You can count on one hand the number of times that reggae singles by Jamaican artists have cracked the Top 40 here in the States: “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker in 1969 (#9) and “Double Barrel” by Dave Barker and Ansel Collins in 1971 (#22). Two times (*actually, three – see postscript at bottom). Even Bob Marley & the Wailers were only able to penetrate the top 100 pop charts once (“Roots Rock Reggae” #51 in 1976), while hitting top 40 on the “dance” charts twice with 1977’s “Waitin’ in Vain” (#38) & 1980’s “Could You Be Loved” (#6) and once on the “R&B” charts with “Exodus” in 1977 (#19). Any others from the classic era? I don’t think so.
But what about those moments when non-Jamaican artists infused reggae rhythms into pop music? Paul Simon kind of cheated and got top Jamaican session players to inject his top ten 1971 hit, “Mother and Child Reunion,” with authentic early reggae sounds. Texas-American, Johnny Nash, who cracked the top 40 in 1972 with his hit, “I Can See Clearly Now,” had an even bigger rocksteady hit, believe it or not, in 1968 (#21) with “Hold Me Tight.” Paul McCartney & Wings released one of my favorite songs of the summer of 1973 – “Live and Let Die” – which featured a “cod reggae” bit in the bridge. And let us not forget that when Paul played with his prior outfit, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” on 1968’s White Album was intended to be a Beatle take on what was then the new reggae sound. Eric Clapton, I almost forgot, had a huge hit in 1974 with his cover of Bob Marley’s, “I Shot the Sheriff,” and Elton John, it is worth noting, jumped on the pop reggae bandwagon in 1975 with his reggae-esque chorus near the end of his hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
But let us also pay special note to almighty Led Zeppelin’s tribute to the hot reggae sounds of 1973, “D’yer Maker” – which the overwhelming majority of Americans, myself included, had no idea was a Londoner’s playful pronunciation of the name, Jamaica (scamps). Actually, the song title was inspired by the following joke, an exchange between two friends: “My wife’s gone to the West Indies.” “Jamaica?” (“D’you make her?”) “No, she went of her own accord.”
On the Warner Brothers sampler album, Appetizers, you will find the Incredible String Band doing a very credible take on the early reggae sound – although with a distinctly British lilt – on an instrumental named, “Second Fiddle,” a track originally included on the group’s 1973 Island album, No Ruinous Feud:
The band lists the song’s author as Duke Reid – famed owner of top rocksteady label, Treasure Isle – and Wikipedia confirms that the song is, indeed, a cover version. However, it is interesting to note that when you look at the label of the original Treasure Isle 45 – such as in this vinyl video – “Drumbago Cannonball” is listed as the sole tunesmith.
1973 just might be the tipping point for the use of reggae in American pop music, as this article – “Reggae Be the Rage?” – by Robert Christgau (the “Dean of American Rock Critics”) would seem to indicate.
Bonus video link to Johnny Nash’s TV performance of “Hold Me Tight” with go-go dancing accompaniment – and fantastic musical backing by pioneering guitarist Lyn Taitt & his fabulous Jets.
Any other pop reggae moments on the US Hot 100 charts?
Wait a minute! Jimmy Cliff was brought to my attention, and after a check of the charts – and this should come as no surprise – two hits from 1969’s Wonderful World Beautiful People: the title track (#25) and “Come Into My Life” (#89). Thus, we now have a total of three US top 40 hits from reggae’s 1960s-70s classic era.