By Jacob Katel
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"Just when I was thinking of getting out of the business ... " begins Beres Hammond. Before he can finish a chorus of boos breaks in, letting the Jamaican soul crooner know exactly what the audience thinks of that idea. The singer lets the response stand as an explanation of why he's still onstage after nearly 30 years, why he keeps coming back to the business that has not always treated him well. But the frustration of those early years, when he built a solid collection of hits with little in his pocket to show for it, is now nothing but a story to tell a packed house at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami a few days after Valentine's. As the fortunes of the smooth vibe known as lovers rock rise, so does the fame of one of the genre's smoothest singers.
It's a love fest from the start. A tag team of emcees spout hype, introducing Hammond as if they were announcing a heavyweight title fight. A storm of applause strikes at the first notes of each song. The house actually bounces. The tumult grows so raucous at times that Hammond has to sprinkle a "hush" into his delivery here and there. But when the band breaks into Hammond's most recent hit single, "They Gonna Talk" from his Grammy-nominated album Music is Life, the crowd explodes into one cheering, dancing, singing mass, as though the Reggae Boyz national soccer team had just won the World Cup. No lovers, just rock, for a song that became something of an anthem in the Caribbean after its release last year.
Two giant balloon hearts float behind the stage where Hammond flirts with his exceptional Supremes-like backup singers, Harmony House. In an earthy oh-so emotive voice that has few peers in any genre, Hammond addresses a crowd filled with nattily dressed couples of all ages. There is a hint of bitterness at first, as he recalls the lean early years of his career by way of introduction to his 1993 hard-knocks classic, "Putting Up Resistance." He tells tales of his time spent in the late Seventies with legendary producer and part-time Miami resident Joe Gibbs. "I was one of his criminals," Hammond jokes, imitating Gibbs's peculiar manner of speaking to the wild delight of the knowing crowd. Although Gibbs's production helped Hammond score several hits, their working relationship prompted one of Hammond's many breaks from the music business. "A very good album, too," Hammond once famously said about the Gibbs production Just a Man. "I didn't make any money off that either."
By the late Eighties the phenomenal success of dancehall eclipsed not only roots reggae, but the ballads and love songs of lovers rock as well. "It's always been there," observes popular Jamaican producer Lloyd Campbell. "If you check where the music is coming from, even the rock-steady-era days, it has been lovers rock. It's just that time has changed. You know everybody's focusing on dancehall, dancehall. But when you think of the John Holts and the Ken Boothes, and all those people along the line, that was the type of music that started everything. But nowadays, like for the last ten years or so, it's been shattered, like underground. It's not been given the exposure it truly deserves."
That has all changed, says local reggae producer Eddie Edwards, whose Rhythm Productions put on Hammond's show. "Couple of years ago, dancehall was front stage," he points out. "But because of the concerts from the people like Beres and Freddie McGregor and Glen Washington, there's a very strong rise in lovers rock." Campbell claims ticket sales for such shows consistently attract strong turnouts of 4000 to 5000 people.
That upward trend is evident in record sales as well. "We put out [the compilation series] Strictly the Best every year," says Howie Chung, general manager of Hammond's current label, VP Records. "It's always two albums released in November -- one volume is more dancehall, more for the core market, and the other is ballads, lovers rock. The past two years, the lovers rock series has been very strong. I could say that a lot of people turned away from the violent content of dancehall lyrics."
After more than a decade of hits that began with the 1990 single "Tempted to Touch," Hammond is now enjoying the greatest success of his career. He has scored steady airplay on AM radio stations that cater to Caribbean listeners, WAVS (1170) and WSRF (Mystic 1580). Mayor Lori Moseley of the heavily Jamaican-immigrant city of Miramar even declared this past February 16 Beres Hammond Day. Still, the lovers rocker has found a limited audience in the United States outside Caribbean communities in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. With no listing in this publication or the Miami Herald, only the most well-informed nonislander would have had a chance to snag a ticket to Hammond's sold-out concert. Apart from Bob Marley and scattered efforts at urban crossover by dancehall stars Shaggy, Beenie Man, and Bounty Killer, Jamaican music remains just that: music by and for Jamaicans.
"I think Beres does reach a wider audience," insists Chung. "I just think he's a lot more popular with the Caribbean people because of their roots, because they know so much about his past albums. But we're still trying to reach people with the crossover. I'm still trying to talk to [WHQT-FM] Hot 105 to see if they could at least add a Beres track to their playlist."
As the show draws to an end inside the Knight Center, there is really no room for anyone else. And as the emcee explains, Beres Hammond will not be back for an encore: He's given all he has.