Saturday, April 6, 2013

Harry J RIP

According to the Jamaica Observer, the great reggae producer Harry J (AKA Harry Johnson) passed away this past Wednesday at 68 from complications related to diabetes. (The Associated Press also has a brief obituary, which you can read here--and Billboard has an in-depth piece here.)

Like many ska fans of my generation who were in high school in the first half of the 80s, I first heard (and loved) Harry J's music via The Special AKA's "Too Much Too Young" EP--side two, of course, features a super-charged cover of "The Liquidator" in its "Skinhead Symphony" (which also included The Pioneers' "Longshot Kick de Bucket" and Symarip's "Skinhead Moonstomp"). But as soon as I picked up one of my first (and stellar!) Trojan compilations, Monkey Business, I heard the real deal and was a Harry J fan for life (if you can find it, one of the best compilations of his work is Return of the Liquidator: 30 Skinhead Classics 1968-1970).

I've borrowed the Harry J bio from AllMusic and posted it below (there's also a great entry on Harry J in Mike Alleyne's "The Encyclopedia of Reggae")--and you'll also find some videos of some of his songs and productions, including Bob and Marcia's "Young, Gifted, and Black" (one of the first reggae tracks to use strings, according to "The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae") and The Heptones' sublime "Book of Rules."

Our condolences go out to Harry J's family, friends, collaborators, and fans worldwide.

This bio on Harry J is from AllMusic:
Harry Johnson, or Harry J as he's better known to fans around the world, was a prolific producer of top-notch reggae, and continues to run one of Jamaica's most legendary studios. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1945, after leaving school Johnson worked as an insurance salesman. Interest in music, however, led him to schedule time at Studio One in 1968 to record the vocal group the Beltones. The resulting single, "No More Heartaches," was a hit, the first of many. Lloyd Robinson's seminal -- and much versioned -- "Cuss Cuss" arrived the following year, as did a slew of sizzling instrumentals from Johnson's studio band, the Harry J All-Stars. Their first, 1968's "Smashville," mashed up the sound systems, but it was the phenomenal success of "Liquidator," a number that stormed into the Top Ten of the British chart in late 1969, that cemented his reputation. The British reggae label Trojan promptly handed Johnson his own imprint, Harry J, and a slew of the All-Stars' instrumentals saw release. Although none of them repeated "Liquidator"'s success, the songs went down a storm with the skinhead crowd. Of course, the instrumentals were actually backings of vocal cuts, spiffed up by soloing organs or brass, and those vocal numbers were exciting plenty of attention, too. During these early years, Johnson oversaw excellent singles from the Cables, Winston Jarrett & the Flames, Joe White, Bob Andy, and Marcia Griffiths. When the latter two artists joined forces in duet, Johnson's fortune was made, with Bob & Marcia's cover of "Young, Gifted and Black" sailing into the U.K. Top Five, with "Pied Piper" following it up the chart. 
With the money amassed from those two hits, Johnson opened his own 16-track Kingston studio on Roosevelt Boulevard. A series of masterful albums emerged across the rest of the decade, all overseen by Johnsonhimself. The Heptones' Book of Rules and Cool Rasta, I-Roy's Crisus Time and Heart of a Lion, Zap Pow's Revolution, the Melodians' Sweet Sensation, Delroy Wilson's Last Thing on My Mind, Dennis Brown's So Long Rastafari, and Sylvan Morris' Cultural Dub and Jah Jah Dub sets are just some of the highlights. The Wailers recorded their first four albums for Island at Harry J's, with Burning Spear and Augustus Pabloamong the many other top-drawer artists who set up shop there. However, it was a young emerging singer who returned Johnson to the U.K. pop chart at the end of the decade. Sheila Hylton first hit with "Breakfast in Bed," and her follow-up, "Bed to Big Without You," was even bigger. In the new decade, the producer was working mainly with DJs, overseeing excellent material from Charlie Chaplin, Uglyman, and Little John, with Computer a fine roundup of these more digitized-sounding productions. By then, Johnson's interest in production was waning, or perhaps he just couldn't find the time anymore, so busy was he looking after the studio, which remains a mainstay of the Kingston music industry.


Anonymous said...

Very good obituary for a great musician I have know, just like you, from the compil Monkey Business nearly 30 years ago. He has actually left his mark in reggae. God bless him.

Anonymous said...

Ska against Live Nation! Calling all ska supporters.. Boycott all Live Nations shows in NYC.. Including the Apple stomp show coming up in nyc, Live Nation is the enemy who supports the Right wing GOP Tea party.


Anonymous said...

I Agree $55 is a Total Rip Off of the ska scene by those crooks at Live Nation. Who are only in it for the Greed and not for the scene.

Yeah Don't Patronize Live nation is Correct...We join in, in this Boycott Too.