1999 – Reggae star Dennis Brown dies at University Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica, of a collapsed lung. He is 43.
by Dotun Adebayo Saturday July 3, 1999
Were it not for a fundamental flaw in his character, Dennis Brown, who has died aged 42, should have been crowned the undisputed king of reggae in May 1981 after the death of Bob Marley. Fans were practically gagging to hand him the title. Even Marley himself had selected Brown as his successor, dubbing him the “crown prince”.
Raised in the badlands of west Kingston, Jamaica, where boys become men before they reach puberty, Brown was nine years old when he was billed as the “boy wonder-singing sensation” and hoisted onto a beer crate to face an audience as the novelty act with the island’s leading big band, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. By the age of 12, he was already a veteran of the music scene, and followed the same route as Bob Marley to Studio One Records on Brentford Road, Kingston, the birthplace of reggae royalty from Burning Spear to Toots and the Maytals.
In a two-day session, presided over by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, the young Brown recorded two classic albums – No Man Is An Island and If I Follow My Heart – that confirmed him as Jamaica’s own Michael Jackson, with a mini-afro to boot. Though the albums sold well, it wasn’t until his voice had broken two years later that Brown was able to establish himself – on the album Super Reggae And Soul Hits – as a classy interpreter of the understated soul ballad, with a honeycoated voice that glided like a gentle breeze and went on to influence a generation of reggae vocalists, from Maxi Priest to Drummie Zeb, of Aswad.
It didn’t take long before every producer in Jamaica was knocking on the 14-year -old’s door, enticing him with little more than small change to record for them. Brown was incapable of saying “no” and duly obliged, setting a pattern that would result in at least 78 albums for 37 record labels in his 30-year career, releasing six or seven albums a year at his peak.
Reggae fans, however, could not get enough of Dennis. All he had to do was sing, and his records would sell in tens of thousands, if not millions – as did his only UK Top 10 hit, Money In My Pocket, in 1977. The odd dud track was unable to distract from the countless reggae classics that he seemed to knock out – Some Like It Hot, My Time, Cassandra, Westbound Train, How Could I Leave, Easy Take It Easy and Ghetto Girl, itself recently covered by Mick Hucknall, of Simply Red.
By the mid-1970s, Brown had followed further in Marley’s footsteps – to the door of the Twelve Tribes Of Israel rasta church on Hope Road, New Kingston. When he came out, the afro had been replaced by dreadlocks, and the soul ballads had been beefed up with a heavy dub bassline and the occasional rasta revolutionary lyrics, such as on the album Wolf And Leopards.
Brown seemed to have found a similar mix of lovers’ music and third-world militancy that catapulted Marley into international stardom.
From that same session came the tune that was to become Brown’s signature, Here I Come (With Love And Not Hatred). Success brought him to England, where he set up DEB Records, which established lovers’ rock as one of only three reggae styles indigenous to the UK and launched the career of a roster of female singers, including formerSoul II Soul frontwoman, Caron Wheeler.
In 1981, reggae drum and bass duo Sly and Robbie, who had assumed the semi-retired Coxsone Dodd’s mantle, invited Brown to ascend the throne made vacant by Marley’s death. Again, Brown could not say “no” when they took him into the studio, and dusted him down with a pop reggae beat and an international recording contract that saw him release three mediocre albums in successive years for A&M, Foul Play, Love Has Found Its Way and The Prophet Rides Again.
Though an international audience ignored these blatant attempts to wear Marley’s crown, the reggae audience forgave Brown his flirtation with pop and welcomed him to a sellout concert at the Brixton Academy as if it were his coronation. But Brown would never become king. He had been unable to say “no” to a cocaine habit, which would torment him for the rest of his life and see his career slide into parody. In May, while touring in Brazil, he was arrested for possession of drugs. A sad, undignified footnote to the life and times of the boy who couldn’t say “no”.
He is survived by his wife, Yvonne, and his 13 children.
Dennis Emmanuel Brown, musician, February 1957 – July 1 1999