When reggae's most famous tour, Sunsplash, stopped at Seattle's Paramount Theatre in 1991, the full house had come for something more than just a good show—they came for a royal proclamation. The legendary Dennis Brown, Bob Marley's favorite singer, was being crowned the "Prince of Reggae." The quiet and humble Brown seemed embarrassed by the fanfare, which was basically a publicity stunt that occurred in every city on the Sunsplash tour that year. As history stands, however, the title was apt, and is still used today when referencing the illustrious vocalist.
When he died in 1999, Dennis Emanuel Brown had so many albums (between 70 and 100; even he wasn't sure) and spanned so many styles, from roots to lovers rock to dancehall, that it's nigh impossible to summarize his 30-plus-year career. But Dennis—with its tellingly frank title—perhaps comes closest, a superb album of deep, '70s-style roots reggae produced by the underappreciated Niney the Observer. A slew of seasoned session players rounds out the sound, including George "Fully" Fullwood, Tony Chinn, Earl "Chinna" Smith, and Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace. These musicians were a highly respected crew, playing on many of the best reggae albums ever made.
From the first notes of album opener "Africa," Brown's soaring, crystal-clear vocals and mystical lyrics are captivating; the song features the quintessential reggae skank that was dominant during the '70s. The guitar intro on "No More Will I Roam" is often sampled and the song is still being redone today, while "Blood Sun" is a departure, featuring an up-tempo, almost rock-steady beat. The A-side is highlighted by "Tribulation," with the slow tempo and heavy bass line that marks a "ruff tune," or heavy hitter, followed by "Run Too Late," with an extra friendly dubwise intro that rolls into the best chorus on the album.
The B-side starts with two lovers tunes, a cover of John Holt's "Only a Smile" followed by Ken Boothe's "Silver Words." Slow, sensual, and riding a mellow groove, these songs highlight the softer side of Brown's vocals and show why he sold so many lovers rock records in the '80s.
The album ends with a trio of tunes all done in the '70s roots-reggae style of the A-side. "Funny Feeling" is the first track to feature a strong horn presence and a funky keyboard sound—a fun and lighthearted vocal on this one, and a catchy chorus. "Go Now" has that perfect guitar tone that this ear always associates with roots reggae when heard in other forms of music—a perfect skank! "Shame" rounds out the B-side of this great album in an up-tempo fashion, the beat riding a quick tempo, the vocal flowing nice and slow.
Only one among literally countless albums, Dennis is a reggae classic. It's shocking that it's not widely known, but not as shocking as how tragically unknown Brown is himself.