Sunpress Blog #4: Early Joe Gibbs
By David Katz
The record producer and pioneering reggae executive Joe Gibbs achieved an uncommon level of international success in the music industry. He brought acts like Dennis Brown, Culture, Prince Fari and Ruddy Thomas to the attention of the outside world during the 1970s and made dub music a part of punk consciousness through the African Dub album series, achieving maximum overseas market penetration through deals brokered with Warner Brothers and RCA. Servicing reggae’s widening audience in the USA was achieved through his command of a pressing plant in Opa-Locka, Florida—the very plant now run by SunPress Vinyl.
Born Joel Gibson on the outskirts of Montego Bay in 1943, Gibbs trained as an electronics technician at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay. He returned to Jamaica in the mid-1960s to work at a local branch of Stone & Webster, but soon moved to Kingston, where he established a radio and television repair shop downtown at 32 Beeston Street, just a few blocks away from the centre of the bourgeoning Jamaican music scene. Selling records from the shop by 1966, he began producing music for a label he called Amalgamated, hitting instantly with the peculiar timing of Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them,” a landmark of the new rock steady style. Child star Errol Dunkley then came into the camp with popular adaptations of old rhythm and blues records, and harmony trio the Pioneers arrived in tandem with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the latter having quit Studio One following disputes over payment and artistic credit. Perry’s presence helped Gibbs’ productions to reach an ascendency as rock steady shifted to the early reggae style, but similar disputes saw Perry break away to form his own Upsetter label, leaving salesman Niney the Observer to fill his shoes as an in-house arranger, as Gibbs moved his shop to 11 South Parade, facing a noteworthy public meeting place. Gibbs opened his first proper recording studio in the western outskirts of Kingston by 1969, allowing him to concentrate more fully on record production.
Aspiring singer Nicky Thomas, who used to sweep the floor at Gibbs’ record shop, voiced a reggae rendition of Waylon Jennings’ country rock hit, ‘Love Of The Common People,’ which became a chart success in Britain in 1970, and after Gibbs moved to a larger and more permanent HQ at 20 North Parade, Niney introduced Dennis Brown to Gibbs in 1972, spawning one of the most significant reggae partnerships of all time.