Ernie Smith was a Jamaican artist who had a string of hits in the early seventies, including “I Can’t Take It,” “Pitta Patta,” “Bend Down,” and “Life Is Just For Living.” He recorded for the Federal Records label, who is know for their polished take on reggae. The production on this best-of collection owes more to the countrypolitan sound coming out of Nashville in the same time period as reggae.
There is none of the deep bass or colly-fueled skank of contemporary reggae producers like Joe Gibbs, Niney the Observer, Bunny Lee, or Lee Perry. Instead, there is a pop sheen to the songs, from Smith’s restrained baritone to the inclusion of non-reggae elements like strings and piano. Many of the songs sound like country-western, but for the mild reggae lilt. “I Can’t Take It” even includes a spoken word interlude at the end of the song, in clear, American English, without any of the patois or slang that makes reggae so distinctive. He also experiments with pop on “Footprints on the Ceiling.”
Even the more “reggae” songs on this disc are produced in a way that make them sound country. In the hands of Joe Gibbs or Bunny Lee, “Bend Down” could be a mellow, post-rocksteady reggae song. Smith makes it sound like George Jones with some dreadlocks on bass and guitar. The same is true with “One Dream,” “Ride On Sammy,” and “Pitta Patta.” Smith tries out some patois on “Duppy Gun Man,” but it sounds staged and insincere. His patois on “Key Card” and “Nice Time” sound more natural.
I’m not trying to write him off as a posh, fake Rasta. His pop approach to reggae may not have jibed with what was going on in the dancehall at the time, but forty years later his material sounds like other pop artists of the time, including Johnny Nash and George Jones. Smith’s take on “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is on par with Johnny Cash’s version. The pop production techniques add novel elements to the reggae sound palette, and it’s old enough to sound cool and retro rather than cheesy and watered down. As non-traditional as Ernie Smith’s music is, I found myself really enjoying this album.
There is an upbeat vibe to the songs that acknowledges the hardships in the world without being overwhelmed by them. There’s a story in the liner notes about how Smith decided to return the Jamaica in the late ’80s after years of living in Florida. There had been a hurricane, and on the U.S. news, Americans were complaining about how they lost everything. This was contrasted with the Jamaican news, where poor villagers who lost everything were happy to still be alive. Smith realized he was living in the wrong country, and moved back to Jamaica, where he continues to record today. The Best Original Masters is worth investigating for any fan of early seventies pop and country, and anyone who appreciates the pop songwriting from that era.