More than 50 years on, reggae star Dawn Penn reflects on her biggest hit

'You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)’ has been covered or sampled by stars including Beyonce, Rihanna and Mary J Blige

Jamaican singer Dawn Penn, who plays in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, is working on a new album of gospel songs. Photo: Lorne Thomson / Redferns
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For Dawn Penn, the road to international stardom began in a vibrant and humble studio in Kingston, Jamaica.

It was 1967 and still the early days of the rocksteady movement, the genre that was a precursor to reggae and dancehall.

At 15, the aspiring singer was spotted by Coxsone Dodd, the influential producer and founder of Studio One, the label and production space described as “the Motown of Jamaica".

“He said he liked my voice and invited me to the studio to get some work done,” Penn tells The National, ahead of her Abu Dhabi concert at Aloft Abu Dhabi on Saturday, organised by the team behind popular music festival Reggae Beachfest.

"So I went into the studio after Sunday school and I waited in this queue and eventually got in and sang these notes to chords played by Jackie Mittoo from the great band the Skatalites.”

Coxsone immediately knew he had struck gold and encouraged the session to continue.

Penn, 70, recalls it was an organic process.

"The song started in this really minor key that was changed to a major and then we all built it,” she says.

“We made it go from soft to loud, to make it more dynamic, and added the trombone and other things. It was just crazy how it all came to be."

An enduring hit

Released not long after the session, the finished track was called You Don't Love Me and became an immediate sensation in Jamaica.

The song’s local success, however, was not big enough for Penn to launch a fully-fledged music career.

As a result, she released sporadic material in the proceeding 25 years, while working various administrative jobs in the US and the British Virgin Islands.

"I have always been a secretary in a way," she says.

"I was a phone operator, a typist, a bookkeeper, taking notes and all these other things. And, I would write songs and do the occasional show."

Penn's career received a second wind in 1992 courtesy, once again, of Studio One.

At the time, Penn was back performing in Jamaica when she was invited to be part of the studio's 30th-anniversary concert.

Her performance of You Don't Love Me with some of the original recording musicians, including the acclaimed production duo Steely and Clevie, was such a hit with audiences that a new dancehall version was recorded under the title You Don't Love Me (No, No, No).

Intriguingly, while the new version initially received a cool reception in Jamaica it became a global sensation, peaking at number three in the UK charts.

“I really can’t explain why the song became such a success, it is one of the mystical aspects about this whole experience,” she says.

“All I know is that I did this song initially years ago for Coxsone and then it took me from Jamaica to the world. The new version got me a Grammy Award nomination and everybody went on to sing it and add their own styles to it.”

Penn refers to a new generation of mostly US R&B and hip-hop artists who either covered or sampled the tracks in their work — including superstars Rihanna and Beyonce — in the early stages of their career.

The former Bajan singer released a version with dancehall singer Vybz Kartel as part of her 2005 debut album, Music of the Sun.

Beyonce, meanwhile, performed her take during her I Am ... World Tour, including a rendition in Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Park in 2009.

RnB veteran Mary J Blige is the latest artist to take on the song, as she sampled the intro for You Don't Love Me (No, No, No) in last year’s single Amazing.

“And there are so many other artists as well that may not be as big that covered the song. I feel very happy that the song has inspired others,” she says.

“There is the popularity and the accolades, but to see other artists using and adding their own style to it is also very satisfying.”

The gospel according to Penn

Penn is preparing to add her touch to another genre as part of a coming gospel album.

"I have always been a spiritual person and I try to be in tune with God," she says.

"The album is recorded on that basis, with songs focusing on these spiritual topics of revelation and reflection."

With this year marking the 60th anniversary of Studio One’s launch, Penn has nothing but fond memories.

"It was easy going, but there were times when things kicked off for other reasons where the police got involved," she says with a laugh.

"But I am happy with how my career has gone and especially how the digital phase of music has brought a lot of artists like me back to a new generation of people.

“As for the idiot things that happen in the industry, well ... I would rather tell a priest about those."

Dawn Penn performs at Aloft Abu Dhabi on Saturday. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets are priced at Dh100 and are available from abu-dhabi.platinumlist.net and 054 994 2289

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Updated: September 06, 2022, 9:23 AM
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