Graded on a Curve:
The Gladiators, Full Time and Ethiopian & His All Stars, The Return Of Jack Sparrow

The sun is shining, it’s hot enough to induce sweat just by standing up, and there’s a substance (or two) tickling the brain: this is maybe the best framework for soaking up deep reggae grooves, but it’s also true that any time can be a good time to engage with the style. Omnivore Recordings knows this, as they’ve recently reissued The Gladiators’ Full Time compilation and rescued Ethiopian & His All-Stars’ The Return of Jack Sparrow from the realms of the unreleased. Both compact discs commence a reissue program focused on the catalog of the St. Louis label Nighthawk Records, and as the goodness on display here indicates, it’s going to be quite the enjoyable ride.

I’d say The Gladiators need no introduction, but reggae is such a cavernously deep genre that even a multidecade discography including a series of LPs for a major label can manage to go unnoticed by folks receptive to Jamaican sounds. Formed in the mid-’60s by singer-songwriter-rhythm guitarist Albert Griffiths, the group cut their first single for the Wirl label in ’67 and then hooked up with producers Duke Reid, Lloyd Daley, Lee Perry, and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd for a series of hits. In the second half of the ’70s they landed on Virgin Records, as Dodd’s Studio One milked the vaults for comps.

Roots reggae entered a period of commercial decline in the early ’80s, and the Gladiators’ final record for Virgin, an eponymous Eddy Grant-produced misfire, only worsened their personal circumstances. And yet by adjusting to the smaller Nighthawk label they bounced back artistically with ’82’s Symbol of Reality, ’84’s Serious Thing, and ’86’s collaboration with the Ethiopian (real name Leonard Dillon) Dread Prophecy.

In ’92 Nighthawk issued Full Time, which gathered up two cuts from the ’82 various artists comp Calling Rastafari and the entirety of the group’s ’83 US Tour EP (enticingly pictured on clear vinyl in the CD booklet) in combination with then unreleased selections from the ’82-’86 sessions. It’s all engineered by Sylvan Morris, who’d worked with The Gladiators at Studio One starting in the early ’70s, so the quality is high throughout. This is anything but a plate of leftovers.

However, it was common practice for reggae acts to cut fresh takes on earlier hits. The Gladiators’ Virgin debut Trenchtown Mix Up was loaded with ‘em, and Full Time opens with a solid rerecording of their Studio One nugget “Bongo Red.” It’s immediately followed by a dub version, a tactic utilized twice more as the disc unwinds.

Flow is a crucial component in reggae’s equation, so programming “Fussing and Fighting” (a Bob Marley cover) and “Rocking Vibration” next to their dub versions enhances the set rather than hindering it; that’s how they were sequenced on the tour EP, and in fact the strategy is also utilized on The Gladiators’ proper albums for Nighthawk. That the EP’s six cuts are all represented here is unquestionably sweet, but really, it’s the tracks that are unique to Full Time that make it such a keeper.

“Ship Without a Captain” underscores their enduringly vibrant vocal group style, though it and the horn section-infused “Run Them” simultaneously reinforce The Gladiators’ instrumental depth. Notably, all three singers also play, in the case of Griffiths and Gallimore Sutherland it’s guitar, while Clinton Fearon handles bass. Roping in Deadly Headley on sax, Bobby Ellis on trumpet and others was shrewd; the way Richard Ace’s organ accents the titular refrains in “I’m Not Crying” helps elevate the cut to gemlike levels, and the three on the disc’s back end, including the tough-grooved title track, aren’t far behind.

Pairing Full Time with The Return of Jack Sparrow highlights a longtime association, as Griffiths’ ’66 pre-Gladiators debut “You Are the Girl,” credited to Al & the Ethiopians, shared a 45 with “Train to Skaville,” which was an early smash for Dillon (later covered by The Selector). Dread Prophecy cemented the relationship (it, Symbol of Reality and Serious Thing are on Omnivore’s reissue dock), but Nighthawk owner Robert Schoenfeld’s attempt to release a second, standalone Ethiopian disc stalled due to financial problems.

Like Griffiths, Dillon was a bandleader, specifically of the Ethiopians, but the death of his vocal counterpart Stephen Taylor in ’75 found him eventually going solo. The Return of Jack Sparrow documents Schoenfeld’s coordination of a session with a band that’s essentially the reunited Beverley’s All-Stars. They’d backed hits by the Maytals, Derrick Morgan, and Desmond Dekker, and the results are a resounding success.

It’s also 72 minutes long. Recorded in ’87, apparently the intention was to exploit the expanded durational qualities of the then newfangled CD format, though there’s also the possibility that it would’ve been released in shorter form. No matter; Dillon’s voice is a non-stop pleasure and the band, which features guitarists Lyn Taitt and Hux Brown, bassist Jackie Jackson, keyboardist Winston Wright, and drummer Winston Grennan, with the horn section of saxophonist Everton Jayle, trumpeter Bobby Ellis, and trombonist Barry Bailey, and added percussion by Sly Dunbar, is cracking throughout.

While there are a handful of dubs and versions, including “Heavenly Father Interlude” with a gorgeous a cappella opening, which increase the track total to 20, plus the rerecording of early songs like “Beggars Have No Choice” and unsurprisingly “Train to Skaville,” the efforts of Ethiopian and His All-Stars are still quite distinct from the rootsier atmosphere embodied by Full Time.

The Return of Jack Sparrow (‘twas Dillion’s initial recording moniker, combining an earlier nickname with Coxsone’s tendency to call everyone Jackson) deepens a connection to the ska of the Ethiopian’s early days (and those of the Beverley’s All-Stars), but without any retro deliberateness. Instead, it just feels natural, with beaucoup positivity in the lyrics and a welcoming vibe overall. It’s been impossible thus far to not crack a smile as “Flirty Flirty Guys” plays, and it whets my appetite for Omnivore’s further Nighthawk reissues.

Full Time
A-

The Return of Jack Sparrow
A-

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