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Gregory Isaacs, Jamaican reggae artist, dead at 59

Gregory Isaacs
Reggae singer Gregory Isaacs. (Ras Records)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 10:30 AM

Gregory Isaacs, 59, the Jamaican-born reggae singer who was known as the "cool ruler" for his smooth, romantic singing style and who popularized the reggae subgenre known as lover's rock, died of lung cancer Oct. 25 at his home in London.

Unlike so-called roots rock singers Bob Marley and Burning Spear, who popularized songs that reflected world politics and the Rastafarian culture, Mr. Isaacs was best known for his love songs, many of which he wrote.

With his seductive style, he often pleaded for love or begged a lover for understanding. Nattily attired with his fedora hats and sports jackets, Mr. Isaacs conveyed a combination of prowess and vulnerability that invited comparisons to American rhythm and blues singers Tyrone Davis and Marvin Gaye.

Writing in the New York Times, music critic Milo Miles called Mr. Isaacs "the most exquisite vocalist in reggae," adding that "his lustful songs are not simple seductions or sexual boasts but sensuous daydreams, escapes from tribulation that invite the listener along."

With the success of his release "Night Nurse" (1982), which he co-wrote, Mr. Isaacs was poised for international stardom.

"Night Nurse," with its sly innuendo - "I don't wanna see no doc. I need attendance from my nurse around the clock. There's no prescription for me, she's my only remedy" - was a club hit for Mr. Isaacs in 1982.

That same year, he was sentenced to six months in a Jamaican prison for possession of unlicensed firearms.

Mr. Isaacs maintained that he owned the guns for protection from robbers and political violence, which had engulfed Jamaica in the late 1970s, "just like you have a jacket to protect you from the cold."

It was later reported that he had been arrested 27 times, mostly on drug charges - a fact that may have accounted for his reluctance to give interviews.

Gregory Anthony Isaacs was born July 15, 1951, in the impoverished Denham Town neighborhood of Kingston, where he listened to American rhythm and blues balladeers Sam Cooke and Ben E. King.

After winning several talent shows as a teenager, he first recorded in a duo with singer Winston Sinclair in 1968 and joined a vocal trio, the Concords, that recorded in the era's popular rock steady style.

In 1973, Mr. Isaacs struck out on his own. He started a record company, African Museum, with another Jamaican singer, Erroll Dunkley. There he had several hits in Jamaica with "My Only Lover" (1973), sometimes cited as the first lovers rock record, "Love Is Overdue" (1974) and "All I Have Is Love" (1976).

A prominent company, Island Records, started releasing his recordings in the United States in 1982. Mr. Isaacs was so prolific that the Web site All Music Guide estimated he had appeared nearly 500 albums released in Jamaica, the U.S. and the U.K.

Mr. Isaacs appeared in the 1978 subtitled Jamaican film "Rockers," a plotless, episodic comedy sometimes described as the "A Hard Days Night" of reggae music. He played a local locksmith haggling with two tourists over the price of unlocking their car and is later seen performing in a night club.

Mr. Isaacs was married multiple times, and a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

He continued to record and tour throughout the 1990s. However in 2007, the London Daily Telegraph reported that addiction to crack cocaine had caused the singer to lose his teeth - a problem that affected his singing.

That year he told the Daily Telegraph, "It was the greatest college ever, but the most expensive fee ever paid - the Cocaine High School. I learnt everything - and now I've put it on the side."


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