This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
Walls of huge speakers delineate the outdoor dancefloor, the warmth of the air matched by the warmth of the bass: This is a Jamaican soundsystem dance. One of the best things to hear at one of these events is the powerful, smooth sound of Marcia Llyneth Griffiths's voice floating over the rhythms. Hers is a voice that can be trusted, relied on; powerful, experienced and wise, but with such pure tone. It feels like it wraps itself around you, reassuring you that everything will really, truly be all right.
Marcia Griffiths is the undisputed Queen of Reggae. For over half a century, she has soundtracked Jamaica with her tell-tale timbre — in truth, you are more likely to hear Griffiths in Jamaica than Bob Marley — and she's still recording and performing today. From 1960s ska to 1970s reggae to today's dancehall, she has been a central figure in the history of Jamaican music. Outside Jamaica, Griffiths is also well-known for the go-to wedding party hit "Electric Boogie," originally released in 1983 by Bunny Wailer. Griffiths' 1989 remix is one that very few people have not heard — and it remains the top-selling single by any female reggae singer.
Griffiths is also well-known as a member of the I Threes, the all-important backing vocalists for Bob Marley on record and live, which she formed with Rita Marley and Judy Mowatt in 1974 and performed with until 1981. Griffiths, however, was recording solo all the while. And it is Naturally, released in 1978 (reissued as Dreamland), that perhaps showcases her talents most fully. Though the Jamaican music industry has always been more based on singles, Naturally is a ten-song, album-length argument for why Griffiths is such a foundational artist.
The story goes that Griffiths found her calling when the 99-pound teen — she describes her 13-year-old self as "one skinny little toothpick" — took the stage with then-calypso king Byron Lee and his Dragonaires at the Carib Theatre in Kingston, Jamaica on Easter Monday in 1964. Clement "Sir Coxone" Dodd was impressed and invited her to record at the storied Studio One, and this led to Griffiths' first Jamaican No. 1 hit, 1968's "Feel Like Jumping." Legendary singer-songwriter Bob Andy wrote that classic and became one half of Bob and Marcia, whose joyful, string-laden version of "Young, Gifted and Black" reached No. 5 on the UK charts in 1970. The duo, who were successful solo artists already, eventually went their separate ways, but still, from time to time, perform together to this day.
The album kicks off with "Dreamland," written by Bunny Wailer. Griffiths provides a narrative of repatriation, singing of a land "so far across the sea." Given the Rastafari movement's ideas and concepts, the song is potentially representative of a desire for Africa as home. This space, where breakfast comes from trees, waterfalls are plentiful and stars shine in the sky, can be seen as references to the roots and culture lifestyle of Rastafari as well.
"Truly," another standout track on the album — originally produced by Sir Coxone and written by Bob Andy — has one of the most memorable hooks, just declaring love, over and over. The song's instrumental track (referred to as a "riddim" in Jamaica) has been repurposed countless times — memorably by the late Garnet Silk as "Fill Us Up With Your Mercy." The keyboard part riffs on Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" (better known as "Here Comes the Bride") and is the perfect accompaniment for Griffiths' declarations of love: as sincere and firm as Silk's sung prayer to Jah. The focus on love in "Truly" makes it an excellent partner to "Melody Life," another track on Naturally, perhaps one of the best arguments for marriage, thanks to Griffiths' convincing delivery.
Naturally contains tunes that reach back to the beginning of Griffiths' career, too — the Andy-penned "Feel Like Jumping" is here, with its tell-tale ska jump. It's a little slower here than the 1968 original, but all the exuberant energy in the "la la la la laaas" still remains. The feel of the track still exemplifies the music of Jamaica, characterized by the excitement of a country who had recently — on Aug. 1, 1962 — achieved independence. Similarly, Griffiths' variation on The Wailers' song "Lonesome Feeling" moves the track into a less ska and more relaxed reggae setting, communicating the title's sentiment just so. The balance of the short album provides images of resistance, as in "Survival (Is the Game)," and struggle, in another Bob Andy song, "I've Got to Go Back Home," which shows off the upper registers of Griffiths' vocals.
Naturally was produced by Sonia Pottinger, an exemplary producer from the 1970s so-called golden era of reggae, and the production really demonstrates Griffiths' absolutely reassuring control over her voice. "Miss Pottinger, the only female producer, she used to do gospel first. [She] was a woman that we could relate to as another female. And I was very comfortable working with Miss P," said Griffiths in an interview with poet and radio host Mutabaruka in 2014, celebrating her 50 years in the music industry. The record exemplifies this comfort, with Griffiths reaching back to early career highlights and effortlessly moving from spirituality and celebration to love and loss, always with her stunning, reliable alto that expresses just the right amount of emotion — be it plaintive or joyful or somewhere in between. Though reggae is indeed a male-dominated industry, it would not be the genre it is today without Marcia Griffiths, Jamaica's First Lady of Song.
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