Born c. 1952 in Kingston, Jamaica; children: five. Religion: Twelve Tribes of Israel sect of Rastafarian religion. Addresses: Record company--Shanachie Records, 37 East Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860.
"Judy Mowatt's 1980 Black Woman album is generally acclaimed the best reggae album ever made by a woman," wrote reggae historians Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen in their book Reggae Roots. Mowatt has made an impact on the reggae scene, both as a member of superstar Bob Marley's backup group the I-Threes, and as a solo artist. Through all the phases of her career she has remained an advocate for women's ideas in a genre heavily dominated by men.
Mowatt was born in Kingston, Jamaica, around 1952. She sang with a church choir as a girl, and in her early teens joined a dance group that toured various Caribbean countries. Mowatt and two other young women in the troupe were bitten by the show-business bug and joined forces to form a vocal trio called the Gaylettes (also known as the Gaytones). The group's repertoire in those pre-reggae days was marked by a heavy preponderance of American soul and rhythm-and-blues hits, with special emphasis on the female group harmonies of the Motown sound. One Detroit artist had a particularly strong influence on the young Judy Mowatt. Aretha Franklin "still is, and will always be, my favorite," Mowatt told the Houston Chronicle.
While still in her mid-teens Mowatt, along with groupmates Beryl Lawson and Merle Clemonson, scored a major Jamaican hit in 1968 with a song called "Silent River." The Gaylettes disbanded in 1970, but Mowatt pressed on with a gradually expanding solo career. Trapped in a snarl of contractual disputes, she recorded under the name of Julianne and several other aliases. Mowatt began to record in the languid, rhythmically subtle, and spiritually oriented style known as reggae, in addition to using other more traditional vocal styles. She scored her second hit in 1974 with a reggae cover version of South African legend Miriam Makeba's "I Shall Sing."
Some of Mowatt's recordings from this period were produced by Sonia Pottinger, one of the few women involved in the Jamaican recording industry. Convinced early on of the value of maintaining control over her own career, Mowatt formed her own label, Ashandan. Intrigued by the religious idealism of reggae but wary of the sometimes anti-female ideology of the Afro-Jamaican Rastafarian religion, Mowatt joined a Rastafarian offshoot called the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
What propelled Mowatt to stardom was a session as a backup singer for reggae singer Marcia Griffiths, on which she was joined by Bob Marley's wife, Rita. The three women hit it off personally and professionally and began performing together as the I-Threes. The group contributed backing tracks to several Bob Marley tunes on the album Natty Dread, and Marley and his producers decided to experiment with the idea of making a female backup group an integral part of his sound. In the spring of 1975 the I-Threes joined Marley on stage during the opening slot for a concert by the Jackson Five, and things turned out so well that they remained with Marley until his death in 1981.
The last several years of Marley's career marked the high-water mark for reggae, as he and the I-Threes performed his idealistic, anthem-like reggae compositions for huge crowds all over the world. In 1980 Mowatt was present at one of Marley's last concerts. "He kept singing the song 'Lord, I've Got to Keep On Moving' over and over again, maybe 15 times, for the whole sound check, and the song wasn't even part of our repertoire," Mowatt told the Washington Post. "It was strange. He was trying to say something to us, and we didn't understand. We couldn't believe that he was speaking of death, physical death."
Even at the height of Marley's popularity, however, Mowatt managed to raise a family and keep her solo career on track, releasing a solo album, Mellow Mood, in 1975. Again she was inspired by the black American singers she had heard as a young woman in the 1960s. "In American music, you had man and woman sharing the stage equally, like the Four Tops and the Supremes," she told the Houston Chronicle. "That's what I was always clamoring for." Some male reggae fans disparaged Mowatt's efforts, but Marley himself supported them. Mowatt's next release, 1977's Black Woman, was the first album recorded at Marley's new Tuff Gong studios in Kingston.
In an interview quoted on the All Music Guide website, Mowatt explained how Marley motivated her own creative activities: "I had gotten to realize in reading my Bible that this man was really Joseph in his second advent. I saw in the man that this time he came not only with the physical corn to feed his people but he came with the spiritual corn, which was the message that transcended to the four corners of the world." Black Woman and its successors Only a Woman and Working Wonders are often regarded as Mowatt's best recordings. They followed the Marley mold closely, with spiritual and sometimes feminist themes that came alive in Mowatt's gospel-tinged vocals.
Mowatt's five solo albums after Mellow Mood were all released in the United States on the folk- and world music-oriented Shanachie label, and in the 1980s and 1990s Mowatt was a consistent attraction when she toured clubs and concert halls in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, sometimes accompanied by the indefatigable masters of Jamaican rhythm, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. As a producer of her own albums, she was among the first female Jamaican musicians to seize creative control of her own music, and politically aware female listeners in the United States gravitated toward each new Mowatt release.
But Jamaican music itself was changing, as the urban, beat-oriented dancehall style supplanted the reggae of Marley's day. Mowatt partially adapted by adding several pop pieces to her repertoire, including a successful 1994 cover of the Supremes' 1960s hit "Stop in the Name of Love!" Her Love Is Overdue album, which contained a reggae version of "Try a Little Tenderness," earned her a Grammy nomination. But her own album releases became less frequent. "Yes, Rasta has answers for the people but who's listening?" Mowatt mused in a Toronto Star interview. "These are strange times, when many people whose opinions were respected, who appeared as leaders and defenders of Rasta, have turned from the way unto the path of materialism."
Still a strong draw whenever she took to the stage, Mowatt began devoting much of her energy to her five children. Two documentary films were made that looked back on Mowatt's role during reggae's classic era: 1994's Roots Daughters and the early-1980s film "Heartland Reggae," which was re-released in 1999. The Toronto Star wrote that, as one of 16 women interviewed in Roots Daughters, Mowatt said, "The black woman has awakened and it is time for her to take her rightful position to be whoever she want to be." It was an awakening that Mowatt herself has played a significant role in creating.
by James M. Manheim
Judy Mowatt's Career
Toured Caribbean as dancer with Estrelita Dance troupe in mid-1960s; member of vocal group Gaylettes, late 1960s; solo career as reggae vocalist, 1970-; member, I-Threes backing group for reggae vocalist Bob Marley, 1975-81; released solo album Mellow Mood, 1975; recorded album Black Woman at Marley's Tuff Gong studios, Kingston, Jamaica, 1979; produced own releases; founded own label, Ashandan; major solo career with U.S. releases on Shanachie recording label, 1980s; several North American tours, 1980s-1990s.
Judy Mowatt's Awards
Awarded Order of Distinction (Office Class), for contributions to Jamaican music, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Mellow Mood Tuff Gong, 1975.
- Black Woman Shanachie, 1979 (U.S. release, 1980).
- Only a Woman Shanachie, 1982.
- Working Wonders Shanachie, 1985.
- Love Is Overdue Shanachie, 1987.
- Look at Love Shanachie, 1991.
- Rock Me Pow Wow, 1993.
- Sing Our Own Song Shanachie, 2003.
- Chang, Kevin O'Brien, and Wayne Chen, Reggae Routes, Temple University Press, 1998.
- Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 1997, p. 13.
- Columbus Dispatch, May 28, 1994, p. E3.
- Gazette (Montreal, Canada), November 9, 1992, p. C2.
- Houston Chronicle, November 20, 1991, p. Houston-1.
- Toronto Star, March 21, 1986, p. D13; November 15, 1992, p. C2; August 12, 1994, p. D12; May 14, 1999, Entertainment section.
- Washington Post, December 1, 1989, p. N26.
- "Judy Mowatt," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 18, 2004).
- "Judy Mowatt," BBC Radio, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/reggae_soul/island_rock/artists/judymowatt.shtml (February 18, 2004).