On February 1, 1957, reggae singer Dennis Brown was born in Kingston. He began his career in the 1960s at the age of 11 with his first recording “No Man Is an Island” and recorded some 80 albums before he died on July 1, 1999. He was known as a child prodigy because of his early recording and was also called the “Michael Jackson of Reggae.”
Early Life and Career
Dennis Emmanuel Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica on February 1, 1957. He was dubbed "the Crown Prince of Reggae,” and only his natural shyness stood between him and even greater stardom. Dennis acquired this title in the 1980’s around the time when Bob Marley passed away. On several occasions, Marley referred to Dennis Brown as his favorite reggae musician. Brown made beautiful music for three decades and his career is seen as one of the most colorful ever in reggae. Dennis was consistently hardworking on his music. He is said to have made at least 78 albums for some 37 record labels, sometimes releasing seven albums in a single year. He has produced more reggae classics than anyone else.
Dennis grew up in a large tenement yard between North Street and King Street in Kingston with his parents, three elder brothers and a sister. He lost his mother at a very early age so he turned to his father for inspiration. Dennis was surrounded by entertainers; his father was an actor and his uncle a comedian. This combined with Dennis’ mother’s artistic talents created much hope for the young superstar. Brown grew up in a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) constituency of Member of Parliament Edward Seaga (later Prime Minister of Jamaica). Mr. Seaga was involved in the promotion of Jamaican music during the early ‘60s.
The decade of the sixties in West Kingston was when Dennis Brown became noticed. This was the era he used to perform on ‘beer boxes’ with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, as well as at the West Kingston Charity Balls. It was this experience the 9 year-old Dennis Brown took with him to the Tit-For-Tat Club. There one night he made a guest appearance with The Falcons Band and proved to be a child prodigy. The manager of The Falcons Band was so impressed with Dennis Brown that he immediately made him the vocalist of the band. The manager of the band soon brought Dennis to the attention of the legendary producer, Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, who was in charge of the famous Studio One.
It was at the age of eleven when his career began to take off. His first hit came out from this studio in 1969, ‘No Man Is An Island.’ Most would agree that the style that Dennis had used throughout his career was evident in this first hit. His style is what made him stand out from other reggae musicians. Dennis had a moving voice that remained consistent in his music throughout his career. His physical nature was appealing to all. He came off as a friendly approachable person that always wore a smile. From the soul-influenced pop reggae tunes of his earliest years, the conscious roots reggae of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and the best lovers-rock ever recorded, Dennis’ soulful style remained constant throughout his career. Few artists could remain as consistent throughout a 30-year career as Brown, and these releases cap an incredible life while serving as a reminder of one of Jamaica’s greatest talents. While at Studio One Dennis produced another major hit, ‘If I Follow My Heart’, which was just as much a hit as ‘No Man Is An Island’.
In the mid 1970’s Dennis Brown’s talents and sincerity began to attract thousands of fans. While the rock critics were latching on to dub in the mid-70’s, it was Brown who was drawing a mass audience almost unnoticed outside reggae’s heartlands. His combination of serious, ‘message’ songs and soul wailing melodies was irresistible. This was representative of Brown’s true style. His consistent voice continued through a time where reggae music was seeing a change in course. Dennis’ live shows were becoming very popular at that time. They were packed with excitement, sincerity, and became known as ‘events’, because of their positive reputation.
In 1979 Dennis’ hit, ‘Money In My Pocket,' was his first to hit chart territory. Around this time in the early 1980’s Brown signed with A&M Records. During these years of producing and recording Brown spent most of his time in London, where he settled for most of the 1980’s. He continued to produce many reggae hits for several labels. These years were prosperous for Dennis and his music and popularity continued to spread internationally. Dennis was soon to come across the first obstacle in his career. In 1985-86 digital music exploded onto reggae music and Dennis was unsure of what to do. He didn’t know what angle he should take and knew that if he chose the wrong path his career might be threatened. Brown adapted to the trend and recorded The Exit in this digital mode. It was a success and a crucial career move for "The Crown Prince".
A Perspective of Dennis Brown’s Life and Musical Career
Dennis Brown was one of the most productive and influential reggae musicians ever. Many reggae artists looked to Dennis Brown to find how to sing a reggae song effectively. He had tremendous knowledge and a deep understanding of melody and lyrics. He was dedicated to making music and always was looking forward into the future. He knew that he must always move forward with his music to keep his listeners attention. This entailed much hard work.
There has always been a question of how many albums Dennis produced over his career. Some people say over a hundred and some say more, his legacy of hard work and dedication to his music has sparked these rumors. Brown himself admits to making eighty albums and he claims he does not have all of them in his musical library. He explained in an interview that he would like to have copies of them all, but people always ask for them and he gives them away. Brown stated that people don't want to hear that you are keeping records for the sake of an archive, they want the music so he gives it to them. This shows Dennis’ extreme generosity to his listeners. His will to spread his message and songs overcame his own personal ties to his own creations.
Dennis was well respected for his humbleness. His fame never caught up with him and because of this quality, he inspired so many artists and fans. Dennis was always open to criticism from other artists and producers. He never took his knowledge and skill for granted. This nature of Brown helped create such effective music. His individual vision combined with outside influence worked together to produce his well-loved songs.
Dennis Brown’s music was an inspiration during times of inequality. He usually focused on positive points in his music, rarely touching on negative aspects of a situation. Dennis knew that people living under restrictive conditions and in poverty needed unification and guidance. In one of his songs, he is speaking to the people in the mass movement-taking place in the 1970’s, asking ‘do you know what it takes.' Songs like these offered these groups suggestions on how to beat the struggle. His dedication to his listeners was well-respected and his message spread worldwide.
The Decline of the Crown Prince of Reggae
Dennis Brown had a history of drug use behind his success. He was addicted to crack cocaine. He was allegedly seen backstage at concerts in the United States with drug paraphernalia in open view. Brown stated that the drug rumors were a constant detraction from his career. He looked for companionship with people that approved and stayed away from the people that did not approve. Brown’s brother, Leroy Clarke, stated that he had never seen Dennis use drugs and that were certain things that Dennis would not do in front of him. He said if Dennis had a problem, he kept it to himself and explained that Dennis was a very private person. This demonstrated that Dennis knew he had a bad habit and kept it to himself, he did not want to negatively affect anyone around him. DJ "Ranking Joe" Jackson knew Dennis Brown well and was aware of his drug problem.
Dennis Brown had a reputation for canceling shows. This overshadowed his legacy as a reggae superstar. This damaged the reggae industry at international levels and had extreme negative consequences. Brown was not the only reggae musician with this reputation, it was rather common in the industry for artists to have this problem. Dennis always responded to the issue with a positive attitude. He commented to the Jamaica Observer about this problem before the 1996 Reggae Sunsplash tour: "The no-shows was years ago. What people are going to see now is a new D. Brown." Dennis further went on to explain that it was a thing of the past and his fans will no longer to need to worry about the issue.
Dennis Emanuel Brown died on July 1, 1999 at the University of the West Indies Hospital and no autopsy was performed. Brown became sick at the end of June after a return trip to Miami from Brazil, where he spent a month. Although Brown never contracted any sickness in Brazil many people that were with him caught a virus. Brown’s brother Clarke, reported that Dennis was complaining of chills on the plane ride from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica. He checked into the hospital seven days later on June 30, 1999. Dennis Brown died the next morning. The media spread the news and that Brown had died from lung failure related to pneumonia and heart failure.
The funeral was held at the National Arena on July 17, 1999. "The event, organized by his colleague and friend Freddie McGregor, became a three-and-half hour musical celebration of Brown’s life. His music was performed by McGregor, John Holt, Richie Stephens, George Nooks, Maxi Priest, Shaggy, Gregory Isaacs, Ken Boothe, Carlene Davis, Marcia Griffiths, Nadine Sutherland, Heather Cummings, Pam Hill, and J.C. Lodge. All were backed by Brown’s long-time associate Lloyd Parks and his We the People band." The funeral received international coverage that showed Brown’s influence on a generation of Jamaicans, whom many considered Brown to be their favorite reggae artist.