Joe Higgs Biography

by Roger Steffens (with a few added quotes, credited accordingly)

  Jamaican singer Joe Higgs, known as "The Father of Reggae Music," passed away Saturday, December 18, 1999, at the age of 59 in a hospital in Los Angeles following several months of treatment for cancer. Joe Higgs was born on June 3, 1940 in Jamaica.

  Higgs was hugely influential in the birth of the ska, rock steady and reggae forms of Jamaican music, and was widely respected as a composer, arranger and performer, but perhaps most of all as a teacher. Among those he trained were Bob Marley, Derrick Harriott, Peter Tosh, Bob Andy, the Wailing Souls and Bunny Wailer.

Photo  Peter Simon  One of the first local recording artists in Jamaica, his debut single, made with partner Roy Wilson, as the duo Higgs and Wilson, was "Oh Manny Oh," and sold over 50,000 copies in Jamaica in 1960. Higgs once recalled about the formation of the duo, "We used to live on the same street and go down to the rehearsals at Bim and Bam. We got together in a contest when we were each qualified in the first ten solo singers. The promoter had a problem - they were supposed to choose eight for the finals, but they couldn't decide which two to eliminate. So he said: 'Would you guys sing together? Cause I saw you over in the corner singing and you were very good.' And we went into the duo section and we were second. That's where we started singing in 1958 as Higgs and Wilson" (Reggae Routes by Kevin O'Brien Chang & Wayne Chen).

  This first single led to his signing by Edward Seaga, who later became Jamaica's Prime Minister during the 1980s. "He was my first manager," Higgs recalled shortly before his death, adding with a sly smile, "We always got paid." Seaga arranged for Higgs to be booked in local shows alongside Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and other foreign stars.

  In 1964 he recorded "There's A Reward For Me," for producer Coxson Dodd's Studio One, a song that became an instant classic of suffering and hope. Although he claimed to have received no royalties from its sales, he was sanguine about the fact, claiming "I realize that the only person can give me my reward and what I'm entitled to is the Almighty."

  It was in Higgs' Trench Town yard that the young Bob Marley received years of private tutoring in vocal technique and stage craft from Higgs, years before he began recording with his group, the Wailers. Marley later admitted that "Joe Higgs was a genius," crediting him for his international musical success. Higgs once stated, "I structured the harmony. I am the one who taught The Wailers the craft, who taught them certain voice technique" (Roots Rock Reggae by Chuck Foster).

Photo  Peter Simon  In 1964, Roy Wilson departed for the United States and as Higgs once recalled that he "started doing work with Carlos Malcolm and the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms. Then I became the vocalist for the Soul Brothers led by Lynn Tiatt and performed around the North Coast. Then I got back into recording" (Roots Rock Reggae by Chuck Foster). In 1972, Higgs won the Tourist Song Competition with "Invitation to Jamaica," whose prizes included a trip to New York, where he performed for the first time. The bouncy tune was uncharacteristic of his more normal roots sound, which mixed rhythmic jazzy scat singing with heartfelt lyrics that expressed deep political awareness and a keen sense of history and classical literature. Songs like "So It Go" ("when you no have big friends") and "Freedom" kept him near the top of the local charts.

  In 1973, when founding member Bunny Wailer quit the Wailers, Higgs was tapped to accompany his former students, Tosh and Marley, on an American tour as opening act for Sly and the Family Stone. They played critically acclaimed shows from New York and Boston to San Francisco, and were chief among the first wave of reggae musicians who brought the music to U.S. awareness.

  In 1974, another set of former students, the Wailing Souls, joined with Higgs briefly to form the group called Atarra. But it was his allignment with emerging superstar Jimmy Cliff, hot off his success in the landmark film "The Harder They Come," that brought Higgs mainstream attention as Cliff's bandleader and co-vocalist, often before huge crowds in venues like New York's Central Park and Madison Square Garden. Opening each of Cliff's shows, plus singing a pair of songs in the middle of Cliff's sets, Higgs often received more attention than Cliff, and was eventually relegated to background vocals only. Duets recorded at the time by Cliff and Higgs, "Sound of the City" and "Sons of Garvey," remain among the finest work ever recorded by either man.

  His first solo album came out in the mid-'70s called "Life of Contradiction," and featured jazz guitarist Eric Gale, solidifying Higgs' reputation, as he often reminded audiences, as "the jazz connection for Jamaican music. I like phrasing my own voice like an instrument."

  In the compelling 1977 reggae documentary film "Roots Rock Reggae," Higgs told director Jeremy Marre that "Reggae is a confrontational sound. Freedom - that's what it's asking for. Acceptance - that's what it needs."   "Unity Is Power" followed in 1979. His 1983 single, "So It Go," which called attention to the plight of the poor who have no mentors in high places, caused Higgs political problems with the ruling party in Jamaica, and he left for Los Angeles, where he lived in a self-imposed exile until his death.

Photo  John Skomdahl  During the past 15 years, he had resumed his unofficial career as tutor and mentor to a new generation of American-based reggae musicians, and continued to tour the world, headlining festivals throughout North America and Europe.

  Later albums included 1990's "Blackman Know Yourself," backed by the Wailers Band. The collection featured Joe's most famous composition, "Stepping Razor," which had become a signature song for the 6-foot 4-inch Peter Tosh, and was often mistakenly attributed to Tosh as its writer. "The give away line," the slightly built Higgs always told people, "is 'Don't you watch my size, I'm dangerous.' Is no six-foot-something guy could write that!"

  At the time of his death, he was working on an autobiography with this writer, and had been working on a cross-cultural project recorded at U2's studio in Dublin, to be titled "Green on Black," uniting Gaelic artists like Sharon Shanon and Donal Luney with Higgs, in lengthy Irish-jazz-reggae improvisations.

  His final public performance was at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, CA on June 26, 1999. He is survived by 11 of 12 children; Claudia Higgs-Donovan of Tampa, FL; Marcia "Pinky" Higgs of Los Angeles, CA (vocalist with Higgs & Twin); Angela "Dimples" Higgs-Barrett (wife of Aston "Familyman" Barrett, bass player of the Wailers Band) of Kingston, JA; Coltrane "Paul" Higgs of Kingston, JA (musician); Marcus "Junior" Higgs of Kingston, JA; Adria "Lovie" Higgs of St. Andrew, JA; Christopher "Chris" Higgs of Kingston, JA; Maxine "Max" Higgs-Brown of Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Patricia "Pat" Higgs of New York (vocalist); Sean "Baller" Higgs of London, England; Jaha "Princess" Higgs of Los Angeles; Kenneth "Folly Bush" Higgs (deceased).

As well as 12 grandchildren; Nikki, Mike "Righteous" (vocalist) , Damien "Roots" (vocalist), Marsha (vocalist), Chevette, Bjorn"Dantu," Jobeth, Kevin, John, Cindy, Julie, Aston Jr., and great-grandson Paul Marcus.