Many years ago, as a radio announcer playing Jamaican music, I searched for records on Eglington Avenue in Toronto and saw an advertisement for a dance that night. I attended the dance, and by sheer luck, I encountered and conversed with the tremendous Jamaican toaster Lord Sassafrass (Michael Johnson). This meeting was in 1985 and was still early in his career. I am fortunate to have known Jamaica’s Lord Sassafrass when he was thrilling Jamaican dance hall patrons and topping the Jamaican Hit Parade with “Pocomania Jump.” Sassafrass regularly worked with Black Scorpio Sound System alongside fellow toasters General Trees, Mikey Melody, Shuka Shine, Culture Lee, Echo Minott, and other greats. Close to forty years have passed, and Sassafrass is alive and well and living in Toronto, Canada. He continues to perform live, works on his “Skagichall” album for Horseman Records, and is occupied with a book project about his career.
Michael Johnson was named Lord Sassafrass by the great Jamaican producer and singer Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1978 when he recorded at the Black Ark Recording Studio. Sassafrass describes how he formed the full title: “Me name me-self after an American horse name Sassafras, a wicked grass horse, good pon the turf. Go to Lee Perry and him seh: ‘Well, we call ya Lord.’ That was in 1978 when I recorded ‘Green Bay Incident’ and ‘Green Bay Inquest’ [with Debra Keys] for Lee Perry at Black Ark.”
Over time I learned others had adopted the Sassafrass nickname. I know of three people/groups that use the title of “Sassafrass” in varying forms: Michael “Lord Sassafrass” Johnson of Black Scorpio, The Jamaican artist and poster maker “Sassa,” and the American folk group “Sassafrass” which started in 1999 at Bryn Mawr College. There has been some confusion over the years with this name, which recently swelled when the Jamaican artist Denzil Naar a.k.a. “Sassa,” died in July 2022. Some became confused when word spread that Lord Sassafrass had passed away, while it was the poster artist Sassa that died.
Denzil Naar is the iconic artist from Jamaica who created omnipresent posters in the 1980s. Naar went by the title of Sassa when he first started in the 1980s and, at times, adopted the nickname of Sassafrass. To say that Naar’s artwork was iconic is an understatement. His poster design, lettering, and coloring brought his posters to life. They conveyed dance information in tremendous detail while making the poster pleasing to the eye. His posters are positively mesmerizing and unmistakable long-lasting pieces of art. To some, these posters are mere advertisements for long past dances, but with Naar’s talent and ingenuity, they elevate and become everlasting. Rest in eternal peace to the artist Sassafrass.
Lord Sassafrass - The Original Horseman, teacher of the great General Trees, and DJ of Black Scorpio Sound System is alive. Don’t confuse, Lord Sassafrass may be on the backstretch of his last furlong, but he is alive and kickin’.
By Rich Lowe, 2022