Barrington Levy wasn’t born the purveyor of his inimitable “skiddly woah” sound-system-friendly vocal signatures. This strong early-days compilation from VP’s vintage division charts his progress from soaring-voiced roots-dancehall crooner to what some would later call singjay – beating the then dominant microphone talkers, or deejays, at their own game.
Taking full advantage of VP’s ownership of Greensleeves, disc one draws most of its production from the UK label’s favourite, Henry “Junjo” Lawes. Backed by the Roots Radics Band and engineered by Scientist at King Tubby‘s famed Dromilly Avenue studio, they are a hefty mix of sweltering major-key bliss (first big hit Collie Weed) and questing minor-key meditation (the title track to debut LP Bounty Hunter).
Alongside guesting with the deejay Jah Thomas on Tribute to Moa Anbessa, Levy even does some mic-rapping himself. This interest in deejaying can be traced back at least as far as his childhood duet with cousin Everton Dacre, A Long Time Since We Don’t Have No Love.
Disc 2 hears Levy continue with Lawes but widen his pool of producers. His Channel One-helmed announcement that Dances are Changes establishes the now familiar tongue-twisting scats and wails.
These climax on the herbal hit for Jah Screw, Under Me Sensi – which inspired the first digital smash Under Mi Sleng Teng (and, due to a misunderstanding of its lyrics, was once performed on UK children’s show Number 73).
Yet like his forebears Levy could also be socially aware. Don’t Fuss nor Fight urges calm during political turmoil, while Eventide Fire a Disaster laments the May 1980 blaze that took 153 lives.
There are a few omissions for the exceedingly picky, such as Revelation and self-production Love of Jah. More of a letdown are the lapses in sound quality – with certain tracks sounding like they are dubbed off a deteriorated source.
But anyone who associates the man nicknamed “the mellow canary” with his later digital Bob Andy covers should check this welcome spotlight on his frighteningly consistent beginnings.
Even if Barrington had stopped recording in 1984 he would be thought of as one of reggae’s important voices today.
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