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Act Singers And Players

A montage of Singers And Players' vocalists
A montage of Singers And Players' vocalists: (Top-left to bottom-right) Prince Far I, Bim Sherman, Mikey Dread, Congo Ashanti Roy (Photos: On.U Sound)

A historical commentary on On-U Sound's first and foremost reggae collective by Steve Barker, reformatted-by and with additional content-from the editor:

The early eighties saw what was perhaps the most feverish bout of recording, and corresponding leaps in musical development, for the young record producer Adrian Maxwell Sherwood and his new On-U Sound label. Licensing deals were in place with the likes of the Cherry Red organisation and Situation 2 and there was a fresh determination brought to keep control of all the aspects of the business.

The Singers And Players, as implied by their name, were not a band but a loose collective, and therefore a contribution to what was to become an On-U Sound tradition. "Artist Development" was not a business methodology adopted into the On-U strategy, other acknowledged industry practice was also noticeable by its absence at On-U bored (sic) meetings, for example A&R, marketing, promotion and public relations.

At this time Sherwood held a vision that around fifteen to twenty musicians, all friends / lovers / musical co-conspirators, could revolve around one axis, creating five or six touring and recording bands, taking money off as many big record companies as possible, all sharing the same vaguely subversive but essentially gentle visions, all driven forward by the pulse and vibration of drum and bass, all willing to lose time in space of echo and reverb, all coming in from different musical and cultural directions. Of course this was the crazed dream of a slightly demented idealist and was never fated to work out - at least not to the letter!

The original concept behind the formation of the Singers And Players was therefore not just the creation of a reggae "super group" but an attempt to bring together a loose collective of vocalists, DJs, musicians and engineers to record and tour under the same banner. In so doing this would provide a common level of support and a platform for them to maintain their individual careers whilst avoiding the mistake of over-recording, a common problem which has plagued so many reggae artists. In retrospect this ideal can be viewed as more than little naive, but for a while it seemed like it would work.

The 'War Of Words' LP
The "War Of Words" LP

In November 1981 the extended, bass-dominated workouts that dominated the debut "War Of Words" set (ON-U LP 5) must have sounded like the bizarre noises received from a blazing comet rapidly travelling away from the orbit of Planet Earth, a much safer place where sound was increasingly being sucked through a process to provide a comfortable dose of the slightly dangerous for an audience that was growing more and more immune to the sucker punch. The album opens with "Devious Woman" [Rhythm 11] is the first of five Bim Sherman tunes and marked his debut On-U lead vocal appearance.

The following track, "Quanté Jubila" [Rhythm 5], is one of Adrian Sherwood's favourite Prince Far I tunes, featuring the DJ accompanying the vocal of Crucial Tony on a rhythm that first appeared as "Know Yourself" on Creation Rebel's album "Close Encounters of the Third World" (APLP 9008). "Sit and Wonder" [Rhythm 82] is a vocal track from Bim Sherman which can be located on his "Across The Red Sea" album (ON-U LP 17), but the version found here is dominated by the rapid toast of Jah Woosh - which gives due respect to the fine filigree vocals of Sherman.

"World Of Dispensation" [Rhythm 61] was another tune revived by Sherman and Sherwood from an earlier pedigree as a 7" Jamaican pre-release on the singer's own Scorpio imprint. Hidden in the ethereal backing vocals on this version is the former Slit known as Ari Up, drafted-in for duty from the then seventeen strong performing New Age Steppers. Given that black and white images of Bim Sherman graced both the front and back of the original vinyl album sleeve, together with the fact that five of the affair's eight tunes were contributed by the singer, one would have not been surprised to find the product presented as a solo album. However such individual prominence did not comply with the ethos of the time when it was much more of the "done thing" to share the glory (if sometimes not the grief!).

Recorded in 1981 the follow-up "Revenge Of The Underdog" album (ON-U LP 11) combined vocal and DJ talents of Bim Sherman and Lizard Logan with Prince Far I and Jah Woosh. Trademark On-U dub outings were also in evidence from Sherwood - it being important to note that at the time these were being regarded by some of London's reggae-critical mafia as "excessive white boy studio doodlings" and not an early clue to the new direction. The music did and still does dash away the ramblings of those more suited to reviewing garden furniture.

The album opens with a classic sufferer's song originally voiced by the Wailing Souls - "Dungeon" [Rhythm 14]. The tune was released in Jamaica circa 1971 as a 7" on the Mafiatone label and appeared in the UK via Punch. However the album writing credit to "G. Miller" (Glen Miller) was taken from a lesser cover version issued via Pama Records and now it should be known that Wailing Souls have the rightful claim. Having said all this its a fine reading of the tune from Lizard, with Far I cleansing the bowels of the "Merchant Ship" on the DJ version.

The 'Virgin' discoplate
The "Virgin" discoplate

There was no better signal of Adrian Sherwood and his partner of the time Kishi Yamamoto's re-engineered business approach to the new On-U than the series of ten inch disco plates (or more correctly dubplates) that began in earnest in 1982 with the release of "Virgin" (ON-U DP 1) by Prince Far I and the Singers And Players. It was a declamatory piece of invective in true Jamaican toasting style with the self-proclaimed regal one denouncing the young record mogul Branston (basic) for his unfair treatment of the D.J. and majestically casting the bearded businessman into the fiery pickle-jar!

By 1983 the On-U Sound megacorp was truly full stride with the release of "Staggering Heights" (ON-U LP 23). Featuring an all star line-up, with the newly arrived Mikey Dread and Congo Ashanti Roy joining stalwarts Prince Far I and Bim Sherman as the "Singers", this strictly reggae album marked a level of creative production in the genre which set a high standard to be lived up to in the future.

More than just another artist Michael Williams, a.k.a. Prince Far I, was a mentor and protector to Adrian Sherwood, and regarded it as his personal responsibility to guide the young producer through complex dealings of the world of reggae, both musical and recreational. If a reggae fan needs a start in learning a little more about the legendary DJ then what better start than the "Autobiography" cut on this album where we learn Far I's musical history on top of the "Kunte Kinte" rhythm [Rhythm 30], the track then launches off into an extended tribal version of the tune popularised by the great Jah Shaka in the early eighties. So, we learn that the young DJ hung around Sir Mike The Musical Dragon sound system until Bunny Lee gave him a shot with his first tune "The Great Booga Wooga" as King Cry Cry, he was rechristened by Enos McLeod and went on to critical and commercial fame with Joe Gibbs and the almighty "Under Heavy Manners" set, and for Micron with that most hardcore of righteous sets "Psalms For I" (CGLP 1002), eventually setting up his own Cry Tuff imprint.

The 'African Blood' discoplate
The "African Blood" discoplate

Congo Ashanti Roy was brought to On-U Sound by his friend Mikey Dread and both were contemporary contributors to the Singers And Players' family, arriving in the UK from the States in the early eighties. Ashanti Roy was, along with Cedric Myton and Watty Burnett, part of the trio which constituted the legendary Congos who had collaborated with Lee Perry in producing the masterpiece that was "Heart Of The Congos". The two main tunes he cut for Sherwood at On-U were both released in the disco plate series. "African Blood" with its version "Blood Shed" (basic) (ON-U DP 8) and "Breaking Down The Pressure" (ON-U DP 9).

Mikey Dread (a.k.a. Michael Campbell) first achieved a certain notoriety via his Saturday night radio show on JBC - "Dread At The Controls". Two of his three contributions for On-U Sound were self-referential, "Autobiography" (on the same riddim as "Breaking Down The Pressure" [Rhythm 36]) was almost a follow-up to his "School Days" for this album (on the same riddim as "African Blood" [Rhythm 27]). At the time of recording these tunes I recall missing Mikey and his BMW numerous times at Southern Studios but eventually caught up with him whilst he was on The Clash tour. I can testify to him being the sharpest dresser in the reggae business that I ever met - also a lovely bloke to boot!

The 'Leaps And Bounds' LP
The "Leaps And Bounds" LP

Re-recordings of both "Breaking Down The Pressure" and "Autobiography" went on to appear on 1984's "Leaps And Bounds" set on Cherry Red (ON-U LP 33). In both sound and core personnel this was the last of the "original" S&P albums and was dedicated to Prince Far I who had been brutally murdered at his Jamaican home in September of the previous year. This tragic event was to profoundly affect Adrian Sherwood, who for several years after produced very little reggae-flavoured output.

By the time 1988's "Vacuum Pumping" album (ON-U LP 39) was unleashed on the public On-U Sound had moved-on both musically and in terms of its core band of supporting musicians and vocalists. While long-timers Bim Sherman and Lizard Logan were still in-effect, many new contributors like Style Scott (of Dub Syndicate), Akabu and Bonjo I (of African Head Charge) were now playing a part in the mix. It was perhaps then unrealistic for the set to be anything other than a departure from what had come before. While it had its own high spots, it lacked for many the spirit and hope that had defined the direction of the previous albums. Consequently it was the last original album released under the S&P banner.

It says much for the vision, freedom of playing and the sheer energy which went into particularly the early Singers And Players productions that, like jazz, blues and much other so-called genre playing, the music still retains that certain ingredient which still makes them sound fresh today.

2 Badcard
Adrian Sherwood
African Head Charge
Andy Fairley
Annie Anxiety / Little Annie
Audio Active
Barmy Army
Bim Sherman
Charlie "Eskimo Fox"
Creation Rebel
Deadly Headley
Doug Wimbish
Dub Syndicate
Gary Clail
Ghetto Priest
Harry Beckett
Jeb Loy Nichols
Jesse Rae
Judy Nylon
Junior Delgado / Jux
Keith LeBlanc
Lee "Scratch" Perry
Little Axe / Skip McDonald
Little Roy
London Underground
Mark Stewart / Maffia
Missing Brazilians
New Age Steppers
Noah House Of Dread
Revolutionary Dub Warriors
Samia Farah
Singers And Players
    . Biography
Strange Parcels
Tackhead / Fats Comet
The Circuit
Tribal Drift
Voice Of Authority

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