Another piece of original content. This piece was published in Riddim issue 62 in July in shorter form.
“I’m literally downloading it right now!” laughs the rich voice of Gramps Morgan down the phone when Riddim asks him if he’s seen the Marley film. “On iTunes” he hastens to add, to negate any implication of illegality. Where some reggae artists are sceptical of the deal Apple gives to labels, Gramps, burly keyboardist and singer in million-selling, soon to be reunited, harmony group Morgan Heritage, is a big believer in iTunes. “It’s so our Caribbean community can share our purchasing power. I see artists sell out venues and only sell 200 records because our audience is buying burnt CDs in front of the patty shop! This project is about telling our community to set up iTunes accounts so people can see reggae music is being sold”.
The project is Gramps’ second solo longplayer Reggae Music Lives, released like 2009’s predecessor Two Sides Of My Heart Volume 1 through his own Dada Son production house. Gramps has been working hard to promote the album, playing dates in New Orleans, Utah, St Maarten and Anguilla, as well as putting some face time in at the Morgan family base of New York where his weekly Gramps Morgan Radio Show has been syndicated to Link Up 93.5FM. “It’s not an easy task,” he says of pushing out and distributing his work alone “I have total respect for people like Jetstar, VP, Shanachie who have been doing it for years. It has reached a point where it is so hard for reggae music to be stocked on shelves. But I wanted to preserve my music so it can stay in its pure form. The original recipe of reggae music.”
The title for this recipe book was inspired by the words of Bob himself. “He said reggae music will continue to grow until it reaches its rightful people. Today reggae music is no longer just coming out of Jamaica, you have reggae music from all over the world. A lot of people interpret [that] reggae has died and dancehall is the new reggae music, which is not so, it’s just that reggae had a baby and it’s called dancehall. The original recipe of reggae is still being made”.
The path back to the foundation, spurred on by 50 years of Jamaican independence, is not one Gramps is travelling alone. Shane Brown, son of Tuff Gong engineer Errol, and producer of Morgan Heritage’s the Return, their first single since they went on hiatus in 2008, has dropped a reggae opus with Busy Signal. Stephen Marley travelled back to his father’s era in 2011 with the opener of a double release Revelations The Root Of Life. But in many ways Gramps was ahead of the game: announcing his dual Two Sides of My Heart venture two years earlier, with a reggae-based part one and a more eclectic followup slated to include a collaboration with country legend Kenny Rogers. That’s currently on hold (“Kenny’s celebrating his 50th anniversary”) yet the concept – “An R&B album mixed with the essence of country music” has not been discarded. Gramps has long been a modern champion of country – popular in Jamaica since the 1950s when the two radio stations RJR and JBC’s US remit included Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins. “People say “Gramps, why are you going to do a country album?” Country has influenced reggae so much and people don’t realize it”.
In the meantime, Gramps was able to content himself with a spot on VP Records vice president of marketing, Cristy Barber’s Reggae’s Gone Country compilation in 2011. In the studio for the project he met a long-time hero, the great arranger, producer and survivor Clive Hunt, who ended up producing three songs including title track of Gramps record. Reggae Music Lives’ blazing horns recall Hunt’s days with the Abyssinians but Gramps insisted on country style pedal steel guitars from Blue Miller who plays with US R&B songstress (and guest on both solo albums) India Aire. The album maintains the roots reggae meets country, gospel, soul and pop of 2 Sides (as you might expect from a keyboard player, Gramps’ work has tended to eschew the rock guitar-driven side of his music with his siblings) however the production, co-helmed by Gramps, is much tighter and more unified this time around. Gramps also steps out from pure singing to inform us in classic rockstone dancehall tones that he Coulda DJ (“Admiral Bailey and Shabba Ranks were both my favourite deejays and I used to mimic them all the time”) likening himself to Shaggy. Recently Gramps has been following in Shaggy’s footsteps as a musician-philanthropist. He’s supported his incarcerated friend Buju Banton, and travelled to Africa in 2010 and 11 with his charity GMOM (Gramps Music Orchestrating Miracles) “because children in Africa are so burdened with survival and not getting a chance to have fun”.
However, the most media attention Gramps-the-humanitarian has received lately has stemmed from his giving earnings from his album’s second single Life’s Too Short to the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17 year old Florida resident who was gunned down by an overzealous vigilante, George Zimmerman on February 26th. Gramps saw the tragedy unfold on the news and asked his manager to get in touch with the Martin family, “To tell them I’d like to give them a helping hand and some of the proceeds of the song I’d like to dedicate to whatever foundation they have set up and they accepted”. Their lawyer visited Gramps’ tour bus to hear the track (along with 2009’s moving Wash The Tears – which Gramps wrote to cope with the passing of his mother) which is now on the official Trayvon Martin website. Again Gramps invokes reggae’s past as justification: “The voice of reggae has always been there to speak about injustice throughout the years. If you remember one of the biggest ones was the incarceration of Nelson Mandela for our genre of music. No other country spoke up for Nelson Mandela like ours”. Yet he is surprisingly even-handed in his appraisal of the situation. “I feel sorry for both families because of course the Zimmerman family are human beings too. Zimmerman is facing life in prison and so there’s also sadness on both sides. I just pray justice will be served and that it will be put to the court and they will judge with a just decision”.
Gramps’ respect for authority stems from his singer father Denroy, who has continued guiding the Morgans in their separation and their reunion: “Part of his vision to see the different dimensions of Morgan Heritage be shared. It is now coming to completion”. Morgan Heritage’s sixteenth album is scheduled for 2013 after a European tour this summer in the wake of The Return release – whose lyrics demand roots and culture, while the packaging bears a resemblance to the Lord Of The Rings movies (previously referenced by the reggae group Midnite). “It does look like Lord Of The Rings, doesn’t it?” chuckles Gramps “That’s a good observation, but we just wanted it to look ancient because the original format was back. Now it’s time to get back to our day jobs. Our day job is Morgan Heritage.”
As well as his own music Gramps used the last few years to rediscover his childhood passion for American football, playing as a linebacker in the North Georgia Gladiators. “High school football helped me a lot when my mother passed away. It gave me the chance to channel a lot of pain and anger that could have been taken out in the streets and I could have become a different person. It helped me to focus on school because in America to be able to play school sports you have to have a certain grade point average.”
After graduating Gramps turned down college scholarships to perform with Morgan Heritage at Reggae Sunsplash 1994. His coach was disappointed, saying “You can sing ’til you’re a hundred but you can’t play football that long”. Gramps carried the desire to play around with him until the hiatus. “We all said as a family ‘Take this time and do whatever you want – become a chef, open up a veterinary surgery or become the king of England!'” (One can’t help but imagine that with the support of his driven reggae dynasty of a family the latter option might be within his grasp!) “I tried out for a team and a monster was unleashed!” He’s in his final season of a two year contract but his current coach is understanding of his music commitments due to the mutual exercise benefits of training and performing on stage. “In order to perform you have to get your cardio really up there so it really pushed my body to get it back in check. I’ve gotten a lot stronger obviously and I got a chance to get these heebie-jeebies out of my bones and get that urge for football out of me. It’s been wonderful playing the games and doing what I have loved since I was a teenager.”
When Gramps talks football he is boyish and enthusiastic – a far cry from the imposing Rastaman whose accent hardens into patois when Marley and Jamaica are mentioned. Today he has his own teenage son Jemere, who has begun a solo career and even guests as an engineer on Reggae Music Lives. “He’s become an amazing vocalist. He’s only 16 years old and he’s growing every day so I’m really excited to see what he’s going to be like when he’s 18 to 21: he should be peaking. I’m trying to give him what my father gave to me and my parents to my son to carry on that tradition”. All-American kid and Jamaican revolutionary, protest singer and respecter of elders, fathers and coaches, smart businessman and parent: a chat with Gramps lets us glimpse the many sides of a very big heart indeed.