Cooler Than the Other Side of the Pillow

Never without his rakish Stetson hats and a crisply pressed suit or designer shirt, veteran reggae crooner Gregory Isaacs has been loyal to his music for more than 40 years. A slave to the studio, there's a wild rumor circulating that he's recorded more than 500 albums in his career, Red Rose for Gregory, My Number One, and Rumors, among the most influential of the bunch. But even if you include his numerous greatest-hits collections, is the rumor even plausible?

"It's more like 200 albums," Isaacs laughs during a recent telephone interview from his home in Kingston. "I think they're exaggerating, seen?"

With those numbers, it would mean the singer, born in the Fletcher's Land area of Kingston in 1951, has released almost nine albums for every year he has been alive. Influenced by popular rhythm and blues singers such as Sam Cook and Otis Redding, plus reggae singers John Holt, Delroy Wilson, and the Heptones, Isaacs got his start in the '60s by participating in local talent shows as a youth. Fellow artist Byron Lee spotted him and recorded his first studio track, a duet called "Another Heartbreak," which barely caused a ripple. Undeterred, Isaacs tried his luck with a vocal trio, the Concords, before returning to his solo career two years later. Working with famed local producers such as Prince Buster, Prince Jammy, and Gussie Clarke, his early recordings showcased his relaxed and somewhat nasal style that instantly stands out today. Songs like "Night Nurse" and "Number One" spring to mind, both tinged with a copasetic approach that earned Isaacs his enduring nickname "The Cool Ruler."

The former dread started the African Museum label in 1973 with singer Errol Dunkley, and to finance it, he continued working with other producers. "It was important for me to do my own production, but I realized I got less publicity doing that, so I had to keep working with other producers to stay consistent and spread my music out there." Among his personal favorites is "My Only Lover," one of the label's first releases, and "Front Door" — a mellow track about a relationship breakup. "To be honest, I like all of my songs or I wouldn't have sung them," he says.

By 1980, Isaacs had become one of the top stars in the reggae world, touring Europe and the United States extensively. Hit singles and albums have continued to follow — some are perfect rum-drinking, domino-playing background music, and others are slow-grinding couple's ballads. He even released a new album, Brand New Me, in May. Regardless of what songs he touches from his catalog, when he performs live, he always gives fans what they want to hear.

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Lady English