When Maxi Priest stepped onstage at BB King’s in New York City on June 11th, he had two reasons to celebrate.
First and foremost, the UK reggae superstar had turned 53 just a day earlier. Running a close second was the arrival of his first album in seven years, a lovers-rock-leaning collection of straight-up reggae cuts called ‘Easy To Love’. After many successful years with Virgin Records, Maxi went the indie route, releasing his 2007 album ‘Refused’ on Peppermint Jam Records, and his latest with long-reigning reggae imprint V.P. Records.
Reggae has given the world more hit songs than crossover stars. Exceptions to this rule include dearly departed icons like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. Then come living legends like Jimmy Cliff and Toots; bands like Third World, Inner Circle and UB40; and dancehall stars like Shaggy, Sean Paul, Beenie Man and Jr. Gong.
But when it comes to roots reggae, with plenty of soul and just enough sweetness to make it ‘pop’ all ‘round the world, one singer stands head and shoulders above the rest: Maxi Priest. His buttery smooth voice and flowing dreadlocks have made him a heartthrob for female fans, while his street-certified status as a founding member of the esteemed UK sound system Saxon Studio earned him nuff respect amongst the reggae-savvy dudes who made the trek to BB King’s basement to check out Maxi and his four-man rhythm section.
A regular presence on the British charts since the mid-1980s, Maxi’s reggae rendition of Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’ cracked the UK top 10 in 1988. Over a quarter century later the cover version still rocks harder than the original. As the only British reggae artist to score a number one pop hit in the United States, with ‘Close To You’, Maxi has attracted a diverse fanbase, many of whom are far from reggae experts.
By 1991, when he sang a top-10 duet with American soul star Roberta Flack, his reputation as the world’s leading reggae fusion artist was solidified. Around that same time he lent his velvety voice to Shabba Ranks’ dancehall smash ‘Housecall’, which cracked the top 40 stateside, eventually making it to eight on the UK chart, exposing Maxi’s raggamuffin roots to the world, lest they be overshadowed by his pop success.
“That’s my home,” he says of his loyalty to reggae music. “It’s a very foundational part of my culture. I always describe evolving and pushing the boundary as almost like an elastic band. You have to stretch out, and then come back.” And near the end of his BB King’s performance, he went all the way back, turning the stage show into a virtual sound system dance, with Priest as the top-ranking selector at the controls.
Following a rousing performance of his R&B-flavoured 1990 chart-topper ‘Close To You’, Maxi challenged his keyboardist, guitarist, and bassist to take turns playing a medley of riffs ranging from dancehall cuts to pop classics. Maxi didn’t do much singing during this “karaoke segment”, using his mic like an orchestra conductor’s baton as he urged the audience to sing along with each song.
Whenever the crowd failed to belt out the chorus, he would order the band to “Pull up!” and berated the crowd just as harshly as if he was clashing a “dibby-dibby soundbwoy” back in his Saxon days. “YOU DONT KNOW IT!” he roared with real outrage. “I thought I was in New York. You guys don’t even know that song. Joke you ah make!”
The karaoke segment concluded with a quick snippet of The O’Jays’ ‘Love Train’ before Maxi stepped out of soundclash mode to thank the audience for coming out. “Before we leave,” he said, “we gotta bless the house.” He then closed the night with a performance of ‘Say A Prayer For The World’ that was just as epic as the song’s title suggests. “Listen to me now... Not a song goes unsung. Not a voice goes unheard…”
After the show, soul legend Eddie Levert – who had joined Maxi onstage briefly that same evening – pushed his way inside Maxi’s dressing room, crowded with well-wishers jostling for a photo ops and maybe a slice of birthday cake. “Do you have anything left?” Eddie asked Maxi, who was slumped on the couch and drenched with sweat. Maxi saw Eddie and stood up, one classic soul singer acknowledging another. Eddie saw clearly enough: “You left it all on the stage.”
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