Musician, songwriter, and producer Michael Goldwasser has been involved with the international reggae scene for decades, working with artists as diverse as Toots and the Maytals. Jason Mraz, and Janelle Monáe. As one of the heads of the New York-based label Easy Star Records and leader of the label’s house band, the Easy Star All-Stars, he’s found a niche making reggae versions of classic albums, such as Radiohead’s OK Computer (2006’s Radiodread), the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (2009’s Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band), and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (2003’s Dub Side of the Moon). The most recent Easy Star release is the great new David Bowie tribute Ziggy Stardub, which features appearances by iconic artists like Macy Gray, Steel Pulse, and Maxi Priest. We asked Goldwasser to select his favorite reggae covers of all time. He came up with a decades-spanning list, and also offered unique insights on his experience making records and working with some of reggae’s legendary figures.
I’ve been a serious fan and student of reggae for decades, and from my earliest forays into Jamaican music, I realized that cover songs played a big part in the development of ska, rocksteady, and reggae. Jamaican artists and producers have always loved putting their own spin on the great tunes that they were hearing from the U.S. and the U.K, from the 1960s right up to today. This list of my favorites contains a lot of R&B and soul originals, as Black music from the United States was foundational to reggae, as well as a healthy dose of tunes from Liverpool. One thing that all of these versions have in common is that the originals were great songs to begin with; a great cover starts with compelling source material. The reggae artists below range from the obscure to the well-known, and I decided to only include one entry per artist, even though some of them could have easily warranted several. This list does not feature songs from popular artists like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, and UB40, but I think you’ll enjoy the more obscure gems here.
Hear this playlist on Spotify.
‘Fixing a Hole,’ Easy Star All-Stars feat. Max Romeo (2009)
As a reggae fan and a Beatles fan, it was great fun to work on Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, our version of the entire Sgt. Pepper’s album. I first discovered the original album in my aunt’s record collection while spending a summer in Tel Aviv as a kid, and I was fascinated by this song, partly because I couldn’t figure out what it was about. The Easy Star All-Stars version strives to perfect what a reggae cover of a “pop” song can be – a bit slowed down, plenty of delay and spring reverb, plaintive vocals from a classic artist, and rootsy keyboards like clavinet and melodica complementing heavy drums and bass. Max Romeo first came to fame as a muse for eccentric genius producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and I have a feeling that Sir Paul would appreciate his interpretation.
‘The First Cut Is the Deepest,’ Norma Fraser (1967)
This record has the classic sound of Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label that characterized a lot of Jamaican music from ska up through early reggae — booming bass, drums playing a “one drop” pattern kind of low in the mix, jaunty pick guitar. Fraser had a string of popular records in Jamaica in the Sixties, including this Cat Stevens cover and her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” but she’s also a historically important figure because she is credited with having taught Rita Marley how to sing. Fraser’s vocal style also helped set the template for U.K. lovers rock, a slower, romantic style of reggae popularized in the U.K. during the Seventies and Eighties.
‘Sorry,’ Foxy Brown (1989)
Dancehall was all the rage back when I started going to reggae clubs in NYC as a teenager, and this record used to cause the crowd to go into a frenzy and call for the DJ to “wheel and come again” every time it was played. Quite a few years before a rapper of the same name came along, Foxy Brown became one of the more popular Jamaican female artists on the scene due to the popularity of this single, and her cover of Chapman’s “Fast Car,” both produced by one of the hottest teams of the era, Steely and Clevie. Their version of Sly and Robbie’s “Unmetered Taxi” riddim for “Sorry” was typical of what many producers were doing in the late Eighties, not just covering songs but covering riddims from earlier eras and producing them in a more stripped-down style with drum machines, synth bass, and sparse harmonic accompaniment. This has been going on throughout the history of Jamaican music, artists adapting older ideas to their own era, which is one of the reasons why cover songs fit so well into the reggae idiom.
‘I Want to Rock with You,’ Frankie Paul (1990)
Frankie Paul was another frequent collaborator of mine, voicing on the Easy Star albums Dub Side of the Moon, Radiodread, and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, and he is hands down one of the best harmonizers I’ve ever met. He routinely came up with harmonies I would never have thought of that sounded amazing when he overdubbed them; I sometimes thought of him as a self-contained Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Legally blind since birth, Frankie was sometimes called the “Jamaican Stevie Wonder,” more because of their shared vision issues than for any vocal similarity. This tune was another one that always got a big reaction, both live and on record, and I saw a lot of closer-than-close dancing to this in the clubs back in the day.
‘One In a Million,’ Sanchez (1988)
Rounding out this trio of early digital reggae/dancehall covers is Sanchez, who had many hits in Jamaica covering contemporary R&B and pop songs. For this one he reached back a few years, and thankfully he didn’t try to go into a low register like Larry Graham on the song’s Quiet Storm original. Sanchez sings this cover in his clear tenor over a pounding digital steppers beat. Like with the Foxy Brown and Frankie Paul tunes, the structure here is simple — just two chords and a disregard of the harmonic movement in the original. I generally use more harmony in my arrangements of covers, but I admire his ability to simplify like this. It’s a technique I’d like to experiment with more.
‘Move On Up,’ Devon Russell (1984)
Devon Russell isn’t as well-known as most of the names on this list, but he made music from the mid-Sixties up until his passing in the late Nineties. His debut album was produced by Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. Like many Jamaicans, Russell was a big Curtis Mayfield fan, but he took it to another level by releasing an entire album of Mayfield covers called Darker Than Blue, recorded in the early Eighties. This rendition of one of Curtis’ best-loved solo shots works so well because of the way it uses the horn part and bass line from the original, which fit perfectly with Sly Dunbar’s heavy boof-baf beat, and insistent binghi hand drumming, which mirrors Mayfield’s use of congas on much of his arrangements. Mayfield’s messages of empowerment were so relevant in Jamaica, and they still are today. Maybe it’s time for another Curtis reggae tribute?
‘Sitting In the Park,’ Freddie McGregor (1979)
I’ve long thought that Billy Stewart’s vocal theatrics in his 1965 cover of Gershwin’s “Summertime” must have influenced the microphone stylings of early Jamaican sound system DJs. Stewart’s “Sitting in the Park” is an example of R&B perfection for me, all major seventh and minor seventh chords, which is the harmonic foundation of some of the sweetest reggae and lovers rock. With a career that goes back to the early Sixties, Freddie McGregor has long been one the most soulful singers in reggae, and you can hear his deep R&B influence in many of the other covers in his repertoire, such as “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely,” which was a Top 10 hit in the U.K. This version of “Sitting in the Park” includes an extended dub mix peppered with delayed vocals, as if the listener is still sitting in that park, but waiting with a spliff.
‘Independent Anniversary Ska,’ The Skatalites (1966)
The Skatalites were the preeminent band in Jamaica in the early-to-mid Sixties, basically creating what we now know as ska music, a precursor to reggae. The band was made up of some of the island’s best jazz musicians, and its members backed up most of Jamaica’s top artists in one group or another. The Skatalites did a lot of covers that could have made this list, but I chose this one for a couple of reasons. First of all, I find it so cool that they chose to cover this particular Beatles tune (did they see A Hard Day’s Night at the cinema, or did they hear the song on the radio or get a copy of the Beatles’ LP?) They also covered “This Boy,” which they titled “Ringo’s Theme Ska,” after the instrumental version from the movie that charted in the U.S. Speaking of titles, the other reason that I chose this song is that they retitled their version of “I Should Have Known Better” to be “Independent Anniversary Ska.” The fact that they released it to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Jamaica’s independence makes the decision even more glaring; instead of creating an original Jamaican work, they covered a song by a band from their former colonizer. Maybe repurposing and renaming a song by the biggest British band of the time was their way of saying a polite “sod off” to the U.K.
‘Lovin’ You,’ Janet Kay (1978)
It would be a fool’s errand for any singer to try to reach the vocal heights of Minnie Riperton, whose range is still unparalleled decades after her passing. But Janet Kay does a nice job of making the song her own, and it helped establish her as one of the leading voices of the British lovers rock era (her 1979 song “Silly Games” even hit Number Two on the U.K. charts). One of the things that I love about this cover is that they added instrumentation to an already great song; Riperton’s original only featured electric piano, acoustic guitar, and an ARP synth. Extra points for producer Alton Ellis’ decision to incorporate bird sounds into this reggae version, just like in the original. I would have done the same. Or maybe I would’ve replaced the birds with a bubbling water pipe?
‘The Lady In My Life,’ Easy Star All-Stars feat. Christopher Martin (2012)
This song was crafted by one of my all-time favorite songwriters, the late Rod Temperton. While it’s one of just two songs on Thriller not to have been released as a single, it’s always stood out to me as a classic. When I was working on this arrangement for Easy Star’s Thrillah, I strove to balance the beauty of the original’s melody and chord progression with a hard reggae beat and dub effects. I asked Christopher Martin to sing on it because he’s one of the few male artists with a big enough vocal range to reach Michael Jackson’s high notes, especially in the extended coda of the song. I couldn’t resist answering Martin’s impassioned vocals with melodica, one of my preferred instruments to feature in productions.
‘Ain’t No Sunshine,’ Horace Andy (1973)
I first encountered this cover when Easy Star licensed it for Hidden Treasures, a compilation of Sugar Minott tracks that was unavailable on CD at the time. The Bill Withers version is brilliant in its simplicity, like so many true classics, and this reggae cover keeps it simple and solid as well, with tough drums and bass setting the vibe and healthy doses of delay and reverb in the mix. Horace Andy’s unique voice led to his well-known work with Massive Attack in the Nineties, and keeps him in demand today. His work on “Airbag” from Easy Star’s Radiodread was perfect for leading off that album, promising the listener that this wasn’t going to be your older brother’s Radiohead.
‘I Am In Love,’ Jennifer Lara (1981)
I’ve been a big fan of the Evelyn King synth-disco original for years because of its hard-hitting beat, funky synth bass, guitar, and synths, catchy melody, and great chord changes. When I would hear it on the radio in the early Eighties, it just felt like New York to me, a source of local pride. The song’s producer, Kashief, was an NYC legend, having been a member of funk group BT Express as a teenager. I had never heard this reggae version until Jason Mraz introduced me to it when we were working on his album Look for the Good a few years ago. That’s one of the great things about music: There’s always more to discover, even for a reggaehead like me. Besides loving the song and Lara’s vocals, I appreciate how her version sounds different from what I’d expect from Studio One in the early Eighties — more synth-laden and funky than the label’s typical roots fare. Whoever produced it definitely had his or her ears attuned to what was going on in Black music in the states at that time. I’m also amused by the choice to change the title from “I’m in Love” to “I Am in Love” since Lara never even sings the word “am.” Honorable mention to Barry Biggs for his cover of Kashief and King’s “Love Come Down.” I love that one too!
‘Ready or Not,’ Johnny Osbourne (1972)
Most people are familiar with this song from the Fugees 1996 version (a peak moment for Ms. Lauryn Hill), but the Delfonics 1968 original has always been a big hit in my house; their producer-writer-arranger, Thom Bell, one of the architects of Philly soul, was a major influence on my own music. Singer Johnny Osbourne, who like others on this list got his start at Studio One, is still going strong. He’s mainly known for his rich baritone, but on early recordings like this, he features a supple falsetto that echoes the sound of the Delfonics, the Stylistics, and other Philly soul groups. Interestingly, Osbourne also interpolated another Delfonics hit “Break Your Promise” into 1979’s “Jah Promise,” one of his biggest songs and another favorite of mine. The only reason it didn’t make this list is because, aside from referencing the chorus of the original, it’s not a cover per se.
‘Silhouettes,’ Dennis Brown (1972)
Dennis Brown was called “The Crown Prince of Reggae” in Jamaica, but in reality his star often shone brighter than that of the “King,” Robert Nesta Marley. Just ask any Jamaican who was there in the Seventies at the height of Marley’s international fame. Brown is one of my favorite singers, with a rich voice and a knack for phrasing, and he recorded an astounding number of excellent covers, including a great version of Lionel Richie’s “You Are” when he was signed to A&M in the Eighties. But I opted for his version of the Rays’ 1957 ballad “Silhouettes,” because it so clearly demonstrates the influence of American doo-wop and early R&B on Jamaican music. I had never heard the original until I happened to come across it on satellite radio last year. I was so used to Brown’s version that it came as a shock to hear the song differently. Yet, after more listens, I realized that Brown didn’t change the Rays’ vocal arrangement much at all. It’s a fun tune to sing with a group of friends on a street corner. Try it!
‘Natural High,’ Claudia Fontaine (1981)
Bloodstone’s 1973 soul classic “Natural High” is one of my favorite love songs of all time, and Claudia Fontaine’s cover certainly does it justice, especially the beautiful harmonies in the chorus. Fontaine, who passed away in 2018 at age 57, may not be a familiar name to many readers, but as a member of London-based singing trio Afrodiziak, she backed up artists such as Howard Jones, the Special AKA, the Jam, and Elvis Costello (that’s her doing the call and response on “Everyday I Write the Book”). On this cover, Fontaine takes the lead in typical British lovers rock style — sweet, somewhat restrained vocals that recall simpler times.
‘Don’t Let me Down,’ Marcia Griffiths (1969)
The Beatles make this list yet again, and for good reason. They were one of the only rock groups that penetrated the Jamaican consciousness to the same degree as the many R&B and soul artists covered here. This rocksteady version of one of John Lennon’s most passionate songs comes from Marcia Griffiths, who had a big career as a solo artist, and in the duo Bob and Marcia with Bob Andy, before gaining a new level of exposure as one of Bob Marley’s harmony singers in the Seventies. The chugging rhythm guitar and propulsive drums drive the song in a different direction from the Beatles’ original. If Marcia and Co. were performing this on the roof of Apple Corps (a la the Fab Four), I’d be afraid someone might dance themselves off the edge.
‘Stoned Out of My Mind,’ Mighty Diamonds (1978)
The Mighty Diamonds were an acclaimed harmony trio who are perhaps best known for being covered themselves — their “Pass the Kutchie” became an international hit for Musical Youth in 1982 as “Pass the Dutchie.” I had always wanted to work with them, and I finally got the chance when they appeared on Easy Star’s Sgt. Pepper’s tribute with their rendition of “Getting Better.” My recording session with them was somehow all good vibes despite the fact that their flight to New York from Jamaica had been delayed for hours and they lost their luggage in transit. This cover of one of the best songs by Chicago soul greats the Chi-Lites was recorded at Channel One Studio, my favorite studio for reggae in the Seventies. The track was played by the Channel One house band, the Revolutionaries, which included future production giants Sly and Robbie. I’m not sure if Sly and Robbie played on this track; my copy of Stand Up to Your Judgement, the 1978 LP that “Stoned Out of My Mind” appears on, also lists Santa Davis on drums and Ranchie McLean on bass, but doesn’t specify who plays on which tracks. I especially love the jazzy lead guitar from either Chinna Smith or Dougie Bryan (the credits just say “Duggie,” but I’m guessing it was Bryan). While credits on reggae albums could often be a bit lacking in detail, I much prefer that to the creditless way that many listeners consume music in the digital age. Speaking of digital, the version of the Diamonds’ “Stoned Out of My Mind” from the Seventies isn’t available on any streaming platforms other than YouTube. Search for the song on Spotify or Apple Music and you’ll hear a far inferior modern dancehall release that’ll have you thinking I’m nuts for including this song on the list.
‘Let Down,’ Easy Star All-Stars feat. Toots & the Maytals (2006)
Far too many of the artists on this list are no longer with us (Sugar Minott, Frankie Paul, Tabby and Bunny Diamond, Dennis Brown, among them). Working with the late Toots Hibbert (who passed away in 2020) on this track from our OK Computer tribute, Radiodread, was one of the highlights of my producing career. We recorded at Inner Circle’s famed Miami studio Circle House (the building of which was probably financed by royalties from “Bad Boys,” their theme to the TV show Cops). Toots smoked more herb than I had ever seen anyone consume in one session as I tried to help him wrap his head around a song that was a bit more complicated than John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” his much-beloved cover of which some people probably expected to see on this list. Between the ska track and Toots’ vocals, I think that we came up with something pretty different from the Radiohead original to say the least, and Toots was happy enough with the finished product that he used to play it over and over again on his tour bus. Amazingly, Thom Yorke was even quoted as saying that he liked the Easy Star All-Stars version better than Radiohead’s. Can’t get higher praise than that!
‘Moonage Daydream,’ Easy Star All-Stars feat. Naomi Cowan (2023)
This has been my favorite song on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album since I was a kid. For our version, I decided to flip the script on the original and replace the aggressive guitar stabs with a consistent never-changing bass line, opting for smooth over jagged. My goal was to create something hypnotic, which at least worked on me because I think that I fell into a trance while laying down the bass. In homage to Bowie’s classic, I employed a string quartet to emulate the original arrangement, which I emphasized even more on the dub version we included on the Ziggy Stardub album. And in tribute to Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, I had Alex Lifeson from Rush lay down a guitar solo at the end of the track. Singer Naomi Cowan topped it all off with a Jamaican-centric interpretation — a little accent and patois, which was exactly what we were looking for.
‘Can I Change My Mind,’ Alton Ellis (1969)
Alton Ellis, mentioned earlier for his production work, was also a revered singer, starting in the days of ska up until his death a few years ago. I’m generally enamored of his rocksteady period from the mid-Sixties, and while it was difficult to choose from among his many great covers, this one wins out by a hair. Ellis recorded this song more than once, a common practice for reggae artists. The version with which I’m most familiar has Ellis’ vocals strangely low compared to the instrumentation; when you consider the speed at which records were cranked out in Jamaica back in the day, I assume the producer wasn’t agonizing over every detail in the studio like I tend to do. But it fits the laid-back vibe of this record, which has a lot less drive but a cooler feel than the Tyrone Davis original.
‘Queen Majesty,’ The Jays and Ranking Trevor (1977)
Many Jamaican artists who got their start in the Sixties and Seventies have told me that Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions were one of their favorite acts. The Impressions had several songs that were covered widely, most famously “People Get Ready,” which the Wailers incorporated into “One Love.” “Minstrel and Queen” was known in Jamaica as “Queen Majesty,” and while versions by other artists might have been better known, I’ve always preferred this cut by The Jays (a singing group that I don’t know beyond this song) and Ranking Trevor (a DJ that I don’t know either). Part of the appeal is the great playing by the Revolutionaries, captured at Channel One. The arresting musical intro is akin to a royal fanfare, quite appropriate for a song about a queen. And this version also showcases the style of having a deejay chat over the extended disco mix of a track, which is essential to the later development of dancehall.
‘Good Thing Going,’ Sugar Minott (1984)
Lincoln “Sugar” Minott is one of the unsung heroes of reggae, having helped many young singers and DJs start their careers; his sound system was even called “Youthman Promotion.” He’s also known as the Godfather of Dancehall, being one of the first artists to repurpose older riddims for new songs. I was privileged to work closely with Sugar from the beginnings of Easy Star Records, through his participation in Radiodread and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band, up until his untimely passing in 2010, and I know he wished his contribution to Jamaican music had been more widely recognized during his life. Sugar did briefly enjoy the attention he deserved when his take on this Michael Jackson tune bounded up to Number Four on the U.K. singles chart, earning him an appearance on Top of the Pops. I highly recommend checking out the video of Sugar and what seems like a dozen musicians hamming it up on British television. It brings me joy every time I see it.
‘Money,’ Easy Star All-Stars feat. Gary Nesta Pine and Dollarman (2003)
When we first started working on our Pink Floyd tribute Dub Side of the Moon, co-producer Victor Axelrod (a.k.a. Ticklah) and I knew that we’d eventually have to deal with the fact that this Pink Floyd song is largely in 7/4 time, an odd meter that hadn’t showed up in reggae before, maybe ever. Even the classic reggae reinterpretation of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” converted that song’s 5/4 time to standard 4/4 time. We finally cracked the code by having the drummer play the kick drum on every beat, which in reggae is called “steppers.” We also aimed to have all of David Gilmour’s guitar solos on the album replaced with more “reggae” elements, in this case, the chatting of Grenada-born DJ Dollarman, who crafted a set of verses that have become iconic to the Easy Star fan base. But the funnest part of creating this cover might’ve been figuring out how to replace the cash-register sounds from the original — I guess we got it right because Rolling Stone called it “bongtastic!”
‘Baltimore,’ The Tamlins (1980)
This song was written and originally released by Randy Newman, but I’m pretty sure that The Tamlins and producers Sly and Robbie based their version on Nina Simone’s reggae-lite 1978 recording of the tune. I’ve always loved the Tamlins version, though before I knew it was a cover, I never understood why they were singing about a city in the U.S. I eventually realized that for them, the Baltimore depicted here was a metaphor for the rough-and-tough parts of Kingston. The track is pure militant drum and bass, and I love how the chorus comes in with some sweet harmony to change up the vibe before the singers and musicians bring us back to the danger zone. The Tamlins had provided harmonies for many artists, including the aforementioned Dennis Brown and Marcia Griffiths, and they worked extensively with Peter Tosh before busting out with this cover for one of the biggest Jamaican hits of the late Seventies.
‘Now That We’ve Found Love,’ Third World (1978)
This is one of those songs where the cover version has surely eclipsed the original, and not just for me. Like with many of these tunes on this list that I’ve been listening to for years, it didn’t even occur to me that it was a cover — it was just a massive Third World song. And I mean massive. This will bring people to the dance floor whenever and wherever it’s played, and it climbed the U.K. and U.S. charts at a time when it was extremely rare for a song by a Jamaican act to do so (actually, wait, that’s still the case now). Third World was (and is) quite adept at blending R&B and soul into their sound; their lead vocalist William “Bunny Rugs” Clarke was a soul singer at heart, and he fully shows off his pipes on this cut. I was fortunate enough to meet the band in the early Nineties and work with Rugs on Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band just a few years before he died in 2014. Third World continued to have a measure of crossover success throughout the Eighties. Stevie Wonder was enough of a fan that he wrote and produced for them, including their 1982 R&B hit “Try Jah Love.” It’s the only time he did that for a Jamaican artist. It would’ve been nice to be in the studio to witness that.