One of the most soulful and accomplished singers of Jamaica's ska, rocksteady, and early reggae eras, Slim Smith found his biggest success from 1965 until his premature death at age 25 in 1973. Although according to various reports stating he had a troubled and unstable life, Smith will best be remembered for his stunning contributions to reggae's vocal tradition.
Slim Smith (born Keith Smith) was born in Jamaica in 1948. He got his start in the early '60s with producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, working both as a solo act and as part of the vocal group the Techniques. Thanks to his already powerful and singular voice (his falsetto-capable tenor contained shades of both Sam Cooke and his hero, Curtis Mayfield), Smith soon took over the lead spot in the Techniques. In addition to their many hits on Dodd's Studio One label, the group cut several smashes for Dodd's rival at the time, Duke Reid. Under Reid's watch, they scored with "Queen Majesty," "Traveling Man," and "My Girl." Following his stint with the Techniques, Smith returned to Dodd for more solo work. Recorded during the late ska and early rocksteady periods from 1966-1967, Smith's second round of solo sides included hits like "Rougher Yet," "I'll Never Let Go," "Try Again," and "Mercy Mercy," among many others (several of these Studio One records would later be endlessly versioned during the early dancehall period of 1979-1984).
Next, Smith suspended his solo career once again to join the Uniques, a group which featured singers Jimmy Riley and Lloyd Charmers. While they had already cut many impressive sides with other lead vocalists, the group would find their greatest success with Smith, both on the charts and in terms of quality. In addition to a fine session for producer Willie Lowe in 1968, the Uniques cut their best sides for Bunny "Striker" Lee from 1967-1968. The band racked up a steady stream of hits for Lee, including "My Conversation," "Girls Like Dirt," "Gypsy Woman," "Story of Love," and "The Beatitudes."
Switching back again, Smith recommenced his solo career in 1969, cutting many quality sides for Lee until his death in 1973. As was the vogue during the rocksteady and early reggae years, Smith included soul covers amongst the many fine originals and Jamaican standards he cut at the time.
Along with such peculiarities as the Shirelles' hit by Goffin and King, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," Smith put his distinctive stamp on "Spanish Harlem," Cooke's "Send Me Some Loving," Mayfield's "It's Alright," Billy Stewart's "Sitting in the Park," and Eddie Floyd's "Don't Tell Your Mama" and "Stand Up and Fight."
Smith even paid homage to his Jamaican musical peers by cutting some tracks by fellow rocksteady and reggae singing star Delroy Wilson.
Having finished up with some of the strongest work of his career, Smith's run came to an abrupt end in 1973. The cause of his death is not certain. One story has it that Smith, severely depressed over the impression that rival singer Roy Shirley's career was being pushed at the cost of his own, smashed in a window with his hand and bled to death as he walked off into the night. Another account comes from singing partner Jimmy Riley, who says that Smith returned from a late-night party, found himself locked out of his house, smashed the window, and bled to death before anyone found him. Whether his death was caused by depression and subsequently suicide is still not really known.
Thankfully, Smith's musical legacy lives on with several reissues of his best work. A chunk of his work with the Techniques is available on the Heartbeat collection Run Come Celebrate, while a good portion of the Uniques tracks for Reid can be found on Trojan's Best of the Uniques (1967-1969). As for his solo material, the Studio One years are covered on Heartbeat's reissue of the Born to Love album, while much of the later material from 1969-1973 is covered on Trojan's Rain From the Skies and West Side's A Unique Technique. ~ Stephen Cook