wail. I started to teach them to sing harmony, structuring and all those different things, basic principals of singing. Also how to utilize breath control, which is what we call technique and craft, how to try and preserve as much energy as you can. Sound consciousness. How to use and measure lyrics by virtue of syllables, how to adjust measurement, meter, timing. It took me years to teach Bob Marley what sound consciousness was about.

Tosh too. They often couldn't find the key. For example, on 'Your Love' I replaced Peter because he couldn't sing his part. My baby mother, Sylvia Richards, and I both sang back-up on 'Lonesome Feelings'." His 1960 hit 'Oh Manny Oh' sold more than 50,000 copies. Producer Coxson Dodd sought him out and became an early champion of his music with his original partner Roy Wilson. But constant dissention over unpaid royalties led Joe to leave Studio One. He returned in a peace gesture with a smash hit called 'There's A Reward For Me'. When he again asked for royalties Coxson sucker-punched him with a pistol, nearly blinding him. Joe spent several weeks in the hospital. Some reward. He bled from his eyes and suffered years of debilitating headaches afterwards. Savvy to the business side of things, Joe was one of the first artists to retain control of his own masters, and ask fr contracts to be signed. This limited his output but resulted in a career where every single song truly counted. Because he shared his legal knowledge with fellow singers he was rapidly shunned by the power mongers of Jamaica's brutal music world. "I was banned from the business in the mid-60's," he said ruefully, "Byron Lee kept me out for a while". It was the same time that the Jamaican government was choosing artists to represent the country at the New York World's Fair in 1964. It was the time of the undisputed reign of Jamaica's greatest instrumental line-up ever, the Skatalites, led by Don Drummond at the height of the ska craze.

Joe was still angry thirty years later at the thought. "So instead of me and the Skatalites and the other creators, they send up Byron Lee. They claimed we were ganja smokers and couldn't be trusted." Some measure of revenge came in 1972 when he won the Festival Song Competition with 'Invitation to Jamaica', which caught the attention of Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Joe recalled, "Chris gave me $500 a month to take care of my expenses. The strategy was to keep me on hold so they can promote Marley. When I completed 'Life Of Contradiction' for him, Chris wouldn't take it for distribution, claiming I was very very far out in front of those other guys, they don't know where to place me.

It has often been said of Joe that he was ahead of his time, which stifled him in terms of popular acceptance. He was aware of the criticism. "I like phrasing my voice like an instrument. I love jazz. People will always be ahead of people. Some walk, some run, some creep. I'm not concerned about success. Music is my teacher. But it's not good to be ahead of time, because life is a progression." Joe's international reputation has always rested in large part as the man who taught Bob Marley to sing. But their relationship was fragile. Bob generated tens of millions of dollars during his short international career. Joe saw virtually no trickle-down. "Marley was a user in a lot of ways. For example - here is a man who had a tour pending in the fall of 1973, his first US tour, and at the very last minute, maybe a week before leaving, Bunny Wailer walked away for whatever reason. With that short a time, Bob came to me on his knees and asked me to join them as the 'most fitting replacement' for Bunny: I can play drum, I can sing harmony. He got us to go on the road voluntarily, I wasn't offered a salary or anything. I wasn't paid. I was not being thanked, no compensation at all". Joe went on a US tour in '75-'76 as Jimmy Cliff's bandleader and reliever for a couple of songs in the middle of Jimmy's set. A reviewer of their New York City show ecstatically pointed out songs in which 'Jimmy' really blew the audience away. Turned out they were Joe's numbers, and he was dropped from the tour. "When I did 'So It Go', (when you no have big friend) Michael Manley was using this song and 'a little bird came to me and told me that they wanted to kill me because I embarrassed the Prime Minister, this was in 1980. At the time, I was at Garveymeade in St. Catherine, and there were times I would be six months behind with my mortgage. Because people thought I was in the political arena with this song, my house was auctioned. I lost my house. Jimmy, Bunny, Rita, Bob - I went to all of them and asked them for assistance. I said I would work in return or do something to repay them. My house was sold over my head." They gave him nothing. "Respect? Never got it." Although he maintained tight control of all his copyrights, others such as Harry J and Blackwell both claimed ownership of his songs at various times.

'Stepping Razor', Joe's incendiary Festival Song, was co-opted by Peter Tosh who placed his name on it. Eventually, through the aid of a sympathetic Jamaican government official, Joe received his first payment of $17,000 in back royalties and the acknowledged title of composer. In 1979 Joe released his second album 'Unity Is Power'. Its cuts included love songs and an herbal observation, plus the standout title track and 'Sons Of Garvey', originally recorded as a duet with Jimmy Cliff on his Sunpower label. An all-star line-up joined him in March 1978 at the Aquarius Studio in Kingston for his self-produced sessions, including Santa Davis on drums, Bagga Walker and Boris Gardner on bass, Cat Coore on guitar, Keith Sterling on all the keyboards, Cedric 'Im' brooks on tenor sax and Joe himself on congas. Discouraged, at the dawn of the '80s Joe arrived in LA. He moved here permanently by 1984, became a guiding force for the growing numbers of fledgling local reggae bands. He was backed over the years by several different aggregates, all of whom testified to the minute control exercised by Joe in meticulous rehearsals. He did for them what they knew he had done for Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, the Wailing Souls and countless others - and they were humbled by that knowledge. Using his voice like a trumpet, Joe ennobled the slightest lyric and made it the stuff of epic verse. His stage patter could easily run from Yeats to Shakespeare. He was intolerant of ignorance and yearned to make everyone strive to be a better person. Joe could be disputatious about many things that most others had already decided were correct. Take, for example, the arrangement of colour on Rasta flags of red, gold and green. Traditionally, green has been on top. But, no, said Joe. "How could that be? Red is for the sun, and the green is for the grass of the earth. How could green be in the sky?" On Jamaica's national motto "Out Of many We Are One", which recalls all the different races and nationalities that make up the Jamaican people, Joe chose to radically differ. "What that really means," he proclaimed adamantly on many occasions, "is that they went to all the countries of the world and found the one black man there and brought him to Jamaica." He was sanguine about the ways in which his students had responded to him in later years. "No matter what I have done for these great monsters of reggae music, it is not that they did anything for me in return, but it is because of them most of the time why I'm remembered. And why? Because I have contributed somewhere along the line in their upcoming, and these things to me are the facts I'm trying to say, that are seeds planted by a spiritual farmer. these earthly experiences are rewarded to me by the spiritual power of God. Therefore, because I gave first, like how God gave His love, His son, to us, my faith set me free towards that fate."

Joe grew deeply depressed about the direction the music took in the aftermath of Marley's passing in May of 1981. he was no fan of the lyrical slackness that was to become so popular in the 1980s. In the late '90s, toward the end of his life, he journeyed to Ireland where Hothouse Flowers laid eleven tracks with him. Van Morrison visited the Dublin sessions and offered his horn section, who were sitting outside in a car, for Joe's use. The respect shown to Joe in those sad final years did not make up for the lack of financial sustenance. As he lay dying and penniless in a welfare hospice on Los Angeles at the end of 1999, his daughter Marcia put out a call to disc jockeys to play 'Unity Is Power' and share a prayer with listeners.

It is unnervingly ironic that the last record released under Joe's name came just two months before he passed. It was a reissue from Coxson Dodd of Joe's 'Worry No More'. On the flip side he placed, not a dub as would have been usual, but a vocal by a different artist, Derrick Morgan. It was called 'Leave Earth'. i was asked to do the eulogy at his funeral, held in a black church on Adams Boulevard. Many of his dozen children and dozen grandchildren attended. Joining them in the congregation that night, newly arrived from Jamaica, sat Sylvia Richards, lost in thought, imagining the Reward awaiting there for Joe in Zion.

Roger Steffens - Los Angeles May 2013

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