One of Jamaica's signature harmony groups, the Itals were chiefly responsible for keeping the sound and spirit of roots reggae alive well into the dancehall era. They didn't get as much attention as other great vocal trios from the roots era (Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, the Wailing Souls, etc.), partly because their '70s releases were confined to 45-rpm singles. When they finally made the leap to LPs in the '80s, they attracted highly positive notices from many reggae aficionados, even despite the fact that roots was rapidly growing passé in Jamaica with the advent of dancehall reggae. After recording steadily during the '80s, they remained a productive touring unit into the '90s, still releasing the occasional album.
The Itals' roots dated back to the '60s and the country village of Savanna la Mar, in Jamaica's Westmoreland Parish. Singers and schoolmates Alvin "Keith" Porter and Ronnie Davis formed a group called the Westmorelites during the early '60s, and practiced together through their teens. By 1967, Davis had departed to sing with the Tennors, and Roy Smith joined up with Porter. In early 1967, the Westmorelites recorded a single for Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One label called "Miss Hitie Titie." Meanwhile, the Tennors blossomed into one of Jamaica's great forgotten rocksteady groups, scoring numerous hits over 1967-1968, often with Davis singing lead and/or co-writing. Fellow area singer Lloyd Ricketts, who started out in a group called the Terrors, was at various times a member of both the Tennors and the Westmorelites, the latter of which he officially joined in 1969. However, they didn't last for much longer, as Porter took a job with a group called Soul Hermit that played around Jamaica's tourist circuit.
Porter, Davis, and Ricketts all made solo recordings during the early '70s, with Davis ranking as the most successful of the bunch. In 1971, Porter moved on to a new tourist-circuit band called the Future Generation, and played all over Jamaica for the next several years. He returned to Kingston in 1975 and met up with Davis, who'd just scored a major hit with "Won't You Come Home," a single he recorded for producer Lloyd Campbell's SpiderMan label. Davis gave Porter a tape of the song's instrumental rhythm, and Porter wrote a new version titled "In a Dis Ya Time." He recorded it for Campbell in 1976, with Davis on harmony vocals. The single's first issue was credited to Keith & Ronnie, but when it became a breakout hit, a better-sounding group name was needed; they settled on the Itals, from a Rastafarian term meaning natural and pure. With the new Itals name on subsequent pressings, "In a Dis Ya Time" went on to top the Jamaican charts.
With a major hit on their hands, Porter and Davis decided to stay together under the Itals banner, and brought in old cohort Lloyd Ricketts to complete the harmony-trio format that had become customary among Jamaican vocal groups. Over the next few years, the Itals recorded a number of high-quality, Rastafarian-themed hit singles, many of which were written by Porter: "Don't Wake the Lion," "Brutal," "Temptation," "Time Will Tell," "You Don't Care." Finally, in 1981, the group signed with Nighthawk Records and recorded its first ever LP, Brutal Out Deh. Featuring a mix of new material and re-recordings of past singles, Brutal Out Deh received excellent reviews in the U.S. and U.K. The follow-up, 1983's Give Me Power!, focused more on social statements than purely spiritual matters, and it was accompanied by the group's first American tour, with instrumental backing by the legendary Roots Radics.
The Itals didn't complete their third album, Rasta Philosophy, until 1987, but it was received well, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album. Not long after its release, Ricketts was sentenced to a prison term, and his slot was to be temporarily filled by onetime solo artist David Isaacs. However, when it was discovered that Ricketts could no longer enter the U.S. legally, Isaacs was made a permanent replacement. He made his recording debut on 1989's Cool and Dread, which proved to be the group's last release of new material on Nighthawk. They moved on to Rhythm Safari for 1991's Easy to Catch, and then fell silent for a time, although they continued to tour extensively. Davis left the group in 1994 and formed a new backing group, Idren, which featured former Westmorelite Roy Smith, as well as Ricketts; they issued the album Come Straight in 1997. Meanwhile, Davis was replaced by Porter's daughter Kada, who made her debut on 1998's Modern Age; that too featured guest vocals from Ricketts. ~ Steve Huey, Rovi