Black Uhuru Biography

Formed in Jamaica by Rudolph ‘Garth’ Dennis, Derrick ‘Duckie’ Simpson (24 June 1950) and Euvin ‘Don Carlos’ Spencer in 1974, Black Uhuru first recorded a version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Romancing To The Folk Song’ for Dynamic’s Top Cat label as Uhuru (the Swahili word for ‘freedom’), which met with limited success. Dennis then joined the Wailing Souls and McCarlos (as Don Carlos) went on to a solo career. Simpson then enlisted Michael Rose as lead singer, who himself had previously recorded as a solo artist for Yabby You (on the excellent ‘Born Free’) and for Winston ‘Niney’ Holness, including the first recording of ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’, inspired by the Sidney Poitier movie. Errol Nelson, from the Jayes, was used for harmonies. This line-up sang on an album for Prince Jammy in 1977 entitled Love Crisis, later reissued and retitled Black Sounds Of Freedom, after the band had found success. Nelson returned to the Jayes soon afterwards and Puma Jones (b. Sandra Jones, 5 October 1953, Columbia, South Carolina, USA, d. 28 January 1990, New York, USA) took over. Formerly a social worker, she had worked with Ras Michael And The Sons Of Negus as a dancer in a bid to retrace her African ancestry via Jamaica.

This combination began work for Sly And Robbie’s Taxi label in 1980, and Black Uhuru mania gripped the Jamaican reggae audience. The solid bedrock of Sly And Robbie’s rhythms with Jones’ and Simpson’s eerie harmonies provided a perfect counterpoint to Rose’s tortured vocals, as his songs wove tales of the hardships of Jamaican life that managed to convey a far wider relevance. Their first album for Taxi, Showcase, later reissued as Vital Selection, gave equal prominence to the vocal and instrumental versions of songs such as ‘General Penitentiary’, ‘Shine Eye Gal’ and ‘Abortion’, and was a massive reggae seller. Island Records signed the band and they became a hot property throughout the musical world over the next few years. Their albums for Mango/Island Records continued in the same militant vein, and Anthem was remixed for the American market and earned a Grammy for the band. They toured the globe with the powerhouse rhythm section of Sly And Robbie, in addition to a full complement of top Jamaican session musicians. For a time they were widely touted as the only reggae band with the potential to achieve international superstar status, but although their popularity never waned after their initial breakthrough, it sadly never seemed to grow either.

Michael Rose left the band in the mid-80s for a solo career that always promised more than it has actually delivered, although his 1990 album Proud was very strong. Junior Reid took over on lead vocals, but in retrospect, his approach was too deeply rooted in the Jamaican dancehalls at the time for Black Uhuru’s international approach, and after a couple of moderately well-received albums, he also left for a solo career, which to date has been remarkably successful. Puma Jones, who had left the band after Brutal and was replaced by sound-alike Olafunke, died of cancer in 1990. During this period the original members reunited to tour and record. Subsequent albums proved less successful, and by the end of the decade only Simpson remained from the original line-up. Black Uhuru will always remain one of the great reggae acts, despite the fact that the international status that they deserved proved elusive.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

Filter Results