Perfect Sound Forever

Errol Dunkley

by Eric Doumerc
(August 2007)

Errol Dunkley was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1951 and made his first record at the age of 14. He recorded for all the major producers there in the 1960's (Prince Buster, Joe Gibbs, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, Rupie Edwards), but as success was not forthcoming, he founded a recording label with Gregory Isaacs (African Museum) and had a hit record with a song based on Delroy Wilson's "I Don't Know Why" and retitled "Movie Star."

In 1972, Dunkley had another hit with "Black Cinderella" for the producer Jimmy Radway. In the same year his first album (Presenting Errol Dunkley) was released, produced by Sonia Pottinger. Backed by a crack session band known as the Gaysters, Dunkley was at his best on songs like Barbara Lynn's "You're Gonna Need Me," "Movie Star," "Created by the Father" and "A Little Way Different", which became more or less his signature tune:

Every man do his things a little way different,
The things you do, you do it in a different way from me.
The things I do, I do it in a different way from you.
Every man do his things a little way different,
No man cares what colour or creed that he may be.
This album, which contains mainly love songs, was lovers' rock before the name was invented and owes a lot to the artistry of singers like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaccs and Delroy Wilson but Dunkley's talent and interpretative powers shine throughout the record. To this day, it remains a classic and the backing band's musicianship is amazing: two intrumentals ("Hi-Lite I" and "Hi-Lite II") showcase their talent.

Around 1973, Dunkley settled down in England and struck up a friendship with the producer Count Shelley (Ephraim Barrett) for whom he cut a number of records. Two such records are "Little Angel" (released as a 45 on the Third World label), and "Soothe Me", a version of the Sam and Dave soul hit which can be best described as "soul reggae." Again, Dunkley's voice and his uncanny ability to make a cover song his own is striking.

In the 1970's, Dunkley recorded many tunes which became big with the local West Indian and Black British population and which made the reggae charts regularly. For instance his "Letter to Myself", originally a Chi-Lites song, was popular in 1975. The songs entitled "Eunuch Power" (a pun on the name of the leader of the National Front in the 1970's, Eunoch Powell) while "Stop the Gun Shooting" entered the British reggae charts too.

In 1978, Errol Dunkley began to work with British producer Dennis Bovell who led one of the most brilliant British reggae groups (Matumbi) and who was also known as a wonderful sound engineer and dub master. The result of their effort was a roots version of "A Little Way Different," which was released on the Arawak label in 1978 and which made the reggae charts. Bovell's echo-laden mix and Dunkley's voice made that record another classic which in fact surpassed the original 1972 recording for Sonia Pottinger. As if this was not enough, the flip side consisted of a blues/reggae version of the song with the blues musican Julio Finn (Dreadful Julio) pouring his soul onto Bovell's dub track. The track, entitled "Differentah," anticipated the work of producers like Adrian Sherwood and was ahead of its time. But in spite of all this brilliant work, Dunkley had failed to fully break through to a mainstream audience and had remained an obscure reggae singer.

All that changed in 1979 when Dunkley's version of John Holt's "OK Fred," originally recorded at Studio One, reached number 11 on the national charts in Britain and turned him into a star. Dunkley performed the song on Top of the Pops, the very important music programme on BBC 1, and the song also charted in other European countries. It was particularly popular in France at the time and introduced French teenagers to the sounds of reggae.

In 1980, the album Profile of Errol Dunkley was released (on the Third Wolrd label in the UK and on the Celluloid label in France) to capitalise on the success of "OK Fred." The album was recorded at Channel One with a line-up which looked like the Roots Radics, and it contained a new version of Dunkley's 1974 "Repatriation," a version of John Holt's "Nobody Else" and "Jah Guiding Star" based on the Heptones' "Guiding Star." Again, the combination of great tracks and Dunkley's voice made for a brilliant record, as exemplified by the song "Rush Me No Badness." The song opens with Dunkley's plaintive and world-weary voice and then takes the listener on a trip down memory lane:

You can't come rush me no badness, 'cos me no deal with it
You can't rush me no badness, 'cos me no defend that.
Any boy me no check for, me a no deal with that.
I was born and raised in the ghetto,
and I have lived to see many bad guys fall.
The first-class accompaniment and the Channel One sound also contribute to the impact of that song which has proved perennially popular with the West Indian and Black British audience in England. The cover of the Heptones' "Guiding Star," originally recorded at Studio One and retitled "Jah Guiding Star," works well too with its shift from human love to divine love.

Unfortunately, Dunkley was unable to replicate the runaway success of "OK Fred," but remained active throughout the 1980's, releasing at least two LP's, Militant Man (1980) and Special Request (1982).

He has continued to make interesting records which have remained very popular with the West Indian public in Britain and with reggae enthusiasts all over the world, like the bittersweet love song "Happiness Forgets (but Loneliness Remains)," released in 1981 on the Natty Congo label, or his interpretation of Burt Bacharach's easy-listening classic "Don't Make Me Over," recorded with the Roots Radics in a Paris studio and released on the Celluloid label.

In 2000, Dunkley released a new CD with the singer Roman Stewart, entitled Continually and produced by Count Shelley. The album contained interesting renderings of such classics as "Silhouette" and "Man in Me" as well as a new version of the singer's own "Repatriation."

Dunkley's talent partly resides in his ability to turn a cover song (like Barbara Lynn's "You're Gonna Need Me," Sam and Dave's "Soothe Me" or John Holt's "Nobody Else") into an original tune. Maybe this tendency to rely on cover songs has done him a disservice and he may have come across as a competent singer lacking "originality." This view is quite erroneous as Dunkley's own compositions (like "A Little Way Different," "Repatriation" and "Rush Me No Badness") are evidence that he is a good songwriter too. Errol Dunkley is definitely one of reggae's unsung heroes and his records are well worth checking out.


* Larkin, Colin, ed. The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae. London: Guinness Publishing, 1994.
* De Kooningh, Michael and Marc Griffiths. Tighten Up! The History of Reggae in the UK. London: Sanctuary, 2003.

See Errol perform "Oh Fred"- courtesy of YouTube

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