(Photo: Devon Chin)
Joe Higgs: Singer, songwriter:
On Saturday 18th December 1999, Joe Higgs passed away in an
LA hospital where he had been battling cancer.
Joe Higgs was born on June 3rd 1940 in Kingston, Jamaica, and was amongst the first wave
of homegrown recording artists creating music on the island. Along with his recording
partner Roy Wilson, Joe's first success came with Oh Manny Oh, which reputedly sold in
excess of 50, 000 copies.
The duo followed this phenomenal success with other hits such as The Robe, recorded
for future prime minister Edward Seaga, How Can I Be Sure and If You Want Pardon.
As well as recording for Seaga, the duo also turned out sides for Prince Buster,
Duke Reid and Coxson Dodd.
It was for Dodd that he recorded the classic There's A Reward in 1964, although like
so many other Jamaican artists of the time, he saw no financial reward himself.
Following Higgs & Wilson's initial impact, Joe quickly became a local celebrity, and
he held impromptu music lessons at his yard in Trenctown. These coaching sessions
benefitted many of the island's later music stars, among those who attended were
Derrick Harriott, Bob Andy, The Wailing Souls, and of course the Wailers, Bob,
Peter and Bunny.
Higgs first met Marley when the future King of Reggae was introduced to him in the
early '60's by a character remembered only as Errol. This was actually prior to
Marley's first ever recording sessions with Leslie Kong, and before the Wailers even
existed. Another, often repeated misunderstanding, is that Higgs introduced Bob &
Bunny to Peter Tosh at these sessions, when in fact, the three Wailers approached
Higgs together, following Marley's short lived solo career.
By this time, Roy Wilson had emigrated to the US, ending the successful partnership
with Joe. As well as grooming the Wailers for a fruitful relationship with Coxson
Dodd's Studio One label, Joe embarked on a solo career, cutting sides such as Dinah,
Change Of Plans, and I Am The Song, also for Studio One.
His solo career hit new heights in 1972, when he won the Tourist Song Competition with
the tune Invitation To Jamaica, which led to him performing in New York for the first
The following year found Joe performing with the Wailers, replacing Bunny who had quit
the US leg of the tour. He also toured with Jimmy Cliff, performing as co-vocalist
before huge crowds at New York's Central Park and Madison Square Garden.
This partnership was also responsible for the singles Sound Of The City and Son's Of
It wasn't until 1975 that Joe released his first, long overdue, solo album.
Life Of Contradiction featured guitarist Eric Gale, and was a sublime blend of jazz,
r&b and reggae. It was followed in 1979 by the Unity Is Power set, which featured a
version of the aforementioned Sons Of Garvey.
As the '80's emerged, Higgs recorded a single, Talk To That Man for Bunny Wailer's
Solomonic imprint, and in 1983 issued the So It Go single. This latter release caused
Joe problems with the Jamaican government, and he left the island and settled in Los
1985 brought Joe's third solo album, Triumph, which was released by Alligator records,
and three years later Shanachie issued the Family album. His last solo album, Blackman
Know Yourself, was fittingly backed by the Wailers Band, and featured cuts of Sun Is
Shining and Small Axe.
Also featured on the album was Steppin' Razor, a song written by Joe, which became a
theme song for Peter Tosh. Tosh recorded the song twice, the second time as part of
his Equal Rights album. Sadly, the composers credit for this was given to Peter,
and it took a long time for Joe to get back the rights, and he was never repaid
any royalties from Tosh's version.
An album with his daughter followed in 1995, and in 1997 Higgs began work on an
album that fused reggae with Irish music and jazz at U2's studio. Joe recorded a
version of And It Stoned Me with it's composer Van Morrison, a version of the
Wailers Caution with Donal Lunny, and a re-cut of his own Vineyard with the
Hothouse Flowers. Hopefully that album, Green On Black, will see the light
of day soon.
Joe Higgs contribution to Jamaican music is nigh on imeasurable. He was the corner
stone upon which the Wailers built their international careers, and he aided the
developement of many other recording artists of the time. Although he may not have
garnered the financial benefits his labours merited, he will forever be held in
the highest esteem by those with a love of Jamaican music.
As Joe told Roger Steffens recentley: "I realise that the only person who can give
me my reward and what I'm entitled to is the Almighty.". For Joe Higgs there surely
will be a reward.
[... Andy Clayden, 19th December 1999]
Credit is given to Roger Steffens for some of the info used in this article.