U-Roy – Version GaloreU-Roy: Version Galore – album review

Doctor Bird


Released 14 January 2022

Reggae DJ U-Roy’s 1971 debut album, plus the rest of his work at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle on this new 2CD collection. Included are takes of his classic singles Wake The Town, Wear You To The Ball and (This Station) Rule The Nation, plus the self-titled second album of Reid-helmed tracks, belatedly released in 1974. Ian Canty raises his glass in a toast…

Though Asman Euwart Beckford aka U-Roy wasn’t the first person to talk over reggae records to liven up the dance, his influence went far and wide. His hollered vocals have been sampled many times and it is possible to see his influence on many other toasters that came after, as well marking the way for hip hop too. DJ/Talkover really took off after his remarkable work with Duke Reid, where previously used rocksteady rhythms were dusted off and elegantly rejigged. These underpinned U-Roy’s wordplay and magnetic energy, making them shine all the more brightly. As a youngster Euwart was dubbed U-Roy after a family member struggled to pronounce his name. U-Roy became a big fan of trailblazing DJ Count Machuki, who developed his rhymes live over US blues numbers to whip up the crowd for Coxsone Dodd’s Downbeat sound system in the 1950s.

Soaking up the influence of The Count, he began his DJ career in the early part of the next decade. He bounced around a number of sounds, going from Dick Wong’s Dynamite to Sir George The Atomic and even Coxsone’s Downbeat number two set. Then he hooked up with King Tubby’s Hometown Hi Fi in a move that would change U-Roy’s life. Being with Tubby brought him into the orbit of Treasure Isle. Though it may well have been the case that Duke Reid, with his ear to the ground as always with regard to Kingston’s music, was already aware of U-Roy’s growing reputation. What is sure is when the pair teamed up, magic happened.

U-Roy’s time under the auspices of Reid was relatively brief, but full of impact. On the back of the recordings they made together, the DJ sound started making big news in Jamaica. It was an opportune time, as this was in 1970 just after the skinhead/boss reggae boom, when a new sound was called for. U-Roy, backed by The Duke’s splendid rocksteady rhythm tracks, was in the right place at the right time for certain. But his sheer charisma and talent gave DJ recordings the big push into being a format that was the talk of the Kingston music scene.

One of the good things about this release of Version Galore was reading Tony Rounce’s sleeve note on the LP. For me it’s always great to read about a record someone truly loves and this comes through very clearly here. With regard to the music, those stately Treasure Isle grooves provide the perfect backing for U-Roy, who holds forth with real confidence and style on opening gambit Your Ace From Space. You can sense immediately how he held the crowd at the dance, riding the rhythms with aplomb and whipping up the dancers. On The Beach, originally by The Paragons, states the case even more lucidly as the record underneath stays more or less intact, with U-Roy an ever moving and cajoling focus over the top.

The tune Version Galore itself takes The Melodians’ rocksteady delight You Have Caught Me Baby and recasts it to chide the crop of lesser toasters that were snapping at U-Roy’s heals. Then True Confession uses the skanking, r&b style beat of The Silvertones to provide the landscape for U’s own free-from poetry. While it is easy to appreciate the original songs that are pretty much the cream of the rocksteady era, one can marvel at the ebullience that U-Roy manages to instil. He’s essentially talk/shout singing over records, but while to do that badly might be simple enough, completing this task in an entertaining and convincing manner takes a master.

The neat twiddly guitar work and cool thrust of The Jamaicans’ track I Can’t Lose are given their head to make their mark, before U chimes in to take it to another level. The Paragons’ archive is dominant here, with The Same Song, The Tide Is High, You Will Never Get Away, Happy Go Lucky Girl and most famously Wear You To the Ball all form the backing music to the infectious DJ patter and go to make up a brilliant, if unconventional for the time, reggae album. The pairing of Phyllis Dillon’s Don’t Stay Away with U-Roy’s crazy shrieks in response works so well and the LP ends with the irrepressible, irresistible Hot Pop, a real ace.

Apart from the excellent album itself, this first disc has nine bonuses included, all drawn from the Treasure Isle vaults. A jaunty Nehru by Winston Wright & The Supersonics gets things going with some cool Tommy McCook sax. It is one of three instrumental cuts here credited to The Supersonics, along with The Ball and final track Super Boss which is cut on The Last Rain rhythm.

Ken Parker’s groover Too True provides the perfect backdrop for more of high quality toasting. It’s one of the best selections here and a second take of Wake This Town, on Alton Ellis’ Girl I’ve Got A Date, is achieved in fine style. The Paragons’ songbook again comes in handy of Flashing My Whip, which is a talk-over on their Only A Smile and Do It Right is smartly accomplished too. Alton Ellis supplies the backing to Ain’t That Loving You, which features in its original form on the U-Roy album on disc two and The Melodians’ The Last Rain To Expo 67 is lovingly embellished with U-Roy’s own brand of vocal exuberance.

Despite being ultra-successful, the U-Roy and Duke Reid partnership didn’t last long. There doesn’t seem to be any documentation of the reason for this and one does not at this late stage wish to conjecture as to the possible cause. What is sure it that soon after Version Galore, the DJ was on his way recording for a variety of the island’s other record producers. Even so, when U-Roy’s next album finally emerged in 1974, it was overseen by Duke Reid and mostly made up of recordings dating from that earlier period. The newest item was the Honey Come Forward/Merry Go Round single that came out in the same year.

Honey Come Forward, based around an unidentified Treasure Isle rhythm for what sounds like a female vocalist in a brief snatch of intro that is audible, was the opening track of the U-Roy album and the DJ is again a confident presence throughout. It’s followed by Treasure Isle Skank, where new drums were overdubbed for a 1973 45. This was an effort to make the sound more contemporary and Words Of Wisdom also was “improved” this way. In fact the whole U-Roy album had this addition, but the original mixes were located for everything apart from that single and have been used here. Having got that out of the way, (This Station) Rule The Nation is U-Roy at his word-spinning best over a pumping rocksteady beat.

Then we have two Hopeton Lewis tracks Drive Her Home and Tom Drunk and where the effect that is achieved is that Lewis’ soulful vocal and U-Roy exaltations fit naturally with each other. Words Of Wisdom, which comes next is hampered a little by the conspicuous extra percussion, but fortunately Tommy McCook & The Supersonics’ talents can still picked out under these unnecessary additions and the toast. Merry Go Round, cut over Errol Dunkley’s version of Where I Must Go, works pretty well and Wake The Town, U-Roy’s first single with Reid, impresses from the echoed introduction onwards.

The comic tone and lazy lope of What Is Catty is a lot of fun and The Melodians’ classic Everybody Bawling is succinctly repositioned for a new era. The final two offerings on the LP are a cool take of Alton Ellis’ Ain’t That Loving You and Behold, based around another groovy Supersonics instrumental. U-Roy the album was never going to have the same impact as Version Galore. So many things had changed in Jamaican music during the three year gap between the two records, but it is a more than decent collection which shows U-Roy’s strengths as a toaster and those indestructible Treasure Isle rhythms in full flight.

To round off this set, we have another nine bonus contributions. Way Back Home is like the second part of Behold from the LP, as it is cut on the same rhythm. Then we get two takes based around The Techniques’ rocksteady charmer My Girl, with the second being a vocal version with no U-Roy. Another double, this time of Peace And Love by The Jamaicans with the DJ version followed by a band take, comes next and is followed by Love I Tender, which is kept entertaining through a manic talk-over performance. Part two of Way Back Home is purely instrumental by Tommy McCook & The Supersonics and the jumping Take 5 of You Will Never Get Away from Version Galore crops up. Finally and mainly for atmosphere, we get some studio chatter from those involved. A small add-on, but even just a minute or so in the company of Treasure Isle is an experience worth having.

U-Roy stature as the DJ that took toasting to another level and influenced countless others is not in doubt. It is fair to say that his reputation mainly rests on that short, but wildly creative time at Treasure Isle. Version Galore still sounds as fresh as the day it was set down on tape. Everything clicks, with U-Roy without equal on the mike and the Duke’s peerless back catalogue utilised in just the right way. The self-titled 1974 album yields enough gems itself and among the bonus are some great cuts too. With the music being truly excellent, those heartfelt sleeve notes push this Version Galore 2CD over the top into “must have” territory. A fine collection that any fan of reggae DJ cuts must hear.

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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