R.I.P.: Legendary Reggae Producer Harry J

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April 11, 2013

Words by Kieran K. Meadows—

Harry J

The reggae world lost another pioneering figure last week when legendary Jamaican producer Harry Johnson (at center, with engineer Sylvan Morris), known as Harry J, passed away at age 67 on April 3 after a long struggle with diabetes.

Johnson became a producer in the late 1960s after playing bass for (and later managing) the group, The Virtues. After a short stint as an insurance salesman, he found himself drawn back to his passion for music. In 1968 he booked time at Studio One in order to record The Beltones. The resulting song, “No More Heartaches,” was the debut on Johnson’s newly launched Harry J label. With its laid back yet still driving sound and a scratchier, more percussive feel to the rhythm guitar, the record is widely considered to be one of the first reggae songs to be recorded, a departure from the rocksteady sound of the previous two years.

“No More Heartaches

As with most new genre developments, the folks involved usually aren’t fully aware of a song’s place in history while it’s being recorded. However, it’s worth noting that Harry J was producing his very first record and was a bass player—as such it’s likely no coincidence that, as reggae emerged in the years that followed, the bass took on a more prominent role with more complex lines. The former lead singer of The Beltones, Trevor Shields, told Billboard that “The driving sound on ‘No More Heartache’ was totally different; we were like outsiders starting something new but didn’t know it at the time. The song was No. 1 on the Jamaican charts for about four weeks, which was no easy feat in those days.”

Johnson followed up in 1969 by producing and arranging the hit “Cuss Cuss” with Lloyd Robinson:

“Cuss Cuss”

The riddim became one of the most popular and classic riddims in reggae with remakes and new artist voicings in each subsequent decade including one on Channel One in the ‘80s:

And one on Massive B in the ‘90s:

Read on for Part 2 of the Harry J story