It’s estimated that over the course of his near four-decade career Gregory Isaacs released almost 500 albums. (That number includes compilations.) That’s a daunting catalog to be sure, and thus the new curated compendium of the singer’s work, The Ruler: 1972–1990, seems entirely manageable, even when comprised of 40 tracks over two CDs and an accompanying DVD of a live performance. Of course, as one can tell by the dates in the title, this collection only tells about half the story, no doubt leaving room for a subsequent companion comp.
Born in Kingston and having cut his teeth on the talent show circuit of his hometown, Isaacs emerged in the early ’70s with the hit original “My Only Lover,” released on African Museum, the label he had formed with the song’s producer, Errol Dunkley. The track, which leads off The Ruler, is a fitting introduction to the Lovers Rock genre Isaacs practically created on its own, blending his channeling of influences like Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson with a sparse riff and riddim. But while his soulful croon and its accompanying paeans to unrequited love would become Isaacs’ calling cards, he was equally important as a mover and shaker in roots reggae circles. Such cuts as the dubby, Clive Chin–produced “Never Be Ungrateful” (from 1976) and “Set the Captives Free,” which was recorded the same year and features Sly & Robbie, reveal Isaacs to be adept at applying his gilded voice to other contexts.
In truth, though, divvying up Isaacs’ output isn’t a neat proposition, as there’s plenty of overlap between styles. The quality of his work had not so much to do with his choice of genre as with the producers and collaborators with whom he partnered. But then again, with a seemingly endless supply of top-shelf talent at his side, such distinctions are also difficult to differentiate. Here the list of those manning the boards includes Gussie Clarke, Tappa Zukie, GG Ranglin, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Ossie Hibbert, and Phil Pratt, as well as the aforementioned Clive Chin. He was also lucky enough to enlist such backing bands as the Soul Syndicate, the Upsetters, the Aggrovators, Roots Radics and the Revolutionaries. By the late-70s, Isaacs was at the top of his game, and cuts like “Tumbling Tears” and “Border” may fall on either side of the division between his two musical factions, but are as alike as they are different. Both were recorded in 1977 with Ranglin, and both are entrenched in a laidback groove with rootsy accents. Indeed, 1977 was a particular highpoint in Isaacs’ career and the 10 tracks from that year represented here are derived from several albums.
But again, Isaacs was an adaptable singer, able to meld his vocals to any setting. In the latter part of his career, this would become particularly evident as he tackled new emerging strains of reggae. Even when contending with ’80s production values and instrumentation on cuts like “Let Off Sup’m,” Isaacs’ smooth delivery is able to overcome any sonic plasticity. “Victim,” a collaboration with the Roots Radics, is as barebones as his early work, though the sonic palette is decidedly more contemporary.
Anyone familiar with Isaacs’ catalog will know there’s been some missteps (though relatively few given his prolificness). But save for the closing “Too Good to Be True,” the wheat has been separated from the chaff for this comp, and it’s hard not to be flabbergasted by the amount of indispensable sides. Isaacs seems to have had an unwavering ability to bend the backing tracks to his will, but more importantly, he must have had an innate sense for finding a song’s heart. As evidenced by the live performance, he also was driven by an immense amount of conviction, which ensured that everything he did wasn’t just entertainment. The Ruler is a striking testament to the man’s legendary status.