Earl Lowe was born in Witfield Town, Kingston, Jamaica at the start of the 1950s, the youngest in a family of nine children. His father ran a truck driving business with stone crushing as a side line! As a boy Earl would go fishing with his friend Leroy Sibbles, a friendship that would continue as Earl and Leroy would lick chalice and make many moves together. He first became interested in music after listening to his elder brother Campbell who would make up songs. Whilst studying building engineering at St. Andrew Technical College Earl began writing songs himself and then visiting recording studios.
Like most aspiring singers of the time Earl ended up at the door of Studio One. He was thirteen years old when after school one day he followed two friends to the studio to meet with the late Jackie Mittoo. Jackie asked Earl to come back the next day and voice a tune over a rhythm. The youth returned with a song he had learnt from his brother who, when watering the family garden, had made up the lyrics of “Cool It”. The cut was released in 1965 on Studio 1. Then Earl went on to strike lucky with Prince Buster, who rechristened the youth as Little Roy, and together they produced the first Little Roy 45s.
In the late sixties one of the hottest labels in Kingston was the property of Lloyd “The Matador” Daley, a sound technician who ran his Radio & TV business out of 43 Waltham Park Road. It was for Matador in 1969 that Little Roy cut the rasta song “Bongo Nyah”, a number 1 in Jamaica and the label’s biggest selling 45. From the beginning Little Roy had disciplined his lyrics into a cultural framework from which he was not willing to break, as a youth he had come under the influence of Rasta doctrine and felt unable to compromise his living belief by singing tunes for the dollar. It is probably mainly due to this fact that Little Roy, although singing for over thirty years, has been criminally under-recorded for an artist of his writing and singing talent.
In 1974 the crossroads of business and culture led Little Roy to the creation of the Tafari Syndicate, with the assistance of Lloyd Barnes and Munchie Jackson. Through the 70s the Twelve Tribes of Israel organisation played a great part in the life of Little Roy in confirming his devotion to Rastafarianism and determining his way of life. He was involved in shows with Fred Locks, Israel Vibration and Judy Mowatt, eventually stepping out of the scene in around 1979 as both Dennis Brown and Freddie McGregor came on board.
With the end of the seventies came the release of two Little Roy discomixes for Herman Chin-Loy on the Brooklyn based Selection Exclusive imprint, both on old Studio One rhythms but in an emerging dancehall style. Although a worthy outing the set did not match the consistent quality of the artist’s previous output.
Roy continued to record into the early ’80s. While “Long Time Rock Steady” and “Skanking on the Banking,” a pair of late-’70s 12”s cut for Herman Chin-Loy, found him adopting dancehall techniques, he returned to roots flavors with 1981’s Columbus Ship (recorded at Channel One and mixed by Scientist). Laying low for the remainder of the decade, the singer returned with Prophesy in 1989, a collection of his ’70s material in old and new guises. Roy was vaunted into the spotlight once again when Victory Dance, a one-rhythm album based around “Prophesy,” was compiled at the start of the ’90s. Following the release of Live On (1990) and a European tour with Gregory Isaacs, Pressure Sounds owner Adrian Sherwood brought Little Roy into a London studio for the recording of Longtime, ensuring that the singer’s vision would live on into the 21st century.
Nirvana + Reggae = Battle For Seattle
In May 2011 Little Roy hit the studio to reinterpret ten Nirvana tracks that were largely foreign to him, and the result was the best Reggae covers album of the century. A collaboration with Prince Fatty and the Mutant Hi-Fi was released to critical acclaim on September 2011 on Ark Recordings.
Little Roy embraced the genius and the humanity of Kurt’s songwriting. He truly visits everything from Kurt’s perspective and it gives the old lyrics and melodies wonderful new life. It’s quite clear that each song was approached from a place of love and respect,
With a heavyweight figure like Little Roy on the team, ‘Battle For Seattle’ was never going to be anything other than totally authentic. However, the album has prompted joy and admiration from everyone that’s heard it, on both sides of the musical fence – reggae, and rock. “We had the best intentions at heart,”says Prince Fatty.”We had to think about it from both sides. We wanted to be respectful to Nirvana, and Little Roy. He’s the real deal. We couldn’t just rip into this.”
Recorded old-fashioned style, using tape and vintage analog equipment. Prince Fatty’s band included Horseman, Mafia, from Mafia & Fluxy, Bubblers (from the Ruff Cut band), erstwhile Wailers guitarist, Junior Marvin and George Dekker of The Pioneers.
Little Roy admits it was a struggle getting to grips with the songs.”When I listened to the lyrics as he sung them, I found it hard to pick up on what he was saying. The lyrics came too quickly for my ears and were buried in the music. It sounded to me like he was crying out. You have to listen deep to get it. The melody was always there, though, so I knew this was a chance for me to bring them up so people could really hear what Kurt was saying. People could enjoy the words of these great songs through me singing them in my reggae style – reggae fans like me who didn’t know about Nirvana would love the songs, and Nirvana fans could enjoy the music all over again.” He laughs. “Music is not a one-road thing, you know.”
For this reason, perhaps, ‘Battle For Seattle’ has had the thumbs-up from the original Nirvana camp and from many of their friends, including the bands original agent Russell Warby who is releasing it on his own label Ark Recordings. Also, photographer Charles Peterson, the man responsible for Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ album cover shot, who helped define the look of Sub-Pop and Seattle internationally, provided the front image for this release. As for Little Roy, does he feel that ‘Battle For Seattle’ matches up to the giants of reggae?”Yes, there is a parallel,”he says.”You know, Bob Marley – he’s great – he would say, ‘One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain’. So it’s just the same thing – when these Nirvana songs hit you, you’ll feel the music, and no pain.”