Jamaican Trip Pt3 – Ken Boothe – Is It Because I’m Black

Example

Mr. Ken Boothe

Example

Happy Bastille Day!

This of course means next to nothing if you’re not French. However, one of the very few facts ingrained in my brain from high school French is the phrase “Quatorze Juillet”. This holiday celebrates not the storming of the Bastille (or the execrable song ‘Bastille Day’ by Rush), but the one year anniversary of same which marks the beginning of the modern French nation. As a result of this patterning, every July 14th I pause to remember my horrifying high school French teacher with a moment of silent reflection. So join me, won’t you, in hoisting a garlic-y snail and a Jacques Dutronc record, and saying ‘Vive le France!’ (unless you’re a Republican, in which case keep muttering…)

Anyway….

Today brings us to the third and final segment of the Jamaican Trip, during which we have made a cursory survey of soul recordings by Jamaican artists (barely scratching the surface).

Like the rest of the tunes I posted this week, today’s selection is a cover of an American soul record, but also amplifies (and to a point, transcends) the original version. This record is Ken Boothe’s 1973 recording of Syl Johnson’s classic ‘Is It Because I’m Black’.

Boothe was one of the most popular Jamaican singers of the 60’s and 70’s. He started out in Jamaica in a duet with Stranger Cole, moving on to a substantial career as a solo artist, in ska, rock steady and reggae. He always had a love for American soul music, and this is evident in ‘Is It Because I’m Black’.

The original recording, by Syl Johnson is one of the finest examples of his ability to combine the sound of the blues (where he got his start) with more modern soul styles. His performance of the song is a cry of pain, taken at a slow pace where the lamentation of the lyrics couldn’t be any clearer. As in his other Twinight recordings, upbeat, sock-soul killers or ballads, there’s a distinctive “southern” flavor to the record. ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ (most definitely a rhetorical question) is clearly of it’s time, in which soul music was in the midst of a wave of social consciousness. Where a record like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ – rightly considered a classic – has an atmospheric, almost pop-inflected feel – Johnson’s epic (7+ minutes) recording sounds like a late night sermon from the stage of a Mississippi roadhouse, accompanied by the occasional cry of ‘Damn Right!’ and the welling of tears.

Ken Boothe – having grown up in the midst of a culture similarly damaged by racial inequity, colonialism and poverty – takes ‘Is It Because I’m Black’, ratchets up the righteous anger a few steps and delivers a performance that takes Johnson’s raised hand and turns it into a fist. Boothe – cutting the running time of the song in half – is like a tightly wound spring. Propelled by the persistent chank of the guitar and a rumbling bass, he delivers a bravura vocal performance, alternating between a smooth delivery and little explosions of emotion.

Though the LP that ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ hails from, ‘Let’s Get It On’ covers a lot of bases (everything from Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and Paul McCartney to a fantastic cover of Neil Young’s ‘Down By The River’), ‘Is It Because I’m Black’ stands alone as a landmark interpretation of its source material. Boothe went on to have a number of hits, including a huge pop hit in the UK with a cover of Bread’s ‘Everything I Own’ in 1974. He has continued to record over the years, and much of his work is available in reissue, on compilations devoted to his work, and various artists collections as well.

Buy Ken Boothe – Crying Over You on Amazon

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8 Responses to “Jamaican Trip Pt3 – Ken Boothe – Is It Because I’m Black”

  1. Billy K Says:

    Good stuff as always. Thanks!

    I know the theme is Jamaican versions of American songs, but I just wanted to mention my favorite Jamaican ska/reggae/soul duo, The Blues Busters. As I’m sure you know, they recorded some insanely hot soul numbers in the late 60s, trying to score an American hit.

    There’s a well-done Trojan comp available from Amazon that I can’t reccommend enough!

    Cheers!

  2. Lyle Says:

    Very nice series of posts. Anyone interested in Jamaican artist versions of soul music should get the 2001 Blood and Fire compilation Darker Than Blue: Soul From Jamdown 1973-1980, which includes “Is It Because I’m Black” and “Get Ready” (great Temptations cover). Of course, Toots in Memphis is also a classic and demonstrates soul music’s profound influence on reggae. Reggae and soul, what a mix!

    Thanks!

    Lyle

  3. m_m Says:

    Fantastic as always. I don’t know if you can get them over there, but here in the UK, soul jazz records (www.souljazzrecords.co.uk) seem to have been given access to the entire Studio One back catalogue and have spent the last ten years or so making up simply amazing compilations, including a Jackie Mittoo double album and a couple of comps of Jamaican soul covers. They also did a couple of great New Orleans Funk comps which led me here (indirectly)..

  4. Orias Says:

    Don’t want to spoil any future choices but The Marvels’ cover of “Rock Steady” is worth tracking down from Soul Jazz’ “100% Dynamite”. And I can also recommend The Gaylettes’ version of “Son Of A Preacher Man” featured on DJ Andy Smith’s Document 3 mix

  5. NIKOS K. Says:

    Speechless!!!

  6. funky16corners Says:

    Orias
    You will definitely see that Gaylettes 45 sometime in the future!
    Larry

  7. Orias Says:

    The Gaylettes is rather marvellous. Thanks for the Pioneers Rolling Stone track. Never heard it before and it’s top stuff!

  8. Funky16Corners Radio v.43 - The Unquiet Storm… « Funky16Corners Says:

    [...] Young’s ‘Down by the River’ by reggae giant Ken Boothe. Boothe has been featured here before (with a cover of Syl Johnson’s ‘Is It Because I’m Black’), and his return visit is just as groovy. There’s also a great version of this tune by Buddy [...]

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