Junior English, the smooth-talking reggae icon with a magic aura
Renowned reggae crooner Junior English died aged 71 last week, prompting an outpouring of grief from fans, friends and family members far and wide – particularly among Britain’s Black Caribbean communities.
Widely regarded as the first “king of lovers’ rock” in the UK, English released more than 13 studio albums across a six-decade career, working with popular reggae producers and labels including Clement Bushay, the Pama brothers at Jet Star Records, Count Shelly, and Trojan Records.
With the capacity to bowl listeners over with his deep baritone, and thrill them with a striking falsetto, the London-based singer rose to become one of the most sought-after reggae artists of his generation.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1951, English was the youngest of three children. He began to perform as a pre-teen and recorded two songs, “Fay is Gone” and “My Queen” (a duet with Errol Dunkley) for producer Prince Buster in the 1960s.
He then migrated to England in 1964, aged 13, to join his Windrush parents, living with them in Lancashire before moving to London, where he stayed with his aunt.
“I found Preston really boring,” English said during a documentary released in 2021. “So, I said to my sister ‘where are all the Black people?’ I didn’t have any friends or anything like that. My sister says ‘well…everyone’s in London’. I said ‘where is London?’”
English completed his education at John Kelly Boys school in Neasden, northwest London, now The Crest Boys’ Academy. It was around that time that he met friend and broadcaster “Daddy Ernie” Harriott, while they were both teenagers knocking about the Harlesden area. Harriot fondly describes him to The Independent as a ”sweet bwoy” or “ladies’ man”, because “the girls loved him”.
At the time, English aspired to break into the music industry and followed the local record store People’s Sound, which played his early recordings Anniversary and Daddy’s Home.
“I never knew Junior to be in fights; he was a smooth, laid-back character,” Harriott said. “A ‘sweet bwoy’, a ladies’ man, Junior was. Well put-together. Sharp. When he was around everyone knew because he had an aura about him like one of those people who own the room when they walk in.
“As the first generation of kids born to the Windrush generation, we all grew up with the likes of Dennis Brown and Junior English. He was among the group of artists, like Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minnott, making reggae in the UK.
“But Junior was ahead of the other male singers making lovers rock music at the time; he did it his way. Undoubtedly, he was instrumental in the early lovers’ rock era and was the king of lovers’ rock. I can’t think of an individual artist from that era who had what Junior did. From his aura to his sound, he was special and I hope people don’t forget him.”
After entering and winning a talent contest organised by the Palmer brothers (of Pama Records), English joined The Magnets and toured with them through Europe. He then joined The Nighthawks, releasing the album Man it’s Reggae with the group in 1969, before launching his solo career that same year.
A string of consistently brilliant albums cemented English’s reputation as a popular entertainer. The Dynamic Junior English, his debut, was released in 1974, followed by records includingThe Great Junior English (1976) and Win Some Lose Some (1978). The latter birthed a mega-hit in the shape of “In Loving You”, a cover of US singer Curtis Mayfields’“Love To Keep You In My Mind”, which spent seven weeks at No 1 on the UK reggae chart. It was also the biggest lovers’ rock song by a solo male artist of the decade.
For many, “In Loving You” and its follow-up single “Never Win, Never Lose” encapsulated the early lovers’ rock era, with both songs proving popular at house parties and “blues dance” events.
“Never Win, Never Lose” was a cover of“Never Lose, Never Win” by US soul group Chain Reaction. Legend has it that the title difference in English’s rendition was down to a simple error by the printers.
“Both songs were sound system favourites and are now classified as ‘Peel-Off Wallpaper’ tunes or, slow jams, in other words,” reggae expert and DJ Colin Brown told The Independent.
“Junior appeared to sing effortlessly, he had a wonderful vocal tone and was able to sing love songs with sensitivity and control,” Brown, who recently curated an exhibition, titled 1970’s Lovers Rock UK featuring English, continued.
“His music tended to have more of a Jamaican sound, which endeared him to the hardcore sound men and his sweet vocals were very appealing to the ladies.
“Junior was a serious artist, continuously writing songs. I admired him because he adapted and changed with the music industry over the decades. He was possibly the first King of lovers’ rock.”
BBC Radio London presenter Eddie Nestor told The Independent: “When‘In Loving You’ comes on and I’m in a dance, it makes me remember what I used to be able to do against that wall to his music.”
Nestor, a married father-of-two, quipped: “I can’t do that anymore though!”
“In the dance, reactions to Junior English’s music are always good,” he continued. “His body of work is amazing.”
In 1976, the singer won Best Male Reggae Vocalist at the British Reggae Industry Award from reggae pioneer DJ Tony Williams, formerly of BBC Radio.
Among his other hits are “Be Thankful For What You’ve Got” (1977), which peaked at No 24 on the reggae chart, “Love And Key” (1979), “I’m The One Who Loves You” (1979) and “Take Care Of Yourself” (1981).
Former BBC Radio One DJs David Symonds, Tony Blackburn and Emperor Rosko were among some of the high-profile figures who championed English. Rosko, in particular, was a huge fan who would often call upon English to sing at his events during the Seventies and Eighties.
The singer’s success continued through the 1980s, and he set up his own International English label for many of his later releases. In 1985, he contributed to the British Reggae Artists Famine Appeal single “Let’s Make Africa Green Again”.
Despite these succeses, English was eager to explore a change in sound. He dabbled in soul music during the late 1980s, again under his own label, with songs including “Hey Baby” (1986) and “Say That You’ll Stay”, both of which enjoyed moderate success. English struggled to promote either song, however, due to issues with funding.
Around this time, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and his health began to steadily decline. He began using a wheelchair in 2020, with his health issues sparking a late-career move into gospel music.
“It threw me down for a while, so my mobility became very limited and I was in hospital for some time. Then it eased, left me, for about ten years,” English said in his documentary.
“But, in between all of that, I tried to get back into the show business (...) but I wasn’t able to keep up with it because it was a bit strenuous. Then it came back again in a more serious way, so I had to mainly concentrate on making records.
“After the experience, I’ve had being in the hospital and very sick, I decided to change my style. I decided to sing songs giving praise unto God for really keeping me and bringing me through this sickness.”
English’s last major concert was at the annual Giants of Lovers Rock Show in 2012. Event creator Orlando Gittens declared that English “tore the roof down” with his performance.
“He wasn’t very mobile at the time but he said at the time at least he got the opportunity to sing at the O2,” Gittens wrote. “It was me who felt honoured!”
Soon after this event, English was forced to withdraw from doing live performances. But he never stopped recording, releasing a gospel collaboration with Donna Hinds titled One More Chance just months before his death.
On 10 March 2023, English died “peacefully” surrounded by his loved ones after a long period of illness.
Fellow reggae artist and friend Winston Francis, whose hits include “Mr Fix It” (1969), said English’s “wonderful” talent would be missed, but his legacy would continue forever.
“Even though Junior was sick for a long time, he still made an effort to do what he loved best: write beautiful songs and record them,” he said.
Angie Greaves, presenter on Smooth Radio added: “Junior English was one of those artists, that when you were going to a club, especially a house party, it was like a whole event waiting to happen. Once one of those tunes dropped, a feeling would just engulf you: the sweetness of reggae music was beautiful.
“I can tell you about my raving days to Junior English’s music… when I heard ‘In Loving You’ it didn’t matter how much my foot was burning me, I was going back inside the house party and I’m holding someone to dance.”
She continued: “It’s a shame that we [only] highlight these artists when they’ve gone. There is a saying: ‘give people flowers when they’re alive’. That is something that we need to do a lot more.”
Junior English is survived by his sister, brother, five children whom he referred to as the “apple of his eyes”, and six grandchildren.