Barrington Levy’s outstanding career as a top-class reggae vocalist began more than two and a half decades ago.
Called reggae’s ‘Mellow Canary’ by virtue of his strong, pure vocal style, he’s renowned as the first original singer of the dancehall era, inspiring many imitators en-route.
Barrington was born in West Kingston, but spent much time as a youth in Clarendon, where he developed his signature riff by experimenting with different vocalizations and bouncing the sounds off the surrounding hills.
As a youth, his biggest influence was Dennis Brown, but he also liked Michael Jackson, the original Jackson 5, and other American R&B artists. He began performing in dance halls at age 14 in a band that he formed with his cousin Everton Dacres, called Mighty Multitude.
In 1975, Barrington recorded his debut track “My Black Girl” with the Mighty Multitude. During these early performances, his singing was often informally recorded and sent to places in England and the U.S. The first foreign release, “A Ya We Deh”, was followed by a major hit with “Collie Weed”, produced by Junjo Laws for Jah Guidance, and others like “Twenty-One Girls Salute” and “Mind Your Mouth”.
Producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes discovered him singing on a local sound-system, and wasted no time in taking him to Channel One for the first of many hit singles in 1979. With the Channel One All-Stars – later to form the nucleus of the Roots Radics – laying the rhythms, and Scientist mixing the finished results at King Tubbys, the new singer caused a sensation right from the start, ushering in the dancehall phase at the same time.
Those early singles “A Yah We Deh”, “Shine Eye Gal” and “Moonlight Lover” were later collected on his debut album Bounty Hunter which appeared on the Jah Life label in the States.
The follow-up Englishman on Greensleeves established Barrington as the reggae star of the early ’80’s, spawning hit singles with “Sister Carol”, “Look Youthman”, “Eventide Fire A Disaster” and “Mary Long Tongue”. Again Junjo was the producer, and the third album Robin Hood only served to maintain his already rocketing reputation.
In 1983, Levy made a big splash in Great Britain with “Under Mi Sensi”, a tune that spent 12 weeks topping their charts. The tune quickly made its way to the States where it became an instant hit. “Under Mi Sensi” also became the basis for the 1985 dancehall mega-hit “Under Mi Sleng Teng” – primarily credited to Wayne “Jammy” Smith (although Barrington actually created the melody).
Levy’s initial live appearances in England created a sensation, his astonishing self-confidence in his singing talent on stage at venues like the influential “100 Club” in London, enabling him to have audiences in the palm of his hand.
With a plethora of original material and an outstanding, immediately recognizable voice, Barrington simply could not fail, having hit after hit for not only Junjo but also Alvin Ranglin (Life Style), Delroy Wright (Live & Learn Presents Barrington Levy & Beres Hammond) and in 1984 George Phang’s Powerhouse label, who released the Money Move album to critical – and dancehall – acclaim.
Their first release together was “Under Mi Sensi”, a formidable and decidedly heavyweight cut which found Barrington wailing with a power and depth unequalled before or since. Immediately the song became a classic, staying in the reggae charts for weeks on end.
It was closely followed by “Murderer” for Jah Life, and then Barrington and Jah Screw’s “Here I Come” in 1985 which was a national chart-hit through a major label deal with London Records – ultimately leading to his first UK TV appearances, where he sang the pro-ganja anthem “Under Mi Sensi” on Number 73 (a children’s television show!).
After the excitement of a national hit, it was to be nearly two years before Barrington rediscovered his winning touch. When the break did come it was for Black Scorpio in Jamaica with a song called “She’s Mine”, after which he once again joined forces with Jah Screw for a delightful cover of Bob Andy’s Studio One hit “Too Experienced”.
It was a masterful move; not only did it serve to re-establish Barrington on the reggae market but prompted a rash of other versions which dominated the reggae scene in 1991. This success inspired Mango Records to sign him that year, releasing the Divine set to favourable reviews.
“Dancehall Rock”, again with Jah Screw became a notable hit but increasingly Barrington was relying on quality covers and new versions of old hits rather than concentrating on the self-penned material that had made his name. It was a formula repeated on his 1992 set Turning Point, again for Jah Screw and released by Greensleeves.
The voice was as immaculate as ever, and the choice of songs impeccable: “Desperate Lover” and “Unchained” were again Bob Andy compositions; “Warm & Sunny Day” originated from his early days with Junjo Lawes but a standout track was “Something In My Heart”, a duet with Reggie Stepper that made fierce inroads into the reggae charts on single release.
That same year Junjo produced Prison Oval Rock which took the reggae world by storm. Barrington had also shown himself to be a creditable producer in his own right, releasing one track “Deep In The Dark” on his own BL label, but this situation was to prove short-lived.
Help came in the shape of Paul Love, aka Jah Screw, who had been the selector for U-Roy’s King Sturgav sound-system in Jamaica before teaming up first with dee-jay Ranking Joe as a producer, then on his own.
The next chapter of his distinguished career came as a surprise to his many fans, who’d remained convinced that a next national chart hit couldn’t be far away given his talent as both singer and songwriter. After a stunning performance on the 1993 Sunsplash, he signed to MCA and promptly began work on an album with Sly & Robbie in Jamaica.
The first single, “Work” was a revelation; Barrington delivering an uplifting cultural message over an infectious dancehall bogle riddim which seemed a certainty to follow Chaka Demus & Pliers’ “Tease Me” into record charts world-wide. It was not to be; after selling by the cart-load on pre-release the record company were unable to capitalise on the initial interest.
The resulting album Barrington, encompassed many eclectic styles, all beautifully sung but to no avail. Nothing’s Changed and then Vice Versa both suffered a similar fate and for the time being, his chance had gone. Interestingly, Barrington revived his own Lipstic label and had produced artists like Pinchers and Jigsy King.
The next step came from the past, thanks to inspired remixes of “Two Sounds” and “Under Mi Sensi”. First came hardcore ragga remixes from original producer Jah Screw, who invited dee-jay sensation Beenie Man to chant like fury over those revamped heavyweight riddims alongside Barrington’s classic vocal tracks.
Ever mindful of the grassroots audience, Screw got the balance exactly right. Both these tunes were subsequently transformed into jungle anthems. By the summer of 1994 furious drum breaks had been welded to reggae bass lines and jungle music had taken the world by storm, with “Under Mi Sensi” creating a sensation in it’s new guise.
Within a few months – despite his high profile on the underground – Barrington left MCA due to artistic differences. Loyal to his favoured artist as ever, Jah Screw began work on Duets – a whole album of remixes – overdubbing the hottest dee-jays from Jamaica onto further classic vocal tracks.
These included former single “Looking My Love” with Cutty Ranks, the aforementioned “Under Mi Sensi” and “Two Sounds” (with Beenie Man), as well as cuts of “Living Dangerously” (with Bounty Killer), “Struggler” (with Reggie Stepper), “Don’t Run Away” (with Spragga Benz), and a remix of “Here I Come”, now a massive combination featuring Mega Banton.
He came back larger than life with Bounty Killer on the song “Living Dangerously” – undisputedly the biggest reggae song of 1996, both in Jamaica and the United States, and for months held the #1 spot on the dancehall charts worldwide.
In 1998 the album Living Dangerously was released on Breakaway Records, and features tracks with Snoop Doggy Dogg, Bounty Killer, Lady G, Jigsy King, Terror Fabulous, and others. Barrington was lifted to the top of the charts, and continues to stay at the top of play lists on every radio station in Jamaica, and dancehalls throughout the world.
Throughout his professional appearances, Barrington has shared the stage with a veritable who’s-who of the reggae and world music scene: Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown, John Holt, Gregory Isaacs, Freddie McGregor, Maxi Priest, Shaggy, Beenie Man, Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Lady Saw, Lady G, U2, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Shine, CeCile, Tony Rebel, Garnet Silk, Capleton, Sugar Minott, Coco Tea, Spanner Banner, Little Kirk, Sanchez, Papa San, Mutabaruka… just to name a few.
Barrington continues to record and tour extensively throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and remains Jamaica’s #1 headliner. He’s currently working on his latest (soon to be released) album, It’s About Time, featuring Jamaican hip-hop sensation CeCile, on the hit single “Want You To Know”.
Barrington Levy is still “Broader than Broadway”; and still a major force on the dancehall scene !!!