Legendary Jamaican Singer Jimmy Riley, 68, Dies In New York

Gail Zucker Photograph
Tarrus Riley and Jimmy Riley photographed in Hollywood, Fla.

Veteran singer Jimmy Riley, whose career spanned six decades of popular Jamaican music, passed away last week (Mar. 23) in New York, where he was undergoing treatment for cancer.

Born Martin Norman Riley on May 22, 1947 in Kingston, Jamaica, Riley was best known to the younger generation as the father of Tarrus Riley, one of contemporary reggae’s most in-demand artists. Father and son recorded together often in recent years, and the younger Riley regularly brought his father onstage to sing with him, including his late-summer set l last year at Central Park's Summerstage. “My father introduced me to music, brought me into recording studios long before I could even talk; I was around all the great Jamaican musicians and singers because of him,” Tarrus told Billboard a 2014 interview.

Possessing a pliant, distinctively robust tenor, Jimmy Riley began his recording career in the mid-'60s as a member of harmony group The Sensations, which recorded several hits for sound system owner-turned-producer Arthur Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label. Reid’s symphonic productions made him a king of rock steady -- the slower, more soulful rhythmic successor of ska and reggae’s direct forerunner. The rock steady era, the short but influential period between 1966-68, brought forth a new generation of acts dominated by groups like Riley's Sensations, whose hits for Treasure Isle included "Everyday Is Just A Holiday" and "Those Guys," as well as a memorable interpretation of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ “Right On Time” for producer Bunny “Striker” Lee.

Following his departure from the Sensations, Riley joined The Uniques in 1967, recording several rock steady classics including “My Conversation”, highlighted by Smith’s immortal falsetto lead, as well as renditions of Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” and “My Woman’s Love." The Uniques had a successful, but abbreviated, run. Riley embarked on his own around 1969, just as reggae music emerged as a voice for Jamaica’s most downtrodden. 

Riley’s greatest commercial success arrived some time later, in the early '80s, alongside the internationally renowned drum and bass production duo Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Sly and Robbie produced Riley’s first No. 1 hit in Jamaica, “Love and Devotion," which reached the British pop charts in 1982.

“Jimmy and other pioneering artists laid a solid foundation for reggae’s growth at home and internationally, especially in Japan,” reminisced Don Green, one of the founders of Reggae Sunsplash, Jamaica’s landmark reggae festival established in 1978. When Sunsplash was initially exported to Japan in 1985, Riley was part of the all-star lineup. “The Japanese audience was mesmerized by the music," says Green, "and today a younger generation of reggae artists from Jamaica and Japan have greatly benefited from the performances by those original music ambassadors and Jimmy stood tall among them.” 

Riley released the final album of his career, Contradiction in 2013 for Queens-based indie and VP Records’ subsidiary VPAL (VP Associated Label Group). Donovan Williams, director of VPAL, remembers Jimmy as “always pleasant, full of rhymes and laughter, and very involved in all aspects of the album.”

Jimmy Riley’s music and career accomplishments provided an ongoing source of inspiration for his son, who catapulted to reggae superstardom in 2006 with the hit “She’s Royal," arguably the most popular reggae song of the decade. Tarrus debuted on the Hot 100 in October 2015 alongside Ellie Goulding with the Major Lazer-produced single “Powerful." The younger Riley’s hit-filled repertoire includes several songs recorded with his father such as “Stronger," “Pull Up Selector,” and an acoustic rendition of “Black Mother Pray” for his 2012 album Mecoustic.

In 2014 Tarrus released “Love Situation” (Zojak Records), a tribute to rocksteady, featuring a rendition of The Uniques’ “Lesson (Story) of Love” (written by Jimmy Riley), renamed “Version of Love (My Story)” for Tarrus’s album. “Rocksteady is the music of my father’s generation but I grew up on it too,” Tarrus explained. “Working on “My Story” was a special treat because my father was there in the studio while I was recording it, he loved our version of his group’s song, it brought back great memories for him.”