Joe Higgs is a name still uncommon to many reggae fans today despite his vast contributions during a musical career of over three decades. He is described as the “Father of Reggae” by those cognizant and appreciative of his massive input into what is now the world’s most influential music.
And while little-known, his influence has shaped the course of the music, directly touching the genre’s most significant and successful performers. He left fingerprints on nearly every important recording and band that emerged from Jamaica in the 1960s and ’70s.
Born Joseph Benjamin Higgs on June 3, 1940, in Kingston, Jamaica, he became instrumental in the foundation of modern Jamaican music, mostly known for his tremendous work of tutoring younger musicians including reggae big-names like Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Judy Mowatt, Derrick Harriott and Wailing Souls to name a few.
According to an interview with Reggae archivist Roger Steffens, from his earliest days, Higgs wanted to be someone who would accomplish something in life, an urge that made him learn about shoemaking, mixing mortar, carrying stones and cement – common labor work to make some money.
Higgs was the first artist to emerge from the West Kingston slum of Trenchtown. Having begun his career in the late 1950s, his debut single, made with partner Roy Wilson, as the duo Higgs and Wilson, was Oh Manny Oh, which sold over 50,000 copies in Jamaica in the 1960s.
Recalling how the duo came into being, Higgs once said “We used to live on the same street and go down to the rehearsals at Bim and Bam. We got together in a contest when we were each qualified in the first ten solo singers. The promoter had a problem – they were supposed to choose eight for the finals, but they couldn’t decide which two to eliminate. So, he said: ‘Would you guys sing together? Cause I saw you over in the corner singing and you were very good.’ And we went into the duo section and we were second. That’s where we started singing in 1958 as Higgs and Wilson.”
After this single, Higgs was signed under new manager Edward Seaga, who would later become Jamaica’s Prime Minister during the 1980s. Seaga got Higgs booked for shows in Kingston along with other local and foreign stars.
A ghetto-raised youngster who chose the righteous path, Higgs embarked on his solo career after his partnership with Wilson dissolved in 1964 when Wilson emigrated to the United States. A majority of his songs were connected to his impoverished life in Trenchtown where he grew up and those that held messages about faith and resistance.
Being the first artiste out of the ghetto music scene to have lyrics which primarily dealt with everyday troubles, Higgs mentored Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – working tirelessly to support the youngsters who had also come from poverty-stricken households.
Higgs was then a star of Studio One, one of Jamaica’s most renowned record labels and recording studios founded by one Clement “Coxsone” Dodd in 1954. With a string of hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s, he taught the Wailers the “craft and certain voice techniques”.
Quoted in The Rough Guide to Reggae, a book by reggae historian Steve Barrow, Higgs said: “The Wailers weren’t singers until I taught them. It took me years to teach Bob Marley what sound consciousness was about, it took me years to teach the Wailers.”
“Peter came from the country when we were living in Trenchtown. He had some family that were cabinet makers and they used to sell syrup, that’s how I first saw him. He was introduced to me by Bob Marley because they wanted to form a new group. They practiced and became perfect”, Higgs once recalled.
Under the guidance of Higgs, the trio managed to get an audition at Studio One, which they passed and were invited to come back and record. The first song the Wailers ever cut was Simmer Down, which immediately became the number one hit on the Jamaican music charts.
Subsequent to this career take-off, the Wailers immediately became the most successful group in Jamaica.
Marley acknowledged later on that the island’s greatest lyricist had been an influential figure for him, saying “Joe Higgs helped me understand that music. He taught me many things.”
In 1976, Peter Tosh was quoted saying “Joe Higgs was a brother amongst the Wailers for years. He was encouragement, and he inspired us and kept us together.”
It is also a little-known fact that Higgs was the composer of one of Peter Tosh’s biggest songs, Stepping Razor, with which Tosh was nicknamed.
Acknowledging to have grown musically under the tutelage of the great reggae star, Bunny Wailer said “We looked up to Joe Higgs. He was something like a musical guardian for us. He was a more professional singer, because he was workin’ for years wit’ a fella named Roy Wilson as Higgs & Wilson. They had a lotta hits and they had the knowledge of the harmony techniques, so he taught us [The Wailers]. And he ‘elped in the studio, to work out our different parts.”
The highly respected but largely unknown reggae architect, Higgs, dedicated his time to pass on the necessary musical skills – everything from breath control, melody, guitar playing to song-writing lessons.
In 2013, Bunny, now three-time Grammy award winner, said in an interview with Jamaican television personality Emprezz Golding that: “Joe Higgs was, for the period of time, our tutor. And he took out time from his career as Higgs and Wilson to pass on whatever knowledge he has to us.”
Although his most famous protégés were The Wailers, Higgs also mentored other musicians, among them The Wailing Souls (originally The Renegades) in the 1960s. Referred to as the ‘The Maestro’ by the group, he educated them, not only musically, but also in the ways of the music business, and later joined the group for a brief period in the mid-seventies. The group has been nominated for Grammy Awards three times.
In the mid-1970s, Higgs was recruited and became the bandleader for Jimmy Cliff, who among other giants describes him as the “Father of Reggae”. The band toured internationally and Higgs wrote songs for Cliff, including the 1976 Dear Mother.
On working with Cliff, Higgs recalled that: “…It was said all over the place that he[Jimmy Cliff] had lost his roots and he wanted to get back into that mode so he came and he got in touch with me in Trenchtown and he asked me to put his band together and he need substance, roots, apparently he thought I would be the most proficient person so I felt gladly. Did all of that for him. I led the band and we started touring.”
In honor of Higgs, the now two-time Grammy winner, Cliff, would later rewrite World Upside Down—whose original melody and title was by Higgs “because he was one of the foundations of reggae music.”
In 1973, Higgs toured the USA playing with Bob Marley & The Wailers when Bunny refused to travel. The group then began to introduce reggae music to a new audience.
Although hailed for his tremendous job, Higgs said his music lessons were nothing special. But music history strongly suggests otherwise.
His own humble words about being responsible for setting the foundation of Jamaican music were: “I’ve always enjoyed sharing my music with others… that’s what music is for… to share with all the people… not to keep for just yourself. It is said one can learn by teaching, and I do believe that is very true! I didn’t teach Bob and Peter and Bunny all those other people anything they couldn’t have found out on their own… I just helped them find them out earlier!”
Higgs relocated to Los Angeles, where he lived for the rest of his life after his 1983 single So It Go. With lyrics critical of the Jamaican government of the day, it was banned from airplay and led to harassment.
Now more than two decades after he succumbed to cancer on December 18, 1999, his generosity is still memorable to many whose lives he impacted.
Sharing his memories of his time with great Higgs, Jamaican double Grammy-winning producer Native Wayne Jobson was quoted in Reggae Festival Guide magazine as saying: “What can I say about a true musical giant and unsung hero, except that I was blessed to have known and learned from him… Hanging and playing with him in Trenchtown was a true musical mecca for me. His voice was magical, and like a roaring lion could be heard a quarter of a mile away!”
Despite Higgs’s name and story remaining known only to die-hard reggae lovers, his indelible fingerprints on the music will forever remain fresh.