A contributor to People magazine described Maxi Priest as “A polished pop singer flirting with a Jamaican accent.” Rolling Stone considered him the “Luther Vandross of reggae.” On the music scene since 1985, Priest has been a difficult artist for critics and fans to describe. Perhaps it is his constant collaborating with an eclectic group of musicians, who have ranged from Roberta Flackto Jamaican heavyweight Shabba Ranks. It may be the music itself, which accomplishes a crossover of reggae and mainstream pop, with rare success. It could be the variety of artists he’s covered in his recordings; Van Morrison, the Police, and Cat Stevens are but a few. The ambiguity may, however, begins with the musician himself. Though his birthplace is in Europe, he found major success in America. All this by making West Indies-flavored music.
Priest was born Max Elliott in the London borough of Lewisham. One of ten children, he wasn’t always involved in music. In fact, it was his work as a carpenter that led him to his musical destiny. In the early eighties, he was hired on to build speaker boxes for a local reggae sound system, Saxon. This association led to Priest occasionally taking over the microphone during live dancehall sessions. His musical future was confirmed in 1984, when he and Paul “Barry Boom” Robinson produced “Mi God Mi King.” Sung by Philip Levi, the track was groundbreaking in that it was the first UK reggae song to hit number one in Jamaica. Encouraged by this success, Priest went on to form a band of his own, Caution.
It was with the backing of this band that Priest’s recording career began. In 1985 he again collaborated with Robinson, who helped produce Priest’s first album You’re Safe. Produced on the Virgin subsidiary label, Ten, the traditional reggae album yielded three popular singles. The next year, Priest followed up with an album called Intentions, which was a more commercially appealing set of songs. With this album, Maxi finally broke through on the UK charts, as his cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” made an appearance there.
But international fame would come the following year, when Priest released his self-titled album. Reggae fans were enamored with the socially aware and reggae-spun tracks like “Marcus” and “How Can We Ease the Pain.” But he also drew a mainstream audience with covers of “Some Guys Have All the Luck” and the Cat Stevens’ classic “Wild World.” Though Priest was allegedly reluctant to record the latter song, it ended up being the one track on the album to bring him the most attention.
But no song more identifies Priest than his 1990 chart-topping hit, “Close to You” off his album, Bonafide. With help from superstar band, Soul II Soul, this album became one of Priest’s best-selling. He followed up with a 1991 release of “Best of Me,” which was a collection of his bigger hits. This, too, found popularity with a wide variety of audiences.
Not so with Fe Real, a comparative failure for this artist who was now accustomed to big success. Marked by an R&B smoothness, the album was among his worst-selling. Priest himself acknowledges the lack of sales and offered an explanation to Billboard, “With Fe Real, [there was] too much dictation around me, people telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. It came out a bit too polished.”
This frustration at his lack of creative control may be what led Priest to start his own label in 1993, called Dugout Records. By converting the basement of his Lewisham home into a preproduction studio, Priest provided a place where local artists could record and get exposure. Musicians from the soul music scene, as well as unknown reggae, rap and jungle genres got their start in this studio.
Continuing his successful career with Ten/Virgin Records, Priest released Man with the Fun in 1996. Again, he was back on top. Billboard said that in “That Girl,” one of the album’s hit singles, Priest “has rarely sounded so relaxed and sexy.” They would later praise the rest of the album as being fueled by “spiritual raptness.” Ebony magazine had this to say about Man
Born Max Elliot, in Lewisham, England.
Began as carpenter in Lewisham in early 1980s; sang in live dancehall sessions with Saxon sound system; co-produced landmark reggae tune “Mi God Mi King” with Paul “Barry Boom” Robinson in 1984; formed own band, Caution, in 1985; released You’re Safe on Ten/Virgin Records, 1985; released Intentions on Virgin Records, 1986; released Maxi Priest on Virgin Records, 1987; released Bonafide on Virgin Records, 1990; single “Close to You” tops U.S. Billboard pop chart; released Best of Me on Virgin Records, 1991; released Fe Real on Virgin Records, 1992; released Man with the Fun on Virgin Records, 1996; contributed to Jungle 2 Jungle soundtrack on Walt Disney label, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 338 North Foothill Road, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.
with the Fun: “[The album] is a good blend of slow jams and uptempo songs, and all are infused with Maxi Priest’s infectious, breezy rhythm.”
Clearly, Priest was doing something right. Perhaps even more than his artistic accomplishments, Priest has gained credit for bringing the underground sound of reggae to a mainstream audience. Sadi, host of Reggae Dancehall Show on a San Francisco radio station, told Billboard why he loved Man with the Fun, “This is explosive. It’s the best thing for crossover radio across the country right now … now is the time for him to become the Jamaican crossover in America.”
Priest did just that, and it grabbed him a spot on the 1997 soundtrack to the comedy film Jungle 2 Jungle. On this compilation, he performed “It Starts in the Heart,” which
prompted Billboard to note that the recording showed how “Priest’s voice seems to get more soulful with each recording … the song becomes an anthem suitable for airplay on AC (Adult Contemporary) and Top 40 radio.”
Yet it is “the Man” himself, and not just his music, that gains much attention-particularly from female fans. Capitalizing on the singer’s sex appeal and polished performances, Priest makes sure that his impressive collection of female fans are never disappointed when they buy a Maxi Priest album. Perhaps he’s taken his cue from another famous singer who was known to be popular among the ladies. Priest, in citing his influences to Billboard, speaks of gospel in his childhood home, reggae, ska and perhaps most telling: “We played a lot of Elvis Presley.”
You’re Safe, Ten/Virgin Records, 1985.
Intentions, Virgin Records, 1986.
Maxi Priest, Virgin Records, 1987.
Bonafide, Virgin Records, 1990.
Best of Me, Virgin Records, 1991
Fe Real, Virgin Records, 1992.
Man with the Fun, Virgin Records, 1996.
Jungle 2 Jungle (soundtrack), Walt Disney, 1997.
Billboard, June 24, 1989; November 7, 1992; June 1, 1996; June 22, 1996; October 19, 1996; March 1, 1997.
Ebony, February 1991; October 1996.
People, July 22, 1996.
Rolling Stone, February 23, 1989.
Additional information was supplied by Virgin Records.