In the canon of great reggae songs, “Rivers of Babylon” has a special place, but its creators still toil in relatively obscurity even as they mark their 50th anniversary of making music.
“We never really got the recognition I think we deserve,” says Tony Brevett of the Melodians, the Jamaican vocal group whose “Golden Jubilee Tour” stops Friday at the Young Avenue Deli. “We’re trying to prove ourselves. All the hard work that we did. Every night we rehearsed. But we still come up with new ideas and put them all together. I think that is what keeps us going, the good work that we do.”
Brevett, the nephew of Skatalites bassist Lloyd Brevett, formed the Melodians in 1963 in Kingston, Jamaica, with fellow teenagers Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton. After years of practicing and gigging wherever they could, in 1966 the group cut its first singles for influential producer Coxsone Dodd.
The trio started off as a ska band but in 1967 transitioned to the newer rocksteady style, a move that Brevett says played to the group’s strengths and freed them up creatively.
“Rocksteady is much slower than the ska,” Brevett says. “We used to listen to a lot of foreign artists. Sam Cooke is one of my favorites. The Temptations, we used to listen to them. The Beatles most of all. We said we wanted to create songs just like those guys. And with the slower rhythms of rocksteady, we could sing much more harmony, like country-and-Western style harmony.”
The Melodians found success quickly with their new sound, scoring their first regional hits with songs like “You Don’t Need Me” and “Come On Little Girl.” Then in 1969, they started working with Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong, one of the founders of Island Records, who, having scored some of the country’s first international hits with Desmond Dekker, was suddenly the hottest producer in the genre.
The Melodians had their two biggest hits with Kong that year. The first was “Sweet Sensation,” a doo-wop-touched single that broke them for the first time in England. The second was “Rivers of Babylon,” which, while only a minor hit for the Melodians, would soon take on a life of its own.
Written by Dowe and McNaughton, “Rivers of Babylon” has a place in pop history — alongside the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” — for being one of the few hits whose lyrics are taken almost verbatim from the Bible, in this case Psalm 137: 1-4, a passage that poetically captures the aspirations of the Jews in exile.
Upon its release, the song, with its message of deliverance from oppression, quickly became an anthem of the new reggae music scene and the growing Rastafarian movement. It was featured on the breakout 1972 film soundtrack to “The Harder They Come,” but its message has since transcended its cultural roots.
The German disco group Boney M had a massive international hit with “Rivers of Babylon” in 1978, selling more than 3 million records. It has since been covered by the likes of Steve Earle, Linda Ronstadt, the Neville Brothers and Sublime.
But the Melodians were not around to capitalize on any of that exposure. The group broke up in 1973. In 1983 — the same year UB40 covered “Sweet Sensation” on their smash album Labour of Love — the group had the first of several reunions, and they have been together uninterrupted ever since the ’90s.
In 2006, the Melodians were working on their first album of new material since 1983 with such celebrated reggae players as Sly & Robbie, Robbie Lyn and Dean Fraser when Dowe died of a heart attack. Seven years later, the Melodians, now working as a duo and doubtful that they will ever replace their friend, have just released the album on Heavy Beat Records. Lyrics to Riddim is dedicated to Dowe and has six tracks featuring the late singer.
“We don’t want to lose the roots of the reggae music like some guys who are taking it to the hip-hop rhythms,” Brevett says of the album’s throwback sound. “That’s why we have the original musicians playing for us on this album. Bring back the grass roots. No computer.”