Joe HiggsText by Harry Hawks
Joe Higgs inspired generations of musicians during the course of his career... not only through his own music but also through his work as teacher and mentor to some of Jamaica's biggest, brightest stars
Joseph Benjamin Higgs, born 3rd June 1940 Kingston, Jamaica, grew up in the Trench Town ghetto listening to a wide range of music including Mario Lanza and "the great Caruso". In the late fifties as rhythm & blues mania gripped the nation's youth Joe formed a vocal duo, Higgs & Wilson, with Roy Wilson but, from the beginning, he knew that it was never going to be an easy path to follow.
"Music is a matter of struggle. It's not good that it's known you're from Trench Town..." Joe Higgs
In 1960 the duo's first record, 'Manny Oh' released on Edward Seaga's WIRL (West Indies Records Limited) label, became one of Jamaica's first 'local' hits and was followed by 'Pretty Baby', 'Come on Home' and 'Change Of Mind'. Edward Seaga moved into politics and Higgs & Wilson moved to Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd(CS Dodd)'s (Studio One) label where the hits continued with records such as 'Mighty Man' on Supreme and the classical 'There's A Reward' on Wincox. Put simply 'There's A Reward' is still one of the best records ever made. The duo did not record exclusively for Mr Dodd and their popularity grew as they worked for Prince Buster, Duke Reid, King Edwards, Lyndon Pottinger and Leslie Kong. After Roy Wilson emigrated to America Joe continued to record as a solo artist cutting further classics for Studio One including 'I Am The Song (I'm The Song My Enemy Sings)'.
A ghetto superstar before the term was invented Joe Higgs continually defied convention. He lived and worked in the yards of Trench Town where he actively encouraged and taught classes of up and coming impoverished youngsters. Joe's lessons not only included singing and harmonising techniques but also education in the ways of the unscrupulous music business.
"Bob Marley was with The Wailers. He wasn't the lead singer. I taught him how to sing." Joe Higgs
His pupils included The Wailing Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Neville 'Bunny' Livingston(Bunny Wailer, and Winston 'Pipe' Matthews' Wailing Souls who would refer to Joe as 'The Maestro' for ever after. As ska began to wane in popularity Joe recorded sparingly but kept on working live with Carlos Malcolm and His Afro Jamaican Rhythms, Lyn Taitt & The Jets and Coxsone's Soul Brothers. One of his most popular songs, 'Stepping Razor', was recorded by The Wailing Wailers for their Wail N Soul M label with Peter Tosh taking lead vocal.
When reggae hit the town Joe's records with Harry J, including the awe inspiring 'Wave Of War', 'Lay A Foundation' and 'World Upside Down', seldom strayed far from the narrow path of righteous messages set within memorable song structures. Joe also recorded a handful of beautiful records for his own Elevation label including the masterful 'Let Us Do Something', 'Journey To Freedom', its instrumental counterpart featuring Karl Masters, and 'Invitation To Jamaica' which won a song competition sponsored by the Jamaican Tourist Board.
In 1973 Joe became an honorary Wailer when he deputised for Bunny Livingston on an extensive tour of America. Joe sang with The Wailing Souls as Atarra (Amharic for 'to purify') in 1974 on one classic release, 'Brimstone & Fire', which he wrote and produced for the Micron label. And in 1975 it was Ronnie Burke and Pete Weston's Micron organisation that released Joe's debut album 'Life Of Contradiction'.
The songs for the album, produced and arranged by Joe, were originally recorded in 1972 for Island's Chris Blackwell. The band for the album sessions included the criminally under rated Now Generation band featuring Earl 'Wire' Lindo, Mikey Chung and Val Douglas alongside jazz virtuoso Eric Gale who Island had brought in to play when Joe had requested a "guitar decorator". But, for three long, frustrating years the tapes gathered dust on Island's shelves.
"So I was on hold. They had no plans for me..." Joe Higgs
"I don't think the market is ready for a Jamaican folk singer (reggae wise of course). But he's great. I like him very much." Chris Blackwell
But the market knew better and this unique collection, coming from a completely different direction to anything else coming out of Jamaica at the time, proved to be very popular with record buyers. Following the huge international success of Bob Marley & The Wailers the interest in Jamaican music was at an all time high and Grounation, who released 'Life Of Contradiction' in London in 1976, were in the right place at the right time to capitalise on this. After fifteen years in the music business the genius of Joe Higgs was at last recognised outside of Kingston's ghettos and his name was now placed in the same exalted bracket as Bob Marley and Burning Spear with reggae's new audience.
'Joe Higgs Is A Genius. Ask Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Eric Gale...'
Contemporary advertisement for 'Life Of Contradiction'
The album is now regarded as an acknowledged classic yet at the time it was released a number of well regarded critics felt that the sound of the set was lagging behind the times. Highly ironic when much of the music of the era now sounds dated while Joe's undisputed masterpiece sounds as fresh and as vital as the day it was recorded... and the day three years later when it was eventually released.
Joe Higgs then toured the USA again but this time working as the bandleader for Jimmy Cliff who called him the 'Father Of Reggae'.
"... It was said all over the place that he had lost his roots and he wanted to get back into that mode so he came and he got in touch with me in Trench Town..." Joe Higgs
Jimmy Cliff had found international success with his starring role in 'The Harder They Come' film and was now drawing massive crowds to hear him sing at venues such as New York's Madison Square Garden and Joe opened the shows with his own songs. He also recorded two duets with Jimmy, 'Sound Of The City' and 'Sons Of Garvey' for Jimmy's Sunpower label.
Joe's second album, 'Unity Is Power' another self production with Ronnie Burke, was released on 1 Stop and Island in 1979. As the eighties opened Joe continued to demonstrate his mastery of succinct song writing on records such as 'Talk To That Man' for Bunny Wailer's Solomonic label in 1983. Later that year 'So It Go', a single for Earl Chinna Smith's High Times label, was openly critical of the Jamaican political hierarchy "so it go when you no have big friend" and was banned from the radio. Joe then relocated to California where he settled in Los Angeles and released two albums 'Triumph' on Alligator in 1985 and 'Family' on Shanachie in 1988. The 1995 collaboration with his daughter Marcia Higgs, 'Joe and Marcia Together', was to be his final release.
Joe Higgs died of cancer on 18th December 1999 in the Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles. One of Jamaica's greatest singers and songwriters his work was of pivotal importance to the development of Jamaican music. Joe Higgs will always be remembered as a true giant of the genre that he worked so hard to create.
Date Added: May 10, 2011 / Date Updated: Nov 01, 2012