“I was born on Rousseau Road/the number was 21A,” so Jacob Miller sang on “Killer Miller.” In actuality, the star apparently hailed from Mandeville, in the Jamaican hills; however, his single mother sent her son to live with his grandparents in Kingston, and thus he did indeed grow up on Rousseau Road. His date of birth is equally contentious, with claims made for both 1952 and 1955, while one can infer from interviews with Augustus Pablo an even later date, circa 1960. There’s no doubt though that Miller was a handful, star struck, and desperate to be a star himself. Coxsone Dodd gave him his first shot in 1968, when the youth recorded a few songs for the producer, including the single “Love Is the Message.” It barely caused a ripple, but did catch the attention of Augustus Pablo, who gave the song airing at his Rockers Sound System. That wasn’t enough to keep Dodd’s interest, and Miller’s career seemed to be over before it had even begun. However, Miller continued practicing, hanging around the studios, watching the stars, and jovially boasting about his talent to anyone who would listen.
In 1972, Pablo and his brother Garth Swaby launched their own Rockers label, initially a home for Pablo’s own instrumentals, but soon branching out to vocal cuts. In 1974, Pablo brought Miller into Dynamic Studios to re-record “Message,” resulting in the phenomenal “Keep on Knocking,” one of the foundation stones of the new Rockers style. Over the next 18 months, the young singer cut five more songs for Pablo, each one a Rockers classic — “Baby I Love You So,” “False Rasta,” “Who Say Jah No Dread,” “Each One Teach One,” and “Girl Named Pat” — and all boasting seminal dubs from mixer King Tubby on the flip.
It was with these early singles, most deeply dread in theme, that Miller established his reputation. However, Rockers’ finances precluded the constant recording that the young singer craved, and thus when he was approached by Inner Circle, Miller jumped on board. Circle already had a few singles to their credit, and had backed several singers in the past, before folding then rising anew in 1973 as a Top 40 covers band, plying their reggae-lite arrangements around the resort circuit. And then Miller arrived, creating the heaviest frontline in Jamaica’s history, and some of the heftiest roots around. However, their first cut together, the seminal “Tenement Yard,” was credited to the singer alone, as were many of their future numbers, causing chaos for future archivists. It’s difficult to draw a distinct line between Miller’s solo career and his work with Inner Circle; for not only were many of his releases co-produced by the singer and Roger Lewis, as ABC Productions, virtually all were backed by at least some of Circle, with the lineup enhanced by members of the Revolutionaries. However, the acid test is the arrangements. Miller preferred Rockers style, while Circle indulged in experimentation, delving into pop, soul, funk, and even disco. And while Circle notched up the bigger hits, Miller maintained his street cred with his solo offerings, which were much more consistent and often of higher quality than his work for the mothership.
Across 1975, the singer struck a deep chord with such classics as “Forward Jah Jah Children,” “Tired Fe Lick Weed in a Bush,” the Gussie Clarke-produced “Girl Don’t Come,” and “I Am a Natty” (a Joe Gibbs’ produced cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel”), even as Miller and Circle worked on their Trojan album Blame It on the Sun. The following year, Miller took second place at the Independence Song Festival with “All Night Till Daylight,” and turned the soul masterpiece “Dock of the Bay” into a dread classic, amongst a slew of other fine releases.
Circle signed to Capital Records in 1976, unleashing Reggae Thing, and Ready for the World the following year. Miller’s own solo album debut, Dread Dread, also appeared in 1978, showcasing both the lighter and heftier sides of the singer’s oeuvre. Miller and Circle were featured in the seminal film Rockers this same year, while the singer played an even more instrumental role in the One Love One Peace Concert that April. Ostensibly a celebration of the 12th anniversary of Haile Selassie’s state visit to Jamaica, in the aftermath of the appalling Green Bay Massacre (where ten unarmed Skulls were gunned down by the Jamaican soldiers), the festival expanded to acknowledge the precarious peace now in place between Kingston’s rival gangs. Miller brought together on-stage Claudie Massop and Tony Welch, leaders respectively of the Tivoli and Jungle gangs, Kingston’s most vociferous rivals. And while Bob Marley got the glory, accomplishing a similar feat with the island’s two fiercely rival political leaders, it was Circle that headlined the show.
Before the year was out, Miller had released two further solo albums, the crucial Killer Miller and the festive Natty Christmas. The former included a slew of classics, including “Forward Ever,” “80,000 Careless Ethiopians,” “Lamb’s Bread Collie,” and “Shaky Girl,” the latter cut for Joe Gibbs. 1979’s Wanted included another clutch, including such dread masterpieces as “Standing Firm,” “Healing of the Nation,” “Sinners,” “Peace Treaty Style,” and the smoky love song “I’ve Got the Handle.”
Miller was now at the height of his powers, and with his charismatic stage presence, had even supplanted Marley as the island’s most popular singer. Circle’s phenomenal performance at the One Love concert brought the band a contract with the Island label, who released the hugely popular Everything Is Great, which spun off two British hit singles. Their new album, New Age Music, was already impacting abroad. In March 1980, Miller accompanied Marley and Island head Chris Blackwell to Brazil, to celebrate the opening of the label’s new offices there. Meanwhile, the rest of Circle were preparing for their forthcoming American tour in support of the Wailers. The trio returned to Jamaica on the 21st; two days later Miller was dead, killed in a car accident on Hope Road. Jamaica had lost one of the greatest singers of the age, long before his time.