Various: The Hottest Hits Albums Collection – album reviewVarious – The Hottest Hits Albums Collection

Doctor Bird

3CD/DL

Released 12 November 2021

Reissue of the hit series of albums that delved into the Treasure Isle archive of rocksteady and early reggae sides, in order to present them anew for the dancehall generation. The three original albums are re-issued here alongside a trio of newly compiled editions, plus thirteen bonus tracks. Artists featured include The Paragons, Justin Hinds and Alton Ellis. Ian Canty checks his temperature…

Over the past few years Doctor Bird have trawled the Treasure Isle archive on a few occasions. One of the things the collections released have proved is the awe-inspiring depth of Duke Reid’s recorded work. Now though, on The Hottest Hits Album Collection, we step away from the rarer tunes and instead concentrate on much more well-known material. The hits that appeared under Reid’s auspices during the rocksteady and original reggae eras were clearly built to last. As these classic tunes were an undoubted influence on the late 1970s style of dancehall, the time seemed right to push them back into the spotlight. The Duke himself passed away in 1975 after being dogged by poor health for a number of years. Just before his death he struck a deal with Sonia Pottinger for the rights to Treasure Isle, including the prized back catalogue.

Sonia oversaw the reuse of the Treasure Isle rhythms in dub and began to reissue the material. In the late 1970s lovers’ rock and dancehall had gained ascendency over the roots sound that previously held sway. The immediate dancefloor thrills of both of the new fads owed a sizable debut to the sound of rocksteady and boss reggae, so it was entirely correct that these decade-old tunes enjoyed another airing at the time. Which is where The Hottest Hits LPs came in. The series ran to three editions in 1977 and became very popular. It doesn’t sound like a radical concept today, where more or less everything is repressed at regular intervals, but at the time anything older than a few months was quickly discarded. Even the big hits of yesteryear were only really heard again when their rhythm was used as the basis for a new tune. With the Hottest Hits albums, they reached a new generation of ears in their entirety.

For this new compilation the original three LPs are joined by a trio of newly compiled sets put together by Doctor Bird from the Treasure Isle vaults and a raft of bonuses. The first CD brings together the first two Hottest Hits collections plus four bonus cuts. From the gorgeous opening of The Sensations’ Those Guys to The Three Tops’ mighty It’s Raining, the initial Hottest Hits LP really is a selection out of the top drawer. It was so successful that Virgin’s Front Line imprint licensed it in the UK a couple of years later.

Alton Ellis & The Flames’ timeless Cry Tough, The Paragons’ The Tide Is High and the sweet and lithe Queen Majesty by The Techniques are among the best things ever set down on tape and probably don’t require any further explanation from me to any reggae fan. Though Dobby Dobson’s Loving Pauper is much less famous, it is a beautifully touching skank and the sax on Vic Taylor’s Heartaches is a lovely touch. Nothing jars, with The Sensations’ second great offering I’ll Never Fall In Love and Things You Say You Love by The Jamaicans being so classy. Hottest Hits Volume 1 is simply bathed in excellence.

Because this first LP was such a good seller and captured the record buying public’s imagination, a second in the series was quickly prepared. The next 12 tracks of this set were on Volume 2 and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the order of the day as far as selecting the songs and artists went. Alton Ellis & The Flames with Girl I’ve Got A Date get the ball rolling in energetic style. Freddie McKay’s soulful Love Is A Treasure was great to hear again and the sheer poise and precision in Phyllis Dillon’s vocal on Don’t Stay Away is a true aural wonder.

My Girl by The Techniques is pretty much the perfect vocal group rocksteady offering and, along with Alton Ellis’ La La Means I Love You and The Techniques’ cool Travelling Man, has slotted seamlessly in the dancehall sound. The Melodians groove right through I’ll Get Along Without You and Joya Landis voices coolly over a rough early reggae rhythm on her classic Moonlight Lover. The same tempo is reused on The Techniques fine set closer I Wish It Would Rain.

Finishing up disc one we have those four bonus items, from Alton, The Paragons, Phyllis Dillon and The Techniques. The latter’s It’s You I Love has some great vocals and an icy piano line on Phyllis’ Love Is All I Had adds value to what is already a charmer. But all four are very enjoyable and the standard isn’t dropped one bit.

The second disc begins with the final original Hottest Hits LP, Volume 3. This album ensues with the irresistible swing of the Alton Ellis & Phyllis Dillon duet Remember That Sunday and, though new names are introduced to the series, the LP is studded with great tunes. For instance the very next track is Wear You To The Ball by The Paragons, and The Techniques’ Love Is Not A Gamble is rocksteady goodness with few parallels. The latter also provide another ace in There Comes A Time.

Of the newcomers, John Holt solo from The Paragons provides two excellent entries, Stealing Stealing and Ali Baba, the latter of which came with a rhythm that was constantly reused in dub. On Boom Shacka Lacka Hopeton Lewis successfully applies doo wop values to an exotic beat, and although Tonight Is The Night by Claudette Miller was a relatively new recording dating from 1974, it certainly predicted the lovers’ rock sound of a few years later. Sinners by Justin Hinds & The Dominoes was a similar vintage, but despite a few modern accoutrements the tune could have come from their and Duke’s rocksteady heyday. Apart from a brief lapse into “easy listening” reggae in the middle, Volume 3 was another solid entry in a series.

Which was the end of the line for Hottest Hits, until Doctor Bird compiled three new more sets to add to the 1977 releases and include here. Volume 4 plays it safe enough, featuring cuts from the artists who contributed to the first three records, apart from Westmoreland Parish native Ken Parker nee Farquharson with a brassy and well performed True, True, True and a fine vocal group skank in Weather Report by The Tennors. We start here, though, with the familiar voice of Alton Ellis and the great Willow Tree. You Don’t Care by The Techniques is very appealing and brings home their consummate singing abilities and the organ line of Last Train To Expo ’67 took this listener right back to the sound of the height of rocksteady, courtesy of The Melodians.

A tight and funky Woman Of The Ghetto by Phyllis Dillon is another example of her wonderful and somewhat underrated work and Baba Boom by The Jamaicans splices r&b song and the then new rocksteady sound very well. It is left to Alton Ellis and The Techniques, with their customary expertise on the swing of What Does It Take and The Techniques I’m In The Mood For Love, to close out Hottest Hits Volume 4, a collection which lives up to the reputation of its forerunners.

Disc two ends with five bonus items. Rock Steady by Alton Ellis is virtually a cool as ice anthem for the sound and John Holt’s Tonight is a smooth and smart groove that oozes appeal. The mysterious Rosalyn Sweat aka Sweet hooks up with The Paragons on the reggae-fied version of The Beatles’ Black Bird, and Ken Parker’s Kiss And Angel Good Morning has some great guitar and crosses blues/country with a tight-rhythm reggae track well. Justin Hinds’ downbeat delight Once A Man finishes off the disc, which for the greater part of its running time is excellent.

On the last disc of The Hottest Hits Album Collection we have the two new sets of twelve tracks each and four bonus tracks. On The Beach by The Paragons starts Volume 5 with a lilting majesty and this dozen concentrates on further work by artists we have already encountered. You’ve Made Me So Happy by Alton Ellis skips along marvellously and John Holt and Joya Landis team up effectively for I’ll Be Lonely. Ken Parker gives his own composition I Can’t Hide a perfect rendition as well as a sensitive reading of Jimmy Brown later, with the lazy lope of Justin Hinds’ Save A Bread being hugely infectious.

Kansas City by Joya Landis is full of sheer r&b-tinged joy, and The Paragons’ My Best Girl shines with some great keys starring alongside the divine voices. The Three Tops return from their appearance on the first Hottest Hits LP. Here, their Do It Right is powered by an irrepressible rhythm track and Volume 5 is completed by a soulful One Life To Life by Phyllis Dillon.

Volume 6 similarly sifts the same artists’ back catalogues. Alton Ellis’ fab and touching Breaking Up, a catchy and danceable Sister Big Stuff by John Holt and the downright cheeky but engaging Don’t Touch Me Tomato from Phyllis Dillion, make for a smashing opening trio. Silver Bird by The Melodians exudes class and the Everybody Bawling finds the band easily adapting to the languid new reggae sound. Justin Hinds & The Dominoes’ Mighty Redeemer is full of goodtime energy and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy by The Paragons ends Volume 6 with a touch of real soul.

Finally we come to those four bonus numbers. The Sensations glide in with a smooth vocal group sound Baby Love, and Boys And Girls Reggae by Phyllis Dilion is fun, even if it keeps threatening to turn into Brown Girl In The Ring. Alton Ellis brings his usual flair to I Can’t Stop Now, and combines with Drink Milk by Justin Hinds as a high-class rocksteady note to go out on.

On The Hottest Hits Album Collections you won’t find much that is too obscure, but it is great to hear these tracks as the new wave of Jamaican music fans would have first heard them. As regards the new sets, while it would take some doing to delve into the Treasure Isle vaults and come out with rubbish, they have clearly been put together with a taste and knowledge. This something that means Volume 4,5 and 6 certainly don’t seem much lesser than the three original LPs and feel very much in the same spirit. Doctor Bird have admittedly not really taken many risks with their song selection on the 2021 volumes, but as it makes for a fine listening experience, I for one don’t really care. Anyway, if the original series had stretched beyond three albums, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that many of these tracks would have cropped up.

What is certain is that there is barely a misstep on The Hottest Hits Albums Collection. The material may be on the whole familiar, but that does not cut into their undoubted quality. A reissue/compilation to lift the heart on a drab autumn day and a reminder of the timelessness and sheer beauty of Duke Reid’s sterling work.

~

All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here

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