Judy Mowatt's "Working Wonders" album has received a Grammy nomination, but that isn't the only reason she'll remember the record. A succession of studio disasters--including an exploding drum machine and a malfunctioning tape machine--turned the sessions into a nightmare, and caused a year's delay in the LP's release.
"It was one of the most difficult experiences I ever had," the acclaimed reggae singer-songwriter said by phone from her home in Jamaica this week. "It was a frightening experience for me because I thought it would blighten my career prospects.
"When the album finally came out in June of 1985, I went up to New York feeling a little despondent because I had listened to the songs for all of 1984.
"I was tired of them, and here it comes, time for me to perform them on stage. The enthusiasm I should have had was not there, but when I saw the response to the album was really good, it gave me that impetus and drive."
Mowatt, who plays the Music Machine on Friday, had experienced seven years of pop triumph as a member of the I-Threes, Bob Marley's vocal backup group. The Grammy nomination (for best reggae recording) is the first mainstream recognition for her solo career.
"It's not something I intentionally worked towards, but it's a tremendous honor to be recognized internationally outside of Jamaica," she said. "It would be really inspiring for the future generation of female singers if a woman should win this year, because reggae music on the international scene is really male-dominated."
Influenced by Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Martha Reeves, Mowatt was initially hindered in her career by her shyness and by the lack of performance opportunities in Jamaica during the '60s.
Mowatt worked with a troupe performing fire and limbo dances for tourists at the island's resorts. Her shift to music came when two other dancers, members of a vocal group called the Gaylettes, heard Mowatt singing in the shower after a rehearsal and asked to her join the group in 1967.
The trio had a few minor Jamaican hits in the late '60s before Mowatt launched a solo career in 1970. Her version of Miriam Makeba's "I Shall Sing" topped the Jamaican charts.
Four years later, singer Marcia Griffiths recruited Mowatt and Rita Marley to sing backup on a record. The I-Threes were born, and the group was promptly drafted into the Wailers by Bob Marley in time for the "Natty Dread" album in 1975.
Marley's "Mellow Mood" was another solo hit for Mowatt, and she broke new ground in the Jamaican music industry in 1977 by producing, arranging and writing the bulk of the material on her "Black Woman" album. The LP is widely regarded as one of reggae's all-time classics, and many still measure the lighter pop-reggae blend of Mowatt's recent albums against it.
"The whole 'Black Woman' album is my life, what I was going through at that time, but life is a journey and you encounter other things," Mowatt observed. "Knowing that music is the vehicle that is going to unite the people of the world, my policy now is to merge reggae with other music. Some people say that it's commercial, but the most important thing is what you're saying--and the message has not changed."
Barring more studio disasters, Mowatt will release a new studio album in June. In addition to conducting a solo career and caring for her five children, Mowatt has joined the the I-Threes on their first group album.
"There's a great demand on the international market for the I-Threes, knowing that the Wailers are not out there and Bob Marley has left us with this musical legacy," Mowatt said. "The I-Threes have accepted that fact so my time will have to be divided in three now--between my children, myself and the I-Threes."
'Knowing that music is the vehicle that is going to unite the people of the world, my policy now is to merge reggae with other music.'