Dennis Brown The Crown Prince of Reggae
In reggae music, Bob Marley is the 'Lyric Poet of Rebellion' and the King of Reggae. Peter Tosh is Reggae's'mystic man' and the Black Prince. Dennis Brown is the 'Crown Prince of Reggae', whose vocal style shaped and perfected the soul of reggae singing. Michael Ibo Cooper, a former Third World reggae band member, described Brown as "the genre's ultimate stylist."
Dennis Brown is the most important vocalist of his time; his particular vocal style, as well as its influence on reggae voices and Jamaican music, make him an architect of reggae music. In addition, several analysts rank Brown as the second-most influential reggae performer.
Jul. 1, 2022, marked 23 years since Dennis Brown, the Crown Prince of Reggae, died. Why is Dennis Brown worth remembering? Brown never achieved international fame like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, or Peter Tosh. Brown's vocal contribution to a generation of singers is undervalued.
How did a boy born on Orange Street in downtown Kingston, Jamaica, on Feb. 1, 1957, to Arthur Brown, a well-known Jamaican actor, and his mother become so influential in the world of music?
In 2010, National Public Radio (NPR) named Dennis Brown as one of the 50 great voices in music, along with Jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, Latin icon Celia Cruz, Balladeer Nat King Cole, and Gospel icon Mahalia Jackson. How did Dennis Brown find himself among such great luminaries in music?
The musicologist Dermot Hussey Brown argues Brown's early preparation laid the foundation for his success. "Dennis Brown established prowess from a tender age and was definitive from his early recordings: "No Man is an Island" and "Lip of Wine." He was thoroughly grounded in the classic song of the day international songs. With that kind of apprenticeship, he could sing anything."
Dennis Brown could sing anything from the revolutionary song "are you ready to stand up and fight?" roots rock, black emancipation message music to what I would consider dinner music "Wichita Line Man", a Jim Webb composition. His vocal range covered a wide gamut. Dennis could do it all vocally.
Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, the patriarch of Jamaican music, contends that "Brown is "God's gift to the world" because of his ability to perform just about "everything you gave him well," from "No Man is an Island" to "Lip of Wine." Brown sang conventional love ballads and originals with authority and sincerity.
Singer Ritchie Stevens says Dennis Brown was the standard for Jamaican music and helped carve out that cornerstone.
While Brown's Rock steady-era vocal style was soulful and sweet, a quality it never lost as Jamaica gave birth to reggae, the drum and bass in the 1970s, Brown's vocal style evolved to match reggae. Dennis remained a dominant vocal force in Jamaican music. He became the last link between the great solo singers of his generation and the emerging one.
Bennett said that in shaping reggae vocal style and its impact, "Brown's vocals were the perfect bridge between the dominant American Rhythm & Blues and Jamaican singing. It would still have Jamaican singers sounding like American R&B singers if extracted from Jamaican music. Home T group member Ruddy Manning puts it this way; Dennis Brown brought the Jamaican style to a song.
Producer Willie Lindo, who produced one of Brown's finest albums, "Inseparable," noted, "every singer who came after Dennis Brown, regardless of their pitch, wanted to sound like Dennis Brown."
Was there a figure in the Jamaican music space whose influence on Dennis Brown allowed him to bring the Jamaican style to a song? There was. In my interview with Brown in 1988 at the Ritz in NYC, Brown said his most significant influence was Rock Steady legend and fellow child prodigy Delroy Wilson. Brown said the patented slur he uses in his vocal delivery he got from Wilson and made it his own.
While Delroy Wilson's style influenced Brown's vocals, Dennis influenced the generation that came after him. That influence is evident in several of reggae's premier singers, such as Frankie Paul, Luciano, Richie Stephens, Sanchez, Bushman, George Nooks, Prince Malachi, and Nitty Gritty and Maxi Priest.
Maxi Priest, asked by Don Cornelius on "Soul Train" to name his greatest musical influence, replied, "Dennis Brown." Reggae icon Freddie McGregor, who began his music career before Dennis describes Brown's impact on his career: "If you were youth coming up, your influence would be Dennis Brown, he was the influence you would gravitate to, and everyone tried to sing like Dennis Brown. You almost couldn't help but try to sound like D. Brown.
I had a problem trying to find my identity in terms of sound. It took me years of work when I realized the only way to establish my identity was to record, which is what established my identity. If I didn't, I would want to sound like Dennis Brown."
During the early era of music, Jamaican vocalists traced their style to American R&B and soul singers. Why was Brown's vocal style so appealing to young Jamaican vocalists of his generation?
Producer and songwriter Mickey Bennett refer to Dennis Brown as "the reggae singer's singer". Dennis Brown could transmit his charismatic personality with his inimitable voice, which epitomizes how a reggae singer should sound. Brown's vocals possessed "that rhythmic quality to his voice, the smoothness with which it dominated the (reggae) rhythm track, making every song he sang sound like a Dennis Brown song."
Brown had a powerful voice with an incredible tremolo and a golden edge. His gradual tremolo gave his vocals an almost flawless tone and timing.
Besides being a prolific hit maker, Brown was the most loved vocalist of his generation. Dennis's relationship with his audience was extraordinary. Promoter Michael Barnett described Brown as "the Michael Manley of reggae music," who was "charismatic and charming, a crowd-pleaser where he went." "Next to Bob Marley… I don't think we will see a second to him in our lifetime."
His accessible, pleasant personality and broad, infectious, and welcoming smile endeared in the hearts of the people and fans worldwide. Dennis carried his youthfulness throughout his life, that spark, the vibrancy that eventually landed him the Crown Prince of Reggae.
Dennis Brown was nominated twice for the Reggae Grammy Award but never won. Dennis Brown is the greatest Jamaican singer to never "hit the big time" in his international music career. However, Brown was aware of his contribution to Jamaican music. He told Viddyms' TV Show host Jenny Shadeo, "I think I played an important part in establishing the music globally."
Ibo Cooper contextualized Brown's impact. "Dennis Brown made his mark on music. His music will impact generations to come, the way Beethoven influenced Europe and Fela impacted Africa. When the future is written, Dennis Brown will be one of the greatest names in music.