Closely intertwined in the story of the song Steppin’ Razor, is the 6-foot-four-inch-tall Wailer named Peter Tosh, who was known as the ‘Steppin’ Razor’. But, just as critical to the story of the song is the songwriter Joe Higgs, who entered Steppin’ Razor in the Festival Song Competition, but it was not deemed worthy.
Tosh’s masterful imprint on Steppin’ Razor has been so powerful that it is easy not to remember Higgs’ role in bringing it to life. In fact, there were quite a few faces wearing loud question signs and knitted brows last Tuesday inside The Jamaica Pegasus hotel, when, at the end of a gripping story about Joe Higgs, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange finally revealed the name of the song and the true writer.
During an impassioned call to artistes to get their affair in order, from estate planning to securing their royalties and publishing by engaging “a good publishing company who can search the world and see if you have money out there”, she used Joe Gibbs as “a good example”.
“I remember Joe Higgs came to me and him seh, ‘Bwoy, Miss B, I have a song and I know seh it getting play. I entered it in the Jamaica Festival Song Competition and dem neva choose it, and mi carry it go to a particular artiste and gi him and seh, ‘We a go record da song yah man. And the artiste record the song.’ But the song was listed as the artiste’s song. Joe Higgs was losing his house, and him come to me and seh. ‘I know that there is money out there for me and I don’t want to lose mi house.’”
Grange started a journey to assist Higgs with getting his money, and keeping his house.
“I did a worldwide search and found that money was out there, because [the song] wasn’t properly being managed as a title by a publisher. And eventually I froze all the money. It took me three years to get the particular artiste to sign, saying that he was not the writer of the song. He kept saying that ‘Bwoy … mi tell mi manager fi tek care of it, but him nah tek care of it.’ There are three well-known people in the industry, including Copeland [Forbes], andevery time the artiste go on tour I’d give him the letter and seh, ‘Tell him to sign it.’ Eventually, it was signed and brought back to me, and we were able to get the funds for Joe.”
Grange then made the big reveal. “That song was Steppin’ Razor. Steppin’ Razor . And all these years everybody though that Peter [Tosh] was the writer.”
Minister Grange was quick to add, “And I don’t seh that Peter did anything deliberately … it’s just that we not thinking seriously about the business side of the business. And I am making that special appeal tonight.”
A former manager for dancehall superstar Shabba Ranks, Grange continued to underscore the importance of having a good publisher. “Every time Shabba go into the studio and record a song with Firehouse Crew, Gussie Clarke would tek up his phone and call us about the publishing for his musicians. Your bassline is a part of the composition, so you are entitled to publishing. Join a company, so that you are listed as a composer or a writer,” she emphasised.
Higgs, who is described as being of slight build, wrote Steppin’ Razor in 1967. “ …I’ m like a Steppin’ Razor don’t you watch my size, I’m dangerous, dangerous. I’m lke a walking razor don’t you watch my size, I’m dangerous, dangerous.”
Joe Higgs was born in 1940, on June 3, which is, coincidentally, the same date for Junior Reid’s ‘One Blood Family Fest’, the launch at which Minister Grange shared this story. Higgs’s bio states that he was “instrumental in the foundation of modern Jamaican music, first recording in 1958 for producer and businessman (and later Jamaican Prime Minister) Edward Seaga”. His first release, a duet with Roy Wilson, was Oh Manny Oh, which was one of the first records to be pressed in Jamaica and went on to sell 50,000 copies.
Higgs was widely respected as a composer, arranger, performer, and mentor. Those who learnt from Higgs is a roll call of reggae’s finest – Derrick Harriott, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bob Andy, The Wailing Souls, and Bunny Wailer. He was described as the Father of Reggae by Jimmy Cliff, with whom he toured, and even wrote the song Dear Mother. He also performed with The Wailers on their US tour when Bunny Wailer refused to go in 1973.
Higgs won the Jamaican Tourist Board Song Competition in 1972 with Invitation to Jamaica, released on his own Elevation label. His 1983 single So It Go, with a lyric critical of the Jamaican Government of the day, was banned from airplay and led to harassment, which would eventually lead to Higgs relocating to Los Angeles, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Joe Higgs died of cancer on December 18, 1999, at Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles. He was survived by 12 children. In 2006, the Joe Higgs Music Awards were established in his honour.