British ska/reggae star Judge Dread, best known for his '70s hits "Big Seven" and "Je T'aime," died Friday after collapsing onstage as he concluded a performance at the Penny Theatre in Canterbury, England.
The Times of London reports that Dread's last words were: "Let's hear it for the band!" He then keeled over, but the audience initially thought it was a joke. An off-duty paramedic attending the concert later realized Dread wasn't faking and tried to resuscitate him, but Dread was pronounced dead minutes later at nearby Kent and Canterbury Hospital. The 53-year-old, 250-lb. vocalist is believed to have suffered a heart attack; an autopsy is planned.
Judge Dread was born Alex Hughes in Kent, England. He developed a love of Jamaican music as a teenager when he lived for a time with a West Indian family in London. After working as a debt collector, bouncer and, briefly, as a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones, Hughes launched his career in 1972. He adopted the stage name "Judge Dread" and recorded a lewd single called "Big Six," which cost only £6 to record.
"Big Six" reached No. 11 in the U.K. despite receiving no radio play due to its risquT lyrics; a similar song called "Big Seven" reached the Top 10 and stayed on the charts for 27 weeks. Dread scored another U.K. Top 10 hit in 1978 with a reggae remake of Serge Gainsbourg's 1969 classic "Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)." He sold several million albums throughout his 25-plus year career and was second only to Bob Marley in U.K. reggae sales during the 1970s.
"We're extremely saddened by his death. We were all big fans of his," Moon Ska Records spokesman Steve Shafer told JAMTV. "He was tremendously talented. It's unfortunate we couldn't work with him more closely." A new recording of "Big Seven" that Judge Dread made shortly before his death will appear on an forthcoming Moon compilation, Ska United: A Global Ska Sampler.