Inner Circle makes the Florida loop
“Honestly, I really don’t remember the first time we played in Florida,” said Roger Lewis, the leader of Inner Circle, speaking remotely from Miami. “We used to do it a long time ago, come up from Pensacola, go up to Tallahassee, that club down there—it’s still there.” Inner Circle is still here, too, a remarkable feat of longevity in an industry that is completely different than it was when they first started or even just a few years ago. “Brevard County,” interjects his younger brother Ian; his thick patois imparts a level of class and sophistication to those two words, unlike anything such a place deserves.
Their debut single, “Why Can’t I Touch You,” was released in 1970. At least 50 other singles have followed with the most recent track dropping earlier this month. “Riches Wii a Pree” was originally released in January, in collaboration with Teejay, and now the remix is out with a special guest appearance by Snow, the white Canadian whose 1992 hit “Informer” brought reggae to the suburbs, much the same as “Ice Ice Baby” did for rap. But the crossover appeal is nothing new for Inner Circle. In fact, they practically invented it.
The band existed in several different incarnations over the years. They first made their name backing up The Chosen Few before an eight-year run with the late great Jacob Miller. This was when most people outside Jamaica got their first taste of their sound, and their Herculean work ethic, as they released a series of albums in the late 1970s for Capitol and Island.
Inner Circle was easily the second biggest reggae act on Earth (after Bob Marley), but the entire scene was soon to be decimated. Miller died in a car crash in March 1980, causing the band to collapse for several years. The Lewis brothers moved to Miami, which has remained their base of operations ever since, and together they weathered the subsequent storm that ran through the Jamaican music scene. With Marley’s death in May 1981, reggae had lost its two biggest stars within 14 months, but it wasn’t over. Inner Circle was officially rebooted in 1986, and it was this version of the band that achieved their greatest success.
The most famous, of course, is “Bad Boys,” which was initially released as a single in 1987. It didn’t get much traction then, nor upon its first reissue on their “Bad to the Bone” album in 1992. But things changed after the success of “Sweat (A La La La La Long),” that album’s lead single. “Bad Boys” was then reissued as a single with “Sweat” as the B-side, and it was off to the races—and the bank—from there. The TV show <Cops> had debuted in 1989, as a flagship of the nascent Fox Network, and one of the show’s producers was a fan, so he picked “Bad Boys” as a theme song. The effect was similar to how Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” became identified with <Married With Children>.
By 1993, the show was firmly entrenched in popular culture, but many of the viewers were only connecting the dots between the show and the band. The split-single (and, indeed, the whole album) was a must-have item, and for many Americans, this is how they learned that reggae went deeper than just Marley. At that point, a whole new generation of artists were on the scene, taking Jamaican music to the masses, most notably Buju Banton, Shaggy and Shabba Ranks, who were all <huge> in that era.
Inner Circle were thus able to achieve international fame twice, a full 15 years apart, with many of the same personnel, but in totally different ways. Where once they were pioneers of the sound, overshadowed by bigger names, now they were the big name, benefitting from the young talent whose own success was achieved on their shoulders. Inner Circle thus came full circle, and it’s been pretty much smooth sailing ever since.
Given the vast array of singles, studio albums, live albums, compilation albums, greatest hits albums, LPs, EPs, 45s, 78s, reissues, etc. issued in the US, Europe and Asia, in addition to all the bootlegs and dub plates that never made it outside Jamaica, it is virtually impossible to know exactly how many tracks the members of Inner Circle have recorded in in their roughly 54 years in the business. Not even the founders know because they never cared to count. In those early days of the Jamaican music scene, very few people thought of themselves as architects of a movement that would transform global culture.
Certainly, none of them ever expected to still be alive and playing music in the year 2022, let alone touring the world for adoring crowds, some of whose parents weren’t yet born when the Lewis brothers started the band in 1968. Roger and Ian were only 16 and 14 at the time, and their bandmates were even younger. No one is thinking long-term at that age.
They don’t tour nearly as intensely as they once did because that would be insane. Their gigs are spaced out a bit, more leisurely. At this point, it’s purely a labor of love. Their fans in Florida are lucky to have several chances to see them live over the next few months, including the Florida Jerk Festival in Orlando on October 23 and Art Basel Miami on December 2.
For our purposes today, take special note of Oct. 7, when Inner Circle will headline night one of the Beaches OktoberFest at the Seawalk Pavilion. (Corey Smith headlines night two with more artists to be announced.) “Florida has always been big for reggae,” said Roger, “and always growing.” There will also be a Stein Hoisting Competition, a Bratwurst eating competition and, coolest of all, a beach clean-up session on the Sunday morning after the festival.
One can only speculate, but at their age, and with their level of success, Inner Circle will surely never have to work again. But they will never stop because they never did, and that is exactly why they are still here, making new music, new fans, new friends. If there is ever such a thing as “happily ever after” in the music industry, this is it, Jah knooooow?