Words by Doctor Dread
Photo by Richie Williams
In his upcoming memoir The Half That’s Never Been Told: The Real-Life Reggae Adventures of Doctor Dread (out March 3 through Akashic Books), RAS Records founder Gary Himelfarb—better known as “Doctor Dread”—recounts his experiences working with some of reggae’s most colorful figures. The book includes entire sections on Bunny Wailer (who wrote the foreword), Freddie McGregor and Israel Vibration, among other RAS Records acts, but the most revealing chapter belongs to reggae’s great enigma, Gregory Isaacs.
In an exclusive preview of The Half That’s Never Been Told for LargeUp, Doctor Dread details the complexities of working with the Cool Ruler, unflinchingly chronicling his experiences doing business with the talented but troubled Jamaican troubadour, who passed away at age 59 in 2010. Read the book’s “Gregory Isaacs” chapter in full and check out a gallery of pics from the book below, and, if you’re in NYC, join us for a reading and discussion of The Half That’s Never Been Told at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on March 4th, with a special unplugged performance from David Hinds of Steel Pulse.
Beef deh a market, marrow in a bone.
What don’t concern you, please leave it alone . . .
—Gregory Isaacs, from “Mr. Cop”
It was sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., and I was working at Gussie Clarke’s Music Works Studio on Windsor Road in uptown Kingston, Jamaica. I was in the large, new room Gussie had built, voicing an artist for one of my Reggae for Kids projects. I always liked to work in the studio from around eight p.m. till the early-morning hours, as I believed the creative juices would flow best for both me and the musicians, and once locked away in a studio there is no day or night—just the creative vibe of music. I was always completely blown away by the evolution of music: From silence grew note after note, which eventually would end up as a song.
Someone entered the room and announced, “Doctor Dread, Gregory is out in the waiting room, and he wants to see you.” My relationship with Gregory Isaacs went back to the early ’80s, when he had a small record shop on Chancery Lane in downtown Kingston. I had released a number of his CDs, and had produced a full album and many individual tracks as well. I was also his music publisher, and I represented him in this regard on a worldwide basis. After Bob Marley, Gregory is the most popular artist to ever come out of Jamaica, with a prolific body of work unparalleled within reggae music.
Gregory, looking disheveled in a white tank top and weaving from side to side, turned to me and said, “Me vex with you, Doctor Dread. You no do me right.” And when I observed him a little closer, I noticed he was pointing a small two-barrel, pearl-coated pistol at me. An antique-looking type of thing. There were a bunch of people in the room, and everyone was just sitting still and observing the situation. I knew Gregory was wasted on crack cocaine, as he had been smoking it daily for over 20 years. No one could understand how he had managed to survive this long, but I think I knew his secret. I looked at him and asked what the problem was—I was actually more concerned that the gun would go off accidentally; I was not so worried that he was mad enough to actually shoot me.
“Me need money, Doctor Dread,” he said. “You collect all this money for me but me nah get enough.”
Gregory could go through money pretty quick. He took care of lots of people from Jamaica to England, and had a serious crack habit to feed. Yes, some people may have considered him a thug from the ghetto, but he had a heart of gold and always looked after those around him. And his million-dollar voice certainly earned him millions of dollars. When Gregory would moan, the ladies would swoon. And if the women love an artist, the men will surely follow to stay closer to the women. That is just how it works.
He always used to say to me, “You know me love you, Doctor Dread, but me love money just a likkle bit more!” And then he would let out a laugh. And when I paid him, he would always ask for me to “put a likkle fertilizer on it to make it grow.” Or call me and tell me his “reservoir is dry,” and he needed to see some rain come down. He was one of a kind. A one-horse race. No one could compete with him. Dennis Brown tried but could not keep up, and passed away from trying too hard.
I got to know Gregory and his wife June very well. I remember one night I was working at Tuff Gong studios on Hope Road. This is where Bob Marley lived and recorded many of his albums. They allowed certain people to record there, and I was afforded that privilege. The vibes in the place were really special, and I was working on a Michigan & Smiley album when Gregory drove into the yard in his BMW model 2002. “Doctor Dread, I need your help. Some people are looking for me and I need you to drive me out of here. I am going to slump down in the seat so them can’t see me. Just drop me off in New Kingston and I will pay for you to take a taxi back to the studio.”
“Gregory, can’t you see I am busy working?”
“Doctor Dread, I really need your help. You just got to help me.”
How could I say no? I had everyone take a break and drove Gregory into New Kingston. I later realized what a fool I had been—if someone saw Gregory’s car and was looking for him, they could have shot me instead. In Kingston after dark, gunshots are not uncommon. When I thought about it later I just had to smile. Gregory, you no easy.
I recorded the album Pardon Me! with Gregory when he and Dean Fraser and the 809 Band had just completed a US tour. Gregory often had trouble getting into the US. I guess he had a pretty serious criminal record, but I really do not know for sure. I just accepted him as Gregory. In fact, that is how I get along with most people. I just try to accept them for who they are: I take the good with the bad. Only Jah is perfect, so the rest of us can simply try to do our best. This is how I have managed to get along with some very eccentric people whose creativity can take them to some extremely faraway places. Gregory was one of the three true geniuses I came into contact with in all my years of being in the reggae business, and I had a great deal of respect for him and his far-out ways.
This is my first son, Eric, sitting on the lap of the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. Like many of the artists I worked with, Gregory felt very close to my family. He even bought little Eric a little toy cell phone.
After recording this album for me, Gregory decided to stay in Washington, DC, for a while with his wife, June. He would move from hotel to hotel for about one week at a time. Licking the crack pipe hard! He had this one that looked like a bong. I knew it was a major instrument when Gregory was looking to do some serious freebasing. I remember getting up one morning at five, and writing a bio for Gregory to use at his shows, and as a press release for the new album I had produced. After reading it, Gregory looked at me and said, “Boy, Doctor Dread, you really know me.” I was able to articulate who Gregory was, and make reference to his outlaw character without spilling all the beans. I think he appreciated that. I knew he was using crack to try to dull his finely-tuned brain, and to separate him from a world of conflicts and demands. He told me women would come to his room after his shows and not leave. Just stay there all night until he had to kick them out, or he’d get so wasted they would leave. Everyone wanted to get close to Gregory, and he used the drug to keep them away.
I could sense his difficulty in dealing with his stardom. I had arranged for him to go to a drug treatment center in Pennsylvania to try to get rid of his crack habit. The plan was for me to drive him up and he would stay there until he was clean and free of the shit. Many big rock stars had gone there and it was not cheap, but I was willing to pay for it because I believed it could help him. I came that next morning to pick him up and he had obviously been up all night seriously licking his pipe. The big one. He and June were ready to kill each other and Gregory told me to get out of there. That he was not going anywhere. I called the doctor at the retreat and explained the situation, and I then realized that people are not ready to get help until THEY are ready. It is not up to others to get them the help. They have to want it. And Gregory was certainly not there yet.
I remember another time when I had Gregory in Lion and Fox Studios in downtown DC. Gregory had done a wonderful version of “Puff the Magic Dragon” for my first of many Reggae for Kids CDs. He really nailed it. I had lined him up for doing “Day-O,” a song popularized by Harry Belafonte, and originally sung by the workers on the north coast of Jamaica in the 1920s as they loaded bananas onto boats bound for England. It was an easy enough tune, and I already had the rhythm completed, so all Gregory had to do was voice it. He came in and his jaw was moving back and forth. I had seen him like this many times and had assumed it was because he was really high. He went into the studio to voice the tune and he was so off-key I had to rewind the tape again and again. He just could not get it and I didn’t understand why. It was an easy song and he was Gregory Isaacs. He said he needed a break and sent Peter Broggs, another Jamaican singer, out to the streets to score him some crack. After he smoked it up, I noticed his jaw quit moving around. And when he went back into the studio he sang that song so beautifully you could have sworn it was his own. Perfect.
It was then I sadly realized he was a true addict. When addicts don’t have their stuff they are not right. Not normal. Once they get it they become normal again. I really felt for him and knew what a struggle his life must have been, despite his success. He was comfortable enough around me to smoke his crack openly and I never put him down for it. Like I say, I just accepted it.
Gregory also had a softer side. He was once in my office at RAS while in DC and we were hanging out. Jim Fox had given me this big jar of atomic fireballs as a Christmas present. In Jamaica, because the currency is so undervalued, when you go to buy things at the supermarket you sometimes get a small handful of hard candy as change. These are known as “sweeties” and Jamaicans bring them home and give them to their kids. I asked Gregory if he would like a sweetie and handed him one of the fireballs. He put it in his mouth and was talking to me and I noticed after a while that he was starting to shift around as the heat from the fireball finally started busting loose in his mouth. I was having a hard time keeping a straight face and when it got to the point that he could no longer take the heat, he took it from his mouth and shouted at me, “Bloodclot, Doctor Dread! You a burn up me mouth!” I laughed so hard I fell out of the fucking chair. I am lucky he never kicked me while I was down on the ground writhing in laughter. But we could joke around like that, we were comfortable with each other.
When I was in Jamaica recently, June reminded me of the time I was in their hotel room in DC during a hurricane and a large tree snapped in half outside the window. For some reason Gregory and I decided to wrestle to see who was stronger. I threw him down and some of his dreadlocks came out of his head. I made a joke about how I was going to put them in the Reggae Music Hall of Fame or sell them on eBay. Some kind of bullshit. June reminded me that he trimmed his locks shortly thereafter in Washington, DC, and when he returned to Jamaica to perform on the Heineken Startime show, the whole country was amazed to see Gregory without his dreadlocks.
Another time, I had him scheduled to do “Mr. Tambourine Man,” for the Bob Dylan reggae album I was working on. I had gone to London to record him and J.C. Lodge, and my good friend the Mad Professor had let me book out his Ariwa studio on the outskirts of London — a far ride from where both Gregory and J.C. were living at the time. I would generally record the rhythm tracks in advance, and would just need the singers to come after that and voice the tune. Later, I would overdub harmonies, synthesizers, percussion, and horns. I had my formula pretty set, usually recording my albums in Kingston and mixing them in Washington, DC, with Jim Fox.
J.C. came and did her tune and we waited for Gregory to arrive. He was scheduled for ten p.m. By midnight he had not shown up and the engineer wanted to leave, but I said to just wait. I knew he would come. At one a.m. he finally showed up. And when a Jamaican shows up late they usually do not apologize. They just greet you like everything is okay. It is a cultural thing and I had gotten used to it. In Jamaica they say “soon come,” and that means that eventually it will happen. To just be patient. If you ever go to Jamaica and try to rush things too much, it will often backfire on you. You just gotta learn to relax and go with the flow. To chill. I was excited to have Gregory do this song. I felt he was like a modern-day Mr. Bojangles, and the song and he were very symbiotic. And I knew the line that says “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind” would resonate with Gregory. I was sure he could relate to that.
It took him many hours to voice that song. We had to punch him in line after line till he got it right. As a producer I would never accept anything less than the best an artist was capable of, and I really pushed Gregory hard that night. Yes, he took some breaks from the vocal booth to regain his composure. Between takes, he would step out pouring sweat, laugh, then say, “Boy, Doctor Dread, you a really work me hard tonight.” But the proof is in the pudding. Gregory gave this his personal touch and I felt like I had gotten what I had bargained for. I had him voice “House of the Rising Sun” earlier for the Pardon Me! album, and both these songs had a pure Gregory vibe to them once they were done.
So back to the incident in the studio, with Gregory pointing that pistol at me. We talked it out and he eventually left, and the next week his brother called me from England and apologized profusely for what Gregory had done. But it never really changed anything between us. I was just glad the gun didn’t accidentally go off. It was one story I did not bother to share with my family at the time, as I didn’t want them to worry about my many trips to Kingston and all my late nights recording in the studios there. And Gregory and I never discussed that incident again. We just went about our normal relationship like it never happened.
Gregory passed away in 2010 at the age of only 59 years young. A doctor in England had found a spot on his lung, but he never got it looked after, and he just grew weaker and weaker until he passed. I was asked to be a pallbearer at his funeral, which was a great honor. My wife Deb and I went to Jamaica, and there was a big tribute concert held at the Ranny Williams Center in Kingston with many of Jamaica’s top reggae artists performing. Deb and I were reunited with friends and artists we had worked with over the years, and we could really feel the love and appreciation people had for us. When Jamaica gets into your soul it is for-iver and a blessed feeling. And it really is the people that make it such a blessed place.
I miss Gregory, and Tafari Music still represents his music publishing on a worldwide basis. He was unique. One of a kind, and there will never be another like him. Rest in peace, my brother.