Wailing Souls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The consummate roots band, the Wailing Souls may never have gained the
international reputation of their compatriots, at least not at the height of
the genre's popularity, but they did outlive most of them. Their very
survival has been their greatest strength, that and their ability to
diversify over time. Today they are one of the most popular live acts around
and they continue to release provocative and popular albums. A roots band
they may well be, but their history actually stretches back long before the
birth of that genre, as far back as the heyday of ska. The Wailing Souls'
story begins with Winston "Pipe" Matthews. As a youth living in Kingston in
the early '60s, Matthews learned to sing at the feet of Joe Higgs. Higgs,
although himself barely out of his teens, was already a veteran vocalist
with a string of hits to his name, and coached up and coming talent in his
tenement yard. His most famous protégés were, of course, the Wailers. Higgs'
training stood Matthews in equally good stead and by 1963, the aspiring
singer and his vocal group the Schoolboys had come to the attention of
Prince Buster. The group cut a handful of singles for the producer over the
next year, "Little Boy Blue" and "Dream Lover" included. In 1965, the
Schoolboys folded, but Matthews was soon back with a new group, the
Renegades. This vocal trio comprised Matthews, Lloyd "Bread" McDonald, and
George "Buddy" Haye, both of whom were also alumni of Higgs' vocal classes.
Initially, the group hooked up with guitarist Ernest Ranglin appearing on a
number of singles with him, before they finally debuted on their own with
"Lost Love." It was at this point that the trio came to the attention of
Coxsonne Dodd and the Renegades embarked on a fruitful career at Studio One.
Over the next three years, the group released a clutch of singles on this
label. Their debut for Dodd was "Back Out With It," a fine effort, but it
was a later cut, "Fire Coal Man," recorded to the rhythm of the
Silverstones' hit "Burning in My Soul," that eventually had the biggest
impact. Although a number of the Renegades' singles were local hits, the
trio never really excited much attention elsewhere during their lifetime.

In 1968, Haye departed, in his place came two new singers, Oswald Downer and
Norman Davis. Such a seismic shift of lineup prompted the group to totally
cut ties with the past, and the they changed their moniker to the Wailing
Souls. In many ways, though, the quartet merely picked up where the trio had
left off and continued recording popular singles -- "Thou Shall Not Steal,"
"Dungeon," and "Pack Your Things," included. Although only a handful are now
recalled by fans from these earliest days, the group would re-record a
number in later years under new titles, and these seminal re-cuts are still
part of the group's most treasured canon. Amongst these are such classic
songs as "Feel the Spirit" (originally released as "Soul and Power") and
"Back Biter" ("You Should Have Known Better"). Studio One would eventually
release two compilations of recordings from this period, The Wailing Souls
and Soul and Power, which together wrap up most of the quartet's best work
with Dodd. And while song titles would change in the future, back then the
quartet was appearing under enough aliases to fill an FBI sheet. When the
group recorded "Gold Digger for Lloyd Daley, the single was credited in the
U.K. to Little Roys. Elsewhere, they appeared as Atarra, the Classics, and
even Pipe & the Pipers. Apparently their was some concern in Britain that
people might confuse the Wailing Souls with the Wailers. The Wailers
themselves certainly didn't think so, and in 1970 the quartet moved to the
Tuff Gong label. More crucial singles followed, including "Walk Walk Walk"
and "Harbour Shark," all backed by the Tuff Gong All Stars of course, aka
the Wailers themselves.

The group's career seemed to be on track, but in 1974, the Wailing Souls
suddenly underwent a swift series of cataclysmic lineup shifts. Davis and
Downer both departed, with former Renegade Hayes and former vocal teacher
Higgs taking their place. Higgs' stay was short-lived, however, and he too
soon departed to take part in a U.S. tour with Jimmy Cliff. In his stead
came founding Black Uhuru member Rudolph "Garth" Dennis. Such dramatic
changes in personnel usually heralds the rapid decline of a group, but
surprisingly enough, the Wailing Souls were now about to enter their
strongest era. The new group joined forces with producer JoJo Hookim at his
Channel One studio, and backed by Sly & Robbie's Revolutionaries proceeded
to cut classic song after classic song. "Jah Give Us Life," a re-recorded
version of "Fire Coal Man," "Back Biter," "Things and Time" (also
re-recordings of old songs, but with new titles attached), and "War"
featuring DJ Ranking Trevor, all impacted across the Jamaican roots scene.
Across the Atlantic, the Ulster punk band Stiff Little Finger were as taken
by the music as fans in Jamaica, and recorded their own phenomenal version
of "Fire Coal Man, helping further excite interest in the group abroad. In
1984, the British label Empire gathered up many of the group's masterful
singles with Hookim on the compilation The Best Of.

By 1977, the Wailing Souls were ready to have a go running their own record
label, which they named Massive. It was a prescient moniker and their debut
release, the seminal "Bredda Gravalicious," was a smash hit and remains a
firm favorite to this day. Their follow-up, "Feel the Spirit," another one
of their old Studio One cuts given new life, did equally as well. The
success of these two singles prompted Island Records to pick up world rights
to the group's debut album, 1979's Wild Suspense. (In reality, their
eponymous Studio One album was their first, and was released three years
earlier, but this was the group's first album of new material.) The record
boasts some of the heaviest roots of the Wailing Souls' career, and along
with the two singles, it also features the equally classic "Very Well." Even
though Massive had proved just that, the quartet continued recording for
other labels. They rejoined Sly & Robbie at their Taxi label for the sublime
"Sugar Plum Plum" and "Old Broom," both of which were huge hits. With Sly &
Robbie and their Roots Radics in tow, the Wailing Souls returned to Channel
One, and cut a stream of exceptional singles for producer Junjo Lawes. The
infectious "Firehouse Rock," the exquisite harmonies of "See Baba Joe," and
the mighty "Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall," followed, as the group released a
stream of hits across 1980 and into 1981. All three of these singles
featured on the Wailing Souls' next album, the magnificent Firehouse Rock.
Produced by Lawes, ignited by the Roots Radics, and mixed by Scientist, the
set remains a high water mark of the roots age, with the band's tough
rhythms perfectly aligned with the singer's own soulful delivery. Their
follow-up, 1982's Inchpinchers, is nearly as good, although its dancehall
vibes didn't always sit well with the purer roots crowd. In the interim, the
group also released Wailing, and cut a number of other notable singles with
other producers, including such hits as "Who No Waan Come" and "Rude Boy Say
Him Bad."

In 1981, the Wailing Souls were on the road, and embarked on a short tour of
California, so enjoying the experience, they spent most of the next three
years in the States. However, they continued releasing singles, several of
them self-productions, and a number were cut in collaboration with DJs,
including "Take We Back," which saw them reunite with Ranking Trevor, and
"Take a Taste," with Ringo. During this period, the group also released two
albums, 1983's On the Rocks and the following year's Stranded. And for a
moment, they were indeed stranded. Garth Dennis had now elected to reunite
with his old band Black Uhuru, and Haye refused to leave L.A. Matthews and
McDonald were not finished yet, however. They returned to Jamaica, and
continued the group as a duo. The now-shrunken Wailing Souls joined up with
producer Delroy Wright for 1986's On the Line, an apt title, considering the
situation. It was evident that the pair had yet to find their footing, but
their follow-up, Kingston 14, found them back on track, abetted by yet
another reunion with Sly & Robbie, who provided sublime rhythms. And if
there were doubts, they were put to rest with "Full Moon," another smash
hit. In 1988, the Wailing Souls recorded a new album, again in conjunction
with Sly & Robbie, along with a slew of seminal session men and overseen by
Wright. However, the record was not released at the time. Their next
full-length, the fabulous Stormy Night, would not appear until the following
year, and found the duo now working with King Jammy. Amazingly, Stormy Night
was never given a Jamaican release, although it created quite a stir around
the rest of the world. Even odder, the recordings didn't spawn a sole hit
single.

Understandably, the Wailing Souls were losing patience. They'd wasted a year
recording an album that never saw release, and now their new record was
unable to even find a Jamaican label willing to put it out. In truth, the
hits were drying up, although the group's work remained as strong as ever,
the vocals as heartfelt, and harmonies as exquisite as they'd always been.
Styles had changed, and at home, interest had flagged. By 1991, Matthews and
McDonald had made the momentous decision to quit Jamaica, and returned to
the States. And there, the previously unreleased Reggae Ina Firehouse was
finally mashing up the dancefloor. It might have arrived three years late,
but there was no disguising the record's mastery. Even so, the duo were
unhappy at its unexpected and tardy arrival, but they shouldn't have been.
The album is filled with phenomenal songs, fabulous roots music, and some of
the pair's best vocals. However, the Wailing Souls did have some reason for
concern, as they were about to embark on a musical journey that would make
their old roots fans mouths drop. Recruiting vocalist Maisha, the trio inked
a deal with the Sony label's Chaos subsidiary and began work on a new album.
Along for the ride was a club's worth of guest musicians, backing vocalists
and even a pair of DJs (including U-Roy). The result, 1992's All Over the
World, deservedly earned the group a Grammy nomination, and is a genre
buster extraordinaire. Running from deep roots to funk, R&B to country, it
was enough to give older rastas a heart attack. But the the Wailing Souls
were unrepentant, and continued on their merry way. They followed up with
the Live On live set, which did not live up to Sony's expectations, but
there was little time for tears, and the group happily made their way for
the indie labels. Tension arrived in 1997, with Psychedelic Souls quickly
following the next year. The latter again boasts Sly & Robbie's tough
rhythms, and finds the group venturing ever deeper into the rock world. The
pair stayed on board for 2000's Equality, which returned Wailing Soul to
their rootsiest roots, yet is shot through with a modern electronic sound
and American stylings. The duo remain defiant, refusing to play the role of
elder statesmen; they've remained forward looking, and over time their
biting cultural lyrics have not softened an iota. The Wailing Souls continue
to tour, and we can expect more intriguing releases guaranteed to mix-up the
music and shake the dancefloors. ~ Jo-Ann Greene, All Music Guide

 

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