All Hail the Prince: Jamaica Honors Dennis Brown

Words by Sherman Escoffery

Dennis Emanuel Brown, affectionately called D. Brown, was one of Jamaican’s most prolific singers and songwriters. Often referred to as the “Singers’ Singer,” Brown and his sweet soulful voice influenced several generations of reggae vocalists including Luciano, Garnett Silk, Frankie Paul, Maxi Priest and Richie Stephens. Dubbed the “Crown Prince of Reggae” by Bob Marley himself, Dennis, who passed away in 1999 following a long bout with drug addiction, never found the momentum to propel him into the throne vacated by Marley in 1980 but his musical stature never diminished in the eyes of fans who could not get enough of his voice.

More than 12 years after his passing, the Government of Jamaica finally saw it fitting to posthumously award him the Order of Distinction, C.D. (Commander Class) last week, on National Heroes Day, Oct.17. The fifth-highest award in the country, the Order of Distinction may be conferred upon any citizen who has rendered outstanding and important service to Jamaica in any field of endeavor. Although Dennis Brown’s personal flaws were well known, they were ultimately not sufficient grounds to deny him this honor, given his massive contribution to Jamaican music.

Born February 1, 1957 in Kingston, Brown began performing at age eight. A prodigious boy wonder with an angelic voice, at 11 years old he caught the ear of legendary bandleader Byron Lee, who immediately drafted him to perform on a series of shows alongside visiting American acts, billing him as the Boy Wonder. By the next year he recorded “No Man Is an Island,” the song that announced him to the world and his first hit for Studio One’s Clement (Coxsone) Dodd. With encouragement and help from rocksteady crooner Alton Ellis, he learned to play the guitar and improved his songwriting abilities, and went on to record more than 200 singles and release over 70 albums during a career that spanned over 30-odd years. Dennis Brown went on to surpass all his local teachers, becoming the most vocally influential singer out of Jamaica. He had found that perfect center of style and sound between his American R&B inspiration from the likes of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra and his greatest influence, rocksteady giant Delroy Wilson, creating a distinct sound that came to define Jamaican Lovers Rock.

A pleasant person who adored his fans, he was often exploited by friends because of his generosity. His spirit was one of ease and love, and that may have been the reason he was not shunned or seriously rebuked for the 20-year battle with cocaine addiction which would take its toll on his work, health and eventually his life. Brown was diagnosed with pneumonia while touring Brazil in 1999 and, after returning to Jamaica, he fell into a cardiac arrest on June 30th, 1999, and passing away the following day, with his cause of death listed as a collapse lung. His funeral was held in Jamaica’s National Arena, the same place he had performed 21 years earlier for the One Love Peace concert, with Bob Marley, Jacob Miller and other reggae superstars of the day. Then-Prime Minister PJ Patterson paid tribute saying, “Over the years, Dennis Brown has distinguished himself as one of the finest and most talented musicians of our time… He has left us with a vast repertoire of songs which will continue to satisfy the hearts and minds of us all for generations to come.” Brown was then given an unofficial burial in the country’s National Heroes Park, where he is one of seven other distinguished Jamaicans resting alongside the country’s official seven National Heroes.

In 2001, Brown’s album Let Me Be The One was nominated for a Grammy and in 2010 he  was voted as one of the 50 great voices on NPR, in the company of Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson among others. His “Promise Land” was used as the core for Nas and Jr Gong’s song “Land Of Promise,” on last year’s Distant Relatives album, spurring a resurgence of sales in Dennis Brown’s music. But as many singers as Dennis Brown influenced, none has matched his sweet, smoky style, the standard by which Jamaican singers were judged. His music still moves people all over the world because it still carries the sound innocence and a sense of hope that eventually we will all reach that Promise Land of Milk and Honey. Dennis Emanuel Brown, C.D., the Crown Prince of Reggae may have passed, but his sweet music ensures that his spirit will live on forever.