U-Roy – born Euwart Beckford – had been testing his DJ skills since the early sixties. His initial inspiration was Count Macuki who, as early as the late 1950s, had played with the sound systems of Tom Wong and Clement Dodds. U-Roy passed through installations at Wong, Sir George The Atomic and Dodds before coming to King Tubby’s Home Town Hi-Fi.
At this point the DJing was live and performed to beats played from records. Around 11 singles emerged on various labels in 1969 and 1970 (some credited to Hugh Roy), but the King Tubby connection led to Duke Reid and his Treasure Isle label and studio. The first three singles from U-Roy’s Treasure Isle became the ones, the hits that set him up for life (there were still Hugh Roy credits). “Wake the Town”, “This Station Rule the Nation” and “Wear You to the Ball” created U-Roy. Version galore was quickly completed and in stores in 1971.
Each hit took over an existing backing track – or even a finished recording. U-Roy added his DJing on top of what had already been recorded. It was the “version”. “Wake The Town” reused the beat from Alton Ellis’ 1967 single “Girl I’ve Got a Date.” “This Station Rule the Nation” revisited The Techniques’ “Love is Not a Gamble” and “Wear You to the Ball” used the single of the same name from The Paragons.
While it was his skill with words, his personality, and his vocal power, U-Roy’s success was also based on revisiting the familiar. By doing what he did with Duke Reid, U-Roy was creating unique hybrid music that now sounds even more striking than it must have sounded back then. The foundations of his successes were in the rock era, but U-Roy and his persona were perfectly suited to reggae and, of course, he soon became an integral part of Jamaica’s roots consciousness. His early DJ records looked backwards and forwards simultaneously. He wasn’t the first successful DJ, but as his career progressed, he was followed by others. Indeed, a poorly printed edition of Version galore credited him as I-Roy so naturally a DJ called I-Roy emerged.
Version galore reappeared as a bonus-packed double CD collecting everything from the 1970 to 1971 association with Duke Reid and Treasure Isle. As U-Roy hopped from label to label after 1971, Reid continued to release material. In 1974, the U.Roy album released on the British label Attack. It included recordings from Treasure Isle. (left photo, the original Version galore album; in the photo below on the right, the erroneous “I-Roy” version of the album)
Unsurprisingly, the discography is tangled. In the UK, U-Roy’s Reid-era records appeared on Attack, Duke, Harry, Trojan, a version of Treasure Isle, and an imprint named Duke Reid. In Jamaica, the Treasure Isle catalog was supplemented with singles on Barons and Duke Reid.
Understanding all of this is nearly impossible, and those interested should be grateful to the collectors and music historians who have shaped the confusion. The 42 tracks assembled here must be as complete a picture as ever of the U-Roy and Duke Reid pairing.
What’s here is fantastic. Take the original Version galore the opening track of the album “Your Ace From Space”. The accompaniment is, as the liner notes to the booklet make clear, “the rhythm of a then-unreleased solo track by Delroy Denton of the Silvertones, ‘Broken Hearted Melody'”, and the title borrows the DJ’s catchphrase from the American radio Jocko. What is created is about U-Roy’s exhortation rather than what is reused. Next, “On the Beach” co-opts most of The Paragons tracks of the same name. U-Roy inserted his voice between, sometimes above, pre-existing vocal lines. It shouldn’t work, but it does. On “Version Galore”, he declaims The Melodians who, thanks to studio work, have gained an unexpected new member. It is impossible to know the contemporary reactions to these acts of musical comedy diversion – although sales levels confirm that music fans loved it – but it still sounds extraordinary. What did the Silvertones think of U-Roy’s inclusion in their 1966 single “True Confession”?
Other questions arise as this double CD unfolds. “Nehru” by Winston Wright featuring Tommy McCook & The Supersonics” is an instrumental without U-Roy, as is “The Ball” by Earl ‘Wire’ Lindo featuring Tommy McCook & The Supersonics and “Super Boss” by The Tommy McCook All Stars. Even though the tracks were used for U-Roy’s recordings, it doesn’t appear, so should those tracks be here? No explanation given. Also, the 1974 Kingdom-only album -United U.Roy was originally a collection of single tracks that had new percussive tracks layered over them to make them sound contemporary, more reggae-ish. What is here under the U.Roy the album’s header – for all but two of its cuts – are the pre-overdubbed single releases. Since this is not consistent with the 1974 album, would it have made more sense to complete the 1971 album Version galore album only with unique sides rather than also including a (mostly) reconfigured post-made version of U.Roy? The latest double CD version of Version galore was released in 2002 and curiously, despite its different tracklist, this new version confusingly uses the cover image of the 2002 package rather than the original album.
Nothing ever comes easily out of Jamaican music from the first half of the 70s. So it stays. What also remains are those amazing and incomparable recordings. Get this – it’s awesome, and it’s a fitting celebration of U-Roy’s memory.