Barry Biggs

In the mid-seventies, when reggae singers were expected to wear dreadlocks and be wrapped in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Barry Biggs was considered something of an oddity.

Berated by some as ‘a jester, a charlatan and a ‘im I-tek money not sound’. His critics felt that he rejected the rasta doctrine with his inclination to record sweet melodies that, apparently, ‘betrayed Jamaican music and their artistic ethics’. Undeterred by the nonsensical rhetoric of these detractors, he continued to write and sing in his own distinctive way, much to the delight of his growing number of supporters.

In an interview for Black Music magazine Barry stated, ‘I think it’s about time people started being proud of Jamaican artists who make it in other fields than reggae ‘ and I certainly wouldn’t say my records betray Jamaican music. In Jamaica you go to a club and you’ll probably hear about five reggae numbers through the whole night ‘ funk, soul, calypso something else not just reggae. I don’t pretend to be a real grass roots singer. With this grass roots thing you have to be born in Jamaica to understand it and though you have artists like Bob Marley ‘ some won’t get much out of it’.

At the time of the interview, Barry was about to appear on the UK television series ‘Top Of The Pops’, where he performed in a pink suit with a matching ruffled shirt and black bow tie with pink edging. His outfit, like his music, was heavily influenced by smooth soul vocal harmony groups, such as the Chi-Lites, the Delfonics and the Stylistics. This was a far cry from the army fatigues and militant imagery sported by the righteous dreadlocked singers of the era.

Barry wanted to appeal to everybody, demonstrating he was an affable man with a positive outlook who loved to perform, with politics the last thing on his mind. He explained, ‘I’m a Jamaican and I think everybody should be a patriot to his own country. If he’s an American, he should be like an American and idolise America. I’ve kept away from roots Reggae because there’s a lot of politics in that kind of music’.

Barry, christened Barrington, was born in St. Andrews, Jamaica in 1947 (although later reports that suggest he was born in 1953) and from 1961, spent four years studying in the UK before joining his mother in the USA. In the latter half of the sixties, he returned to Jamaica, where he utilised his singing talents, working as a backing singer for Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd at Studio One, and later with Duke Reid at the producer’s famed Treasure Isle studio in Bond Street.

Inspired by his experience in the studios, he successfully applied to work at the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation where he began an apprenticeship as an engineer. In 1969 he recorded his debut, a version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ for local producer, Harry Johnson. The record was favourably received and while hardly setting the charts alight, it did mark a promising beginning.

A year later, Barry left J.B.C. to concentrate on singing with Derrick Harriott before joining the Astronauts, a local group who went on to win the Jamaican Song Festival in 1979 and again in 1994. Barry worked with the group prior to their festival successes, and it was at this time that his singing skills came to the attention of Byron Lee who enrolled him to perform with the Dragonaires. In the Black Music interview, Barry recalled, ‘I’d been told by a friend that Byron was out front one night but I thought no more about it. We were just one of the acts supporting a very popular band and I imagined he was there to hear them. Then after the show I was asked to go along and see Mr Lee. And he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse ‘ he told me that I was to be a member of the Dragonaires’.

Barry originally performed as the group’s singer and many of the band’s releases around this time featured his distinctive falsetto lead. While clearly influenced by Stevie Wonder, he also acknowledged his interest in the music of the ‘British scene’ to which he had been exposed during his stay in the UK, and persuaded Byron Lee to produce his version of the Edison Lighthouse hit, ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemarie Goes)’. The producer acceded to the request, although he may have also been influenced by a version of the song recorded at Studio One by Dennis Brown.

Barry’s version of ‘Love Grows’ was issued back to back with his interpretation of Leon Heywood‘s ‘Got To Be Mellow’ and while the record sold well, it was his follow-up version of ‘One Bad Apple’ that gave him his first Jamaican chart hit. Recorded at Lee’s Dynamic Sound studio, the song was lifted from the group’s album, ‘Reggay Splash Down’ (TRL 28) that Barry claimed was released to ‘spotlight’ his vocals. While at Dynamics, he also worked as a producer and engineer and as his career progressed, his credibility was assured when he produced a series of hits such as Jah Ruby‘s ‘Kunta Kinte The Dread’ and the Slickers hit, ‘The Time Has Come’. He also introduced Barrington Levy to the reggae arena when he produced the ‘Jamaican singing canary’s’ debut, ‘We Don’t Have No Love’.

Meanwhile, back in 1972 Barry recorded a superb version of the Chi-Lites, ‘Have You Seen Her’ with the Dragonaires, which featured on the  ‘Reggay Hot Cool And Easy’ album (TRLS40) and his winning formula of releasing reggae interpretations of other pop and soul hits led to a series of popular 45s, including version of the the Detroit Spinners ‘How Could I Get Away’. He also released his own composition, ‘Why Must You Cry’ that was re-released by Trojan in 1977 along with the compilation album ‘Barry Biggs And The Inner Circle’ (TRLS 142).

Inspired by the success of his self-composition, Barry released ‘Show Me Your Company’, which prompted the Four Tops’ management to ‘lay out an advance for a recording option’.

In 1975 the singer released two local hits, ‘Sweetest Little Thing’ and a sublime version (aside from the synthesized bridge) of Eddie Holman‘s ‘last dance’ hit, ‘(Hey There) Lonely Girl’, before his name was fully established in the global market. Barry’s international breakthrough in fact came the following year with a recording originally completed in 1972. The hit, ‘Work All Day (Play All Night)’ peaked at 38 in the UK pop chart and introduced the singer to a new audience. He subsequently almost topped the Pop chart with his version of Blue Magic‘s ‘Sideshow’, which hit the Number 3 spot in December 1976. It had been said that he was only denied a chart-topper from the hype surrounding a spin off from the television series, ‘Starsky And Hutch’ and a tribute to Eva Peron. On the flip-side of the single was the wonderful ‘I’ll Be Back’, featuring a sublime performance from Barry and a tight brass section that should have ensured it too saw UK chart action.

It was at this time that Barry toured the UK promoting his Creole released album, ‘Mr Biggs’ and when asked about his credibility with black youth he replied, ‘Well ‘ on my last tour I did ten or twelve dates and though most of them were mixed disco clubs a couple were strictly ethnic and we went down very well. The Bamboo Club, a black type disco, the manager there was very worried because I was backed by a white reggae band. But they played Reggae and they played it quite well. This man had been worried that the group would attract violence’.

His follow up was the ballad ‘You Are My Life’, which although did not fare quite so well as his previous release, was still a commercial success, climbing to 36 in the British national chart. Barry maintained his mainstream profile with hits such as a version of another Blue Magic hit, ‘Three Ring Circus’ that reached Number 22 in 1977, followed by an inspiring cover of Barry White prot??g??, Danny Pearson‘s ‘What’s Your Sign Girl’ that achieved a 55 placing in 1979.

He then released the sadly overlooked cover version of the Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination’ and the Moonglows’ Doo Wop favourite, ‘Sincerely’ that upheld his reputation as a ‘Mr Do-Over Man’.

By 1980, Barry was back with a vengeance with the lush ‘Wide Awake In A Dream’, his final UK pop hit to date that reached 44 the following year. His version of the song restored his street credibility among British reggae fans, many of whom now followed ‘Lovers Rock’, a style born in the UK as an alternative to the heavy roots sounds that alienated those unable to relate to the ideology of Rastafari. The song subsequently topped the reggae charts and led to the release of the album, ‘Wide Awake’.

In 1981 Barry was recruited by Jimmy Cliff to provide backing vocals for his album, ‘Give The People What They Want’ before he returned to the studios in his own right and did just that when he recorded the chart-topping ‘A Promise Is A Comfort To A Fool’. Two years on, he joined forces with Ruddy Thomas on the wonderful ‘Reflections Of My Life’, produced in tandem with the DJ-turned-producer, Tapper Zukie. The disc sold heavily in Holland, peaking at number 25 in the national listings and its follow-up, the self-produced ‘Love Come Down’ (featured on the ‘Coming Down With Love’ album) fared even better, climbing to the number five position in the Dutch Pop charts in the summer of 1983.

Although Barry subsequently remained musically active, he eased off from recording substantially, with the finely crafted ‘Conversation’ from 1985 among his few singles from the period. Among his occasional releases in the years that followed were the album, ‘So In Love’, issued on the Starlight label that, due to public demand, also issued a reworked version of his 1981 hit, ‘Wide Awake In A Dream’.

Today, Barry continues to work behind the scenes in Jamaica and in the late 1990s was recruited to engineer the Bob Marley retrospective albums, ‘Selassie Is The Chapel’ and the  ‘Complete Bob Marley And The Wailers’ collection for Danny Simms’ JAD Recordsl. Quite an impressive career for a ‘charlatan’ who suitably summed it all up in this final quote:

‘I don’t want people to sort of get me wrong, just judge me as a reggae artist. I can do almost anything. I’m not sure which way the next record will be for instance ‘ I’ve put down some tracks back in Jamaica, couple of reggae tracks, couple of soul, up-tempo stuff you know. Then again I might do a funk one next, or a gospel, I don’t know. I’m here to please everybody’.

Stephen Nye