Pioneering Jamaican reggae artist U-Roy has died at the age of 78, his partner has confirmed.
The musician, whose real name is Ewart Beckford, had been undergoing surgery at a hospital in Jamaica’s capital city, Kingston.
U-Roy, who is credited with popularising the vocal style known as “toasting,” died late last Wednesday.
Among those to first pay tribute were Grammy award-winning artist Shaggy and British singer-songwriter Ghostpoet.
U-Roy’s partner, Marcia Smikle, told local news website The Gleaner that the artist had been receiving treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure, and also suffered with kidney problems.
She said he had been in and out of hospital and most recently had undergone an operation to address an issue of internal bleeding.
“It was successful, and the bleeding stopped,” Ms Smikle said, but the doctors had to take him back into the operating theatre at the University Hospital of the West Indies on Wednesday and he later died.
Following news of U-Roy’s death, tributes began to pour in, with Jamaican reggae artist Shaggy describing him in an Instagram post as a “hero” and a “true legend” who was “a master at his craft”.
U-Roy was born Ewart Beckford in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1942. His family was musical, his mother performing in the choir at a local Seventh-Day Adventist church. He first DJed aged 14. “My mother used to say to me: Why don’t you trim and shave because you will look a much nicer boy?” he told United Reggae. “And I used to say, ‘Listen mum, I did not tell you not to be a Seventh-Day Adventist. I did not tell you not to play that organ on that choir. I’m going to do what I have to do and I’m not going to disrespect you. But what I believe in is what I believe in.”
He began his professional career in 1961, performing on the soundsystem owned by Dickie Wong, who ran the Tit for Tat record label and club (where Sly Dunbar met Robbie Shakespeare) in Kingston. He moved between soundsystems before a period as the top DJ of King Tubby’s Hometown Hi-Fi in the late 60s.
King Tubby’s elongated dub versions created the space for U-Roy to expand his inventive vocal style. “That’s when things started picking up for me,” he told the LA Times in 1994.
In Bob Stanley’s pop history Yeah Yeah Yeah, singer Dennis Alcapone describes witnessing the duo play live. “Him and U-Roy start the dance off as normal, and after a while he play You Don’t Care by the Techniques, then he switch it to the dub version and, after a couple of lines, all the crowd could hear was pure rhythm. Then U-Roy come in toasting and they went nuts.”
In 1969 U-Roy made his first recordings, with Keith Hudson, Lee Perry and Peter Tosh, though his breakout would come a year later, when John Holt witnessed U-Roy DJing and toasting over Holt’s song, Wear You to the Ball, and told producer Duke Reid to work with him.
Their partnership spawned three immediate hits, Wake the Town, Rule the Nation and Wear You to the Ball, as well as two dozen more singles, and inspired a rush of producers seeking to work with DJs on record. “Before that, the DJ business was not something that people take seriously,” he told the LA Times. “I didn’t really took it serious. People weren’t really used to this stuff.”
U-Roy released hundreds of singles throughout the 70s, including a run of hits with Bunny Lee. A deal with Virgin led to the album Dread in a Babylon, produced by Prince Tony Robinson. It boosted U-Roy’s popularity in the UK, where he counted Joe Strummer as a fan.
Undeterred by his recording success, U-Roy returned to soundsystem culture, launching his own, Stur-Gav, to raise a new generation of toasters including Shabba Ranks, Ranking Joe and Charlie Chaplin. “That was the biggest fun in my life when I started doing this,” he told United Reggae.
While active as a performer in the 1980s, U-Roy scarcely recorded again until 1991 – by which time he had moved to LA – when the British producer Mad Professor invited him to appear on the album True Born African. It spawned another lasting creative partnership. U-Roy’s last album, 2018’s Talking Roots, was also produced by Mad Professor. “From I was 15 when I heard Version Galore I wanted to work with U-Roy,” Mad Professor tweeted on Thursday.
In 2019 he was “crowned” by Shabba Ranks in New York, who called him “di Picasso of our music”. That year he also recorded a new album, Gold: The Man Who Invented Rap, featuring Sly and Robbie, Zak Starkey on guitar and Youth of Killing Joke on production, with guest appearances from Mick Jones of the Clash, Santigold, Shaggy and Ziggy Marley among others. A release date was planned for the summer.