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"A lot of people been saying that I'm not consistent," reports Michael Rose. "And they say this is why no one hears of me."
On the surface, these rebukes seem warranted. After all, Rose left Black Uhuru, the group for which he's best known, in 1983--and over the course of the next ten years, not a single Rose solo album was released in the United States. But with the appearance of three new records in the past twelve months, Rose is making a George Foreman-style comeback. And his latest recording, Be Yourself (on Heartbeat), demonstrates that the composer of reggae classics such as "General Penitentiary," "Plastic Smile" and "Sponji Reggae" hasn't lost a step.
Born Michael Anthony Rose in Kingston, Jamaica, Rose (known as "Tony" in the Waterhouse ghetto where he spent much of his youth) learned to sing from his older brothers. An immersion in the music of B.B. King, the Temptations and Smokey Robinson deepened his love of vocal harmonies and helped him master the variety of music he'd be required to croon during his first professional gigs. "I used to do the hotel circuit in Montego Bay, entertaining tourists," he admits with a laugh. "All over the North Coast, you know. I'd do calypso, R&B, dinner music and things."
In 1972, after striking up a friendship with producers Sly Dunbar and Niney the Observer, Rose completed his first reggae single, "Dreadlocks Coming to Dinner." (Black Uhuru subsequently rerecorded the song under the title "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"; it became one of the band's signature tracks.) "That was the beginning," Rose says. Two singles later Dunbar promised to produce a Rose full-length. But before production could get under way, Rose recalls, "I went out of the country. And when I came back to town, I get together with Duckie [Simpson] and Erroll [Nelson] and say, 'Let's get this thing together.'"
The trio, dubbed Black Uhuru, was eager to hit the studio, but Dunbar was on tour with Peter Tosh; the band's debut, 1976's Love Crisis, originally released on the Jammy label, was completed without him. But Dunbar's absence didn't prove fatal--the disc, highlighted by the tune "I Love King Selassie," quickly became a roots classic. Nevertheless, Nelson soon left the group. "We didn't make any money," Rose explains. "And Erroll had a group called the Jays, so he decided to work with them."
Undaunted by Nelson's resignation, Rose and Simpson found an able replacement in Puma Jones, whom they heard singing along to Bob Marley's Kaya album while heading to a friend's house. Most observers view this roster as Black Uhuru's best, and with good reason. Among its finest achievements are 1980's Sinsemilla, 1981's Red, and 1983's Anthem--the first reggae album ever awarded a Grammy.
But rather than build on this breakthrough, Rose stunned the reggae world by leaving Black Uhuru at the height of its popularity. Today he insists that he harbors no hard feelings over the split. "We couldn't do business no more," he remarks. "They decided to continue, and we didn't have anything verbally, so I went into exile."
During that period, Rose practically dropped off the musical map in this country, but he certainly wasn't idle. "I was recording plenty of things," he says, including singles and twelve-inch EPs released on his own Observer imprint, along with others for Dunbar's company, Taxi. "I just didn't have distribution in America." The same fate befell three other discs: Proud, Bonanza and Mykall Rose: The Taxi Sessions. ("I did that because it's more Ethiopian," Rose says about the alternate spelling of his name. "It's closer to home.") It was a frustrating time, but today Rose makes light of it. He jokes, "I tried, you know?"
Not all that hard, actually; Rose's lack of ambition had a great deal to do with his waning star status. Fortunately, outside forces intervened. "Heartbeat Records wanted to deal with me for some time, but they didn't know how to find me," he allows. "Then Niney, the producer of our first album, came to Jamaica and wanted me to do another."
These inquiries resulted in a new contract for Rose and a flurry of releases. His American solo debut appeared in 1995, followed quickly by a dub version of the CD. Then, earlier this year, Rose unveiled Be Yourself, his strongest solo work to date. The tunes on the platter are tight and bouncy, with an upbeat, positive vibe that's in evidence even when Rose is chastising imitators on the title cut or ridiculing the daily rat race during "Dummy." Likewise, "Things Are Pretty Fine (on My Side)" seems an accurate description of where he's at these days.
Overall, Be Yourself is a brave departure from the plodding bass and spiritual, heartfelt wails that distinguished the Rose-led Black Uhuru. The singer deftly avoids the pitfalls of the modern dancehall style by balancing reverb and drum kit with the soul and substance that are his hallmark. Yet the voice is still familiar enough to appeal to any Uhuru fan. The disc is so fresh, in fact, that its two weakest selections are ill-advised remakes of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "I Love King Selassie."
So what does Rose have to say to those critics who wrote him off? His response is simple: "Now they can't keep up with me."
Michael Rose, with the Meditations, Sister Carol and Derrick Morgan. 9 p.m. Friday, June 14, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $17.85, 447-0095.