We start and end with a South African artist in this post. Letta Mbulu began performing at a young age and moved to the United States in 1965 to escape apartheid, joining her contemporaries Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. She recorded vocals for film soundtracks and with jazz musicians throughout the 60s and 70s. Her first album Letta Mbulu Sings was released in 1967 on Capitol. 1968's Free Soul was a fusion of South African styles, soul, jazz and funk. "Welele" is the best example of this mix. 1970's; "Macongo" from her third album Letta is an equally strong track.
Jamaican music has, and has had since before the early days of ska, it's own soul singers. This was especially true with the arrival of rock steady, the transitional style between ska (early-60s) and reggae (late-60s). Rock steady's smooth, lilting rhythm was complimented perfectly by soul-styled vocals by groups and solo singers alike. Dawn Penn was one of many solo vocalists. "I Let You Go Boy", from 1967, does not sound like much of a title, but the proof is in the listening. The song is a response to the Uniques' rock steady tune "Let Me Go, Girl" using the same instrumental backing track.
Narrowing down the late Phyllis Dillon's repertoire to one or two favourites is nearly impossible. The anointed Queen of Rock Steady released dozens of hits through her career. Her 1967 rock steady cover of the pop standard "Perfidia" and her 1969 classic "Love Was All I Had", from the very beginning of the reggae era, are my favourites.
If not Queen then the Duchess of Rock Steady, Landis' string of hits (covers of "Kansas City" and "Angel of the Morning" among them) began as rock steady started morphing into the choppy, more polyrhythmic style that would be christened "reggae" by the end of 1968. "Moonlight Lover" is a perfect example of a late rock steady number recorded on the prolific Treasure Isle label (also Phyllis Dillon's label at the time) owned by entrepreneur Duke Reid.
The Gaylettes/Judy Mowatt
Rock steady and, later, reggae, had its girl groups just like American soul music did. The Gaylettes were a trio featuring the very young Judy Mowatt on lead. The spring of 1968 saw their release "Silent River (Runs Deep)" on the Gay Feet label (hence their group name) owned by the first female label owner in Jamaica, Sonia Pottinger. Innovative rhythm guitarist Lynn Taitt and his studio band The Jets provide the back up while the Gaylettes' harmonies send a chill up your spine as they seem to meld into a fourth voice.
The Gaylettes split up in 1970 and Mowatt began to record solo material. In 1971, she recorded a reggae cover of Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me" also for Sonia Pottinger. She also, famously, began singing back up for Bob Marley and the Wailers becoming one of the I-Threes group alongside Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths. Having been made an Officer of the Order of Distinction for "services to music" by the Jamaican government in 1999, Mowatt continues to record to this day as a gospel artist. Pottinger died in 2010 after a long, illustrious career as a record producer.
While Phyllis Dillon was the Queen of Rock Steady, Marcia Griffiths is still considered the Queen of Reggae, although her career stretches back to the halcyon days of ska around the time of Jamaica's political independence in 1962. Griffiths performed with the internationally famous Byron Lee and the Dragonaires before signing with Clement Dodd's legendary Studio One label in 1964. Much like Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell at Motown, Griffiths recorded soul ballad duets with male singers, among them Bob Andy and Bob Marley. Her only rock steady number, from 1968, "Feel Like Jumping" used the backing track from the Maytal's "54-46, That's My Number".
In 1969 she recorded an entire album with Bob Andy on the Harry J label which yielded a local and UK hit single: a cover of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black" on the top side. Motown picked it up for US distribution in mid-1970, but the single went nowhere stateside. Other great covers that she recorded in her pre-I Threes days included a scorcher of the Beatles classic "Don't Let Me Down" and, alongside Bob Andy, the Crispian St. Peters one hit wonder "Pied Piper".
Back to the US ... Dorothy Ashby, like Alice Coltrane, was a jazz harpist who recorded numerous albums throughout the 50s and 60s. In 1968, she signed with Chess records in Chicago. Chess had released jazz records before, but, increasingly, they were coming upon music that defied easy categorization. For those artists, they introduced a label called Cadet Concept; the first act signed to it was the Rotary Connection in 1967. Ashby released three albums on Cadet Concept, the last being the mystical Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, in January of 1970. The standout track is "The Moving Finger". Beginning and ending with an incantation (taken from a translation of the epic poem The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) drenched in apocalyptic reverb, the music begins like a rumbling, climaxing with a riff from string section. There was much spiritual seeking in 1969-70, but also much chaos, violence and destruction; this foreboding atmosphere some of the best music of those years.
Ashby continued recording into the 80s before passing away in 1986.
Spanky Wilson's began singing backup for jazz artists and ... the above-mentioned Letta Mbulu. Her own early material, recorded on the bizarrely named label Mothers Records and the Snarf Company, is at the very confluence of funk and rock. Sadly, they never made the impact that they should have.
Wilson's first two albums, Spankin' Brand New and Doin' It, were both released in 1969. Her cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" is simply electric. In 1970, she released Let It Be, which included other covers besides the title track, another being "Love or Let Me Be Lonely". Wilson recorded an album for Westbound records in the mid-70s before disappearing from the scene. She released a comeback album in 2006 with the Quantic Soul Orchestra called I'm Thankful.
And now we leap ahead a few years into the disco era for an undisputed South African soul gem. Born in Durban, South Africa, Dumakude moved to New York in the 70s and recorded an album called Africa Disco in 1977 with producer and later, husband, Welcome Msomi. A sleek, shimmering album, there is a track on it called "Early in the Morning" which starts subtle then sneaks up on you and ensnares you in its hypnotic rhythms. Sounding something like the Miracles' 1974 hit "Do It Baby", but with a certain unearthiness, "Early in the Morning" deserves more recognition, and Africa Disco deserves a re-release.
After this album, with the help of her husband, Dumakude entered the world of dance and musical theatre. She has since performed in films such as Cry Freedom (1988) and in Broadway productions such as the musical version of The Lion King all the while supporting charities based in South Africa. She still lives in New York with her husband.