A look back at the musical legend’s journey through an iconic life and career
The man and the legend begins on 1 February 1957, when Dennis Emanuel Brown was born in Jubilee Hospital in Kingston, Jamaica. He grew up in an artistic environment, with playwright father Arthur Brown and elder brother and actor, Basil Brown. Young Dennis soon found the limelight himself, making his official public debut at age ten at a political conference in Kingston’s National Arena. He went on to perform as a featured vocalist with Byron Lee’s Dragonaires, billed as the “Boy Wonder.” He made his first recording in 1969 for singer and producer Derrick Harriott, then for Coxsone Dodd at the Legendary Studio One. There at Studio One, Dennis honed his skills singing harmonies for Horace Andy, Larry Marshall and Alton Ellis.
“I started working with Dennis Brown as trumpet player when he was first recording with Derrick Harriott and Dennis was part of his Musical Chariot crew. I was a horns player and arranger and, when Dennis was learning to play the guitar, I’d give him a few pointers. Our lives were intertwined all along and we’d spend time together at my house and at his house.” Producer Clive Hunt
During 1972, while he was still at school and studying to go on to college, Dennis worked with a number of Kingston’s top record producers, completing track would become classics, such as “Things in Life” and “Baby Don’t Do It” for Matador, “Don’t You Cry” for GG, and “If I had the World” “One Day” for Prince Buster. But it was “Westbound Train” that broke Dennis through, becoming the biggest selling record in Jamaica that summer. Dennis was voted Top Male Vocalist in Swing Magazine’s Annual Awards.
Although he had started off with ballads in the style of his musical heroes Brook Benton, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, his songs became increasingly concerned with real themes and universal love, imbued with Rastafarian philosophy and reasoning, such as Dennis’ plea for repatriation in “Africa We Want to Go.”
In the summer of 1974, Dennis visited the UK for the first time as part of a Jamaican Showcase package alongside Al Brown, Sharon Forrester, The Maytals and Cynthia Richards and, while he was away on tour, Joe Gibbs compiled and released an album entitled “The Best of Dennis Brown” with hits such as “Poor Side Of Town” and “Smile Like An Angel.” He returned to Kingston and released his first self- produced record, the superb “Satisfaction Feeling,” backed by The Heptones. The album marked just a start, revealing Dennis’s creative direction that he would take when he set up his own DEB (Dennis Emanuel Brown) label in the winter of 1976.
Dennis now began work on new material with Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson – dubbed “The Mighty Two” – that would become the genre defining “Visions of Dennis Brown” album released in 1977 on the Joe Gibbs Record Globe label. The combination of social consciousness and love odes echoed the mood of the times and gained heavyweight critical and commercial acclaim. It proved to be his most successful release to date and featured original songs accompanied by Dennis’ interpretations of Earl 16 Daley’s “Malcolm X” and the In Crowd’s “Milk and Honey.” The soon went straight to the top of the UK reggae charts and was voted reggae album of the year by the UK music papers, Black Echoes and Melody Maker.
“All the time in my songs I try to be on the side of right against wickedness. Really I send a message to youth all over the world to live good.” Dennis Brown
Dennis returned to the UK in Autumn 1977 to tour with Big Youth and his popularity continued to grow. The following year Dennis relocated to London and established premises on Battersea Rise with Castro Brown. The DEB label began releasing innumerable hits not only from Dennis Brown but also from up and coming stars including Junior Delgado and established artists such as Carlton & His Shoes and Little Roy. The DEB set up was also instrumental in helping to create Lovers Rock with young female vocalists 15, 16 & 17 and Black Harmony.
Dennis returned to Jamaica in March 1978 to perform at the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston’s National Arena and also travelled to Retirement Crescent where he recorded for The Mighty Two. Their updated version of ‘Money in My Pocket’ for a Joe Gibbs Record Globe twelve inch “discomix” seamlessly segued Dennis’ vocal into a deejay version, “Cool Runnings,” from George Nooks as Prince Mohammed. The record was Dennis’ biggest crossover hit and reached Number 14 on the UK National Charts in the Spring. “Money in My Pocket” eventually became one of the most successful international hits in Jamaica’s musical history.
Dennis followed up with A&M on “Love Has Found Its Way,” co-produced by Willie Lindo and Joe Gibbs. This sophisticated, soulful set was a huge hit and scaled the UK Album Charts while the title track reached both the UK National Charts and the USA Soul Charts. The album was described in “Reggae The Rough Guide” as “the nearest a reggae album can get to the international pop audience without losing something very vital in the process.”
“Dennis could just go into the studio and hear a rhythm and fit lyrics to it. Some songs were more polished but some producers would just put it out as it is… a quick thing. [Producer] Willie Lindo gave him so much room to create the way he wanted it.” – Yvonne Brown, widow of Dennis Brown
Dennis’ final album for A&M, “The Prophet Rides Again,” mixing commercial funk with deep roots reggae. However, one of his greatest strengths, Dennis’ long and unbreakable connection to the Jamaican music business, proved to be an obstacle to lasting international success.
But perhaps international success at the expense of his grass roots popularity was not what Dennis was looking for and the excellent “Historical Places,” one of the standout tracks from “The Prophet Rides Again,” was also released in Jamaica as a seven-inch single on the Joe Gibbs Ultra Sound label.
As the eighties opened, a brand new style of rhythm had taken over Jamaican music and, true to form, Dennis was one of the leaders of this revolution. His recordings for Sly & Robbie’s Taxi label, including “Sitting & Watching,” “Have You Ever Been in Love Before”’ and “Revolution” demonstrated Dennis’ complete mastery of this exciting new genre.
Dennis’ recordings with King Jammy, on ‘Slow Down’ and the album known as both ‘The Exit’ & ‘History’ in particular, were at the cutting edge of digital music but were informed by the wealth of knowledge that both singer and producer had amassed in the previous decade.
He continued to record prolifically and his 1994 album, ‘Light My Fire’, was nominated for a Grammy Award, but Dennis Brown felt that time was beginning to run out for him.
In the late 1990’s Dennis Brown’s health began to fail and he experienced respiratory problems and, after a tour of Brazil in May 1999, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. On his return home on 30th June he was rushed to Kingston’s University Hospital where he died on 1st July. The official cause of death was a collapsed lung. The Prime Minister of Jamaica, PJ Patterson, and former Prime Minister, Edward Seaga, spoke at his state funeral on 17th July as Dennis Brown was laid to rest in Kingston’s National Heroes Park.