The name Joseph Benjamin Higgs is one that is hardly recognizable in Jamaican music circles unless it is stated as “Joe Higgs” in some circles. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a more significant and unheralded figure in Jamaican music than Joe Higgs.
He was born on June 3, 1940, and grew up in the Trench Town area of western Kingston. His career in the island’s music spans more than 30 years, yet, very few people in Jamaica will tell you that they are familiar with him, even though he was one of the most instrumental figures in the foundation of Jamaican music at the outset of the creation of recorded music in Jamaica.
Joe Higgs Beginnings
A product of the established talent contests of the 1950s era, Higgs was a solo artiste as well as part of a duo he formed with Roy Wilson. It was through this confluence of circumstances that led him to his first hit recording as the duo was scheduled to perform their entry in the finals of one such contest being hosted at the Ward theatre in downtown Kingston in 1958. In the audience, that night was Edward Seaga who would later become Prime Minister. At the time though, Seaga had been operating West Indies Records Limited (WIRL) pressing imported record titles under license for overseas entities and redistributing not only on the island but throughout the Caribbean region. According to him, when he heard the song and saw the audience's reaction he decided to record it for distribution. Thus it was that “Manny-O” became Higgs & Wilson’s first recorded work and a major catalyst in charting the course for Jamaican-owned recorded music. By Seaga’s account, the record sold over 30,000 copies. It inspired dozens of wannabe singers to come forward and birthed our industry. The record was a hit both at home and in the United Kingdom where it was later released and helped to establish the duo of Higgs and Hill s indigenous local artistes. Hailing from the Trench Town area of western Kingston, the duo worked with Seaga on a few other tracks including “When You Tell Me Baby” before joining with producer Clement Sir Coxsone Dodd. Coxsone released a number of hits including “There’s a Reward” and “How Can I Be Sure” “Come on Home”, “Don’t Mind Me”,” Gone is Yesterday” Higgs went solo after Wilson left Jamaica for the United States in the late 1960s. Bob Andy described Higgs and Wilson as "the best duo I heard in those days...Roy Wilson was a very good tenor, very good tenor."
Joe Higgs the Songwriter
Higgs also had a solid reputation as a songwriter and reportedly penned songs for a number of seminal reggae acts such as Toots and The Maytals and Delroy Wilson. While establishing himself as an in-demand songwriter, Higgs was also developing a solo vocal career as well as working as a high school music teacher. Such a role saw him working regularly as a vocal arranger, a coach, and a guitar instructor. Among his roster of students was Robert Nesta Marley.
It was under the tutelage of Joe Higgs that Marley’s guitar playing greatly improved but, more significantly, it was Higgs who arranged the beautiful trio singing of Marley and fellow Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. So integral was Higgs to the creation of this sound, that when Bunny abruptly left the band in 1973 on the eve of their first major American tour, Higgs easily filled the void. It wasn't until 1976 that he released his first solo album, “Life of Contradiction” a title that accurately summarized Higgs’ career up to that point. The follow-up album, “Unity is Power”, was equally good, but as impossible to find. It wasn't until 1985 when Alligator Records, a label best known for blues music, released Higgs’ masterpiece “Triumph.” After that time, he kept a low profile, issuing a record every now and then, his work revered by reggae fans around the world. Higgs died of cancer on December 18, 1999, at the Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles, California leaving twelve children including a daughter Marcia who is a rap artiste, and a son, Peter who is a studio guitarist.
In 2006, the Joe Higgs Music Awards was established in his honour.