Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

Nora Dean’s Voice — Tremulous, Intriguing

I suspect I am hardly the only one who finds Nora Dean‘s voice so compelling — the emotional directness and its unique, tremulous quality. Given what little is known about Dean and how infrequently her voice was committed to disc, this only adds to the intrigue.

Michael Garnice, creator of and author of The Ultimate Great Guide To Reggae, is one of the few music historians who have waded into the mists of Nora Dean’s life and returned with anything substantial:

Singer Nora Dean is one of reggae’s greatest mysteries. She recorded solo, as well as a member of The Ebony Sisters, The Soul Sisters, and The Soulettes. She did backing vocals on recordings by Jimmy Cliff [e.g., 1973’s Unlimited LP]. Although she was not a prolific artist (especially by reggae standards), a number of her songs are very fondly remembered by fans of Jamaican music as true reggae classics. This is because Nora Dean brought something extra to her best songs, making them unusual and endlessly enjoyable. And yet, there is little biographical information about her anywhere. No interviews with her have ever been published. Photos seemed to be non-existent. Go through every reggae book, documentary, and liner note of the dozens of compilations her classic tracks appear on; you’ll learn that Nora Dean was born in 1952, and nothing more. Google until the search results are exhausted and, all you’ll learn is how many people share her name. Somehow, the mystery is fitting for such an unusual singer.

Nora Dean

One of the album’s backing vocalists, along with Scully Simms

The Nora Dean biography that is posted on both AllMusic and Apple Music incorrectly asserts that “Dean began her recording career in 1970 with producer Byron Smith at Treasure Isle’s rooftop studio [on] Bond Street.”

Treasure Isle Recording Studio

Kingston, Jamaica

A simple search of 45Cat’s “crowd-sourced” database, however, quickly reveals “Mojo Girl” from 1968 to be one of Nora Dean’s earliest solo waxings and the flip side of “Reggay in the Wind” — an early reggae take on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Lester Sterling, Studio One’s ubiquitous horn player and founding member of The Skatalites:

Mojo Girl


Note: In Jamaica, “Mojo Girl” was released as a blank-label promo, while in the UK the track was paired with “Tell Me That You Love Me” by The Hamlins — unfortunately with the artist mis-identified as Marcia Griffiths!

Musical misspelling, too –

“Coxson Dodd”

Are you surprised to see people pay four figures for an original pre-release “Mojo Girl” 45? One determined buyer paid $1,175 in 2019 after 20 bids, while another forked over $1,163 in 2015 after an impressive 70 bids.

1968 would also see Nora Dean appear on another Studio One B-side — “Heartaches” — coupled with “I Was Born To Be Loved” by The Righteous Flames.



How delightful to discover that someone (i.e., Skanksteady) has musically fused “No Sleep ’til Brooklyn” by The Beastie Boys with Nora Dean’s “Heartaches” into a one-off dance mix entitled, “No Heartaches ‘Til Brooklyn“!

No Heartaches ‘Til Brooklyn

But 1969’s “Barbwire” — sung to the backing ‘riddim’ track of “You Don’t Care” by Slim Smith (as an “answer song,” one person asserts) — would end up to be her best-known song and one that helped cement her reputation as an artist who fearlessly confronted issues of sexuality (e.g., that same year’s lead vocal on “Wreck A Buddy” for The Soul Sisters).



Michael Garnice, however, asserts that “Barbwire” is not the sexual come-on everything assumes it to be, and, in fact, is quite the opposite:

In 1998, Nora Dean herself gave her own recollections to The Daily Gleaner. Nora was at the Treasure Isle studio with fellow Soulette Cecile Campbell and another friend named Dawn (who would later join The Ebony Sisters with Nora and Cecile), when she decided to write “Barbwire.” She went into the bathroom and emerged with a song with lyrics describing walking home past vagrants though a bad area of Kingston. The song originally described being frightened by a mad man who has barbwire on his head. But engineer Byron Smith suggested that she change it to “in his underpants”. She objected, he insisted, and all parties agreed that the result sounded good when the record was released. But this effectively changed a song about terror to one that now appears on every naughty-reggae collection. A review of the lyrics supports Nora’s contention. Perhaps adding to the belief that this is a lewd song is the fact that many outside of the country do not know that Jamaican’s use the word “lick” to mean hit or strike.


Oh, mama, ma ma ma!
I met a boy the other day, he got barbwire in his underpants
I got a brick in my back, I lick him hard upon his head

Ah ya ya…
Oh, mama, ma ma ma!

I didn’t trouble that boy, that why I lick him hard
Ah ya ya…

Oh, mama, ma ma ma!
That boy is coming at me, that boy is coming at me
Ah ya ya…

Nora further remembers that she worked four hours voicing the track, though in the end, they went back to the first take. She was paid 30 pounds over 9 months for this song, that has sold at least 13 million copies worldwide. This is a situation that is known all too well by Jamaican recording artists.

[Note: “Barbwire” fans will want to check out Dennis Alcapone‘s DJ version “Mosquito 1″ and also Winston Wright‘s organ-driven instrumental take “Mesh Wire“]

Jamaica (1969)

Backing by Tommy McCook & The Supersonics

That same year, Nora Dean recorded an update of Mickey & Sylvia’s risque novelty number “Mommy Out De Light” (originally released 1960 on RCA) for LeeScratchPerry‘s Upsetter label.

The Same Thing You Gave To Daddy


In 1969, Nora Dean would also record a duet with Dennis Walks, a “pre-release” 45 on Ruddy’s, named for producer RudophRuddyRedwood, an early sound system owner and pioneering audio engineer who produced early dub-style remixes that precede the work of King Tubby, notes Hip Hop Electronic. And, as this 2016 video clip shot by Don Letts asserts, Redwood mixed Jamaica’s (thus, the world’s) first version, thus laying the foundation for the “remix” in pop music.

Pickney No Call Me So


Before we completely close the door on 1969, however, it should be noted that “Mama” — a previously unavailable vocal version of the hit 1969 instrumental “Liquidator” [whose distinctive opening was ‘borrowed’ by The Staple Singers for 1972’s “I’ll Take You There“] — was given a special limited-edition release by Trojan in 2011.


(vocal version of “Liquidator”)

In 1970, Dean recorded (what is considered now) a rare 45 “Look Over Your Shoulder” — a tuneful duet with Vern (a.k.a., Veronica Campbell) that was produced by Tommy McCook and released on Bunny Lee‘s UK-distributed Jackpot label.

Look Over Your Shoulder


In 1970, Dean would also duet with U Roy on a double entrendre novelty item – “What Is Catty” (a.k.a. “Big Boy And Teacher“) – that seems to have been held in the can until at least 1974’s UK album simply entitled U Roy (released five years later in Jamaica under the title, With Words Of Wisdom).

Big Boy And Teacher

U Roy & Nora Dean


That same year, in a move completely out of character for the label, Treasure Isle issued an avante-garde recording — the oddly-titled, non-reggae track, “Angle Lala,” also known as “Ay Ay Ay” in the UK and elsewhere — as the flip side to Hugh (‘U’) Roy’s signature DJ cut “Rule The Nation.” Nora Dean’s impressionistic and unrestrained performance is, as Michael Garnice boldly asserts, “perhaps the strangest song with the most creative and colorful vocal in the history of Jamaican music.”

Angle Lala (a.k.a. Ay Ay Ay)”


Nora Dean produced two more 45s in 1970, the first being a pair of calypso songs for Sonia Pottinger‘s Gay Feet label “The Palet” b/w “Must Get A Man.” 45Cat contributor Charlie Chalk notes that ‘The Palet’ is actually a cover of Calypso Rose‘s “Pallet” and references this related passage from What She Go Do: Women in Afro-Trinidadian Music by Hope Munro:

In “Pallet”, Rose plays the role of a vendor of ice cream lollies, and in the chorus she joyfully invites customers to “buy and suck her pallet”. In these and other songs of the time period, Rose joins the “sexual revolution” of calypso spearheaded by Sparrow, by bringing female response and female desire into the open.

NorahDean backed by The Gaytones


Nora Dean also made her way over to Randy’s — 17 North Parade Street in the heart of Kingston — in 1970 to record a pair of songs for producer Vincent Chin, “Love Of A Boy” and “Ahmad Jamal,” the latter with its pronounced deep bottom (i.e., VU meter deep in the red zone) that would never have been permitted by the engineering staff at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio.

Variant spelling – “Amal Jamal


Dean’s musical dalliance at Randy’s also included 1970’s “Want Man” 45 that saw release in the US as well as UK (backed by the song’s mostly instrumental version “Man,” credited to Randy’s All Stars).

UK 45

(Jan. 1971)

The following year Nora Dean would voice (1) “I’m The Same Woman” with producer Fud Christian, who also considerably upped the bass registers in the mix, plus (2) “Miss Anny Oh” — both 45s released 1971 on Christian’s La-Fud-Del label.


Nora Dean

Depicted on 45 label below

On one other 1971 Fud Christian production – “Butter Flies” – Dean shares lead vocals with “Bunny,” and yet the 45 label confusingly (and wrongly) attributes the record to merely the “Fud Christian All Stars.”


That same year, producer Harry Mudie would help I Roy refashion 1969 early reggae classic “Let Me Tell You Boy” by The Ebony Sisters for a DJ version that plays off Nora Dean’s original lead vocal.


In 1971, Nora Dean also recorded a track for producer Lee Brother – “Greedy Boy” – that appears to have only been issued in the UK on Gas, a Pama Records imprint.

1972’s “Peace Begins Within” – Dean’s powerful collaboration with producer NormanSidBucknor – saw release in Jamaica and the UK.

1972’s “Night Food Reggae” ranks as one of Nora Dean’s more popular recordings, and yet did not get distributed outside the UK.

Dean’s early reggae version of Shirley Bassey‘s 1958 hit “Kiss Me Honey” — produced in 1972 by Ranny Williams — appears to have been also issued for the UK market only.

1973 would see Nora Dean collaborate with producer RodguelBlack BeardSinclair on the infectious “A Man A Walk And Talk,” also released in the UK on Trojan subsidiary label, Bread.

Dean would next link up with Bunny Lee‘s Jackpot Records to record “Eddie My Love” in 1974.

promo only

45Cat tells me that ‘Nora Deane’ (no relation to Buddy) recorded a fresh update of “Barbwire” for producer Ronnie Burke – “Scorpion In His Underpant” – distinguished by a “flying cymbals” sound – as well as a roots reggae take on “Que Sera Sera” (titled “What Will Be Will Be” and released under the alias, Mona Deane), both singles released in 1975 on Micron Music Limited.

That same year, Nora Dean also recorded “Never Trust Guardie Again” for Bunny Lee — backed with “Dub The Guardie” by The Aggrovators — who released the 45 in Jamaica on Total Sounds


In 1975, Dean also recorded a “lovers rock” 45 for the UK market “How Could You Do This” b/w “Album Of My Life” that was released on Trojan’s Horse subsidiary label (and subsequently reissued on Trojan Reggae Rarities Box Set in 2004).

The following year, “Scorpion” — paired with Augustus Pablo‘s melodica-flecked, dub-esque “Version” — enjoyed release in the UK on Trojan imprint, Attack.


In 1976, Dean would collaborate with producer Alvin Ranglin on “Don’t Let Me Know,” another UK-only track released on Trojan’s Burning Sounds label.

Noria” Dean

Dean’s autobiographical “Album Of My Life” (paired with “Dub Of My Life“) was produced by Jimmy Cliff and released in both Jamaica and the UK on Cliff’s short-lived Sunpower label (distributed by Pye Records).


That same year, Dean recorded a ‘steppers’ update of “Let Me Tell You Boy” for Charles Reid (son of Duke) that enjoyed release as a 12-inch single in Jamaica (on Roots Man, Love, and Black Heat) and the UK (on Nationwide). The six-and-a-half minute A-side (the latter half an extended instrumental dub excursion) was paired with “Caught In A Trap” (i.e., roots version of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds“).


Nora Dean finally got the richly-deserved, full-length album treatment on 1981’s, Play Me a Love Song, arranged/produced by Charles Reid and distributed in the UK only.

Considering the number of producers Dean worked with over the span of just ten years’ time, one suspects the artist was searching for that elusive deal — ‘fair recompense’ in exchange for marketplace performance — that seems out of reach for a great many musicians who have no direct ties to capital.

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