They called him the Cool Ruler. With his fedora hats and tailored suits, Gregory Isaacs helped to invent the smooth, romantic strain of reggae called Lover’s Rock. His career lasted over forty years and five hundred albums. He had a voice that was as sweet as honey, and a singing style that dripped with yearning and longing. Think of him as Jamaica’s answer to Marvin Gaye.
This album pays tribute to the great reggae singer who died of lung cancer last October. It collects sixteen covers by a who’s who of contemporary reggae. Tarrus Riley starts things off with an excellent rendition of “Front Door,” telling the tale of a man who leaves a bad relationship, declaring “Lord knows I don’t want to be lonely tonight/but I would rather to be lonely than to lead a dirty life.” It’s classic Isaacs: beautiful, bittersweet, and full of heartache.
Natel offers a version of Isaac’s early hit “All I Have Is Love,” telling a lover “Some other men will buy you diamonds and furs/and those are the things that mean a lot to some girls/but all I have is love.” It’s a brilliant song that Natel does proud.
Busy Signal tackles one of Isaac’s more serious songs, the cautionary “Hard Drugs,” something Gregory Isaacs knew too much about. Gyptian offers a nice version of “My Number One,” Duane Stephenson covers “Border,” and female singers Etana and Alaine offer feminine takes on the Cool Ruler’s style. The centerpiece is singing phenom Romain Virgo’s spin on Isaac’s smash hit “Night Nurse.” Virgo is one of the more promising singers to emerge out of Jamaica in years, and he proves himself again on this track.
The album was produced by Dean Fraser. While it sounds clean and crisp, there are quiet storm and smooth jazz elements that I personally am not a fan of. For the most part, though, the production is tasteful and restrained. It comes with a disc of instrumentals that I didn’t have any interest in, but those of you who enjoy your slow jams will dig it.
“We Remember Gregory Isaacs” may not improve on the originals, but it does offer a great overview of the contemporary Jamaican reggae scene, and allows sixteen up and coming singers the opportunity to tackle the Cool Ruler’s repertoire. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who was one of the reggae greats, and worth checking out.