Burning Spear: Surrender to Burning Reggae
The legendary Winston Rodney, 2009's winner of the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album (for Jah Is Real), was born on March 1, 1948 in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, also the birthplace of two of his greatest influences – Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley and Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr.
The story is that Rodney was walking through the hills one day in 1969, bumped into Bob Marley and the two chatted about Rodney's interest in music. Marley encouraged him to visit Studio One's Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, who had given Marley his start. Rodney took the advice and he and his partner, bass singer Rupert Willington, auditioned for Dodd, who signed the duo. So, thanks to Bob Marley, Rodney had his foot in the music business' door.
Rodney chose the name “Burning Spear” for the duo. It was the nickname of Jomo Kenyatta who had been jailed in Africa by the British government for allegedly participating in the Mau Mau Rebellion but who went on to become the first Prime Minister and first President of an independent Kenya.
Coxsone Dodd had chosen Door Peep for the duo’s debut single and, shortly thereafter, Burning Spear grew into a trio with the addition of Delroy Hinds, brother of Justin Hinds. Rodney chanted his vocals while Willington and Hinds provided sweet backing vocals. They released several singles for Dodd, including "Joe Frazier (He Prayed)" which was a smash hit in Jamaica in 1972. Two albums soon followed, Studio One Presents Burning Spear (1973) and Rocking Time (1974), but they were only a small taste of what greatness was to follow!
Like many famous Jamaican reggae artists, Burning Spear is known for his Rastafarian messages. His lyrics are deeply spiritual and full of emotion concerning oppression, black unity and religious devotion. But Studio One's were not always the best arrangements of Rodney’s songs. In later years, Burning Spear would revise and re-produce many of his songs, significantly improving upon them.
The trio continued to release singles but could not seem to repeat their 1972 smashing success, so they moved on from Studio One to producer and Ocho Rios sound system owner Jack Ruby. The results were magic, creating the singles "Marcus Garvey" and "Slavery Days". Now accompanied by the wonderful studio band, the Black Disciples, more magic resulted in the album Marcus Garvey (1975), in honor of the great St. Ann's-born pan-Africanist and Rastafarian prophet, which became one of the all-time greatest roots albums ever to come from Jamaica!
Island Records swooped in to sign Burning Spear but infuriated Rodney when they remixed his record for a UK white audience. This spurred Rodney on to start his own label, Spear, and Burning Spear churned out more singles such as "Travelling" and "Spear Burning", followed by the group’s next album, Man in the Hills (1976).
The trio broke up and Rodney went out on his own, self-producing his next album, Dry and Heavy (1977), which featured re-workings of "Swell Headed", "Creation Rebel" and "Free Again". By now Rodney’s following had grown, especially in the UK where he made a scorcher of an appearance at London’s Rainbow Theatre, backed by trumpeter Bobby Ellisand the UK reggae band, Aswad. Island released an album of the performance called Live (1977).
In 1978, Rodney left Island Records and, along with the Black Disciples and members of Aswad, issued the brilliant Marcus Children (released in the UK as Social Living). This was one of his best albums yet, but he followed it up in 1980 with the wonderful Hail H.I.M.. In between, Rodney had a leading role in the movie “Rockers” in which he sang "Jah No Dead", a highlight of the film.
Rodney has continued to release an unparalleled flow of great albums, supported by regular appearances at Reggae Sunsplash and tours throughout the US and worldwide. No other artist has equaled the strength of his body of work. In 1982, Farover featured Rodney’s new backing group, the Burning Band. 1984’s Resistance was nominated for a Grammy Award. People of the World (1988) sizzled and earned yet another Grammy nomination, and 1988’s Mistress Music featured former members of Jefferson Airplane, blending in a little rock and roll. Live in Paris: Zenith 88 garnered another Grammy nomination in 1990.
Although the Burning Band dissolved, the 1990s saw some of Rodney’s best work despite a monstrous touring schedule. In fact, he managed to put out excellent albums about every two years! With Mek We Dweet (1991) and a new backing band, Rodney returned to his powerful sound and added Grammy nominations for that album as well as for The World Should Know (1994), Rasta Business (1996) and Appointment with His Majesty (1998)!
In spite of all the nominations, it seemed that an actual win might never materialize until 2000’s Calling Rastafari won the Grammy for Best Reggae Album and was followed by an American tour.
Even the turn of a new Century could not slow Rodney down; far too many messages of peace, universal love, black culture and Rasta beliefs were still inside, awaiting his powerful and unique lyrical expression.In 2002, Rodney and his wife, Sonia, formed Burning Spear Records and we were treated to more Grammy-nominated albums – Free Man (2004), Our Music (2005), The Burning Spear Experience (2008), and the latest Jah Is Real which took home the 2009 Grammy Award!
Burning Spear was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Distinction on October 15, 2007, for citizens who have rendered outstanding and important service to Jamaica. One of the most brilliant and respected roots artists in Jamaica's history, “The Spear” has shared his beliefs with us in his recorded music as well as in his fierce live concerts. I have loved each and every performance, most recently at the renowned Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in 2007, and especially enjoyed Rodney’s bongo solos! Let’s hope the Spear keeps burning hot for a long, long time!
Visit BurningSpear.net to see where Winston Rodney will tour or what he will treat us to next.