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The Nightingale

The small hours still belong to Sanchez

The first time I spun at a reggae house party, I brought two armfuls of records with me. One was full of roots, ska, and rocksteady, for warming things up. The other was filled with dancehall -- mostly single riddim compilations that were easy to mix -- for when the dance floor was primed.

It wasn't enough.

What I brought was mostly based on intuition. Back then I was a hip-hop head who saw dancehall as something to accessorize my rap sets with. I'd met a crew of Jamaicans through a dreadlocked Irish woman friend who only dated Rastas. She and her current beau took me on as their party's lone selector due to a lack of other options. I had turntables and was willing to haul them over there gratis just to experience their scene.

As the crowd drifted in, I quickly got used to putting a fist over my heart after the old familiar knuckle touch greeting, or overhand-handshake-to-a-half-hug, then saying things like "blessings" and "peace" instead of "sup." I was wearing out my Soul Jazz 100% Dynamite comps, patting my chest for a procession of cats with Ethiopian action hero names like Emperor, Warrior, and Red Eye, and for the fine women who quickly left them for the dance floor. I hit every tobacco leaf-rolled number that came my way, while sipping from my hosts' private, homemade stock of Magnum -- that chilled, musky blend of Guinness, oatmeal, aphrodisiac herbs, peanuts, and bananas that makes couples smile knowingly when they see it in your hand.

The first two-thirds of the evening went off without a hitch. After my selection of dancehall sounds had filled the floor to capacity, the deejays emerged, commandeering my microphone to utter rhythmic chatter I could only half understand. To back them I ran through the B-side instrumentals, or versions, from all my 45-inch singles, then the versions included on all the single riddim comps. I learned that when asked to rewind a popular riddim, winding it most of the way back, just to kinda keep the beat going, won't do. Deejays need to hear the silence that precedes the first note of the intro. When too many ladies sat down, I interrupted the deejays and played more records. All seemed irie to me.

But somewhere around 2:00 a.m., when the party should have been peaking, something started to feel a little off. Then downright edgy. People were looking at me like I'd screwed up, or as if they were waiting for something to happen. As more people sat down, I tried picking up the tempo, playing harder and more playful riddims, to no avail.

Finally Emperor approached me. "Mon, dun ya have any Sanchez?" he asked.

Years later, this is an embarrassing story to tell. But as a newcomer to Jamaican culture, I had no idea that any reggae party, whether in a house or a club, calls for not two but three armfuls of music: roots and old-school joints, dancehall, and Sanchez.

True, you could call that latter category lover's rock. And of the lover's rockers, you'd be right to point out that compared with Sanchez, long-time luminaries like Beres Hammond, Gregory Isaacs, Glen Washington, and Freddie McGregor have shown even greater staying power; peers like Peter Hunningale have had stronger years; and fresher talents like Wayne Wonder and Ghost are pulling the younger honeys these days. But to legions of Jamaican women and the men who want to finish a party with them, Sanchez is still the only true soundtrack to a late night.

Born in 1967 in Kingston and raised in a devoted Christian family, Kevin Anthony Jackson sang in church choirs until high school, when he switched his allegiance to more secular sound systems. By 1987 he was voicing for top producers Winston Riley and Fattis Burrell; as his popularity surged, virtually every A-list knob-twiddler supplied him with beats. 1988's Riley-produced "Loneliness" became the first of more than a decade and a half of smash hits. A short look at Sanchez's discography makes his typical themes clear: "Old Friend," "Fall in Love," "If I Ever Fall in Love Again," "Let It Be Me," "Let Me Love You Now," "Pretty Girl," and "My Girl." As early as 1989, masses of women screamed at his concerts as if the building were collapsing. And despite the fact that the 39-year-old singer is a committed family man with four children, he still has to perform a safe distance from the edge of the stage, or the ladies dem will tear his nice white suits off.

Like Al Green, Sanchez has just dropped his first secular album after a series of award-winning gospel releases. Though No More Heartaches features few surprises, it is chock-full of the Nightingale's signature magic. Producers Lloyd Campbell and Dean "Cannon" Fraser lay down breezy, contemporary melodies for tracks that draw on everything from Sixties soul to gospel to hip-hop, yet all of them feel part of a singular vision.

The opening number, "You Make My Day," is a pop gumdrop that showcases his feather-light voice, as he thanks a lover for being so very special. It's innocuous but pretty darn nice. The next few tracks grow increasingly plaintive, reminding listeners that few can ache like Sanchez can. The slow, bouncy "I'd Rather" expresses the curious sentiment: "I'd rather have bad times with you/Than good times with someone else." A version of the Hollies' oft-covered anthem "He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother)" is a melodic, melancholy slice of easy listening. And "Love Me Forever," with Nadine Sutherland, is an amorous tearjerker so overblown that it would work perfectly on an American Idol finale.

A handful of socially conscious cuts follow, all of which sport important sentiments and catchy hooks. With the exception of the crisp sing-along "World Peace," however, none add much to the preachy "reality song" genre. Far more interesting is "Ghetto Fabulous," a wonderful word-for-word interpretation of Jaheim's "Fabulous," right down to the spelled-out ending: "Never G-I-V-E U-P, keep your H-E-A-D U-P." It's a tune with a hip-hop edge that emphasizes Sanchez's ongoing relevance.

In other words, it's the perfect joint to lace a party with at 2:00 a.m. In the irresistible chorus, Sanchez seems to be schooling everyone who ever wrote off, or never understood, the necessity of lover's rock: "Don't hate on us/We're fabulous."

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