Best known for his all-time classic "Police and Thieves," Junior Murvin was gifted with a unique, feather-light falsetto that inspired some of Lee "Scratch" Perry's most unearthly productions.
Murvin wasn't exactly the most prolific reggae star of the late '70s, yet such is the stature of "Police and Thieves" and its accompanying album of the same name that Murvin would still be a legend even if he'd never recorded another note. And, indeed, comparatively few listeners heard much of his sporadic subsequent work.
Junior Murvin was born Murvin Junior Smith, likely in 1949 in Port Antonio, Jamaica. As a child, he sang along with records by Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine, and (later on) soul singers like Sam Cooke, Ben E. King, and especially Curtis Mayfield, after whom his own falsetto was modeled. He began performing publicly as a youth after his family moved to Montego Bay. With some experience under his belt, he went to live with his aunt in the Kingston ghetto of Trenchtown, where he quickly made connections on the thriving reggae scene and worked on his singing technique. He landed a chance to audition for Lee "Scratch" Perry and Clement "Coxsone" Dodd at the latter's Studio One, but when Dodd told him to write another verse for the song he'd performed, Murvin simply moved on.
Under the name Junior Soul, Murvin cut his first record, "Miss Kushie," for Sonia Pottinger's Gayfeet label in 1966, and followed it with "Slipping" and "Jennifer." He then moved on to Derrick Harriott's Crystal label, where he recorded into the early '70s. In the meantime, he performed with several bands around Kingston's clubs and tourist hotels; their repertoires often featured covers of American sweet soul tunes, and Murvin became known for his Mayfield interpretations, several of which he recorded for Harriott. In 1972, he scored a minor hit with "Solomon," but he was dissatisfied with its level of success; he returned home and spent a period of time working on his guitar playing and songwriting.
In 1976, he was ready to take another shot, and successfully auditioned for Perry -- now running his own Black Ark studio -- with a self-penned rude-boy anthem called "Police and Thieves." Recorded and released just weeks later, "Police and Thieves" became the chart-topping reggae anthem of the summer in Jamaica and England, both of which were in the throes of intense racial unrest. Murvin and Perry co-wrote some more material and completed a full album, also titled Police & Thieves, which was released by Island in 1977. Generally regarded as one of Perry's finest productions, Police & Thieves featured further singles in "Tedious," "Roots Train," and "False Teachin'." At the same time, the emerging punk rock movement was professing an affection for reggae's rebellious spirit; the Clash became the first band to make that connection on record when they covered "Police and Thieves" on their seminal debut album that year.
In the wake of his success with "Police and Thieves," Murvin cut two more singles for Perry using that riddim, "Bad Weed" and "Philistines on the Land." He also released covers of Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (as "Rasta Get Ready") and "Closer Together," and cut a few tracks for producer Joe Gibbs, including the moderately successful "Cool Out Son." 1978 saw the release of the G.G. Ranglin-produced single "Load Shedding." Unfortunately, the magical combination of Murvin and Perry would never finish another album together. Although they recorded more material with Murvin's new backing band, the Apostles, and released a 12" single in 1980 ("Crossover" b/w "I'm in Love"), Perry's increasing mental difficulties would culminate in a nervous breakdown and the destruction of his studio.
Although Murvin continued to record off and on through the '80s without Perry, he never quite recaptured the lightning in a bottle that was his greatest moment. He hooked up with producer Mikey Dread for the 1982 album Bad Man Posse, and switched to red-hot dancehall mastermind Henry "Junjo" Lawes for 1984's Muggers in the Street, whose title track was a rewritten version of "Police and Thieves." In 1986, he recorded Apartheid with another prominent dancehall figure, Prince Jammy, and the following year cut a couple of singles for King Tubby. 1989 saw the release of his last album to date, Signs and Wonders. In the years since, Murvin has remained active on a low-profile basis, recording singles for various local sound systems in Jamaica, and also for his own small label, based in Port Antonio. In the mid-'90s, he completed an album called World Cry for the independent Sunvibes label. He released a new single, "Wise Man," on the London-based Dubwise label in 1998. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi