The “Cool Ruler” has died. Reggae great [artist id=”150222″]Gregory Isaacs[/artist], who earned that chilled-out honorific thanks to his natty dress and emphasis on romantic, yearning tunes, died at the age of 59 at his home in London following a yearlong battle with lung cancer, according to BBC News.
Isaacs, best known for his bubbling 1982 hit “Night Nurse,” gained his nickname as a result of his 1978 album, Cool Ruler, on which he perfected the reggae style known as “lover’s rock,” a swaying, bouncy sound that mixed the insistent thrum and downbeat of the Jamaican islands with a 1950s R&B crooner-style vocal.
“Gregory was well-loved by everyone, his fans and his family, and he worked really hard to make sure he delivered the music they loved and enjoyed,” his wife Linda said in a statement.
Though his recorded persona was that of a sensitive, often heartbroken man, a Los Angeles Times obituary noted that Isaacs was blocked from taking up the mantle of the late Bob Marley as the next international reggae star as a result of his outlaw “rude boy” persona, which resulted in dozens of arrests over the years on drug and gun charges, as well as a serious cocaine addiction.
Isaacs, born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 15, 1951, loved listening to American R&B singers such as Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson on the radio as a child and began making a name for himself as a teenager in the 1960s, performing at talent contests and with other vocalists before going solo in 1970.
After a string of self-released albums and singles on his own African Museum label, he finally hit pay dirt with 1973’s “My Only Lover,” widely considered the first lover’s rock tune. Like so many of his hits, it showcased his sensual, smooth tenor and kicked off a decade-plus run of chart-toppers that peaked in 1982 with the seductive “Night Nurse,” recorded at Marley’s Tuff Gong studios. In addition to his entrancing high and longing vocals, Isaacs used urgent moans and groans as the signature punctuation on some of his most beloved songs.
In keeping with his outlaw image, Isaacs was unable to celebrate the hit because he was serving a six-month prison sentence in Jamaica for unlicensed handgun possession. “I’d say he’s one of the three geniuses I’ve known in the reggae music business, and I’ve known everyone,” said Gary Himelfarb, who released several Isaacs albums on his label, RAS Records, in the 1990s.
“Gregory was the kind of person who could walk through a room of 20 people and come out the other side and tell you what everybody was wearing,” added Himelfarb, known professionally as Dr. Dread. “He could sit at a piano and compose incredible tunes. He was really brilliant. He was on a whole other level than your typical Jamaican artist.”
While the combination of his legal troubles and the ravages of drugs on his subtle voice contributed to his unreliability, Isaacs nonetheless became an inspiration to a new generation of reggae stars through his combination of lover’s rock and more politically charged tunes, such as “Black Liberation Struggle.”
Son and fellow reggae singer Kevin Isaacs, who appeared on the joint 2000 album Father and Son, tweeted a tribute to his dad Sunday night, writing, “R.I.P Dad, you’re a great father to me and my Idol. That’s all I can say for now, I’m hurt. My dad just died. Give thanks to all his supporters.”
Though he was said to have recorded 500 albums in his career, the Times said Isaacs put the number at closer to 200. His final album was 2008’s Brand New Me for the African Museum label.
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