Modern audiences seem to view reggae as a genre that formed in a vacuum and has never changed or altered. The Harder They Come and Bob Marley and his extended family make up the beginning and end of reggae for casual listeners, which is a shame because it’s an extraordinarily rich genre, with many of its most gifted practicioners functioning as sly ambassadors of a sort, whether it’s the Jamaican immigrants who made Toronto a reggae hotbed or rock steady pioneer Derrick Harriott. Harriott never achieved the same household name status outside of Jamaica that Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley did, but Dub Store’s collection of his late ’60s output makes a strong case for Harriott as one of the most integral and soulful reggae pioneers, one whose output is timeless and overdue for larger recognition.
Focused on the tail end of the ’60s, after Harriott had come back from a rewarding but still disappointing New York excursion, Rock Steady 1966-1969 shows how Harriott was integrating the American R&B he had been soaking up but also deviating from it in important ways that would pay off for all of Jamaica before long. By 1966, Harriott had not only returned from America but had also set up his own record store, giving him access to imports and a pulpit from which he could preach his vision of island music. There are a number of vital reinterpretations of R&B classics gathered here, including the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” which is given a shuffling rhythm and an airy piano line, shifting the focus to melancholic harmonies and a hesitant tempo rather than larynx shredding intensity. The song is recognizable not just as a cover but as a blueprint for what many of the reggae icons would be doing for the next decade as they veered away from ska and its up tempo style and utilized more R&B and doo wop aesthetic.
Harriott’s most notable contribution to the reggae canon, though, came via Keith and Tex and a homegrown cover of The Spanishtonian’s “Stop That Train.” After Keith and Tex had been rejected by nearly every other producer in Jamaica, Harriott took them in and mentored them, leading to a string of hits, of which “Stop That Train” was the most influential. Anchored by its eerie, iconic opening guitar riff, this interpretation of the song would go on to be covered by nearly every reggae legend, from Peter Tosh to Bob Marley to Don Campbell. Keith and Tex’s open, riff-focused style and alternating vocals was also clear on “Tonight,” another hit that the collaboration with Harriott yielded, though in that instance it’s in service of a more sensual, seductive angle, its R&B DNA clearer than “Stop That Train” and its yearning, otherworldly tones.
Harriott was equally adept at more classic island styles, though. His collaborations with Junior Soul in particular stand out, with “The Hustler” offering a curious amalgamation of Stax-like organ playing and playful, lilting vocals while Ike Bennett and the Crystallites’ “Illya Kuryakin” is a full on rocksteady reinterpretation of Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place” (mysteriously renamed to reference a Man from U.N.C.L.E. character). Likewise, Harriott’s hit “Do I Worry” has him adopting a torch singer approach over a rocksteady beat, excising the traditional guitar opening of the Ink Spots’ original in favor of a propulsive bassline and a more sarcastic melodic tone. Harriott’s cover even leaves room for a sharp guitar solo instead of the original’s spoken word interlude.
Harriott may not have the recognition of Lee “Scratch” Perry, but the anthology proves that he had just as much of an impact on the sonics of Jamaica’s biggest hits, something that is especially clear on solo tracks like “The Loser.” Here, Harriott works in a number of unique approaches, like a piano line that sounds as though it was recorded a block away and unorthodox percussion, both of which help create a full stereo effect, increasing the depth of the recording. Harriott’s lead vocal is somewhat prominent in the mix but it’s doubled up with a more muted, reverb drenched take, allowing the group harmony on the title refrain to be the real focus.
Dub Store Records’ has done an excellent job not just curating some of Harriott’s most important contributions from one of his most productive eras, but also providing a refreshingly welcoming collection for music fans looking to dabble in a genre that is too frequently represented as shallow and repetitive. Rock Steady 1966-1969 is an essential guide that shines a light on one of pop music’s most influential innovators in an easy to digest and rewarding format.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover