Max Romeo is a performer who managed to rise above the rudest of beginnings (recording-wise) to become one of the first Rastaman singers to record a series of deeply spiritual and socially conscious roots songs.
He was born Maxie Smith in St. Anns and first became famous for his raunchy early '60s hit "Wet Dream," containing suspiciously suggestive lyrics concerning a man in bed with his woman. The song was a runaway hit in Great Britain until older people began listening to it closely and banned it. Though Romeo publicly claimed the song was about a leaky roof, the ban remained. This did not stop the song from making it to the British Top Ten thanks to its popularity amongst London's rebellious young skinheads.
With that success under his belt (as it were) Romeo released a few more similarly themed "novelty" tunes such as "Wine Her Goosie" and "Pussy Watch Man" with only modest success. As the '70s progressed, Romeo underwent a few profound spiritual changes. By the time he teamed up with production wizard Lee Perry in the mid-'70s, he had become a committed Rastaman and was singing visionary songs praising Jah and calling the sufferahs to social consciousness and culture. Songs from this period include "Let the Power Fall," "Pray for Me," "Every Man Ought to Know" and "Black Equality."
With Perry, Romeo recorded his magnum opus,
War Ina Babylon (1976) with the Upsetters. Though Romeo penned or co-penned most of the songs, and sang all of the songs, most of the album's success has been attributed to the genius of Perry and many consider this one of his finest albums ever. Romeo continued recording singles with Perry for a short while afterward, but then the two had a falling out and split up. Since then, though he continues to record and perform, Romeo has yet to find the perfect niche for his silky, haunting voice and earnest style, releasing
Selassie I Forever in 1999.
It was Romeo who first introduced to Britain the concept of rude reggae with 'Wet Dream', which, despite a total radio ban, reached number 10 in the UK charts in May 1969. He toured the UK several times in the space of a year and issued two albums, A Dream being the better selling. However, despite other similarly styled singles such as 'Mini Skirt Vision', he did not enjoy chart success again. Romeo was, essentially, something of a gospel singer, with an ability to convey a revivalist fervor on his records, which included 'Let The Power Fall On I' (a Jamaican political anthem in 1972) and 'Pray For Me'. Furthermore, he had an ability to convey the trials, tribulations and amusements of Jamaican life in a song, as evinced by 'Eating Competition', 'Sixpence' and 'Aily And Ailaloo'.
In 1972 Romeo began a liaison with producers Lee Perry and Winston 'Niney' Holness, and from this point onwards, his records had a musical fire to match his apocalyptical vision and contrasting humour. 'Babylose Burning', 'Three Blind Mice' and 'The Coming Of Jah' all maintained his star status in Jamaica between 1972 and 1975.
Revelation Time was one of the best albums of 1975, and 1976's
War Ina Babylon was hailed by the rock press as an all-time classic reggae album. However, Perry had much to do with the artistic success of those records, and following a much-publicized split between the pair - with Perry recording 'White Belly Rat' about Romeo, and scrawling 'Judas' over the singer's picture in Perry's studio - Romeo was cast adrift without musical roots. He left Jamaica for New York in 1976, but I Love My Music, recorded with the help of Keith Richards, was a flop, and the stronger
Reconstruction fared little better. A move to the Wackies' label in the early 80s failed to reverse his fortunes, and by the late 80s Max Romeo's name was forgotten in the mainstream reggae market.
He returned to Jamaica in 1990, and in the spring of 1992, London producer Jah Shaka recorded
Far I Captain Of My Ship on Jah Shaka Records, an unabashed, Jamaican recorded roots album, generally reckoned to be Romeo's best work for over 15 years.
Despite his huge following in Europe, Max Romeo has not performed in the United States in nearly 25 years. He has a massive catalog of hits that the good people of Boonville will get to hear when Max Romeo makes his California debut at SNWMF on Saturday, June 20, 2015.