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Reggae Legends

Black Uhuru

Black Uhuru

By Judson Kilpatrick
Published September 9, 2005

The first reggae act to win a Grammy Award took its name from the Swahili word for freedom.

The first reggae act to win a Grammy Award took its name from the Swahili word for freedom (ergo, “Black Freedom”). The ever-evolving group originally began as a trio founded by Derrick “Duckie” Simpson, Rudolph “Garth” Dennis and Euvin Spencer (a.k.a. Don Carlos). After a couple of singles, including “Time Is On Our Side,” the latter two singers were replaced by Errol Nelson and Michael Rose.

The new lineup recorded the Prince Jammy-produced roots album Love Crisis (later remixed and reissued by Greensleeves as Black Sounds Of Freedom) and delivered a sweet cover of Bob Marley’s “Sun Is Shining” on Channel One’s Hitbound label.

Around this time, Nelson’s spot was taken over by the attractive, American-born Sandra “Puma” Jones, and lightning finally struck. Led by Rose and recording for Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare’s Taxi label, this third lineup won international acclaim with the haunting hits “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” “Abortion,” “Plastic Smile,” “Shine Eye Gal” and “General Penitentiary.” All of these singles were gathered, in extended versions, on 1979’s Showcase, later reissued on CD by Heartbeat under the title Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.

On a roll, the group signed on with the Island-distributed label Mango. Their first Mango album, Sinsemilla, features the driving title track, “Happiness” and “World Is Africa.” Written by Rose and produced by Sly and Robbie, Sinsemilla established their heavy-hitting, militant sound which continued on Red. With the rootsy classics “Youth Of Eglington,” “Utterance,” “Rockstone,” “Sistren” and “Sponji Reggae,” Red is a near-perfect album.

Sly and Robbie brought in keyboardist Wally Badarou and took Black Uhuru in a more electronic, crossover direction with Chill Out and the Grammy-winning Anthem, which marked the end of Michael Rose’s tenure with the band. Anthem was remixed for its U.S. release, but original versions can be found on Liberation: The Island Anthology. Sly and Robbie’s dub versions of tracks from Red and Chill Out can be heard on The Dub Factor.

The band soldiered on, signing up Junior Reid as lead vocalist and switching to the RAS label for Brutal. With the dance hit “Great Train Robbery,” co-produced by Arthur Baker of “Planet Rock” fame, it was clear the Red/Sinsemilla days were over. Every few years, the trio’s membership continued to change, until, after Jones’ death from cancer, the original Spencer/Simpson/Dennis lineup reunited for a string of unremarkable albums. On their most recent release, 2001’s Dynasty, Black Uhuru has been reduced to a duo: Simpson and the far younger Andrew Bees.

Recommended Recordings


Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (Heartbeat)

Sinsemilla (Island)

Red (Island)