In the early 1970s, British label Trojan Records imported the music of Jamaica to Europe. Although it may seem bizarre now, at the time the label believed that in order to make reggae more commercially viable, the songs needed a more refined touch. Thus, Trojan decided to remix their incoming singles and older material by adding string arrangements. Naturally, this appalled the genre’s hardcore fans; after all, the songs should stand on their own merit, right? The man behind the arrangements, Johnny Arthey, credited himself as The Reggae Strings. This name would take a more significant meaning a few years after his tenure, resulting in one of the more unique relics of the era, now reissued in a delightful twofer.
Arthery’s career began as a pianist in the military, but after his service he began working the London music scene. He quickly established a reputation as a top-notch pop arranger and conductor. At Trojan, he took on the thankless task of adding strings to popular songs from the Caribbean. Purists of the genre didn’t like it. They believed the European influence watered down the natural essence of the genre. But purists don’t pay the bills, and though this move proved unpopular, it did help to introduce the genre and proved quite lucrative for Trojan.
As Trojan Records started to wind down, its owners made a fortuitous decision. Why not take the label’s hits, remove the vocals, mix up the string section, and create a unique easy listening experience? Yes, such a move could be viewed as a cheap tie-in to a burgeoning new genre. Perhaps even a way to sell more product to the grey-hairs and department store music compilers. Those are valid points. Furthermore, many of the label’s releases were American pop hits. A number of those hits, such as “Moon River,” “Over The Rainbow,” and “Stand By Your Man” had already transitioned into the Easy Listening canon, albeit quite likely no other Easy Listening versions had a Reggae angle!
Reggae Strings (1973) and its follow-up Reggae Strings Volume 2 (1974) proved to be best-sellers for Trojan. And why not? How could one not have a soft spot for the gentle sounds found here? This compilation has a lot to offer, and all of it pleasant. In this stripped-down form, the Reggae element occasionally takes a secondary role. You would be hard-pressed to hear it on “How Many Times,” “Scientist,” and “Tell It Like It Is,” which have more of a South American rhythm to them. Yet on “You Can’t Be Serious,” “Strange World,” and “I Don’t Care,” the style is instantly recognizable. This blend works, and serves to slowly ease those unfamiliar with Reggae into the style. Yes, Reggae Strings may be a shallow, kiddie-pool entrée into the genre, but then again, these albums weren’t necessarily meant for fans.
But it’s the second disc of this collection that makes this twofer an essential purchase. Reissue label Doctor Bird saw fit to include the original recordings. If you enjoyed the instrumental backing tracks, you’re going to love the originals. Fine highlights include Bob & Marcia’s version of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black,” Merlene Webber’s take on Tammy Wynette’s signature “Stand By Your Man,” The Uniques’ jaunty lament “Lonely For Your Love,” and “Moon River” by Greyhound shouldn’t be missed. Personally, we love The Pioneers‘ “Roll Muddy River” and its cherry upbeat rhythm.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the label folded shortly after the release of Reggae Strings Volume 2. Its parent company, Island Records, divested from the label, thanks to its own Reggae success. A decade later, though, the label relaunched, and has become a standard-bearer for modern Reggae and its various forms. As for Johnny Arthey, he took a lucrative position working for the BBC and with artist and producer Jonathan King. Arthey worked until his passing in 2007.
Let’s face it, the music industry of the early 1970s was weird, and the British music industry was especially peculiar. That these records existed was odd enough, but there’s no surprise as to why the Reggae Strings compilations were successful. This era birthed some absolutely wonderful Reggae music. This compilation serves as a nice best-of for the first era of a label that brought Reggae to the rest of the world.
Purchase Reggae Strings And Reggae Strings Volume 2: Doctor Bird