Delivered in a mellifluous falsetto inspired by Curtis Mayfield and realized with the otherworldly production mastery of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in his prime, Junior Murvin’s 1976 recording Police And Thieves is a reggae classic. It would become familiar to ’77 punks when The Clash included a punked up cover version on their debut LP. When Murvin heard this prescient example of mashing up reggae and rock, he was reputed to have declared, “they have destroyed Jah work”, though he presumably felt vindicated when his original went to Number 23 on the UK charts when the song was reissued in 1980.
Born Murvin Junior Smith in the late ’40s in northwest Jamaica, as a youth he was inspired to sing by soul and R&B voices including Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine and Sam Cooke. Having studied to be a mechanic in Montego Bay, he went to live with his aunt in Trenchtown in Kingston during the rocksteady era, making the acquaintance of similarly striving locals The Wailers, Ken Boothe, Delroy Wilson and others. In the ’60s he recorded as Junior Soul – his first single was the suggestive Miss Cushie in 1966 – entertained in hotels and nightclubs, and sang with The Hippy Boys, the group who would later regenerate into The Upsetters and the Young Experience Band.
“Shot through with rasta spirituality, Police & Thieves was an irresistible triumph.”
In 1976 he took his song Police And Thieves to Perry’s Black Ark studio, then the centre of an extraordinary burst of creativity encompassing knockout albums by The Congos, Max Romeo and The Heptones. The resulting LP, also called Police & Thieves and shot through with rasta spirituality, was another irresistible triumph, with Clash bassman Paul Simonon hailing the title track “the theme song of the Notting Hill Carnival” in 1976. In an interview with reggae magazine Step Forward in 1999, Murvin admiringly recalled his time with Scratch. “Of the producers at that time, only he could manage that heavy hardcore… Lee Perry is the greatest producer I ever work with.”
Though Murvin would never again make such a totemic recording – Perry would withdraw from production soon after and the Black Ark would burn down in 1983 – he continued to record with producers including Prince Jammy and Joe Gibbs, with whom he made Cool Out Son in 1979. He also revisited Police And Thieves on occasion, as with Muggers In The Street, recorded in 1984 with dancehall don Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes.
His output slowed and then ceased in the late ’90s, but as this appearance on Jools Holland’s programme in 2004 showed, his voice didn’t fail him.
Suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, he died in hospital in Port Antonio on December 2.
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