The Reggae Beat’s Roger Steffens Reflects on Gregory Isaacs

Written by

Intro from KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel:

Gregory Isaacs was one of reggae’s great love rockers.  His song “Night Nurse” was a worldwide hit.  When I was music director, KCRW had a weekly 4-hour reggae show that showcased his and all of Jamaica and England’s finest—even West and South African reggae. It was one of our most popular shows and Isaacs was a core artist.

The artist gave very, very few interviews in his lifetime, but Roger Steffens, co-host and producer of the popular Sunday program, The Reggae Beat, which ran from 1979 – 1994, flew all the way to Kingston to record an interview for Beat Magazine.  These are Roger’s recollections:

Gregory isaacs_“Gregory Isaacs
probably got more plays on KCRW’s the “Reggae Beat” than any other artist. Hank Holmes, my partner for the first 8 years of the show (and who had the largest private collection of 7” 45 rpm reggae singles in the world), would have plenty of militant tracks available from Gregory’s vast catalog, and I could plumb lovers rock hits like his 1983 smash signature song, “Night Nurse.”

He was a reluctant interview, at best.

When, in late 1992, he flew me down to report a cover story for The Beat magazine (which grew out of the playlist for the Reggae Beat’s KCRW broadcasts), he kept me waiting for days. At last, with an early morning departure ahead of me, he began to speak erratically between late afternoon and 3 a.m. He told of his tribulations, and the vampires that haunt artists like himself, hooking them on drugs and hijacking their earnings.

He spoke of being busted 52 times – bear in mind this was almost 20 years ago – and of the massive “Treats” he gave at the end of each year for the poor children of his neighborhood. He features on over 200 albums, and more than twice as many singles, owned race horses and wrote fairy tales for his children.

An internationally-renowned opera singer hung out in his front room shop boasting of his friendship with the “Cool Ruler.” There, on the second floor of a shabby little shopping center overlooking the Red Hills Mall, two of the Melodians bustled stonedly in the small back room office, improvising harmonies while Gregory made up one song after another.

At one point, well past midnight, stroking a beat up acoustic guitar, he croaked, “Oh, Roger Stephanie, I really enjoy your company, you’re writing my autobiography,” then collapsed in hacking laughter. A bit later he sang, “Some sell guns and some sell coke,” and Brent Dowe (the composer of the righteous Rasta hymn “Rivers of Babylon”) chimed in, “Man have to live!”

Sudden breaks were taken to disappear down a darkened passageway, but I was not invited on these frequent forays. Later it was reported that he had lost all his teeth due to crack cocaine usage. His emetic (yes, emetic is le mot juste here) delivery caused women to faint and men to wish they were there to catch ’em.

Though it may seem trite to say, what is true is that we shall never see his like again.”

Roger Steffens, formerly of KCRW, has amassed the Bob Marley Archives, the biggest archives of Marley memorabilia in the world.