1953 (age 66)
Singer/songwriter Earl "Zero" Johnson played a crucial role in the roots age, releasing powerful cultural numbers whose dramatic lyrics were often combined with tough militant backings from the Soul Syndicate band. His most beloved song, "None Shall Escape the Judgement," is an acknowledged classic, and the one that launched Johnny Clarke to stardom. Born in 1952, in the Greenwich Town neighborhood of Kingston, Jamaica, Zero was the eldest of ten children of a fisherman father and fishmonger mother. Zero's musical interest was sparked early, as was that of his school friend Earl "Chinna" Smith. Self-taught, together the two were soon penning songs. A shoemaker provided the pair with their first recording experience, but it wasn't until 1975 that Zero came to the notice of a professional. Producer Bunny Lee lived down the road, and his bar and backyard were a local hangout. No surprise, then, that Lee happened into the yard to hear Zero and Smith performing "Judgement." A recording session at Treasure Isle studio followed, but Lee shelved Zero's version and handed the song off to another young singer. That became Jamaica's top-selling single of the year; Johnny Clarke had arrived, and Zero was left with zilch.
However, the singer did inaugurate Don Mais' new Roots Tradition label with "Home Sweet Home" that year, also cutting "I No Lie" for him. More sessions followed: Al Campbell oversaw the potent "Righteous Work," while Tommy Cowan produced "City of the Weak Heart" and "Please Officer" (the latter was later recut for Prince Jammy and remodeled by Jimmy Cliff as "Peace Officer"). Zero linked with Bertram Brown in 1976 and recorded a steady stream of singles, including "Get Happy," "Blackbird," and "Shackles and Chains." All were included on the singer's 1979 In the Right Way album, released in Britain as Only Jah Can Ease the Pressure. Visions of Love, Zero's sole U.S. release, arrived that same year, and featured new numbers as well as recuts of older songs. Visions' advance allowed Zero to immigrate to the States, where he still resides and is a regular feature on the live circuit. The singer's singles, compilations, and CD reissues of both his albums remain collectable and have kept his back catalog active. Zero has seldom entered the studio in recent years, however – although the fine Roots and Romance album appeared in the new millennium.
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