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By Howard Campbell—–

The Jamaica Observer celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Its entertainment section looks back at 20 major events the newspaper covered during that period. Today, we reflect on Sly and Robbie’s Friends which won the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 1999.

DRUMMER Sly Dunbar and bass player Robbie Shakespeare had etched their names among reggae’s best producers with a flood of hit songs, starting in the late 1970s with Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Forward.

Top L: Ali Campbell, R: Mick Hucknall …Bottom: Drummer Sly Dunbar and bass player Robbie Shakespeare.


Twenty years later, they were still hot. And in 1999, the acclaimed ‘Riddim Twins’ gained due reward for nearly 30 years of quality work, winning a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with Friends.

The 15-song album showcased covers of Jamaican pop standards by artists such as Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, Ali Campbell of UB40 and Maxi Priest. Interestingly, Dunbar and Shakespeare had produced Anthem by Black Uhuru, the first album to win the reggae Grammy in 1985.

Dunbar said for Friends, he and Shakespeare borrowed a concept from one of music’s greatest producers.

“Quincy Jones had this thing where he put out albums with the artistes he was working with. So Friends was a collaboration with all the people we were working with,” he told the Jamaica Observer.

At the time, Hucknall owned the independent Blood and Fire label which reissued noted reggae albums like the Congos’ Heart Of The Congos. He covered Isaacs’ Night Nurse and Ghetto Girl, originally done by Dennis Brown, during sessions at Anchor studios in St Andrew.

Campbell covered Seems To Me I’m Losing, originally done by singer Dobby Dobson at Studio One in the 1960s. Priest put his spin on John Holt’s Only a Smile.

Another popular track on Friends is Sly and Robbie’s version of the Mission Impossible theme which was a hit in Jamaica. Singer Ambelique, a veteran of the North American reggae scene, covered the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction.

For some, the Beenie Man album Many Moods of Moses — which featured the Sly and Robbie track, Foundation — was a heavy favourite for Best Reggae Album in 1999, having sold well in the United States.

Other nominees were were Buju Banton’s Inna Heights, Psychedelic Souls by the The Wailing Souls, and Toots & the Maytals’ Ska Father.

Friends, however, prevailed and capped a triumphant decade for Sly and Robbie. They produced Chaka Demus and Pliers’ 1993 album, All She Wrote, which spawned six songs that made the British national chart, an historic feat.

Although they played on, or produced, some of the biggest reggae songs of the past 40 years, Dunbar says he and Shakespeare consider Friends special.

“It’s easily one of our best sounding albums,” he said.

Sly and Robbie’s Jam Masters is one of five albums nominated in the Best Reggae Album category at this year’s Grammys, which takes place this evening at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

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