It's a cold and blustery winter afternoon in Harlesden, northwest London, and the streets are swarming with Saturday shoppers busying themselves with their daily grind.

Meanwhile, reggae's most noted ambassador is busy signing studio photographs for his adoring fans.

Freddie McGregor has just flown in from Jamaica for a charitable performance of a different kind. The occasion: the opening of the Jamaica Jerk Centre, where the dishes have been twinned with popular McGregor songs, like A Little Bit More - a jerk meal for two.

Much later, McGregor finally tears himself away ushering me towards a 4x4 vehicle, where he begins directing instructions via a mobile phone, while keeping up a separate conversation with his chaperone.

His attention finally turns my way. "Freddie McGregor: Coming In Tough, you hear the title but you don't know what it suggests," he says of his forthcoming album produced by Bobby Digital, McGregor and his 14-year-old son, Steven.

McGregor explains that Steven and Bobby are the "two big producers" on the album, which offers a mix of covers and original material, includes duets with Morgan Heritage, Marcia Griffiths and the Gaylads. It is McGregor's 36th such offering in as many years.

McGregor says he personally chose the track 'Ooh Child', one of three cover songs on the album. The choice provides a telling insight into McGregor's philosophical outlook on life.

"From time to time you find songs that you really love. 'Ooh Child' is a song that I always sing. It is a song of inspiration: 'Ooh child, things are gonna be easier, Ooh child, things will be brighter someday'. Me love that song very much," he laments.

Having survived more than 40 years in an extremely fickle industry, McGregor's auspicious list of achievements is testament to his ideals.

During his illustrious career he's serenaded the elite (including Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles), smashed cultural barriers (performing for the Hopi Indians of Arizona), been highly honoured (as a Living Legend by the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC, and received the Jamaican Order of Distinction in recognition of his contribution to the music and culture of his native island).

McGregor has touted his unique brand of 'lovers rock reggae' across the globe, seemingly setting his mark in stone. For the past 18 years he's performed to audiences of 300,000 in the late 1980s at the Cartagena Caribbean Music Festival, Colombia, and headlined at the Japanese Jumping Splash.



Freddie McGregor.

Amidst all this, McGregor remembers two experiences in particular. "One would be my performing in Colombia, another would be performing on a Hopi reservation in Arizona. Those were really interesting times for me. We had no idea Spanish people would understand reggae or know about reggae back then. It was awesome. The Spanish people love music, they are very rhythmic."

The experience pushed McGregor to tour Santa Marta, Cartagena, Barranquilla and Bogota yearly, and inspired him to pen Guantanamera - which he sings in Spanish - in appreciation.

It was hugely successful. "It got really big in Colombia to the point where we couldn't travel without police and security," he remembers.

A ground breaking performance at the Hopi Indian Reservation in Arizona, ten years ago, saw McGregor take reggae into uncharted waters.

"The Indian reservation was different because we were going on an Indian reservation for the very first time, not knowing what to expect, how these people are, what they love, what they listen to. When we went there, we found that they were people sharing the same sentiment as Bob Marley, played a lot of reggae and believed in what we believe in culturally. They are an oppressed people, of course, and so they feel the same struggle as we do. And we became close. We did a great concert there. I was the first artist to perform there. Since then I think just about every reggae artist has had a go."



Freddie McGregor ca. 1981.

Born in Jamaica in 1946, McGregor began singing at the age of seven. Under the tutelage of Studio One's Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, and intense mentoring from the likes of Marley, Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe, he honed his skills. In the mid-sixties, he formed the duo Freddie and Fitzroy with Ernest 'Fitzroy' Wilson before joining the harmony vocal group the Clarendonians.

In 1975, McGregor was sworn into the Rastafarian faith, with his lyrics reflecting the faith's teachings, in tunes such as 'I Am a Rasta', 'Mark of the Beast' and 'Sgt Brown'.

His debut solo album, the 1979 'Zion Chant', was to become the precursor to 35 subsequent releases, including some memorable tunes like: 'Come Now Sister', 'Africa Here I Come', and his signature piece 'Big Ship'.

McGregor's first UK chart hit came in 1986 with 'Push Come To Shove'. Later, 'Just Don't Want to Be Lonely', a cover of the Main Ingredient's original, soared to number nine on the UK charts. Ill-fated negotiations with Polydor followed, only to be dashed by industry politics.

McGregor also set up The Children's Fund, a charity based and administered in Birmingham that supports the needs of children world-wide. "They have been doing a great job distributing funds to different charities and organisations. A lady named Selma is in charge of it, so the work continues even without my presence," he said of the organisation's work.

In 1989, McGregor launched the Big Ship record label, named after his 1981 hit, and has dedicated much of his time to producing albums for the likes of Judy Mowatt, General Degree and Mikey Spice, who McGregor says will be supporting him at his Valentine's concert this weekend - February 13th, 2005 - in Brixton. Also performing at the gig will be Marcia Griffiths, Ken Boothe and Leroy Smart.

Now McGregor's big ship really has come in to dry dock. Twice nominated for the elusive Grammy, the crooner still remains highly philosophical. "It's like you go to the Olympics and you run second, so you go back and train and next year you come with the intention to come first."

Like the man said, he's coming in tough and looks well equipped for the duration.

Article written by : Jennifer Hall.
(Please do not reproduce without permission).


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