Third World - Reggae ambassadors with a sense of purpose
~ William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke
With a distinct sense of purpose, Third World, rightfully dubbed The Reggae Ambassadors, will celebrate its 40th anniversary in December, 2013! Another of my very favorite reggae bands who I have enjoyed live on many occasions, Third World is one of the longest-lived reggae bands of all time. Criticized by reggae purists as too commercial, this legendary group of talented musicians manages to remain popular with their international audiences because their inventive music is always fresh and creative. They take risks and experiment, stretching the basic foundation of roots reggae. It is this imagination, and their superior capabilities to make music in its various forms (reggae, R&B, funk, pop, African, Latin, rock, dancehall and even rap) that inspires and endears them to their fans around the world.
Unlike many of the self-taught greats of Jamaica’s reggae scene, some of these guys actually had classical and quite diverse music training. The group was founded in 1973 by Michael “Ibo” Cooper (born January 14, 1955, in Kingston, Jamaica), a policeman’s son who received formal training on a variety of keyboard instruments at Kingston’s Royal School of Music, and Stephen “Cat” Coore (born April 6, 1959, in Kingston), whose father served as deputy prime minister of Jamaica and who first learned to play stringed instruments from his renowned music teacher mother. He was trained at Forster Davis School of Music in Jamaica where he gained a reputation as a prodigy for his amazing talent on the cello. Both artists had played individually on the Kingston reggae circuit but first worked together when they joined the successful Kingston group, Inner Circle, in 1968.
Deciding to strike out on their own, Cooper, Coore and Inner Circle’s vocalist Milton “Prilly” Hamilton completed their band with Richie Daley, a self-taught bassist. They recruited drummer Carl Barovier (who was replaced by Cornel Marshal) and percussionist Irwin “Carrot” Jarrett who had extensive professional experience with concerts and TV. Third World made its live debut with a performance at Jamaica’s independence celebration in 1973.
Third World made a name for itself on the Kingston club scene as a fully self-contained band; a rarity because most labels in Jamaica were operated by sound systems while Third World had all its own musicians on hand. They did this so they could perform wherever they wanted rather than constantly scrambling for musicians or a sound system to support their singing. But this made it difficult to land a record deal so they toured England where the reggae sound was becoming popular, and released their debut single Railroad Track in 1974, subsequently signing a deal with Island Records. Island sent them on a European tour as the opening act for Bob Marley & the Wailers.
1976 saw the release of Third World’s self-titled debut album which included a cover of the roots classic Satta Massagana by the Abyssinians. Their follow-up was 1977’s 96° in the Shade, which introduced their new drummer, Willie “Roots” Stewart, and a new lead singer, William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke. That title track is an all-time reggae classic and the album was a huge critical success. But Third World’s breakthrough popular album was 1978’s Journey to Addis, which featured a funkified reggae cover of Now That We Found Love by the O’Jays. The single was a crossover hit that grabbed listeners who didn't normally buy reggae albums. Along with the follow-up single Cool Meditation, Third World was launched to international stardom when they hit the US R&B charts and the British pop Top 10.
After releasing three more albums with island, Third World moved to Columbia in the early 1980s, believing they would get more attention if they weren't competing with Island’s star act, Marley. While with Columbia they released 5 albums over the next 7 years, with significant success on the U.S. and U.K. charts. About this time they began collaborating with Stevie Wonder, who helped them develop their crossover sound. Reggae was popular with mostly white audiences in Britain and America and Wonder’s support helped them gain the ear of black audiences as well, hitting the US R&B charts in particular.
Third World’s success continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s with several label changes (CBS, Mercury) and the release of many more albums with crossover hits that reached the R&B, pop and dance charts and added to their international stature. Jarrett left the band during this time and was replaced by Rupert “Gypsy” Bent III. In 1997, founding member Cooper (replaced by keyboardist Leroy “Baarbe” Romans who was later replaced by Herbie Harris) and Stewart (replaced by drummer Tony “Ruption” Williams) also departed.
Sometimes accused by critics of being sell-outs, Third World wanted to make their music accessible to wider audiences - to represent common people all over the world, not just in their own country. They challenged the limitations of their genre and were the first reggae act to add funk and use a synthesizer. They had one of the first commercially successful fusions of reggae and rap. They were instrumental in popularizing dub poetry, which became the basis for dancehall. And they forayed into American hip-hop. The reggae-hip-hop combo breathed new life into reggae in Jamaica and abroad. The talented Third World musicians have always been innovators, refusing to limit the infinite possibilities of their music. If you want to hear just one beautiful piece of music, listen to Cat Coore’s performance on the cello on Symphony Rastafari.
Awarded the Medal of Peace by the United Nations for their contributions to African causes, they were invited guests at a tribute to Nelson Mandela in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1990. They were awarded the keys to the City of Key West, Florida. And just this month (October 2008), they were honored with 6 official proclamations from the City of Los Angeles, the Governor’s Office of the State of California, the California State Senate, and the Mayor of Los Angeles, at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, California in celebration of the group's 35th anniversary. In addition, each member of the group was presented with his own plaque honoring him with the 2008 Jazz at Drew Lifetime Achievement Award.
Third World continues to evolve and to tour worldwide. Currently back in the studio working on their 20th album, they plan to end 2008 with a big anniversary celebration in December down in Jamaica. Keep them coming - I, for one, can never get enough!