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Reggae singer Gregory Isaacs dies at 59

Gregory Isaacs, the reggae singer whose smooth vocals pioneered the genre's "lovers rock" style, died of lung cancer Monday (10/25) at his home in London. He was 59.

Gregory Isaacs, the reggae singer whose smooth vocals pioneered the genre's "lovers rock" style, died of lung cancer Monday (10/25) at his home in London. He was 59.

Isaacs came to prominence in the 1970s for his magnetic stage persona, and in the 1980s had international successes, such as 1982's "Night Nurse." He was dubbed the "Cool Ruler," a title that Virgin Records used for his breakthrough 1978 release.

Born in 1951 in the Fletcher's Land section of Kingston, Jamaica, he grew up in an impoverished home and eventually tried singing at talent shows as a way out of the ghettos. After a failed attempt at a self-released single in the late '60s, he went on to form the African Museum label and record store with Errol Dunkley in 1970. He had a minor hit with "My Only Lover."

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Gregory Isaacs

In 1973, Isaacs started to garner local attention with the single "All I Have is Love," which was followed a year later by the even bigger hit "Love is Overdue." His prodigious output can be heard on the Heartbeat label's compilations "My Number One," "Love is Overdue" and the two volumes of "The Best of."

While making a name for himself as a Jamaican version of Marvin Gaye, he turned his attention to the social injustices in his country, growing dreadlocks as a sign of commitment to Rastafari and writing about social issues. He combined the social consciousness of reggae's biggest star, Bob Marley, and added a love-song element delivered in a more sensual, less strident manner.

After issuing "Mr. Isaacs," his first album recorded as a whole rather a collection of singles, he signed with Virgin, which led to the release of "Cool Ruler" and then "Soon Forward," his first significant international hit. He also appeared in the 1978 reggae film "Rockers," making a cameo appearance and performing his song "Slave Master." At the same time, Isaacs was moving forward with the rising dancehall movement with DJs/toasters.

On the heels of "Night Nurse" establishing Isaacs as a rising star, the singer served a six-month prison sentence in Jamaica for unlicensed gun possession. Immediately after his release, he recorded "Out Deh," a collection of songs he wrote while jailed in Jamaica's notorious General Penitentiary.

As dancehall music gained in popularity in Jamaica, Isaacs was one of the few established stars making the transition. His did duets with rising stars such as Sugar Minott, recorded for King Tubby and created a song -- with the track "Rumours" -- that would give birth to a string of knock-offs by other performers.

His output in the 1990s never slowed -- anywhere from four to six albums under his name would be released each year throughout the decade -- but the quality was never as high as his earlier work. His extreme output, it was often believed, was connected to his cocaine and crack habit that had developed in the years after "Night Nurse." Drug problems had led to legal and health hurdles as well; at one point he was losing his teeth and his ability to perform was severely restricted. He indicated that he had cleaned up his act with the 2005 album "Substance Free."

His last full album,"'Brand New Me," was released in 2008.


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