Justice for the "Unknown Legend"
Reggae Pioneer Winston Grennan Looks Forward and Back
by Gary Alexander
At 56, Reggae immortal Winston Grennan lost his battle with cancer last
week following a valiant eight-month struggle against insurmountable
odds. A much beloved figure in the musical community around the world as
well as in his adopted hometown of Woodstock, Winston died in financial
difficulties chiefly spawned by the expense of his medical treatments,
sadly still denied the full-fledged "star" magnitude of stature in the
arts which his achievements had earned him. Certainly a star among those
in-the-know, Grennan reviewed his disappointments and expectations with
me on his September birthday in 1997 with an absence of true bitterness
in his tone which was a tribute to his nobility of character...
no Rodney Dangerfield and it's not "respect" that he pursues. Mere
respect, after all, should be an automatic ingredient registered to any
artist of genuine accomplishment and Winston Grennan's credits, while
notably unheralded, stretch into the pre-dawn twilight of the reggae
When he looks back on his contributions to the foundation of reggae
as a musical genre, even numbering himself among the few who coined the
term, and his current status as an "Unknown Legend" in the field, he
considers that it isn't measures of respect due him, it's justice.
Having recorded with virtually every major reggae artist and group
from Bob Marley & The Wailers to Desmond Decker & the Aces, Peter Tosh,
Toots & the Maytals, and on & on through thick pages of sessions,
Grennan is currently chasing justice with a new album release under his
own name, Wash Over Gold, and has chosen his home base of Woodstock as
the place to kick off a coast-to-coast CD celebration tour (at the
Byrdcliffe Barn on Sunday, September 21 , at 3 and 7 p.m.)
"I've done a lot for reggae and I didn't get the justice,"
Grennan pointed out, adding that many of the true pioneers of the form
remain unrecognized today. As he did for a gathering of reggae stars in
Nashville a few weeks ago, Grennan can outline the misinformation and
inaccuracies in the current books about reggae and tell you exactly who
was where and when. Skatalite bassist Lloyd Brevett concurs that it was
Grennan's classic and often imitated "one-drop" beat that shaped the
very heart of the sound in its emergent days when he seemed to be the
drummer at every important session. "Reggae was created by de riddim,"
Brevett was quoted as saying. The rhythm...that's Winston.
Grennan's musical sophistication began with the lessons of six
musical uncles in his native Jamaica. He built his own first drum set as
a kid by felling a tree and devoting long laborious weeks of cutting
sections to size and hollowing them out into the kit he still speaks of
with a smiling glow of pride. The beginning of his ponderous discography
was poured into one after another plain-labeled 78, then 45's which
sported the singer's name and little else and which enjoyed local spins
as well as British and European airplay in a time the U.S. hadn't yet
caught the beat. The anonymous musicians who supplied the ride for the
often unpaid vocalist tended to stay that way and it wasn't until 1993
that copyright laws came to Jamaica.
Grennan, however, moved to New York in the early 1970's, settling
in Woodstock, parts of which remind him of home, and gigging to houses
so packed in the heyday of the Joyous Lake that lines went twice around
the building and required two separate shows a night to accommodate.
Meanwhile, he expanded his musical knowledge, studying theory and
gigging with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Eric
Gale and others. His recording credits embraced performers far beyond
reggae and ska...Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Garland Jefferies, the
Rolling Stones, Peter, Paul & Mary, Paul Simon, the O'Jays and a long
etcetera. Movie credits include Jimmy Cliff's
The Harder They Come
(including the soundtrack and film appearance); Kid Creole's
Fresh Fruit In Foreign Places;
Cat Stevens' soundtrack for Harold and Maude and the
original tune "Savior" in 9 Weeks.
The new album, the third under his own name, starts off with
"Domestic Violence," treating the topic with a joyful simplicity of
lyric typical of reggae even when addressing human darkness- the root of
all evil, for example, never seems unredeemably ominous on "That Man."
Bad, sure. Regrettable, yes. But keep that light-hearted stance within
as you play- it's not part of you. (A portion of the album's proceeds
is being donated to Family Violence Prevention Fund.) "Colorful Faces"
follows with a guest vocal from Tony Culture stirring in on Grennan's
own against, as you would expect, a rhythm-drenched backdrop. Grennan's
stretch of tempos on most of the album is a range he calls "Swegway,"
meant to incorporate international rhythmic attitudes with unexpected
energies between standard reggae and ska. Still pioneering, Grennan
takes familiar themes to his own blend of flavors, writing the tracks
with a stray lyrical touch on a couple of the songs from the disk's
astute producer, Mark Brown, and Nancy Lewis, and adapting Don Drummond
in a tribute that features some quite tasty brass flourishes from Todd
Horton and Winston, himself. David Oliver adds some fine keyboard
Today, with CD boxed sets of rereleases coming out regularly,
sometimes long uncredited players are finally getting listed. Sometimes
not. Histories of reggae which tend to ignore the importance of its
founders are following secondary sources who weren't on hand, according
to Grennan and others who were. It is doubtful that useful sessions
records were kept at the sessions which gave birth to the music.
Memories grow dim but some of the originators can listen back and say
"Hey, I tink dat's me." But, if some day someone other than Winston
Grennan claims to be the originator of the Swegway beat you'll hear at
the Byrdcliffe Barn this weekend, as they have for the "one-drop" reggae
beat, you and I, at least, will know better.
is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of
interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names,
he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event;
science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for
national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and
complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of
presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have,
Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort
Posted on November 11, 2000