Papa Bear

Don't worry, kid; reggae legend Freddie McGregor's gonna make it all better

Freddie McGregor wears a big smile as he strolls through the double doors of the Dania Beach hotel lobby. Staff members at the registration desk light up with smiles of recognition when they notice the reggae great come in from the rain. The next several minutes are giddy with handshakes and jokes. McGregor's high spirits are understandable: His newest album, Anything for You, is up for a Grammy as best reggae album. A sunny document of soft-edged lover's rock and slick, modern reggae, Anything for You shows why the singer -- active since the early 1960s -- has outlasted most of his contemporaries.

McGregor enjoys a high local profile -- literally. His face adorns billboards all over Broward County, a pitch for County Line Chiropractic in Plantation. A few years ago, while undergoing treatment for a shoulder problem, he brought in a few of his CDs for the staff to hear. In time, McGregor had referred almost twenty of his friends to the clinic. That led to a radio spot for County Line. "Then they asked me if I'd be interested in doing a photo shoot," McGregor says.

Spending most of the year in Jamaica, McGregor also keeps a place down the road in Hollywood. With a son in school here and his label (VP Records) setting up a branch in Miramar, McGregor has put down South Florida roots. He remains at the helm of Big Ship, both a boutique label and a thriving studio in Kingston.

Lover and fighter: Dapper Freddie McGregor
Lover and fighter: Dapper Freddie McGregor

"I will be 47 years old in June," he says, "and in June, I will celebrate 40 years of singing." Dressed in a dapper shirt, classy leather loafers, and jeans pressed with a straight-edge crease, McGregor looks bigger than he really is, playful and bearlike. His braided hair merges into one giant dread down the middle of his back. Streaks of white invading his sideburns and beard betray his age, but nothing else does. "It's like I'm just starting!" he continues while seated in the hotel lobby. "I'm writing much better now, singing much better -- and I'm much more businesslike."

As if to underscore this, when his cell phone rings with The Nutcrackertheme, his voice drops into a lower register and his smiling mouth flatlines. From the sound of it, a Grammy nomination doesn't translate into millions of units moved, and McGregor repeats to an associate what he told New Timesjust minutes before: "It's just myself, Barrington Levy, Luciano ... and that's it! If I had taken a back seat after the departure of Dennis Brown, we wouldn't have anything called reggae anymore. It would be dancehall and dancehall only! We need them to stay on the battlefield, not take a back seat. You can't retire just yet. You have to fight like a soldier. We are fighting that reggae battle!"

He puts the phone down and leans forward in his seat, still agitated.

"When the record companies say they can't market the music, I find that such crap. The kids have bigger record collections than they think. Our videos don't get played on BET. They leave out the entertainers who cannot have a video like Sean Paul's or Beenie Man's. What about the brothers and sisters who don't have the money to match that standard?" Acknowledging that more than 70 percent of reggae consumers are white, McGregor can't understand why the genre remains ghettoized, especially in light of the Grammy nod.

"We had to fight -- fight -- to get reggae included as a category," he declares with disgust. "And even when it did become a category, they still hand us our award backstage, while everyone else receives their award on national television."

McGregor's fire burns much cooler on the Anything for You album, a commercialized collection of simple rhymes and riddims about confession, reconciliation, and understanding. But his romantic voice -- perfectly suited to his big-softy presence -- is as hot, sweet, and invigorating as a mug of creamy coffee.

Freddie McGregor was a seven-year-old in James Hill, in the midst of Clarendon Parish farmland, when a local singing group, the Clarendonians, let him stand on a wooden crate to sing into the microphone. Soon enough, he'd become a feature of the group's records. "I made up a song called "Row, Dumpling Row," he says, softly singing, "If you want to know how make dumpling sweet, take the coconut ..."

Competition was everything to poor Jamaican children, each youth looking for something to best the others at. "We did things average Jamaican kids would do," McGregor says happily. "Like make gigs [a primitive whirligig, or top]-- I don't see gigs here. If I had a good piece of wood right now, I could still chop myself a good gig. And we'd play 'kite war.' We'd tie razor blades to the tails of our kites and dozens of us would send our kites up there high in the air with lots of thread, and we would fight, try to cut each others' kite down. So it was fun to see who could make their kite go the highest. You need to stay up above everybody else in order not to be cut. Those childhood things will never leave my memories."

McGregor's affiliation with the Clarendonians proved beneficial. He was permitted to bypass the rigorous audition procedure designed to whittle down the queues of contenders who'd travel from the countryside to Studio One, legendary producer Coxsone Dodd's headquarters in Kingston. "What Motown was to America," McGregor declares, "Studio One was to Jamaica. After a while, I became this little kid who was part of Studio One. And [Dodd] took a strong liking to me and recognized my talent from early on."

Becoming the studio's errand boy allowed him to meet some of the famous clients who'd pass through -- foundation people like Ken Booth, Delroy Wilson, Bob Marley, Max Romeo, Bunny Lee -- as McGregor helped Dodd open and close shop every day, running across the street to procure beer or cigarettes for the men.

Dodd virtually adopted his pint-sized apprentice, making sure he became a regular part of the early reputation of Studio One, the island's first black-owned studio. Young Freddie started cutting singles and albums there from its start in 1963 until 1979. "He was pretty much my father; he really nurtured and groomed me," McGregor recalls fondly. Some of Dodd's work on McGregor's best records, like Bobby Bobylon, seemed to represent a perfect pairing. But it wasn't until the young vocalist met producer Winston "Niney the Observer" Holness that international acclaim arrived. The first Freddie/Niney collaboration, Mister McGregor, established the singer in Europe for the first time.

At the same time, reggae was experiencing a technological and political revolution. Chris Blackwell's Island Records began to dominate, violence in Kingston started to escalate, and the new reggae -- spearheaded by shiny new Channel One studios -- emerged from the chaos.

"Channel One came on-board and started to record a new sound, different from what we were used to -- a clean an' bright sound that was really nice to the ear, clean new riddims," McGregor says. "The music was bright and crisp and sharp, and everyone was like, 'Whoa!What the hell is this?' So everyone started to shift."

Niney convinced McGregor to leave Studio One to follow this new path. "Yet I was still there because of my love and commitment to Mr. Dodd," McGregor says. "Niney told me my records were very popular in Europe. When I had a chance to go there as a kid, who wanted to pass that up? I went for it, and it did work, exactly as he stated it would."

Since that time, McGregor has remained active on the modern roots and culture front, through nadirs like the death of Bob Marley and the rise of dancehall, with its emphasis on sex, swearing, and slackness.

"I couldn't see myself going onstage and curse a bad word," he says, making a face. "That's disgraceful." That G-rated ethos is in full effect on Anything for You, where Freddie the Lionhearted meekly turns the other cheek. "I've humbled myself," he says. He prostrates himself from the silky opener, "Loving Jah," through the gentleman's pledge of "For You," all the way to "Sweet African Princess," where a lover's complexion is unmarred by a single blemish.

"I wanna step on your toes so I can tell you pardon,"he croons on "Uncle Sam," his roasty tenor amazingly warm and resonant. "Gatepass to Your Heart" summarizes the album's open-palmed plea: "Try to get your attention/Call you at work and get your extension/Now where is the gatepass to your heart, girl?/Do I need to ask security in order to get entry?/Or do I have to break the lock on your vault?"McGregor still searches and struggles, a journey now tempered by age, patience, and wisdom. "I'm just a seasoned entertainer now," McGregor concludes with a shrug, as the skies finally begin to clear outside the hotel window. By keeping his songs the musical equivalent of comfort food -- familiar and wholesome -- he hopes to grant them immortality.

"They will last forever," he promises. "That's my motto: If you make great songs, they will last. Mediocre material, it will fade away."

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