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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

2 members of the Mighty Diamonds, acclaimed reggae trio, are dead

Bunny Diamond, left, and Tabby Diamond of the Mighty Diamonds, one of the most succesful roots reggae acts to emerge in the 1970s, in performance in Jamaica in 1992.

By Clay Risen

Two members of the Mighty Diamonds, a Jamaican trio that helped lead the wave of roots reggae arising from the streets of Kingston to international acclaim in the 1970s, have died within days of each other.

Tabby Diamond, whose birth name was Donald Shaw, was shot and killed outside his home in Kingston last Tuesday. He was 66.

Bunny Diamond, born Fitzroy Simpson, died Friday at a hospital in the same city. He was 70.

Marc-Antoine Chetata, the group’s longtime music publisher, confirmed the deaths. He said the cause of Bunny Diamond’s death had not been determined but that he had been in declining health since having a stroke in 2015 and suffered from diabetes.

The pair, who had first met in school, formed the Mighty Diamonds in 1969 with another former classmate, Lloyd Ferguson, who performed as Judge Diamond. With international hits like “Right Time” and “Pass the Kouchie,” and with more than a half-century of relentless recording and performing, they were by many estimates the longest-running reggae band in Jamaican history.

Their deaths came as the group was preparing to record its 47th album and begin a tour.

Tabby Diamond was shot late Tuesday along with four other people, one of whom, Owen Beckford, was also killed. The shooting was first reported by Jamaica newspaper The Gleaner.

In a statement to The Gleaner, Kingston police said the shooting was most likely retaliation by a local gang against Shaw’s son JahMarley, whom police later took into custody.

The Mighty Diamonds were part of a wave of roots reggae acts that swept over Jamaica, North America and Europe in the 1970s, along with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff, Black Uhuru and others.

The trio blended the classic one-drop beats of reggae with the tight harmonies of Motown; Tabby Diamond often cited the Temptations as one of his band’s inspirations, along with 1960s Jamaican artists like John Holt and Ken Boothe. Unlike several other top reggae acts of that era, the Mighty Diamonds typically eschewed overtly political themes in their lyrics, preferring a more general, spiritual message.

“Things change, but we always write about what’s going on,” Tabby Diamond told The Santa Fe New Mexican in 2008. “We have some sweet romantic songs, but we’re very aware of things and the dangers and people not getting enough to eat. We need to focus on people loving each other.”

Judge Diamond was the group’s primary lyricist, but it was the silky-voiced Tabby Diamond who gave the trio its subtle power, at once relaxed and vibrant, typically backed by a seven-piece band.

“The Mighty Diamonds’ smooth harmonies and solid, workmanlike performance evoked a Jamaican version of the O’Jays,” Wayne Robins wrote in a concert review in Newsday in 1986.

The band had several hits in Jamaica in the early 1970s, including “Girl You Are Too Young” and “Country Living,” before their first international success, “Right Time,” in 1975. They signed a deal soon afterward with Virgin Records. The next year it released an album, also called “Right Time,” which included that song and several of their earlier hits.

They traveled to New Orleans to record their next album, “Ice on Fire,” produced by celebrated R&B songwriter, pianist and singer Allen Toussaint and released in 1977. An attempt to open the band to more American fans by stripping out much of their reggae sound, the album fell flat, derided by Jamaican and American critics alike as bland and uninspired.

“The Diamonds seem here more like a rather average North American close harmony soul group than the reggae beauties they were on the first LP,” Rolling Stone wrote.

Chastened, they returned to Jamaica and Channel One, the famous Kingston studio where they had made some of their first records. A string of critical and commercial successes followed, including the albums “Stand Up to Your Judgment,” “Deeper Roots” and “Changes.”

One of the group’s most recognizable songs, 1981’s “Pass the Kouchie” — the title was a reference to marijuana — was recorded a year later by British reggae band Musical Youth as “Pass the Dutchie,” a sanitized version (a “dutchie” is a cooking pot) that became an even bigger hit, rising high on both the U.S. and British charts.

Although they were a mainstay on the Jamaican music scene and had international success in the mid-1970s, the Mighty Diamonds never achieved the same level of global stardom as did some of the other reggae acts of their generation, like Cliff or Marley — the result, Tabby Diamond often said, of a string of bad managers early in their career.

But the trio, all practicing Rastafarians, took it in stride, and they never seemed to mind missing out on the trappings of fame.

“They lived the simplicity of the Rastafarians,” Chetata said in a phone interview.

Donald Orlando Shaw was born Oct. 7, 1955, in Kingston. His father, Ronald Shaw, was a furniture maker, and his mother, Gloria Shaw, worked in a hospital.

He is survived by his wife, Evandey Henry; his daughters, Samantha Shaw, Josheina Shaw, Ishika Shaw, Dominique Martin, Naomi Campbell and Sapphire Campbell; his sons, Javion Shaw, JahMarley Shaw and Brad Campbell; and five grandchildren.

Fitzroy Ogilvie Matthews Simpson was born May 10, 1951, in Kingston. His father, Burnett Simpson, moved to England when Fitzroy was young. His mother, Monica Matthews, owned a shop.

His wife, Sylvia Simpson, died in 2017. He is survived by his sister, Lorna Howell; his brother, Lloyd Howell; his daughters, Ronece Simpson and Rosemarie Simpson; his sons, Allan Simpson and Omar Simpson; and six grandchildren.

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