He Had the Beat
Winston Grennan, 1940-2000
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Very few people can say they singlehandedly invented a musical sound known around the world. Jamaica-born drummer Winston Grennan always claimed that he invented the "one-drop" beat, the peculiar rhythm that forms the bedrock of reggae music, and he often complained that he never received proper credit. Now newspapers in America and Jamaica are beginning to give him his due in the obituary column. Grennan, who lived in Baltimore for much of the 1990s, died of lung and bone cancer in Nantucket, Mass., on Oct. 27. He was 60.
Born in the Virgin Islands, Grennan grew up in a musical family and soaked up the rich musical influences of the United States, Cuba, and Jamaica. After a brief career as a welterweight boxer, he hit the Kingston studio circuit in the early '60s as a drummer, playing speedy ska and slightly slower rock-steady beats. He recounted the story of his invention of the even slower reggae beat to this writer in a 1996 interview for a City Paper cover story ("Reggae Man," 3/13/96): "I was searching for somet'ing of my own, dat I could say, 'Well, I do dis.' So I started practice a thing called 'one-drop' . . . and dat groove was de groove."
Reggae history remains mostly oral, so hard proof of Grennan's claim remains elusive. But it is known that Grennan played the one-drop on hundreds of reggae recordings, including classics by Toots and the Maytals and Paul Simon's 1972 hit "Mother and Child Reunion," the song that first brought reggae to mainstream American radio. Grennan emigrated to the States in 1973 and embarked on a career as a session drummer in New York, performing and recording with Dizzy Gillespie, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Garland Jeffreys, and many others. In recent years, he also toured and recorded with Toots and the Maytals' Toots Hibbert, and as the leader of his own Winston Grennan Ska-Rocks Band.
He moved to Baltimore from Woodstock, N.Y., in 1992 and married Nancy Lewis, who managed his career until they separated in 1997; they later divorced, and Grennen remarried.
According to Lewis, Grennan was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2000, but he refused to undergo surgery, radiation treatment, or chemotherapy, instead putting his faith in holistic healing methods. "I'm angry at him for dying," Lewis says. "He could have lived for many years if he had sought modern medical [help] when he was diagnosed."
Grennan is survived by wife Ellie Hiteshew Grennan and at least 11 children. But his musical creation is likely to outlive all of his human progeny.