Terry Hall, the vocalist for U.K. ska legends the Specials, died yesterday (Dec. 18) at the age of 63. In a statement posted to social media, the group attributed Hall’s passing to “a brief illness” and called the musician “our beautiful friend, brother, and one of the most brilliant singers, songwriters and lyricists this country has ever produced.”
“Terry was a wonderful husband and father and one of the kindest, funniest, and most genuine of souls,” the statement continued. “His music and his performances encapsulated the very essence of life… the joy, the pain, the humor, the fight for justice, but mostly the love. He will be deeply missed by all who knew and loved him and leaves behind the gift of his remarkable music and profound humanity. Terry often left the stage at the end of The Specials’ life-affirming shows with three words … ‘Love Love Love.'”
At the age of 17, Hall joined an early version of the Specials named the Coventry Automatics in 1977. “Terry was very striking. Whereas all the other punks were wearing leather jackets, he would be wearing a patent leather jacket. And he looked kind of psychotic,” Specials songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers told SPIN of Hall in an oral history about the 2 tone ska sound, which the group rendered while decked out in short hair, Wayfarers, sharp suits, skinny ties, porkpie hats, and checkerboard socks. “I don’t know if effeminate is the right word, but camp. [Guitarist] Lynval [Golding], [bassist] Horace [Panter], and myself, we were very much into black music. The punk-rock element was from Terry and [guitarist] Roddy [Byers]. Ska brought it all together. We were able to create something between us that individually we couldn’t.”
Indeed, the Specials quickly broke ground with a youth-driven, never-before-heard blend of punk, Jamaican music, pop hooks, and social and political commentary. From 1979-81, the group racked up seven straight top 10 U.K. singles, including the chart-toppers “Ghost Town” and “Too Much Too Young,” plus the future classic “A Message to You Rudy.”
In the fall of 1979, the 2 Tone tour, featuring the Specials, Madness, and the Selecter, sold out venues across the U.K. the Specials’ self-titled debut album, produced by Elvis Costello, was an instant rebel-nerd touchstone. Songs about the absurdity of adult coupling (“Stupid Marriage”), disgust over urban brutality (“Doesn’t Make It Alright”), and alienation (“Blank Expression”) struck a chord with a generation of disenfranchised teens, while “Too Much Too Young” turned the band’s acid wit to the issue of contraception (“Keep a generation gap / Try wearing a cap”).
The original Specials lineup didn’t last long, with Hall moving on to the new group Fun Boy Three. Its 1983 album Waiting included a song Hall had co-written with the Go-Go’s’ Jane Wiedlin, “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which the latter act had already turned into a U.S. hit. “He was a lovely, sensitive, talented, and unique person,” Wiedlin wrote on Twotter. “Our extremely brief romance resulted in the song ‘Our Lips Are Sealed,’ which will forever tie us together in music history.”
Hall later recorded as the Colourfield, with Blair Booth and Anouchka Grose as Terry, Blair & Anouchka, and as a solo artist. He also guested on projects with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz.
Throughout, the Specials’ influence continued to rise, particularly with third-wave ska-leaning acts such as Fishbone, No Doubt, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Sublime. Minus Dammers, the Specials reunited for the first time in 28 years for a U.K. tour in May 2009. In April 2010, the group returned to U.S. soil for the first time in decades as part of an appearance on NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and also performed at the Coachella festival.
The Specials toured regularly following the reunion and also hit the studio for Hall’s first album with the group since 1981, 2019’s Encore, which was a No. 1 hit in the U.K. The group was active on the road as recently as this past summer.
Tributes are pouring in from across the music industry, including from Costello, who wrote on Twitter, “Sad to receive the news of Terry Hall’s passing last night from Lynval Golding. Terry’s voice was the perfect instrument for the true and necessary songs on The Specials. That honesty is heard in so many of his songs in joy and sorrow. My condolences to his family and friends.”
“The Specials were a celebration of how British culture was invigorated by Caribbean immigration, but the onstage demeanor of their lead singer was a reminder that they were in the serious business of challenging our perception of who we were in the late 1970s,” Billy Bragg wrote on Twitter. “Terry Hall, a man of few words verbally but so many great words in song,” added Squeeze’s Chris Difford. “I always admired and envied his sweep of the pen. Take care on the steps above, young man.”