"Reggae music," singer Marcia Griffiths told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "is the heartbeat of the people." In some respects, though, the modern national popular music of Jamaica has represented only half of its adherents, for it has been a largely male-dominated art. Among the few female stars to enjoy a lasting career in the genre, Griffiths has succeeded as a pop crossover artist in the United Kingdom and to some extent in the United States. She also remains well-known as a member of reggae pioneer Bob Marley's backup vocal group the I-Threes, a testimony to her deep roots in the reggae genre.
Griffiths was born Marcia Llyneth Griffiths in the Jamaican capital of Kingston on November 23, 1949. Her music career began early—Griffiths herself was quoted as saying in Reggae Roots that she was "a young girl going on sixteen" at her first professional performance in 1964. That performance took place at a neighborhood party on the day after Easter of that year; a local promoter was impressed by Griffiths's singing and urged her to make an appearance on stage along with the evening's featured entertainment, a band called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires. Well-schooled in American soul music, Griffiths obliged with "No Time to Lose," a song by Memphis soul stalwart Carla Thomas.
Brought the House Down
"I was very positive," Griffiths was quoted as saying in Reggae Roots. "Rather than being afraid or nervous, I wanted to show everyone what I could do." Her confidence was contagious; she recalled that "the house came down that morning," and soon several leading producers in the genre not yet named reggae ("rocksteady" was a genre name in common use) competed to sign her to a contract. She felt comfortable with the creative atmosphere that surrounded producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd; a friend since childhood of the Dodd-affiliated artist Bunny Wailer, she became involved with Dodd's Studio One organization.
It was the best move she could have made, because Studio One in the 1960s was a microcosm of the music that would rise to international popularity in the following years. The teenage Griffiths made the acquaintance of Bob Marley, his vocalist wife Rita, Peter Tosh, and other reggae stars-to-be. All the Studio One artists waxed large amounts of material; Griffiths was in the studio nearly every day, recording, working with other artists, and mastering new aspects of vocal artistry. "Studio One was the college" of reggae, Griffiths told Reggae Roots.
Griffiths's own career was not neglected, and in 1968 she had her first number-one hit in Jamaica with "Feel Like Jumping," a song with a heavy, complex beat that is still heard sometimes in nightclubs oriented toward Jamaican music. Griffiths was often teamed with the vocalist and songwriter Bob Andy, and the two, recording as Bob and Marcia, had several Jamaican hits. They broke through to another level in 1970 with a cover of "Young, Gifted, and Black," by the U.S. jazz singer Nina Simone; the version by Griffiths and Andy rose to number five on the British pop charts.
Griffiths made no money off her new success, for she had signed away the rights to most of the material she had recorded. "We were not much experienced about the business, you know, and they just rip us off, in plain words," she recalled in an interview with Japan's Daily Yomiuri. But she did travel in top reggae circles, and in 1973, Griffiths enlisted Rita Marley and another rising star, Judy Mowatt, to take vocals on a trio arrangement she wanted to feature in one of her concerts. The three women decided to form an ongoing group, and soon an opportunity for them to showcase their talents presented itself.
Bob Marley's star was rapidly ascending as reggae music, with its mix of spirituality and resistance to established authority, gained adherents with young people in Western countries and with oppressed people around the world. Peter Tosh and Bunny "Wailer" Livingston, original members of Marley's backup group the Wailers, had recently left the group, and Marley tapped the trio of female vocalists, by then called the I-Threes, to replace them in 1975. Marley, Griffiths told the Daily Yomiuri, "would not allow anyone to abuse him, or take advantage of him, but he was really just a soft, sweet, gentle person. Very humble." Griffiths toured the globe with Marley and the I-Threes, and often had cause to be impressed with Marley's dedication to his ideals. At one concert in the African nation of Zimbabwe during its transition to black majority rule, a menacing police presence caused the I-Threes to flee the stage. Marley, however, carried on with the performance. Griffiths stayed with Marley until his death from cancer in 1981, but did not abandon her solo career. She recorded for the High Note label and scored two strong successes in the late 1970s under the direction of the congenial female producer Sonia Pottinger. Griffiths's Naturally album was described by Rick Anderson of the All Music Guide as "a guided nostalgia tour of her time at Studio One in the early days of reggae."
"Electric Boogie" Became a Hit
Naturally and its equally well-regarded successor Step-pin' were released in the United States by the roots-oriented Shanachie label and remain in print. After Marley's death Griffiths resumed her solo career in earnest, often recording in an American-influenced style. Griffiths typically did not sing in the thick (and, to outsiders, cryptic) Jamaican dialect heard on the recordings of Marley and other top male stars, but in an American-accented English familiar to Jamaicans through the ongoing popularity of African-American music there. Griffiths joined Bunny Wailer for "Electric Boogie," a 1989 dance number that became an international hit and Griffiths's biggest worldwide success. The song spawned a dance called the Electric Slide that took on an independent existence, appearing even in the distant-from-reggae genre of country music.
For the Record . . .
Born Marcia Llyneth Griffths on November 23, 1949, in Kingston, Jamaica; daughter of Joseph and Beatrice Griffiths.
Began singing professionally at age 15; recorded for Studio One, 1960s; scored number-one Jamaican hit with "Feel Like Jumping," 1968; recorded with Bob Andy as Bob & Marcia and entered pop top five in U.K. with "Young, Gifted and Black," 1970; with Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley formed the I-Threes as backing group to Bob Marley, 1975; two U.S. releases on Shanachie label, 1978-79; recorded international hit "Electric Boogie" with Bunny Wailer, 1989; toured extensively in U.S. and internationally, 1990s; recorded Truly, 1999; appeared on album Reggae for Kids: Movie Classics, 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Heartbeat Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Website— Marcia Griffiths Official Website: http://www.marciagriffiths.com.
Through the 1990s and beyond, Griffiths was a fixture of the touring Reggae Sunsplash festival and other reggae events. Dubbed the Queen of Reggae, she was rivaled only by her two former I-Threes groupmates for the title of reggae's biggest female star. Griffiths continued to record, reuniting with Coxsone Dodd for the 1999 album Truly, which again drew on the material she had recorded early in her career. Griffiths moved to the VP record label that year and released Certified, a romantic collection well attuned to modern Jamaican trends. The new millenium found Griffiths covering tunes from the films of Disney Studios on the album Reggae for Kids: Movie Classics, and gradually assuming the status of a classic herself. She performed with the likes of contemporary stars Boyz II Men, Sean Paul, and Ziggy Marley, among others, gaining exposure to a whole new generation of fans. Griffith wrote of her continuing desire to create music on her official website: "[I]t's not only for the money, but the satisfaction I get from doing the work that I love, that is what really keeps me going everyday."
Naturally, Shanachie, 1978.
Steppin', Shanachie, 1979.
Marcia, RAS, 1988.
Carousel, Mango, 1990.
Indomitable, Penthouse, 1993.
Put a Little Love in Your Heart: The Best of Marcia Griffiths, Trojan, 1995.
Truly, Heartbeat, 1999.
Certified, VP, 1999.
Chang, Kevin O'Brien, and Wayne Chen, Reggae Roots: The Story of Jamaican Music, Temple University Press, 1998.
Daily Yomiuri (Japan), May 21, 1994, p. 15.
Jamaica Observer, November 30, 2003.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), July 5, 1993, p. C7.
Publishers Weekly, April 9, 2001, p. 29.
"Marcia Griffiths," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 17, 2003).
Marcia Griffiths Official Website, http://www.marciagriffiths.com (December 17, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
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