For over three decades, Albert Griffiths and his Gladiators have been a major force within Jamaican music. Born in 1946, in St. Elizabeth parish, he grew up in poverty in Trench Town, and trained as a mason. However, music beckoned, and linking with David Webber, brother of the popular Webber Sisters, the pair auditioned around the studios, but to no avail. Thus it was back to masonry, where Griffiths was now working alongside the Ethiopians' Leonard Dillon under a foreman, Leebert Robinson, also looking to enter the music industry. Griffiths convinced Robinson to fund a recording session; with the Supersonics providing accompaniment, the Ethiopians cut "Train to Skaville," backed by Griffiths' "You Are the Girl," credited to Al & the Ethiopians. "Train" was a smash, while "Girl" confirmed Griffiths' own potential.
The following year, in 1968, Griffiths and Webber joined forces with Errol Grandison, and the Gladiators were born. The trio continued recording for Robinson, whilst also branching out to cut singles for Clive Chin and Duke Reid. But it was with Coxsone Dodd that the group first tasted success, when "Hello Carol" topped the Jamaican chart in late 1968. Unfortunately, it was at this point, that Webber began exhibiting signs of serious mental illness, and while the Gladiators continued sporadically recording, it was evident that Webber was becoming increasingly incapacitated. In his stead would come country boy Clinton Fearon. Fearon had arrived in Kingston at 16, and formed the short-lived vocal group the Brothers with two friends. The Brothers went nowhere, but Fearon was serious about music, and began lessons at the music school that Griffiths was now running. By this time, the elder man was also employed as a guitarist at Studio One, where Fearon would soon join him, first as rhythm guitarist, before switching to bass. However, family commitments drew Grandison away around this same time, and the Gladiators were now reduced to a duo. During this period, at the tail end of the '60s, the pair backed the likes of Burning Spear and Stranger Cole. Eventually, however, Griffiths picked Gallimore Sutherland out of his pool of students, a youth the Gladiator had first met back during his masonry days, and the group were a trio again.
As the '70s dawned, the Gladiators continued notching up hits, including "Freedom Train" and "Rock a Man Soul," both cut for Lloyd Daley, and "The Race" for Randy's. However, across the first half of the decade, it was Studio One that released the bulk of the trio's recordings. Classic followed classic, as the trio unleashed a stream of roots masterpieces. "Roots Natty," "Bongo Red," "Jah Jah Go Before Us," and "Mr. Baldwin" were all huge hits in Jamaica, as well as storming across the British reggae underground. In 1974, Vivian "Yabby U" Jackson asked Griffiths and Fearon to provided musical backing for "Jah Vengeance," which was recorded at Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark studios. Impressed, Perry employed the pair on a number of his own productions, while also producing a handful of the Gladiators' own songs, including "Time" and "Untrue Girl." Sadly, Perry and Griffiths' equally strong personalities clashed in the studio, and their partnership came to a rather abrupt end.
In 1976, the Gladiators inked a deal with Virgin Records in Britain, and began work on their label debut with producer Prince Tony Robinson. The end result was the glorious Trenchtown Mix Up album, a set stuffed with hits, phenomenal revisions of earlier Studio One numbers including "Mix Up," a re-cut of "Bongo Red," and a couple of mighty Bob Marley covers thrown in for good measure. The trio followed this masterpiece up with the equally essential Proverbial Reggae in 1978 and completed the triptych of classic albums with Naturality the following year. Sweet So Til, which arrived in 1980, was almost as good. Meanwhile, Coxsone Dodd was busily digging into the vaults, unleashing a stream of Gladiators' singles, before finally disappointing just about everyone with Presenting the Gladiators, a compilation of the group's Studio One recordings which infuriatingly omitted a clutch of crucial numbers.
Still, even as the Gladiators were virtually untouchable in Jamaica, they'd yet to really break out abroad, and thus in 1980, the trio joined with the king of crossover Eddy Grant, who oversaw the group's eponymous album. It was a major mistake, and won the group few fans, and lost them many of their older followers. Interest in reggae was fading, and back home DJs ruled the roost. Virgin soon closed the door of their reggae subsidiary Front Line, and turned their attention back to homegrown talent. By the early '80s, roots bands were expiring faster than journalists could write their obits. But the Gladiators weren't willing to call it a day yet. Now working with the U.S. reggae label Nighthawk, they unleashed two fabulous albums, 1982's Symbol of Reality, followed by Serious Thing in 1984. In 1993, Nighthawk released the equally crucial Full Time, bundling up an album's worth of recordings from this period. In 1985, the group moved to Heartbeat, where over the last half of the decade they unleashed a trio of excellent albums; Country Life arrived in 1985, In Store for You followed three years later, while their final set for the label, On the Right Track appeared in 1989. The first two albums were later reissued on CD under the title A Whole Heap.
The Gladiators continued recording high-quality albums throughout the '90s, including Valley of Decision and A True Rastaman. Even the departure of Fearon during this period could not quell the Gladiators' spirit or Griffiths' drive. The group kicked off the new millennium with the Something a Gwaan!, for the RAS label. Like the Wailers, the Gladiators vocal abilities are matched by their musical talent, making them one of the rare Jamaican groups that actually are a band in the true sense of the word. Thus, while every vocal group has its own unique sound, the Gladiators created a distinct style, one that shone forth regardless of producer. Griffiths lyrics, filled with Biblical passages and parables, is equally notable, as is his astonishing ability to take inspiration from other artists' songs. The album Father and Sons, released in 2005 on Ras/Sanctuary, finds Griffiths working with his sons, singer Al Griffiths and drummer Anthony Griffiths, and has been represented as Griffiths' farewell to his fans, with his sons taking over and continuing the Gladiators name in the future. ~ Jo-Ann Greene