Papa Bear

Don't worry, kid; reggae legend Freddie McGregor's gonna make it all better

McGregor's affiliation with the Clarendonians proved beneficial. He was permitted to bypass the rigorous audition procedure designed to whittle down the queues of contenders who'd travel from the countryside to Studio One, legendary producer Coxsone Dodd's headquarters in Kingston. "What Motown was to America," McGregor declares, "Studio One was to Jamaica. After a while, I became this likkle kid who was part of Studio One. And [Dodd] took a strong liking to me and recognized my talent from early on."

Becoming the studio's errand boy allowed him to meet some of the famous clients who'd pass through -- foundation people like Ken Booth, Delroy Wilson, Bob Marley, Max Romeo, Bunny Lee -- as McGregor helped Dodd open and close shop every day, running across the street to procure beer or cigarettes for the men.

Dodd virtually adopted his pint-sized apprentice, making sure he became a regular part of the early reputation of Studio One, the island's first black-owned studio. Young Freddie started cutting singles and albums there from its start in 1963 until 1979. "He was pretty much my father; he really nurtured and groomed me," McGregor recalls fondly. Some of Dodd's work on McGregor's best records, like Bobby Bobylon, seemed to represent a perfect pairing. But it wasn't until the young vocalist met producer Winston "Niney the Observer" Holness that international acclaim arrived. The first Freddie/Niney collaboration, Mister McGregor, established the singer in Europe for the first time.

Lover and fighter: dapper Freddie McGregor
Lover and fighter: dapper Freddie McGregor

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Performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, February 2, at. Call 954-779-2544.
Atlantis, 219 S. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

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At the same time, reggae was experiencing a technological and political revolution. Chris Blackwell's Island Records began to dominate, violence in Kingston started to escalate, and the new reggae -- spearheaded by shiny new Channel One studios -- emerged from the chaos.

"Channel One came on-board and started to record a new sound, different from what we were used to -- a clean an' bright sound that was really nice to the ear, clean new riddims," McGregor says. "The music was bright and crisp and sharp, and everyone was like, 'Whoa!What the hell is this?' So everyone started to shift."

Niney convinced McGregor to leave Studio One to follow this new path. "Yet I was still there because of my love and commitment to Mr. Dodd," McGregor says. "Niney told me my records were very popular in Europe. When I had a chance to go there as a kid, who wanted to pass that up? I went for it, and it did work, exactly as he stated it would."

Since that time, McGregor has remained active on the modern roots and culture front, through nadirs like the death of Bob Marley and the rise of dancehall, with its emphasis on sex, swearing, and slackness.

"I couldn't see myself going on-stage and curse a bad word," he says, making a face. "That's disgraceful." That G-rated ethos is in full effect on Anything for You; Freddie the Lionhearted meekly turns the other cheek. "I've humbled myself," he says. He prostrates himself from the silky opener, "Loving Jah," through the gentleman's pledge of "For You," all the way to "Sweet African Princess," in which a lover's complexion is unmarred by a single blemish.

"I wanna step on your toes so I can tell you pardon,"he croons on "Uncle Sam," his roasty tenor amazingly warm and resonant. "Gatepass to Your Heart" summarizes the album's open-palmed plea: "Try to get your attention/Call you at work and get your extension/Now where is the gatepass to your heart, girl?/Do I need to ask security in order to get entry?/Or do I have to break the lock on your vault?"McGregor still searches and struggles, a journey now tempered by age, patience, and wisdom. "I'm just a seasoned entertainer now," McGregor concludes with a shrug, as the skies finally begin to clear outside the hotel window. By making his songs the musical equivalent of comfort food -- familiar and wholesome -- he hopes to grant them immortality.

"They will last forever," he promises. "That's my motto: If you make great songs, they will last. Mediocre material, it will fade away."

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