Roman Stewart

In the rough and tumble world of Jamaican music there are many stars who have never received what was due to them. Reggae has produced a myriad of singers and players who — despite creating a solid body of work over the years — remain obscure, and finding their music takes a lot more detective work in the land of vinyl oblivion.

Roman Stewart had a career that lasted for more than 30 years, which included several big hits in Jamaica. His buttery voice was equally suited to both smooth love songs and more conscious themes. He was well-known and respected on the reggae scene in Jamaica and the United States, and yet there has never been a Roman Stewart anthology or compilation — an oversight that is hard to understand.

Like his music, details on Roman's life aren't always easy to find. He was born in 1957, the younger brother of the well-known Tinga Stewart. As a kid, Roman would sing down at the Kingston pier where the cruise ships docked. His friend Freddie McGregor — destined for greatness himself — collected the money that people tossed at the two youths. Roman's first recording, "Walking Down The Street" (credited to Romeo Stewart or Little Roman, depending on the single), was cut in 1968 when he was just 11 years old.

Roman's career really began in the early 1970s after he cut songs for producers Glen Brown ("Never Too Young To Learn") and Derrick Harriott ("Changing Times", a duet with Dave Robinson). His breakthrough came in 1974 with"Hooray Festival", written by Tinga. His next big record came in 1976 with the aptly-titled "Hit Song" for producer Tommy Cowan. Roman then went on to record many memorable tunes for producers such as Linval Thompson and Everton Da Silva, as well as many obscure producers. He recorded over 100 singles and five albums: Running Away From Love (1978), How Can I Love Someone (1979), Ruling and Controlling (1987), Diplomat (1991), and Wisdom Of Solomon (2001). He also has an album of duets with Tinga called Break Down The Barrier (1984).

Roman moved from Jamaica to New York in 1976. He kept his career going for the rest of 1970s and into the next decade, recording the excellent Running Away From Love LP for producer Byron Whitely. He earned the nickname "Mr. Special", not only for his stage presence, but for being very polite and friendly to everyone he met. The story goes that while living in New York he was well-known for simply hanging out at recording studios and record shops, and it would sometimes lead to a record being cut. Quite often he would perform impromptu when his good friends Dennis Brown and Freddie McGregor were putting on a concert, or show up at house parties and sing acapella for the delighted guests. His last great set of songs were recorded for Gussie Prenton (AKA Gussie P) on his Sip A Cup label.

Sadly, Roman Stewart is no longer with us. Despite his jocular personality, he tragically became a heavy user of alcohol and drugs, and the harsh lifestyle eventually took its toll. He died in January 2004 in New York after a heart attack. And true to his tune "Hit Song", he was on stage when he suddenly cut his performance short, complaining of chest pains. Roman Stewart died of heart failure the next day. His music lives on.

Mick Sleeper