Words by Jesse Serwer and Natalie Weiner—
Junior Murvin, the Jamaican singer best known for “Police and Thieves,” his 1977 single produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, has died after being hospitalized for diabetes and hypertension. He was 67.
“Police and Thieves” became a major U.K. hit for the Port Antonio-raised singer, leading to a 1980 appearance on the BBC’s Top of the Pops (which you can see in the below video clip). That song also appeared on the 1977 album of the same name—considered, along with The Congos‘ Heart of the Congos and Max Romeo‘s War Ina Babylon, to be among the gems of Perry’s Black Ark Studio era—and was covered on the 1977 debut album by The Clash, cementing its legendary status in both reggae and punk.
Here’s the Clash performing the song for their 1980 film Rude Boy:
Sometimes described as “Jamaica’s Curtis Mayfield” for his combination of falsetto vocals and socially conscious lyrics, Murvin began his career in the late 1960s recording for the Gayfeet and Crystal labels in Kingston, while also performing for American tourists at local clubs and hotels. These sets often included soul covers of the artists he admired, including Mayfield — check out his cover of Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love” here.
In 1976, he auditioned for Perry with “Police and Thieves,” and was accepted into his Black Ark Studio to complete the album. Here is some footage of them working together on the Heptones song “Play On, Mr. Music” from the documentary Beats of the Heart: Roots Rock Reggae.
Perry and Murvin would collaborate on a few more singles after completing the album, including two based just on the “Police” riddim – “Bad Weed” and “Philistines on the Land.” They even worked together on more Curtis Mayfield covers like “Rasta Get Ready” and “Closer Together.” Murvin used the momentum to gather a new backing band, the Apostles, and to connect with other producers like Joe Gibbs, with whom he recorded the song Cool Out Son.
After the destruction of Black Ark Studios, Murvin continued to record without Perry, first with Mikey Dread in 1982 for “Bad Man Posse” and then with dancehall’s Henry “Junjo” Lawes in 1984 for “Muggers in the Street.” He worked throughout the 1980s and 1990s, though never quite achieving the same success he found with Perry. His most recent album, 2007’s Inna De Yard, features acoustic renditions of some of his biggest hits. Check out a recent live performance of “Police and Thieves” below:
Clearly Junior Murvin has earned his place in the reggae canon — his beautifully unique voice and songwriting talents ensure that his music has, and will, remain vital to the genre.
Listen to all the songs featured above here, along with some of our other favorites.