Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Priest Revives Cat Masterpiece

Singer Maxi Priest shot to worldwide attention during 1988 with his cover of the classic ‘Wild World’. The song had originally been a hit for the mercurial Cat Stevens in 1971 (US#11), but Priest breathed new life into it with his smooth pop-reggae vocal style, and in the process extended his audience beyond reggae stalwarts to encompass the mainstream pop music arena.

Maxi Priest entered this wild world, or more specifically London, as Max Elliott in 1962 (or 1960 depending on the source). His parents were Pentecostal Jamaicans who emigrated to Britain to start a new life. Young Max was curious about his family heritage, and became a devout Rastafarian at the age of 15. His is the nephew of Jamaican reggae pioneer Jacob Miller (Inner Circle), and in his formative years Max listened to whatever reggae he could get his hands on. He was also open to classic rock/pop from the likes of The Beatles, and even Genesis, but he was a devoted fan of Motown heroes like Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye. Max Elliott had an industrious streak to match his creative one, and at age 14 he built his own home recording studio at his mother’s house, dubbing it Gladiator Sounds. An adept carpenter, he built speaker cabinet boxes, but opted to pursue the music side of that vocation whilst working for a London based company called Saxon International. They manufactured mobile DJ systems popular with both British and Jamaican DJ’s. Maxi soon took to deejaying himself, and before long he was rapping, then singing along with the records being played. He began working with renowned reggae stars like Smiley Culture and Tippa Irie on the ‘Saxon’ circuit. Priest soon found himself at the cutting edge of a new style of self-produced reggae. He and other DJs would mix their own rhythm tracks using instrumental tracks from popular reggae albums, then overdub their own live vocals. During this period Max Elliott took on the moniker Levi, in reference to a Rastafarian priest, but another popular DJ was already going by the name Papa Levi, so in deference to him, Max Elliott opted to call himself Maxi Priest.

The ‘Saxon’ DJs gained quite a reputation, and tapes of their performances regularly made it onto the reggae scenes in both Jamaica and parts of the Americas, so the Maxi Priest name was well known even before his label recording debut. In 1984 Priest co-produced Papa Levi’s single ‘Mi God Mi King’, which became the first U.K. recorded reggae song to hit #1 in Jamaica. Priest was signed to 10 Records label initially (distributed by Virgin), and released his debut album ‘You’re Safe’ in 1985. The album spawned the UK#8 reggae hit ‘Hey Little Girl’, which also sold well in Jamaica, and Priest was hailed as a genuine reggae talent. His sophomore album ‘Intentions’ (1986-UK#96) was criticised as being a little patchy, but did contain some solid tracks in ‘Woman In You’, and Maxi Priest’s first mainstream British hit ‘Strollin’ On’ (#32) - it also gave a hint that Priest wasn’t going to pigeon hole himself as a straight reggae artist, with elements of pop and soul creeping into the recipe. This was illustrated by his cover of the Van Morrison song ‘Crazy Love’, which reached UK#67.

The reggae-pop fusion formula continued on Maxi Priest’s third album, which boasted the surprising title ‘Maxi’. For the production side of things Priest based himself in Jamaica and worked with established reggae producers/session players Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. He enlisted the services of a lot of local Kingston musicians to imbue the material with the unique musical energy of the region. Maxi Priest recalled later on how rewarding the experience had been, and how connected he felt to his Jamaican heritage. ‘Maxi’ gained a wider release in the U.S. and became Priest’s first charting album there (#108), in addition peaking at #59 in Australia and #25 in Britain. The lead out single was a cover of Robert Palmer’s 1982 hit ‘Some Guys Have All The Luck’ which achieved near top ten status in the U.K. (#12). It was followed in early ‘88 by ‘How Can We Ease The Pain’ (UK#41), which was credited to Maxi Priest Ft. Beres Hammond. But it was Maxi Priest’s reggae-R&B cover of the Cat Stevens’ classic ‘Wild World’, that substantially lifted his profile on the mainstream pop scene. Reportedly it was the record labels idea for Priest to record a reggae tinged version of the song, and for once the record label got it right. Priest’s version reached a solid #25 on the U.S. Hot 100, but that was on the heels of it achieving top ten status in both Britain (#5) and Australia (#9) in the second half of ‘88. ‘Goodbye To Love Again’ became the fourth single from ‘Maxi’ to chart (UK#57), raising the bar of expectation considerably for Maxi Priest’s next album.

While the finishing touches were being added to the next Maxi Priest album, a slice of fortune occurred that the singer himself would later cite as being of benefit to his career at that point. Previously Priest’s records were distributed on the main Virgin Records label, making him label mates with Ziggy Marley (see Sep post), but in February 1990 Virgin founder Richard Branson announced the creation of a subsidiary label for U.S. distribution, called Charisma. Charisma’s starting roster included T’Pau (see future post), When In Rome (see previous post) and Maxi Priest. Priest felt that the move would benefit him in the respect that he would no longer have to defer to Marley in terms of label support for marketing/distribution. Whatever the label politics had been, or were now, Priest still had to come up with the goods on his new album ‘Bonafide’, if he were to be regarded as the ‘real deal’. He once again enlisted the services of producer Sly Dunbar, but added Geoffrey Chang and Handel Tucker to the production team. The advance single was ‘Close To You’, a sensuous mid-tempo fusion of pop-soul and reggae. The song debuted on the charts in mid 1990. It soared to #7 in Britain, #2 in Australia and cracked the code to reach the summit of the U.S. Hot 100 for one week during October ‘90. There wasn’t a mainstream FM radio station or music video TV show that didn’t play the song on high rotation for several months. Sales for the ‘Bonafide’ album were consequently boosted (UK#11/OZ#22/US#47), and for Priest it was affirmation of his twenty year dedication to music. But it was far from a straight reggae album, and its strong cross-over appeal proved less beguiling to Priest’s original purist reggae fan base. Regardless it yielded two more minor hits in ‘Peace Throughout The World’ (UK#41/OZ#95) and ‘Just A Little Bit Longer’ (US#62).

In 1991 Maxi Priest, known to his fans as the ‘King of Lover’s Rock’, lent his vocals to a new song by Roberta Flack (‘Killing Me Softly). ‘Set The Night To Music’ debuted on the U.S. charts in September ‘91 and went on to peak at #6 (OZ#59), giving Priest his second U.S. top ten hit, though surprisingly it didn’t chart in Britain. The compilation album, ‘The Best Of Me’ (UK#23/US#189), was released around the same time, and confirmed that over a period of six years, Maxi Priest had assembled a first-rate reggae-pop resume. Yet another creative collaboration saw Priest with another top 40 hit, this time with Shabba Ranks on the song ‘Housecall (Your Body Can’t Lie To Me)’, which made a house call to #37 in the U.S. and #8 in Britain (at it’s second attempt in ‘93). His 1992 album ‘Fe Real’ (UK#60/US#191), was a more modest affair in commercial terms, and spawned three minor hits in ‘Groovin’ In The Midnight’ (US#63/UK#50), ‘One More Chance’ (UK#40) and ‘Just Wanna Know For Real’ (UK#33).

Priest took an extended period to write and produce his next album, which in many respects would represent the high point of his commercial harvest. 1996’s ‘Man With The Fun’ fused elements of reggae, dance, soul, R&B into a clearly formulated popular music melange. The lead out single was ‘That Girl’, which partnered Priest with Jamaican-American reggae rapper Shaggy. The song borrowed a music sample from the classic ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & The MG’s. ‘That Girl’ notched up considerable sales on both sides of the Atlantic (US#20/UK#15), whilst ‘Man With The Fun’ became the #1 selling reggae style (loosely defined) album on the U.S. charts at the time, and yielded a solid follow up single in ‘Watching The World Go By’ (UK#36).

1999 saw Priest return to action with a live album and the new studio effort ‘CombiNation’ (US#5 Top Reggae Chart). The album reflected an artist at ease with marrying various musical styles, from soul to reggae to hip-hop to dancehall to funk, all topped with his typically smooth vocals. Priest was now catering for his core fan base, with chart hits seemingly a thing of the past. Regardless, his more recent albums, ‘2 The Max’ (2005) and ‘Refused’ (2007) have still garnered critical praise on most counts. Though his allegiance to straight reggae has become more that of a casual acquaintance than best friend, Priest has managed to do what few reggae artists have, by successfully crossing over to mainstream pop acclaim, and incorporating a world of musical styles in the process. Most recently Maxi Priest has teamed up with another successful reggae crossover act UB40 on the track ‘Dance Until The Morning Light’.

For more information about Maxi and his music please check out the following website from Maxi fan Ella: http://boterbloempje.pbwiki.com/


ella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ella said...

That is a nice article on Maxi.
I enjoyed reading it.
Maybe you like to take a look at my site. It's about Maxi too.

Do you mind if I place a link to this article?
I have a bio too, but yours has some interesting info.


A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks Ella. I've had a chance to look at your Maxi Priest website, it looks really good. Thanks very much for letting me know about it. I am happy for you to place a link to my own Maxi article. Hope it's ok for me to add a link back to your website also.

Thanks :)
A. FlockOfSeagulls

Ella said...

yes of course that's ok. :)