Reggae fans, do you know Winston Grennan?

Winston Grennan
Winston Grennan (left)

Hopefully most reggae fans are aware of the important role Winston Grennan played in the music we love and call “reggae”. Winston Grennan is one of the building blocks that we seldom hear about, one that if we are not careful could get lost in history. Why? Because we African people don’t preserve and cherish our history the way we should, we rely on others to do that for us. Then we get angry when our history is twisted, contorted and our greats are not properly credited?

Winston Grennan born October 16, 1944 and died October 27, 2000 is the creator of the one drop rhythm.
The one drop rhythm which came out of ska and rocksteady is the foundation, the cornerstone of reggae music. Anytime you listen to one of your favorite reggae songs, you are most likely listening to an offspring of the one drop rhythm or the one drop rhythm itself.

Winston Grennan mentored other top Jamaican drummers like Carlton Barrett and Sly Dunbar who were both named among the 100 most influential drummers of all time. He also mentored Tin Leg and Willie Williams, who themselves had great drumming careers in reggae music.

Winston Grennan performed on thousands of tracks over the years. He played on sessions for numerous Jamaican acts notably Toots and The Maytals, Bob Marley, the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. Grennan’s drumming style was extremely innovative and constantly evolving. Even his drum set-up was also highly idiosyncratic: he placed his cymbals behind him. He also worked on recordings for many international acts including Paul Simon, Eddie Kendricks, Peter Paul & Mary, and Booker T. and the MGs. Just before leaving Jamaica he also appeared in the classic film The Harder They Come, as well as playing on most of the soundtrack cuts.

He was hired to record and tour with numerous well-known jazz and R&B performers including Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Garland Jeffreys, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, The OJays, Minnie Ripperton, and Herbie Mann, among others (see list below). By 1980 he was tapped by August Darnell as a founding member of Kid Creole and the Coconuts, who recorded a series of hits in the 80s. Grennan can be seen performing on the 1982 release Live in Concert at The Ritz New York.

Later, he appeared in the film 9½ Weeks (’85), with his Ska Rocks band, which he assembled in the 1980s and which stayed active in various incarnations until his death. Grennan formed the Swegway record label on which his band’s albums were released. Notably, Lynn Taitt, the Trinidadian-born guitarist credited with creating the rock steady beat while living and working in Jamaica, and longtime colleague of Grennan’s, appeared on several Ska Rocks recordings. Grennan also worked on music for, or appeared in other films including Harold and Maude, Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places, and later Sleepyheads, and Soho. He was involved in the original musical efforts for the unrealized production Reggae on Broadway.

Over the years, Winston Grennan continued to back Toots & the Maytals, and a few other touring Jamaican acts including Pat Kelly, the Clarendonians, Yellowman, and the Skatalites. In 1997, he released a fourth effort Wash Over Gold. The album demonstrated the artist’s vocal and trombone talents with guest musicians including Lynn Taitt, Andy Bassford and Tony Culture. Notable tracks include a ska tribute to Don Drummond, the haunting ‘Colourful Faces’ and the admonitory ‘Domestic Violence’.

In the last year of his life Grennan released his final record, Clean Slate, as well as performing on and sharing arrangement duties with dub-poet Anthony Pierre on his debut, Obeah Accompong. In early 2000, Grennan appeared on “Back to the Island”, a reggae compilation of local tracks produced by Peter Simon, of Martha’s Vineyard. He continued to tour until he was diagnosed with cancer in May 2000. Grennan continued to record with long-time cohorts and Ska Rocks members David Oliver and Andy Bassford, almost up to his death.

February is Reggae Month. If you love Reggae, then get to know reggae. Get to know the great creators and great contributors of this music we love and enjoy. Reggae music is much bigger than Bob Marley. Bob Marley played a major part, but there are many parts to the whole.

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7 Comments

  1. The caption says that’s Winston on the right. It’s actually Winston on the left. I was a singer in his band for a few years. Proud to have known a great man and mentor.

  2. Yes, Winston on the left. I took the photo, during a three hour radio show marathon with dear Ras Charles. -Nan Lewis / Entertainment Works

  3. And he was born in 1940… Regardless of what others may say; I saw his birth certificate… we were together for seven years…

  4. It remains unclear what year Winston Grennan was born. He said 1944 though Ms. Lewis is correct that his birth certificate, which I am in possession of, says 1940. According to Winston there are reasons for that related to the way records were kept (and sometimes lost) in rural Jamaica, and when his original “surfer ticket” could not be found as he was getting ready to emigrate, an alternate record was used/created on which the year was incorrect. Notwithstanding, in preparing for a proposed documentary and book, questions remain as a clear timeline of the late 50s and early 60s is attempted. He claimed he was born in a “hurricane year” which makes things all the more mysterious… Even so, I honor Winston by sticking to his own words, to me and others, and even to the lyrics of one of his songs which included his birth year in the lyrics. I don’t want to argue with Ms. Lewis, but her insistent contradiction is unnecessary and moot at this point. No matter what year he was born, what really matters? Winston Grennan’s massive body of musical work has been a major contribution to the world’s music. He touched the lives of many, and his beat continues to resonate ubiquitously.
    Best~ Ellie Hiteshew Grennan, Winston’s wife and widow

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