Back to Their Roots 

After 25 years, The Congos still keep reggae’s fire alive

Here’s one from the vaults. Remember the English Beat, the Birmingham five-piece who hit it big with a charged reinterpretation of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown,” and recorded three critically acclaimed albums in the early ’80s: the infectious I Just Can’t Stop It, the more mid-tempo political Wha’ppen and the slicker Special Beat Service? There’s a little bit of the Jamaica’s Congos on Special Beat Service courtesy of vocalist Cedric Myton, whose unearthly falsetto is one of reggae’s most distinctive and immediately recognizable vocal signatures.

Following the demise of the English Beat, Myton went on to collaborate with both of the bands that emerged from the ashes: General Public, with vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger (“Tenderness,” anyone?) and the Fine Young Cannibals, with guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele (and Roland Gift—another, um, easily distinguishable singer whose falsetto and cracked tenor gave hits like “She Drive Me Crazy” and “Johnny Come Back,” a certain zazz, but not the ill-advised cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love?” that pollutes the Something Wild soundtrack). Myton did his share of touring and recording with the British bands, but by the time General Public called it quits in 1988, it seems the Kingston native was ready to return to a life of mostly reggae. (Whatever did happen to Ranking Roger?)

Myton formed the Congos in 1975. Before that, he played in the Tartans (with Devon Russel, Prince Lincoln Thompson and Lindberg “Preps” Lewis) and the Royal Rases, who recorded one album, Humanity, for United Artists the same year the Congos were formed. Myton was joined in the original lineup of the reggae supergroup lineup by Tartan veteran Preps, plus Watty Burnett and Roydell Johnson.

The Congos enlisted the services of legendary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry to record their debut album, Heart of the Congos, which is still generally considered to be one of the best reggae records of all time. Packed with classics like “Congoman” and “Row, Fisherman, Row,” the album was nonetheless shelved for more than 20 years after its original release due to a money dispute between Island Records’ Chris Blackwell and the record label. The album has since been re-mastered and re-released on the Blood & Fire label.

The Congos have had their trials and tribulations. In 1976, after Myton was brutalized and his dreadlocks brutally shorn at a police roadblock on his way home from a spiritual gathering, the singer found himself at the center of controversy concerning Rasta persecution by government forces. Happily, similar violent incidents declined in number after Myton and his wife Yvonne signed an anti-violence declaration with Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley.

Another major setback for the Congos was the departure of founding member Roydell Johnson in 1980. Although Johnson was eventually replaced, Myton still keeps the proverbial seat at the table open in case Johnson changes his mind. Perhaps with the forthcoming Christmas release of Lion Treasure, a retrospective/greatest hits compilation, the time will be right for Myton, Johnson and the Congos to go back to their roots.
The Congos run up in the Ritz this Friday, Dec. 1 at 10. Tix are $7 advance, $8 at the door.

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