Gregory Isaacs - on Acid Jazz Records

Gregory Isaacs

Gregory Isaacs

The Cool Ruler…One of the most iconic and legendary figures ever to emerge from the Jamaican reggae boom. ‘Night Nurse’, ‘Border’, ‘Red Rose For Gregory’ and a whole host of marvellous albums for labels as diverse as Island, Trojan, Treasure Isle, Virgin, Charisma and…er..Acid Jazz!Born in Fletcher’s Land, Kingston, Isaacs epitomized the rude boy lifestyle – living life on the edge, but still with enough time and talent to become the pin up boy of late 70s reggae. An album with super-cool jazz funk and soul label Acid Jazz seemed an unlikely step for both parties but wasn’t as improbable as it may have first appeared. By the early 1990s Eddie Piller, the label’s boss and primary producer, had already signed the British dub sound system Manasseh, the Hazardous Dub Company and an LA based roots collective fronted by Dread Flimstone (who incidentally gave Acid Jazz a number one dance chart hit with their reggae/house hybrid, ‘From The Ghetto’). A subsidiary was soon established. Called Acid Jazz Roots, it specialized in classic reissues from the late roots and culture and early dancehall period of the late 1970s. Buoyed by healthy sales with classics from the likes of Barry Brown, The Scientist and King Tubby, Piller was pushing to record new roots and culture material in a classic style. He had been in the studio with his own instrumental dub project and had built up a first rate house-band which featured the likes of Footsie, Clifton ‘Bigga’ Morrison, Leroy Bushall and Barbara Napthali and included many of the mainstay musicians from the UK lovers and dub boom of the late 70s.Piller remembers “I had always been into roots and culture as a musical art form and I believed that, if the right record could be made, something that pulled back from the digital dancehall style that had dominated reggae for a decade, then there was a massive crossover market out there who just weren’t being catered for. A chance meeting with Gregory Isaacs gave me the opportunity to put my ideas into practice”.Acid Jazz were on a roll at the time, The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and JTQ were regularly in the charts but the first signs of a gradual decline in the popularity of the jazz explosion forced the label to diversify. The only trouble with working with Gregory Isaacs was that he was releasing two or three albums a year, cheaply, without much creative credibility and by 1994 looked increasingly burnt out.Piller again: “I had been waiting for the right person to come along and had tried out both with Michael Prophet and Devon Russell, but neither had the profile of Gregory Isaacs. When I announced my intention to record him I had a number of calls from people advising me not to ‘take the risk’; that his lifestyle was seriously fucked and that I wouldn’t be able to make it work. I took a long hard look and realized that in spite of the obvious challenges inherent in the project, it was simply too good an opportunity to miss. This man was a global superstar, known just about everywhere. He hadn’t had a good record deal for about ten years and his output was patchy to say the least. I reckoned that if I could get the Cool Ruler in the right space, he would deliver the goods”.The first meeting however did not fill Piller with confidence.“Gregory certainly bore little resemblance to the Jamaican love god who’d won the hearts of a generation of British West Indian women. He appeared somewhat dishevelled and I wasn’t sure how he’d receive me. He was initially uncommunicative but eventually I told him my plan for a record and saw the first glint of interest in his eyes. He met the band and looked around the studio. I still wasn’t sure that I could make him rise to the occasion, but decided to give it a go. A week later I was down at our club in Hoxton Square, The Blue Note, when one of the security came up to my office and said that Mr Isaacs was downstairs and wanted to see me…The man who strode purposefully into the room was a completely different person to the one I had met earlier that month. Silk mohair suit, a fedora, crocodile-skin shoes and a diamond tie pin. The Cool Ruler was back. Properly.”“We talked through the project and he told me that he had been convinced by my earnest appreciation of his catalogue and he wanted to have another go at recording and promoting a mainstream record. I was struck by the change that had come over him and reassured that he would give it his best shot”.The recording went well, Gregory was punctual and on form. The album was finished and mixed in early 1995 and the label embarked upon a proper marketing campaign. Both press and radio received the album ecstatically, the only problem was that many of the mainstream journalists that interviewed Isaacs had trouble understanding him.Piller recalls: “Gregory has a pretty unique way of speaking, probably unintelligible on a first meeting. I got the impression that he used it as a barrier to having to talk to people he didn’t want to communicate with. It certainly took me a few days before I got a handle on it, so god knows how the writers coped. We obtained a number of suitable quotes and sent them on for their articles”.The promo campaign centered around a video, which was shown regularly on television, and a 20,000 fly-poster run in London, Bristol and other urban centres, climaxing with a headline appearance at the Notting Hill Carnival in the summer of 1995. Isaacs stole the show.The album, called ‘Private Lesson’ sold copious copies in both the UK (achieving a silver disc) and America and was followed with two spin-off releases – ‘Gregory In Dub’ (mixed by Piller using only analogue effects units) and ‘Dance Curfew’ (a junglist/drum and bass set of mixes produced by AJ’s reggae A&R manager, Dread Flimstone).Both Acid Jazz and Gregory Isaacs were pleased with the end result.Piller concludes, “I am very proud of Private Lesson and I know Gregory is too. It was very against the grain for reggae records at the time, classic sounds as against the minimalism of contemporary dancehall. We took a calculated risk and it paid off for all of us. I’ll never forget the 25,000 people watching him at the carnival. They were standing on the roofs of parked cars, leaning out of windows and hanging from trees. The Cool Ruler played a blinder!”

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