Reggae Icons- Burning Spear

Burning Spear is one of the most respected artists in the history of Jamaican music and was a pivotal part of the golden age of reggae, popularising Rastafari consciousness in his music through his use of teachings and black history in his music. Burning Spear was a pioneer who helped to spread some of the most important ideas that were coming out of Jamaica. 

Burning Spear was born Winston Rodney in St. Ann’s Bay, Saint Ann, Jamaica on the 1st of March 1945.

Growing up, Winston listened to mainly R&B, Jazz and Soul music which were being transmitted to Jamaica via US radio stations. He has cited Curtis Mayfield and James Brown as two of his inspirations throughout his career.

Burning Spear was greatly influenced by the teachings of fellow Saint Ann native Marcus Garvey, especially his teachings regarding Pan-Africanism and self-determination. He first came into contact with Garvey’s teachings while working in his local community as a mechanic and clothes cleaner.

It is believed that in 1969, Winston met with Bob Marley and was told by Marley to go to Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One to begin to record music.

Burning Spear and his singing partner Rupert Willington auditioned three songs for Coxsone. Coxsone immediately picked one, ‘Door Peep’. Before the release of the single Winston chose to name the duo Burning Spear. The name Burning Spear is believed to have been chose because it echoes the name of the Kenyan rebel leader and later president, Jomo Kenyatta, whose Mau Mau guerillas loosened Britain’s grip on the country in the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Door Peep’ laid the foundation for Burning Spear’s Rastafari centred cultural focus, chastising the social establishment and emphasising the indignities historically suffered by black people and the icons that promoted black pride and nobility.

Soon after the release of ‘Door Peep, the duo expanded to a trio, bringing in Delroy Hinds, the brother of Justin Hinds, who is best known for the hit ‘Carry Go Bring Come’.

It was with this lineup that success started to come Burning Spear’s way, as they released a series of singles with Studio One, including the 1972 smash hit ‘Joe Frazier (He Prayer)’.

1973 brought Burning Spear’s debut album ‘Studio One Presents Burning Spear’, which included impressive works like ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, ‘Journey’, ‘Ethopians Live It Out’ and ‘We Are Free’

Their second album ‘Rocking Time’ quickly followed in 1974. During this period Burning Spear really developed some of the defining elements of their music, with Rodney’s chanting vocals being the focus with the smoother and softer tones provided by Willington and Hinds.

In 1975, the group split from Studio One and teamed up with North Coast sound system operator Jack Ruby. Their first release with Ruby, ‘Marcus Garvey’ was only ever intended for sound system use, the song was so popular that it forced Ruby’s hand and was released as a single.

This was quickly followed up by another hit ‘Slavery Days’. At this point, Coxsone thought to take advantage of the group’s new found success and released a number of singles taken from the group’s earlier recordings with him.

Their recordings with Ruby had also featured backing band the Black Disciples, which itself included some pioneers in Jamaican music, with Earl Smith, Valentine Chin, Robbie Shakespeare and Leroy Wallace being members.

Burning Spear continued to work on their third album ‘Marcus Garvey’ which would be released in 1975. The album was immediately successful in Jamaica, which drew the attention of Island Records, who stepped in and signed Burning Spear to release ‘Marcus Garvey’ around the world. Island Records angered the trio by remixing the record for international consumption.

‘Marcus Garvey’ is still regarded as one of the best Reggae albums ever produced.

Following the release of the altered version of ‘Marcus Garvey’ by Island Records, Island Records attempted a peace offering to the group by releasing ‘Garvey’s Ghost’, which was a dub companion to the original album. This did little to calm Burning Spear down. With Winston now deciding to form his own label, Spear, in order to ensure that he maintained control in all future releases.

Spear was debuted with the release of the single ‘Travelling’ a new version of an old Studio One cut ‘Journey’. Two more singles followed quickly with ‘Spear Burning’ and ‘The Youth’.

In 1976, Burning Spear released the follow-up to ‘Marcus Garvey’, ‘Man in the Hills’, again using the same formula, accompanied by the Black Disciples and overseen by Ruby. Much of the album revolved around rural life. ‘Man in the Hills’ boasts an impressive new version of the group’s debut release ‘Door Peep’ and the club hit ‘The Lion’.

By the end of the year, Winston had totally split from both Ruby and both of his band mates. Winston retained the name Burning Spear and began recording his own work.

His first self-produced album, ‘Dry and Heavy’ came in 1977, recorded at Harry J’s studio, still utilising the accompaniment of the Black Disciples. Again he revisited old songs re-recording ‘Swell Headed’ as ‘Black Disciples’ which was a real standout on the album.

By now, Burning Spear had a large amount of support in the UK, and in October 1977, Winston made his first appearance in the UK, backed by UK reggae band Aswad.

By the time of the 1978 release of Social Living, Winston decided to make some changes, the Black Disciples would remain at his side, but he brought in members of Aswad to also record with him. Karl Pitterson was brought in to co-produce, with recording split between Harry J’s studio and Compass Point in the Bahamas. The result of this was a unique album that mixed jazzy stretches with deep roots reggae. Most notably on the single ‘Civilized Reggae’.

1979 was a huge year for Burning Spear, with Winston taking a lead role in the Rockers movie, with his a cappella performance of ‘Jah No Dead’ being one of the films real standout and powerful moments.

1979 would however send the end of Burning Spear’s relationship with Island Records and the collapse of the Spear record label, with it’s final release ‘Nyah Keith’.

As the 1980s began, Winston launched the Burning Spear label, and signed it to EMI. His next album, ‘Hail H.I.M’ was recorded at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Studio again with the Black Disciples accompanying, but he now had Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett co-produce it. ‘Hail H.I.M’ is another outstanding album from Burning Spear with incredible tracks in ‘Hail H.I.M’, ‘Columbus’, ‘Follow Marcus Garvey’ and ‘Cry Blood Africans’.

In 1982, Winston signed with the Heartbeat label in the US and recorded his debut album ‘Farover’ for them. This was the beginning of a new musical era for Burning Spear, with Winston bringing in a new backing group, the Burning Band and was beginning to explore non-cultural themes, which is really evident in the single ‘She’s Mine’.

Burning Spear’s next album ‘Fittest of the Fittest’ continued down a similar path, but there was a glimpse of the old Burning Spear on 1985’s ‘Resistance’, which went on to be nominated for a Grammy. That would be Burning Spear’s final album for Heartbeat. Winston went on to sign with the independent Slash label. Burning Spear’s debut for them came with ‘People of the World’ and earned another Grammy nomination. This was followed by 1988’s ‘Mistress Music’ which was plagued with production errors, this was saved in some sense by the release of the ‘Live In Paris: Zenith’ album which was recorded at a show in May, the album ran through Burning Spear’s greatest hits and garnered another Grammy nomination.

The Burning Band which had accompanied Burning Spear since 1982 dissolved upon the completion of the European tour.

Two years later, Burning Spear was back, this time accompanied by a new backing group and signed again with Island Records, making his return album with them ‘Mek We Dweet’. At this point, Burning Spear was beginning to make the pop friendly reggae music that Island Records had always preferred, with albums now blending a range of styles including jazz, pop and reggae. There are so exceptions with songs like “Elephant,” “Garvey” and “My Roots” not being particularly different from what Burning Spear was doing earlier.

In 1991, Burning Spear was asked to provide a track for ‘Dedicated: A Tribute to the Grateful Dead’, which as the title suggests was a tribute album for the Grateful Dead. His version of ‘Estimated Prophet’ was far removed from a tribute to psychedelic rock and was a lot closer to a lot of his earlier roots work.

The same year, Burning Spear released ‘Jah Kingdom’ which again had a lot of the lighter elements of it’s predecessor, but contains a rather odd hypnotic element to it, which can be heard quite clearly on ‘Call On Jah’.

After the release of ‘Jah Kingdom’ Burning Spear once again severed ties with Island Records and moved back to Heartbeat. 1993’s ‘The World Should Know’ followed, which was once again nominated for a Grammy.

At this point, Burning Spear began to release albums on a biannual basis, with his next album coming in 1995 with ‘Rasta Business’, again earning Burning Spear another Grammy nomination.

This was followed with ‘Appointment with His Majesty’ in 1997, which saw Burning Spear experiment with a more folky sound, unsurprisingly at this point, earning them another Grammy nomination.

At this point it seemed that Burning Spear were destined to never win a Grammy, but this all changed with the release of ‘Calling Rastafari’ in 1999, which finally won the award. ‘Calling Rastafari’ saw Burning Spear move back towards their traditionally introspective narrative with sharper lyrics and more poignant ideas, even criticising the American immigration system on ‘Statue of Liberty’.

In 2002, Winston again founded his own record label with his wife Sonia Rodney, restarting Burning Music Records, which gave Winston greater artistic control of his work.

‘Freeman’ followed in 2003 and ‘Our Music’ in 2005. Burning Spear were back to winning form in 2009 winning a Grammy again with ‘Jah Is Real’ with highlights in ‘Step It’, ‘Jah is Real’, ‘People in High Places’ and ‘One Africa’.

From the incredible contribution Winston Rodney or Burning Spear has made to Jamaican music he was awarded the Order of Distinction in the rank of Officer by the Jamaican government in October 2007. Burning Spear was a pioneer throughout his career seeing reggae through a lot of phases and always remaining a pivotal part of the scene. He is an underrated artist internationally whose reach goes far beyond just reggae music. Burning Spear is truly another level of artist with 12 total Grammy nominations and 2 Grammy awards, he has truly brought reggae music to the world and everyone should be thankful for his efforts. 

Check out more of Burning Spear’s music below.

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