On Doctor Dread’s Long-Anticipated Autobiography

Courtesy of Akashic Books
Courtesy of Akashic Books

On March 3, 2015 Brooklyn, NY’s Akashic Books will release The Half That’s Never Been Told: The Real-Life Reggae Adventures of Doctor Dread. The publisher describes the book as “[a] passionate memoir and fearless behind-the-scenes look at the personal lives of the biggest reggae stars in the world.” However, it is also the story of RAS Records, one of the most significant and influential US indie labels and one that changed the face of reggae forever.

In the interest of full disclosure, Doctor Dread is a close personal friend. In fact, I just recently returned from a trip to Jamaica with him where we retraced his initial journey through the island in 1977, which he describes in his book.

The Half That’s Never Been Told is not so much an autobiography of RAS Records founder Gary Himelfarb, AKA Doctor Dread, but instead, a collection of writings that tell the story behind the indie label and the diverse family of artists who made it one of the most significant independent US record labels in history.  As he reveals in the book, Himelfarb created the label in 1979 following a life-changing three month sojourn to Jamaica.  He called the label RAS, which means “head” in Amharic.  This signified to Doc that RAS would one day become the top reggae record label in the world.  He also launched a publishing company called Tafari, which means “creator” in Amharic.  The company name speaks to the fact that the songwriter is the one who creates the music. Ras-Tafari. In its heyday, RAS was distributing more reggae albums to every corner of the globe than any other label in the world, including the Queens, NY-based VP Records and the UK reggae stalwart Greensleeves

In The Half That’s Never Been Told, Doc divulges the most intimate details of his involvement in the music business with language that is frank, honest and unapologetic.  One of the most fascinating confessions comes from the one and only Bunny Wailer who penned the Introduction to the book.  After discussing the many contributions Doctor Dread has made in the interest of promoting positivity and quality in reggae music, Bunny writes:

“I first met Doctor Dread in 1981 after the passing of my brother Robert Marley.  [We] developed a close relationship with Doctor Dread through his respect for the culture of Rastafari.  He has been, and still is, a favorite brother of I, Bunny Wailer.  Myself and Doc have never had any quarrel or financial problems working together for more than thirty years and even up until now as he is still active as my publisher.”

The author dedicates a chapter to each of the artists he signed to RAS, many of which he still maintains close friendships with. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Doctor Dread is known throughout the industry as a producer who always paid royalties to his artists. It is the kind of reputation that holds him in high regard among reggae artists, especially Jamaican reggae artists who were notoriously robbed and cheated by Jamaican producers. 

One of the most intriguing chapters in the book focuses on Doc’s efforts to reunite legendary Jamaican vocal trio Israel Vibration, who embody Doc’s lifelong belief in the “Power of the Trinity.” He tells the story behind the recording of the group’s seminal 1987 album, Strength of My Life, the first of more than twenty albums he produced with the group between 1987 and 2003.  For the first time ever, he tells the true story behind the trio’s break-up, which ironically occurred live onstage in Washington, DC. This is a story I’ve been waiting to read for decades. Being a Virginia native and growing up listening to those Israel Vibration albums, I was deeply moved by the relationship between Doctor Dread and Israel Vibration. It is one based on a common work ethic, mutual respect, and an abiding belief in the power of Jah to change lives through music. I’ve spoken with Doc about this and he truly believes that his connection with this group was a deeply spiritual one that was ordained by a Higher Power. It is a relationship he still maintains with co-founders Lascelle “Wiss” Bulgin and Cecil “Skelly” Spence. As Doc often says “Jah works in mysterious ways.”

Strength of My Life is my church on Sunday” Doc explains in a recent conversation I had with him.  “I’ll often call Skelly to let him know I’m listening and he knows exactly what that means.  We created some amazing music together.”

Other adventures revealed in The Half That’s Never Been Told include a chance meeting with Peter Broggs outside the African Museum record shop on Chancery Lane which sets the stage for one of the most revered Rastafari-influenced reggae albums of all time;  the establishment of a RAS Records shop in Jamaica managed by Brent Dowe of the Melodians;  the signing of Hugh Mundell to RAS Records on October 13, 1983 – the day before he was brutally murdered (Doc would later license the album for distribution in the US from Augustus Pablo in 1989, an historic deal that made the album available to tens of thousands of US reggae fans for the very first time);  the 17-city 2006 Bob Marley Roots, Rock, Reggae Festival tour he managed featuring Ziggy Marley, Stephen Marley, Damian Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Ozomatli; the Israel Vibration Strength of My Life tour where Doc and the Vibes drive cross-country in Bob Marley’s Winnebago;  and a rough night of recording with the “Cool Ruler” in Jamaica which ends with Doc staring down the barrel of Gregory’s loaded pistol.  Readers will also be surprised to learn that Doc still manages publishing for a whole host of popular reggae artists including David Hinds and Steel Pulse, Barrington Levy, Mad Professor, Culture, Gregory Isaacs, Israel Vibration, Yellowman, Culture, Dean Fraser, Kenyatta Hill and many more.  

This book should be on the shelf of any serious lover of reggae. This is reggae history told by a man who not only lived through it but also had a hand in creating it.  Not only is Himelfarb a great storyteller – weaving drama, emotion, and suspense into a story which could have been told using a much simpler and straightforward narrative – but he is also a talented writer.  He comes across as thoughtful, honest and authentic – someone who lived every adventure revealed on those pages.  The only real problem with The Half That’s Never Been Told is that the reader is left to ponder all of the things that were left out of the book.  After reading the stories contained in this book, readers will most assuredly demand that Doctor Dread reveal the other half.

Doctor Dread will be signing advanced copies of his book, The Half That’s Never Been Told: The Real-Life Reggae Adventures of Doctor Dread, at the Bob Marley 70th Birthday Celebration featuring Jesse Royal, Third World and Dub Architect on February 6th, 2015 at the 930 Club in Washington, DC. He will also be signing advanced copies of his book at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC on March 7th, 2015 from 1pm to 3pm.