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The Burning Spear-Roots Reggae's Roving Ambassador

Burning Spear
Jamaican roots reggae singer-songwriter, vocalist and musician Burning Spear

One of the greatest proponents of what we now know as Roots Reggae is the Jamaican artiste known simply as "The Burning Spear." In order to appreciate both Spear's and Roots Reggae's value, it is useful to take a quick look at the circumstances that led to its development.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the “Rock Steady” music beat gradually dissipated, taking with it the sweet ballads for which the genre had become known, especially the local remakes of generally popular North American R&B songs. The year 1969 saw the music returning to its origin; the little man in the ghetto who had a message for those who cared to listen and very often the message it carried wasn’t necessarily pretty. Perhaps one of the most telling incidents that spurred this need for popular expression was the 1968 Rodney Riots in Kingston, Jamaica; an event that the then Shearer led government met with significant repression, targeting the fledgling Rastafarian movement, users of ganja and generally the poor and the dispossessed in the society. The Rastafarian message of “Peace and Love” had struggled in the 50s and the 60s to find its place in the major population centres during this period but thanks to Prince Buster’s exposure via incorporating Count Ossie’s Rasta drums in the seminal O’Carolina, Rastafarians embraced the music as an avenue of expression and as the new “Reggae” beat found its footing, so too the influence of Rasta in the genre.

One of the great proponents was Winston Rodney, born in Saint Ann's Bay, Saint Ann, Jamaica on March 1, 1945. Rodney grew up listening to the R&B, Soul and Jazz music transmitted by the US radio stations whose broadcasts reached Jamaica and among his favorites were Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. Rodney’s socio-political influence emanated from the work of another St. Ann native, the Pan-African activist Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Rodney had a deep interest in developing his singing career and was encouraged by Robert Nesta Marley in 1969 to pay Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd a visit with the other member of his newly formed duo “The Burning Spear” named after a military award given by the first Prime Minister and President of an independent Kenya; Jomo Kenyatta and including bass singer Rupert Willington. The duo auditioned for Dodd in 1969 which led to the release of their debut single "Door Peep,” after which they were then joined by tenor Delroy Hinds, the brother of “Carry Go Bring Come’s” Justin Hinds. The Burning Spear then released a series of singles on Studio One, including the 1972 Jamaican smash hit "Joe Frazier (He Prayed)." The following year brought the group's debut album, “Studio One Presents Burning Spear,” which was immediately followed by a second album “Rocking Time” following on its heels in 1974, before they moved on to work with Jack Ruby in 1975. The relationship with Jack Ruby was immediately productive and their first recording "Marcus Garvey" which was intended as an exclusive track for Jack Ruby's Ocho Rios based Hi-Power sound system was released as a single. The song was an instant hit and was followed by the anthem, "Slavery Days." Interestingly, Clement Dood sought to take advantage of his former trio's new-found popularity and released a clutch of singles in response, taken from the earlier sessions that Burning Spear had conducted with him. In the meantime, the group worked with Ruby on their third album, Marcus Garvey in 1975 backed by Ruby’s studio band The Black Disciples. The album was a phenomenal hit and led to a deal with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. In an effort designed to give the group a wider release of the album, Island remixed and altered the speed of some of the tracks, much to the annoyance of fans and the group. Rodney in response set up his own Burning Music label for future releases where he would have full control, although further releases followed on Island including the albums “Garvey’s Ghost” and “Man from the Hills” both of which were again backed by The Black Disciples.

In late 1976, Rodney split from both Ruby and group members Willington and Hinds, and from that point on used the name Burning Spear for himself alone releasing the album “Dry and Heavy” in 1977, a self-produced project but still on Island, and with a sizeable following by now in the United Kingdom. The album included tracks such as “Throw Down Your Arms and Come.” He performed in London that year with members of the British group Aswad as his backing band for a sold-out show at the Rainbow Theatre, which was recorded and released as “Live!” Aswad also provided backing on his next studio album, ”Social Living” in 1978, which also featured Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

In 1980, Rodney left Island Records and along with his wife, set up his own production company Burning Music which he signed to EMI, debuting with the album “Hail HIM” recorded at Marley's Tuff Gong studio and co-produced by Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Rodney signed with Heartbeat Records and released a series of well-received albums including the 1985 Grammy-nominated Resistance. He returned to Island in the early 1990s, releasing two albums before rejoining Heartbeat. This arrangement in which Burning Music Productions delivered completed albums of music to EMI, Island and Heartbeat Records for worldwide distribution lasted for many years. When Heartbeat ceased releasing new material, Burning Music took matters into their own hands and began to release music solely through their own imprint. Albums released by Heartbeat through an agreement with Burning Music included: “The World Should Know” (1993), Rasta Business (1995), Appointment with His Majesty (1997) and Calling Rastafari (1999) which was the last completed album to be solely pressed by an outside label.

His album, “Calling Rastafari” brought his first Grammy Award in 2000, a feat which he repeated with the album “Jah is Real” in 2009. Burning Spear was awarded the Order of Distinction in the rank of Officer on 15 October 2007.

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