Max Romeo was born Max Smith on November 22, 1947, in St D’Acre, Jamaica. His life started rough and at 14 he left home and found a menial job on a sugar plantation. He may very well have stayed there had he not won a local talent contest. The win gave him the courage to venture to Kingston, determined to become a star. There he found two other hopefuls, Kenneth Knight and Lloyd Shakespeare, with who he started the Emotions. Their debut, “(Buy You) A Rainbow”, became an immediate hit in 1966 and over the next two years, the trio amassed an impressive list of successful singles.
By 1968, Max was confident enough to set about on a solo career. He worked with Bunny Lee but none of the tunes reached the charts so he returned to The Emotions. At the same time, he formed The Hippy Boys that eventually evolved into The Upsetters. He also worked as a sales rep for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry who he gave new lyrics to Derrick Morgan’s “Hold You Jack”. After a few singers opted out, Lee Perry convinced Max to sing it and the resulting “Wet Dream” became a smash hit in Jamaica and in the UK.
He released several successful seductive singles and tried to launch his own label and soundsystem, Romax, unsuccessfully. The following year, he began recording again for Bunny Lee based on the producer’s own rocksteady classic rhythms. He also started to cut numerous singles that were culturally themed, as the singer shifted into a more roots mode with “Beardman Feast,” “The Coming of Jah,” and the apocalyptic “Babylon Burning.”
He also got involved in the 1972 Jamaican election by supporting the socialist PNP party. The conservative JLP party, which had run the country since independence a decade earlier, now for the first time faced serious opposition. The result was an outbreak of violence across the island, as the opposing party supporters squared off on the streets. Both the urban poor and Rastafarians flocked to the PNP banner. Max released numerous political singles at this time, including “Press Along Joshua” and “Let the Power Fall on I”.
After the election Max got out of the political arena and began focusing on more devotional material. During this time, he released a clutch of seminal singles produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. The conflagrant “Sipple out Deh” the melancholy “One Step Forward” the stepper classic “Chase the Devil” and the revolutionary nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” all reverberated across the desolate landscape.
Island records signed Max and released the masterpiece “War in a Babylon”. It was the apex of his career, as well as one of Perry’s best productions. Unfortunately, they fell out and Max’ next album “Reconstruction” failed to live up to the expectations and in 1978, he left Jamaica for the U.S. There he co-wrote the Broadway musical Reggae and starred in it as well. He sang backup for The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards co-produced Holding Out My Love to You with Sly & Robbie.
At the end of the ’80s, a shift in the scene brought roots back into fashion, albeit within a dancehall context. In response, Max returned to Jamaica in 1990 and began touring regularly. His profile was heightened by the U.K. release of The Many Moods of Max Romeo which gathered up a diverse group of tracks cut between 1967 and 1971. Fari Captain of My Ship and Our Rights were both released in 1992 and returned the singer to something nearing his former glory.
1995’s Tapper Zukie produced Cross or the Gun was even better. Producers Mafia & Fluxy produced Max’ next album in 1999 Selassie I Forever. The following year brought another compilation, Pray for Me: The Best of 1967-1973, which nicely complements the earlier Many Moods sets. Notable releases from the new millennium included the conceptual LP Perilous Time (2001), the tribute album Sings Hits of Bob Marley (2006), and Horror Zone (2016), which reunited the singer with Lee “Scratch” Perry.