Caribbean community mourns Gil Bailey, 'Godfather of Reggae Radio'

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Marco Werman: If you've lived in the tri-state area around New York City and you heard reggae or rock steady on the radio anytime over the past few decades, there's a pretty good chance you were hearing a set DJed by Gil Bailey.

Today, Caribbean Americans are mourning the broadcast legend. Gil Bailey died of COVID-19 last week. Originally from Jamaica, Bailey was known as the godfather of reggae radio.

WNYC’s Beth Fertig has this remembrance.

Beth Fertig: For almost 50 years, Gil Bailey broadcast the sounds of the Caribbean to listeners throughout the New York City metro region and beyond.

Gil Bailey: When I started [doing] radio in 1969, there was no one on Caribbean radio but Gil Bailey.

Fertig: That's Bailey in a 2013 interview on YouTube. He got his start when a friend at a Mount Kisco radio station invited him to stop by. Reggae hadn't hit the mainstream yet. Bailey brought it to white audiences and also tapped into the Caribbean diaspora, which could only hear the music at house parties and bars.

Sharon Gordon: We all grew up listening to Gil Bailey at night.

Fertig: Sharon Gordon is a journalist and broadcaster.

Gordon: We’d put the wire hanger on a little transistor radio — millennials will love this — and we would catch the radio just so, so the hangar could get the signal coming through the window, so we could hear Gil through all the static.

Fertig: She says Bailey was the first to play new songs by Michael Rose, Beres Hammond, Maxi Priest, Dennis Brown, and more.

Sharon Gordon: Bob Marley did a song called "Smile Jamaica" and Gil played it. I remember going up to Utica Avenue to Joe Gibbs records looking for that song and nobody knew the song I was talking about.

Fertig: Gordon says Bailey and his wife Pat, who produced his shows, promoted more than musicians. Local Caribbean businesses got valuable exposure. Gordon worked for the Baileys in the early 1990s. She says other DJs imitated his style, but some didn't care for it.

Gordon: There were those who cringed to hear the patois, the raw Jamaican patois.

Fertig: But Bailey often said he was proud of his Jamaican roots and how his shows had an international reach. Here he is in a 2010 TV interview:

Gil Bailey: I'm entertaining people all over the world. People listen to us in the Caribbean, Canada, England, Germany. We get emails from all over the world.

Fertig: After his wife died in 2016, Bailey took a break from broadcasting. He returned with a weekly gospel show on an AM station. His last show was in March. He was 84 years old when he died and is being mourned at home and abroad.