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Top 11 Caribbean Songs
“The true Caribbean people … We are carnival people, we are vibrant people, not dead people. We like to be heard and we like to have fun.”
—Viv Richards, cricketer
- “Hot Hot Hot” by Arrow and Buster Poindexter
Arrow, whose real name is Alphonsus Cassell, was a soca singer from the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Arrow had an international hit in 1983 with the dance floor single “Hot Hot Hot.” In the US, most know the 1987 version by New York Dolls’ David Johansen, recorded as his lounge singer alter ego Buster Poindexter.
“It’s interesting that Caribbean music is identified with the Buster thing,” Johansen said in Brooklyn Vegan. “The majority of music that we played for the first couple of years was jump blues. We did a Latin record. ‘Hot Hot Hot’ was just this song that I had heard in, like, Tortola or some place. But it’s a great song. Everybody’s just sick of it because it was used to death.”
Johansen told Perfect Sound Forever that he was surprised at the popularity of “Hot Hot Hot.” “There’s a lot of songs that I hear and I go, I really wanna sing that song… Sometimes I have the opportunity to do it and sometimes I don’t. And when I don’t, I put it in this Rolodex in the back of my head and eventually I sing it.
“There’s just certain songs that I wish I had written. But that song I thought That’s a really fun song so we’ll do it. It was always a crowd pleaser at the shows, so then when we got around to making a record, we recorded it. But I had no idea it was gonna happen like that.”
“Hot Hot Hot” by Arrow
“Hot Hot Hot” by Buster Poindexter
- “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces
“Israelites” is the first purely Jamaican song to reach the Top 10 in the US. Desmond Dekker’s 1968 hit led to the mainstream success of artists like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff. “It’s about how hard life was in Jamaica, how we were all downtrodden, just like the Israelites who Moses led to the Promised Land,” Dekker explained in The Independent. “I was telling people not to give up as things will get better. I didn’t write that song sitting around a piano or playing a guitar. I was walking in the park, eating corn.
“I heard a couple arguing about money. She was saying she needs money and he was saying the work he was doing was not giving him enough. I related to those things and began to sing a little song: You get up in the morning and you’re slaving for bread. By the time I got home, it was complete. And it was so funny, that song never got out of my mind. It stayed fresh in my head. The following day, I got my little tape and I just sang that song and that’s how it all started.”
- “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small
The original version of what became “My Boy Lollipop” was titled “My Girl Lollypop.” The song was written by Robert Spencer of the Cadillacs, a Harlem doo-wop group. Music mogul Gaetano “Corky” Vastola chose “My Girl Lollypop” as the debut single for his discovery, 14-year-old Barbie Gaye. The teen flipped the song’s gender and rewrote some of the lyrics. Gaye’s “My Boy Lollypop” became a local hit in the New York area in 1956.
In the late 1950s, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell sold Gaye’s tune to DJs who were part of the sound system scene in Kingston, Jamaica, a group who played ska, rocksteady and reggae music. Blackwell remembered the song and produced Jamaica-born Millie Small’s remake in 1963 with a shuffle/ska beat. With its spelling changed to “My Boy Lollipop,” the song reached No. 2 in the US and is considered the first international ska hit.
“My Boy Lollypop” by Barbie Gaye
“My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small
- “Keep On Running” by Jackie Edwards and the Spencer Davis Group
Following his success with Millie Small and “My Boy Lollipop,” Chris Blackwell moved Island Records from Jamaica to the UK. Blackwell managed the Spencer Davis Group, which featured a young Steve Winwood on vocals, keyboards and guitar.
Blackwell introduced the band to Jackie Edwards, a singer and Island songwriter known as “the Nat King Cole of Jamaica.” The Spencer Davis Group covered Edwards’ “Keep On Running” and scored a number one hit in the UK. The single only reached number 76 in the US.
“No one had seen a picture of the group in America and in 1966, the radio was split into black and white stations,” Davis recalled in 1000 UK #1 Hits. “‘Keep On Running’ was played on black stations in the States and when they saw a picture of these four shining little white boys, the record was dropped from the playlists so the momentum was lost. We got through to America in the end with ‘Gimme Some Lovin’.”
“Keep On Running” by Jackie Edwards
“Keep On Running” (live) by the Spencer Davis Group
- “Pass the Dutchie” by Musical Youth
The members of British-Jamaican group Musical Youth were between 11 and 15 years of age when “Pass the Dutchie” was released in September 1982. The song became a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1983. “Pass the Dutchie” was inspired by “Pass the Kouchie,” a song by the Jamaican reggae group the Mighty Diamonds.
“We were all still schoolkids in Birmingham when the band was formed,” singer Dennis Seaton told The Guardian. “We played reggae hits and some of our own songs, mostly in West Indian working men’s clubs. When we played the Mighty Diamonds’ song ‘Pass the Kouchie” at Heaven in London while supporting Culture Club, 3,000 people went crazy. It was a song about a big marijuana bong, so the record company asked us to do something about the lyrics. We changed kouchie to dutchie, which is a West Indian cooking pot, and switched How does it feel when you’ve got no herb? to got no food.”
“Pass the Kouchie” by the Mighty Diamonds
- “Who Let the Dogs Out? by Baha Men
By 2000, Baha Men were stars in their native Bahamas. Their exuberant junkanoo style was inspired by the music of Bahamas street parades. Producer Steve Greenberg brought the band “Doggie,” a soca tune by singer Anslem Douglas. Douglas explained in Rock Cellar how he came to write “Doggie.”
“My ex-brother-in-law at the time would always come to the house and he would say that phrase. He has a very big voice and he’d say, Who let the dogs out! He said, Why don’t you write a song with that? I said, That phrase sounds so American, it doesn’t sound Caribbean at all. It’s just a street cry, like someone would say, Yo, what’s up, dog! I wrote three versions of the song. The first version, I decided, this is the one. I hit the nail on the head.”
Isaiah Taylor of Baha Men was reluctant to record it. “I knew the Anslem Douglas version, I used to play it in the nightclubs. That’s why I didn’t want to do the song. At that time, I didn’t think that the song would have even worked, but Steve was very strong on it and I’m glad he was because it definitely worked. Believe me, I will keep my mouth shut from now on.”
Douglas said listeners don’t care about being unable to understand the lyrics. “They just want to get to the point where they can bark. They really don’t care. When you have such a powerful hook or a powerful chorus line, where people sing along to it, the first time you hear the song, you listen: Ooh, this is good. But when you get to the chorus and you can sing along with it, the hell with the rest: I don’t want to hear that anymore, I just want to get to the chorus.”
“Doggie” by Anslem Douglas
- “Caribbean Queen (No More Love On the Run)” by Billy Ocean
Billy Ocean was at a crossroads in his career in 1984. “I had been with a nice, little independent label called GTO, but it was bought by CBS,” the singer, born in Trinidad and Tobago, recalled in Songwriter Universe. “Then things changed — I found myself with a big corporation, and I didn’t like the vibe and atmosphere. So I left the company, and I was at a point where I was really thinking about giving up the music business.”
Clive Calder, head of Jive Records, had heard Ocean perform on demos and signed him to the label. Ocean co-wrote and recorded “European Queen,” which flopped in the UK, reaching only number 82. Then an executive at Jive’s New York office had an idea: The title “European Queen” sounded as if it was a song about British royalty. The label re-edited the track with Ocean replacing the word “European” with “Caribbean.”
As “Caribbean Queen (No More Love On the Run),” Ocean had a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984 and won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
- “Hold Me Tight” by Johnny Nash
Singer-songwriter Johnny Nash was born in Houston, Texas but found his earliest chart success in Jamaica. Nash toured Jamaica in 1967 and later recorded “Hold Me Tight” at the island’s Federal Studios. Nash established JAD, his own record label, and signed Bob Marley to an exclusive publishing contract.
The rocksteady sound of “Hold Me Tight” had international appeal and became a No. 5 hit in 1968. Nash combined the danceable tempos of rocksteady with American R&B on follow-up hits, a reworking of Marley’s “Stir It Up” and his own “I Can See Clearly Now,” which topped the charts in 1972. Nash’s crossover appeal cleared the way for success by artists like Eddy Grant, Baha Men and Billy Ocean.
- “Double Barrel” by Dave & Ansell Collins
Dave & Ansell Collins, both from Kingston, Jamaica, were not related; Dave was actually Dave Barker. The 1970 reggae single “Double Barrel” begins with toasting: Barker shouts over the music as an American DJ would introduce a song. Barker’s opening line, “I am the Magnificent W-O-O-O,” has never been fully explained.
Barker and Collins, who played keyboards, recorded “Double Barrel” at Trojan Records, where Desmond Dekker tracked “Israelites.” Producer Winston Riley wrote the instrumental for the duo. “Double Barrel” reached No. 22 in 1971. Barker’s toasting style throughout “Double Barrel” hints at the hip-hop era to come.
- “The Tide Is High” by the Paragons and Blondie
Singer-songwriter John Holt joined the Paragons, one of Jamaica’s top rocksteady groups, in 1964. Holt was inspired by the Kingston fishing community of Greenwich Town to write “The Tide Is High.”
“A friend who was a fisherman went out and came back real quick,” Holt told The Independent. “He said to me, John, the tide is high, so I couldn’t go out. I always had my guitar with me, so I changed the line I had before, from ‘the time is hard’ to ‘the tide is high.’ I was trying to write a song about hard times, about the sea, and two people in love as well, or a man seeking to be friends with a woman. I guess that’s what made that song so heavy, you know. You can see that song from many different perspectives.”
Debbie Harry heard the song on a compilation tape and recorded a reggae version of “The Tide Is High” as the lead single from Blondie’s 1980 Autoamerican album. The song became a No. 1 hit for Blondie.
“The Tide Is High” by the Paragons
“The Tide Is High” by Blondie
- “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant
In the 1880s, Electric Avenue in Brixton, London was the first market street to be lit by electric lights. Tensions between the local African-Caribbean community and the police came to a head during the 1981 Brixton riot. Singer-songwriter Eddy Grant was born in Guyana and lived in London during the riots. “On the way home one night from working in the Black Theatre of Brixton,” Grant told The Guardian, “I saw Electric Avenue on a street sign, and thought: What a fantastic song title.
“Just before leaving England, I’d watched the Brixton riots unfold on television. I’d seen the Notting Hill riots starting a few years previously. I wrote down: Now in the street there is violence, and the song just flowed from there. I had been talking to politicians and people at a high level about the lack of opportunity for Black people, and I knew what was brewing. The general attitude was: Oh come on, Eddy, you mean rivers of blood? I myself might have been successful, but I could have easily been one of those guys with no hope, and I knew that when people felt they were being left behind, there was potential for violence. The song was intended as a wake-up call.”
Grant released “Electric Avenue” on his 1982 album Killer on the Rampage. The single reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983.