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Reggae's Maxi Priest Wins Mainstream Favor : Pop music: The British singer adds an R&B flavor to the Jamaican sound. He and his band play San Diego and Long Beach this weekend.

February 21, 1991|DON SNOWDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"From day one, I've made it clear I'm doing music for everybody," declared British reggae singer Maxi Priest. "It wasn't an intentional thing that I was going to bring all these different styles of music together for commercial success . . . or any success at all. It has just been a natural growth.

"I see it as very healthy--whereas we (in reggae) used to always sing about bringing people together before, the music has taken it in action and brought all these different people together."

Priest, who appears with his seven-piece band at Bob Marley Day concerts at Golden Hall in San Diego on Friday and the Long Beach Arena Saturday and Sunday, has done his share in expanding the American audience for reggae. Three years ago, his version of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" cracked the pop Top 10, and his gold "Bonafide" album on Charisma spawned a No. 1 pop hit in "Close To You" last summer.

That mainstream acceptance is rare for a reggae-based artist here, but Priest's "new vogue reggae" may signal a new turn for the Jamaican-born style. British reggae artists often had a slicker, more sophisticated sound than their Jamaican counterparts and Priest melds contemporary R&B elements and production techniques into his mix.

Those touches and a focus on love songs forced Priest--interviewed by phone from Honolulu--to weather some criticism from reggae purists early in his career. But his music still largely springs from reggae rhythms. His hybrid sound makes him a contemporary of such urban British artists as Soul II Soul, whose Jazzie B and Nellie Hooper produced two songs for "Bonafide."

"I was strictly into a reggae environment with the open mind of someone who wanted to be in the music business and be a vocalist," said Priest of his early days. "I used to sit in my room and listen keenly to everything that came on the radio. I listened to a wide range of music--the Beatles, Motown, gospel music, jazz--because I love all different styles of singing."

Priest entered the pop world through the informal, grass-roots channels of the late '70s British reggae scene. He started by working for several years on a sound system--the mobile deejay systems that have been a cornerstone of both British and Jamaican reggae.

"I used to build (speaker) cabinet boxes and I moved up and started to play the records, just rapping or deejaying over the B-sides," said Priest. "Gradually, I just started to sing around the sound system and the people started to encourage me."

But the sound system experience offered Priest, whose given name is Max Elliott, something beyond learning the ropes. The particular system he was associated with--Saxon International--was so popular it was regularly hired in major urban centers throughout England.

"We were one of six sound systems that had live performances, so everybody around the country wanted to hear and see it," Priest explained. "Our tapes would be sent to Jamaica and America so people knew about me from listening to those cassette tapes, even before I had the record out."

That record was his first single, "Hey Little Girl." When it shot to No. 8 in the British reggae charts in 1983, Priest began his singing career in earnest. Virgin Records released his first album, "You're Safe," in 1985. He was a major British reggae star when his third album--"Maxi"--was released in 1988. Import demand spurred by the success of "Wild World" forced its release in the United States.

For "Bonafide," Priest worked with producers ranging from the Soul II Soul connection to Jamaican dance-hall king Gussie Clarke and the Geoffrey Chung/Sly Dunbar/Handel Tucker team. But the album avoids the scattershot syndrome that often afflicts projects with multiple producers.

"I bring in the producers for their expertise," Priest explained. "I have to have a certain amount of my own input, to know that it is part of me and not somebody else's production totally."

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