In my most recent book, Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound, I chronicle the efforts of the Jamaican government and music industry to establish the identity of this newly-independent country through a series of events in Jamaica and the United States. Central to this effort was the ska, both the music and the dance. Ronnie Nasralla, manager for Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, personal friend to Edward Seaga (then minister of development and welfare, later prime minister), and masterful advertising executive of his own company, told me on a number of occasions how and why he developed this dance and promoted it in numerous ways–one of which has recently come into my possession and I share photos of it here, for the benefit of the preservation of history.
These are the same photos of Ronnie Nasralla and Jannette Phillips who appear on the covers of a number of ska albums. This was an insert placed in many of those albums, and this one was included in the 1964 Original Cool Jamaican Ska album with a track list of almost all Laurel and Bobby Aitken tunes. Mr. Nasralla explained how this brochure came to be. “Eddie said to me, ‘Ronnie, move around the crowd [at Chocomo Lawn] and see what they’re doing on the dance floor and see if you can come up with a brochure on how to do the ska,’ so I did that. I danced with the people and moved around and I came up with a brochure about a week after, how to dance the ska—something they could use to promote ska worldwide. That brochure was used by the government. They put it in all the record albums and it was sent all over the world,” Nasralla says.
The photos on the cover of this album were taken by Brian Motta, who had an amateur career in motorcar racing before training at Kodak Eastman in the United States, subsequently heading up the photography department and lab at his father’s store. His father was Stanley Motta, owner of Motta’s Recording Studio, the endeavor that launched an industry, both for Motta and for Jamaica. Below are a few of Brian Motta’s photographs, which you may recognize as color (oooh, Kodachrome!) versions of the black and white film shot at the Sombrero Club. The filmmaker for that event was Cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste who told me, “This is Ska was filmed at two locations—Sombrero Club and The Glass Bucket Club. The intro was shot in a studio at the JIS Film Unit and at Sombrero. I was the cinematographer for the studio scene and filmed mostly at Glass Bucket, only a few times at Sombrero. Most of the Ska films—there were two released—were done in 1964. There was some filming in 1965 I think, and this would be at Sombrero.”
I have never been a record collector because I know it would be a dangerous slippery slope for me and I would quickly go broke. But I do have a small collection of long-playing albums, mostly for the jacket copy and the historical value, and this particular album is a miniature library. Here is the back jacket copy, written by Clay Perry.
I had the pleasure of attending the Back to the Beach Festival at Huntington Beach State Park April 27th and saw one of my all-time favorites, The Beat. Though Dave Wakeling has not performed with Ranking Roger for many years, this one was especially difficult since Roger passed away on March 26th and his funeral was just this past Monday, April 29th in Birmingham. Dave paid tribute to Roger, dedicating the song Ranking Full Stop to him as he sang with an extra bit of emotion.
But it was hard to keep my focus on Dave, as an ASL interpreter was stationed stage right during the entire festival. This interpreter was full of the same level of emotion and excitement for the performance, perhaps even more so. For a hearing person like me, this interpreter brought an additional dimension to the music. For the deaf culture, he brought ska to a whole new audience. I was intrigued.
This interpreter is Matt Marquis and he has been an interpreter for almost 25 years. He interpreted his first music show 12 years ago and he says he is a fan of ska and The Beat. The photos below show his ASL interpretation for “Mirror in the Bathroom.”
I asked Matt about his connection to the music and his service. “I am familiar with The (English) Beat. I’ve seen them a few times. l even saw Dave’s side project Bang! In San Diego sometime in the 90s. I’m a big fan and have much respect for Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger (RIP) both for their music in The Beat and General Public. I also have had the opportunity to interpret for them before at a different festival,” says Marquis.
He continues, “I am a fan of ska for sure. When the third wave ska hit, I also expanded into some second wave stuff. But third wave stuff … big fan! My 12 year old daughter Marci is a huge Aquabats fan.”
Matt Marquis explained how interpreting for a large music festival with bands like The Beat, The Aquabats, and others on the Back to the Beach bill works. He says, “In a dream world we would get set lists far in advance and prepare early on. So mostly our team does our homework on the internet. We look up set lists that other fans have posted and try prepare accordingly. We find lyrics online, translate the concepts into ASL, then do our best to match them with the music and tone of the song. We have worked with SGE, the promoters of Back to the Beach, last year and other events. They are amazing and supportive in trying to get us whatever we need and intercede on our behalf with the artists to request for set list days in advance. We practice the best we can. Plus being a fan of the artist or genre makes prepping easier. Some acts like the English Beat though don’t use set lists and just go by reading the crowd. So you just have to be on your toes.”
He says that the reception for ASL interpretation has been wonderful. “Audiences have been great. Shows and fans have evolved over the years. For years, deaf patrons have struggled to get the access they deserve. Interpreters have been required if requested since 1990 but venues often wouldn’t provide them, or they would wait so long to hire someone that they couldn’t do an adequate job. Also things like interpreter and patron placement, lighting and sound were not considered. Then the deaf would come and not enjoy the show, and the circle would continue. That is often still a issue at smaller venues. But now promoters and venues have started to catch on. They are providing interpreters more frequently, in some cases without request from a deaf person, so more shows are being interpreted and more deaf people are coming to shows. The more shows interpreters do, the better the quality interpretation and overall experience.”
Matt Marquis says that many of the artists also embrace ASL interpreters. “It has spread to the artists as well. When I started, bands we’re unsure of what Interpreters did, and sometimes even felt like the interpreters were a distraction. Now bands are recognizing the deaf patrons and accessibility. Some artists take a vested interest in ASL and the interpretation process. Monique Powell from Save Ferris is a great example. She learned a few signs before her show and added it to the performance. Deaf patrons loved it!” he says.
One of my all-time favorite people in all of ska, in all of music–Ranking Roger–has died on March 26, 2019, according to The Beat’s official website. Cancer. Again. Cancer.
Ranking Roger, whose real name was Roger Charlery, was one-half of the dynamic duo that fronted The Beat and General Public with Dave Wakeling. He was tremendously talented and charismatic and his percussive toasting gave The Beat’s version of ska authenticity and spice. He was also one helluva nice guy.
Nearly two decades ago, on June 27, 1997, I had the pleasure of interviewing my idol via phone. He regaled me with tales of how he grew up in an artistic family, how he became involved in music, ups and downs with The Beat, and of course, love and unity.
I’ve finally figured out how to digitized my interviews, which I recorded on microcassette tape (go ahead, laugh, I don’t mind!) and so I am providing audio of that entire interview here. May the words of Roger inspire those who listen, and may his music continue to touch the spirit of all of us. I know it did for me. Godspeed, Roger.
It is fascinating to imagine Coxsone Dodd in Studio One, calling his musicians “Jackson” as a term of endearment. But for those of us who have to imagine and have never heard this legend’s voice, what did he sound like, exactly? Thanks to the record industry that he helped to launch and establish in his country, we can hear Dodd’s voice in the flesh, or in the wax. The following is an excerpt from Roy Black who writes regular music columns for the Gleaner newspaper.
From The Music Diaries, Roy Black, June 5, 2016:
So often we have heard on-air radio presenters, who we would expect to know better, referring to Delroy Wilson’s early 1960s ska recording of King Pharaoh, as the only one in which Dodd’s voice is heard.
In the recording, the Studio 1 honcho is heard admonishing his arch-rival and former worker, Prince Buster, with the words:
“When I say get down, I mean get down, I have no use for you. Your father was King Pharaoh and you are Prince Pharaoh. You must go down as your father did go down. Go down and drop your crown”.
The recording came at a time when Dodd had just returned from one of his overseas trips to find the recording scene being taken over by Buster, who had parted ways with him in unceremonious fashion. In parting, Buster voiced his dissent in a recording, titled, One Hand Wash the Other, which prompted several Delroy Wilson responses, including King Pharaoh.
Dodd is better known for his shrewd production tactics that inspired hundreds of aspiring artistes and produced scores of hit songs, but in an interview I had with him a couple years before his passing in 2004, he credited himself with other musical skills.
“I was one of the first rappers in Jamaican music, and I have rapped on about half a dozen recordings done by artistes for Studio 1”, he asserted.
The Studio 1 boss seemed to be at his best as a rapper on a mid-1960s Burning Spear track titled, Rocking Time. Before Burning Spear made their vocal entry, and with a rock rhythm in the background, Dodd had a rapping prelude with:
“Moses struck the rock and brought forth water.
I man open my mouth and bring to you another scorcher”.
Interchanging with Spears, Dodd continued to ride the rhythm throughout, with other peppy toasts like:
“Straighten up yourself, it’s rocking timemove, move, move your body line.
Rock it to me, sock it to me.
Move and groove, move baby move, rock your body line
Work up a heat, move your feet
It’s rocking time”.
Dodd’s voice can also be heard on The Skatalites’ instrumental recording, El Pussy Ska, in which Dodd introduces the recording with:
“Come on everyboys, let’s ska El Pussy Ska”.
But perhaps the biggest shock to many untaught music connoisseurs and presenters is to learn that Dodd, in fact, sang in a recording. Singing in duet with the keyboard maestro, Jackie Mittoo, and calling themselves, The Soul Agents the duo produced one of the most powerful rocksteady pieces to appear on the ‘Coxsone’ label Get Ready Rock Steady. Dodd featured prominently in the recording as the lyrics ran:
The following is an excerpt from chapter six, “Dance Craze,” of Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound by Heather Augustyn. This book is 200 pages of exclusive interviews, photos, archival documents, and narrative that chronicles Jamaica’s effort to bring ska to the United States, and the world, in 1964.
Reggae Steady Ska’s Charles Benoit recently published an interview about this book, so have a look here.
The book is available for purchase ($20) at skabook.com.
Marketing a dance to accompany the music was a brilliant way to further the reach of the music, especially in the days of a thousand dances. The “Mash Potato” had been a popular dance in the United States and audiences in Kingston knew all about it since King Coleman, creator of the song and subsequent dance, came to the Regal Theater to perform in December of 1960. Also in late 1960, Jamaican papers carried the news of a “new dance craze in Trinidad” called “de saga ting.” The Star Newspaper on November 10, 1960 stated, “It’s a bit like that latest Jamaican craze, the mash potato. The big difference is that there isn’t such a pronounced stamping of the feet. In a way, it’s like the dance of the John Canoe men, with the head tilted at forty-five degree angles, first this way, then that, and the hands held either motionlessly in the air or the fists used to ape the stance of a pugilist.” In mid-1961, another dance called the La Pachanga was delcared a “new Latin craze” by the Star Newspaper on June 15, 1961. “Although the shenanigans of Fidel Castro and the rift with Cuba is giving Americans a big headache these days, and there is talk of putting an embargo on more Cuban products besides sugar, just about the hottest—and zaniest—Cuban export, the La Pachanga is catching on like wildfire in dance halls all over New York, and the nation … Pachangaging is the nearest thing to a cross between a Cha Cha, the Charleston and the Bunny-hop,” stated the article which featured a diagram complete with footprints, arrows, and numbers along with instructions like “bend knees” and “kick.” The Hully Gully was also a craze in 1962. The Star on April 6th stated, “Reason for the name, nobody knows,” though it also went by the moniker The Continental. “A group of Hully Gullists, as they are called, form a line facing in the same direction and to the chants of a caller goes through the movements—strange movements with equally strange names. They dance to such shouts as ‘Spank the Baby,’ ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ ‘Fidel Castro,’ ‘Slop,’ etc.”
In 1959 a little song called “The Twist” was released in the United States as a B side performed by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. It was only a moderate hit until the following year when Chubby Checker covered it and performed it on American Bandstand complete with dance moves that launched a worldwide craze. In late 1961, the Twist was already popular in Jamaica. A full-page photo spread appeared in the Star Newspaper on November 6, 1961 depicting two London dancers showing readers step-by-step how to do the Twist. “It is called the Twist—the wackiest, gayest dance since the Charleston … The Twist started in San Francisco. Skipping New York, it turned up next in Paris, where it is the rage of every Left Bank night club. Next place to get Twist Fever was St. Tropez, on the French Riviera, where they dance it till dawn on moonlit beaches. The rage went from there to New York. Now London. And, soon, your local dance,” read the photo caption.
Sure enough, the Twist did soon come to the “local dance,” as clubs hosted competitions and events. The Carib promised “£10 cash for anyone who out-twists Big Maybelle,” and at the Odeon Theatre in July 1962, a “colossal show” featuring Jimmy Cliff, Roland Alphonso and his Upsetters, Higgs & Wilson, Hortense Ellis, and “Special Guest Don (Trombone) Drummond” was billed as an event called “Twisting to Independence.” Merchants like Davon, men’s clothier, depicted twisting men in print advertisements and encouraged buyers to “ask for Davon’s latest—‘The Checker.’” The popularity of the dance craze brought Chubby Checker himself to Kingston to perform in mid-June 1962 at the Carib Theater. It was “Chubby Checker’s Twist Spectacular” and guests were encouraged to “Come ‘Fly’ with Chubby.” A preview article in the Star Newspaper on May 31, 1962 stated, “Not only have the teenagers gone mad over the Twist, but adults of all age groups are taking Twist lessons from the teenager set.” Sam Cooke came to Kingston and the North Coast in May, 1962 for his show called “Twistin’ the Night Away” after his hit tune, and when Johnny Nash came to Kingston to perform at the end of April, 1962, he was sure to bring with him the “Tom Johnson Twisters,” who were billed as “New York’s Champion Twisting Team from the famous Peppermint Lounge in New York.”
In addition to the creation of a dance to promote the ska, a film was also created to showcase what Seaga hoped would be the next big trend. Cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste recalls, “This is Ska was filmed at two locations—Sombrero Club and The Glass Bucket Club. The intro was shot in a studio at the JIS Film Unit and at Sombrero. I was the cinematographer for the studio scene and filmed mostly at Glass Bucket, only a few times at Sombrero. Most of the Ska films—there were two released—were done in 1964. There was some filming in 1965 I think, and this would be at Sombrero.” One of the films, from 1964, featured Byron & the Dragonaires backing up numerous artists including Stranger Cole, Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and others. The other film featured Carlos Malcolm as backing band for artists like Prince Buster. Malcolm says, “Carlos Malcolm and His Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, we accompanied Buster at the Sombrero Club singing the American song ‘Lucky Ol’ Sun,’ re-named in Jamaica, ‘Wash-Wash.’”
Tony Verity, emcee of the film, and popular emcee of entertainment events throughout Kingston, narrates a bit like Rod Serling, “Since 1959, the west-end of Kingston, Jamaica has throbbed with a musical beat—a hypnotic sound of surging excitement and power. People hearing it became caught up in a frenzy and couldn’t help moving to the tempo of this pulsating, almost religious beat. This is Ska!” After the “Jamaica Ska” song plays, and dancers including children are shown enjoying the various moves of the ska, Verity reappears on the screen and states, “Yes, this is Ska, original and indigenous, the music of guitar, saxophone, trumpet, bass, and drums. These instruments are playing a monotonic, grassroots rhythm. This beat has taken Jamaica by storm and is swiftly spreading to other parts of the world. Now what is the authentic style of this new dance craze? Let’s take a looksee, shall we? There are four basic steps to the Ska. The first is to keep the beat with the upper half of the body, bowing forward with a straight back and a slight bend in both knees. At the first bow, the arms extend to the sides. At the second bow, the arms cross in front. The body straightens up in between the change of arms from one position to the other. Basic step number two is practically the same as step number one, but with the addition of a sidestep. First to the right by moving the right leg on the extension of the arms, then bringing up the left leg on the closing of the arms. Step number three is once again, very similar. Only the arms change. First right, then left swing up and down in front of the body, finishing with the body beat when the right arm is in the air, and then when the left arm is in the air. The arms are to be very relaxed and then swung on either side of the legs, or between the legs. These basic steps may be done face to face, or side by side with your partner. Finally, our fourth basic step. Now this is perhaps the most energetic of all basic Ska steps. It’s being done by two members of the band [Keith Lyn and Carl Brady] and is called rowing—a similar action to rowing a boat. It’s either done facing your partner or beside your partner. The first move is to reach out with the arms keeping both back and legs perfectly straight to form an angle at the waist. Then, a pull back, throwing backwards the upper half of the body from the knees up. Ska is as easy at that. How about us joining a regular ska session.”
The next section of the film then shows Eric “Monty” Morris performing “Sammy Dead-O” with pans of the floor covered in ska dancers, and shots of the bandstand musicians, up close. Next performance on this film is Jimmy Cliff with his tune, “One Eyed Jacks,” his arms in the air like a champion, singing into two microphones on stands. Prince Buster in his Cincinnati Reds baseball cap appears next singing “Wash Wash” surrounded by other singers including Derrick Harriott and Carlos Malcolm who steps off of his trombone for a few vocals on the mic. The Maytals perform next with “Treat Me Bad,” the three singers gathered around two microphone stands that captures the harmonies, Vernon Möller, Sammy Ismay, and Byron Lee clearly visible in the background with cutaway shots to Granville Williams on keyboard. They continue with “She Will Never Let You (sic) Down” though Toots Hibbert is visibly absent from the trio. “So Marie” from The Charmers follows with plenty of footage of the crowd dancing and a shot of the Charmers, Lloyd Charmers and Roy Willis, under the banner, “Cool Ska Cool.” Stranger Cole with “Rough and Tough” is next in a dapper suit, white dress shirt, and dark tie singing, “For the good you do lives after you,” as the crowd bobs and swings. Roy & Yvonne then appear singing, “Two Roads Before Me,” dressed to the nines in a buttoned-up suit and gown with sparkly jewelry, respectively. They each take their turn at the microphone for the duet before The Blues Busters (Philip James and Lloyd Campbell) take the stage with their song, “I Don’t Know.” All the while, Ken Lazarus along with Keith Lyn and Carl Brady call out to the dancers to “get ‘em up, get ‘em up” or “get down, and up! Get down, and up!” Keith then takes over the microphone for his version of “Sammy Dead-O” as Ken ends the tune with some vocal percussion invented by toasters like Lord Comic and Count Matchuki. Jimmy Cliff is back up with a few roars before launching into his “King of Kings,” bouncing on the stage with energetic dynamism. Derrieres wiggle, arms flail, and feet hop as the film comes to an end. A crowd seated at a table filled with empty beer bottles and plates applauds.
The stage was now set. Step one utilized a dance-obsessed America. Step two brought a music that was lively, spirited, and made for dancing. Step three was showcasing a newly-independent country that was eager to show the world its culture and people. Now all America had to do was follow the steps.
Trevor McNaughton, the last member of the Melodians, died on Tuesday, November 20th at the age of 77, according to the Jamaica Observer. He died of respiratory failure at the Kendrick Rehabilitation Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, according to his wife, Irene.
McNaughton was the last remaining member of the Melodians’s trio. Brent Dowe died in 2006 and Trevor Brevett died in 2013.
I had the pleasure of seeing Trevor McNaughton perform four years ago when Chuck Wren brought him to Chicago. He took the stage after Eric “Monty” Morris and it was so much fun to “swing and dine” with Trevor as his beautiful voice entertained the crowd. To sing along to “By the Rivers of Babylon” with the man who wrote this iconic song, along with Brent Dowe, was chilling. This song, which is traditionally performed by Jimmy Cliff at festivals all over the world, was part of the soundtrack to the 1972 Perry Henzell film, The Harder They Come. It was produced by Leslie Kong.
Trevor McNaughton was not one of the lead singers for the Melodians, but he did provide harmonies, perfect harmonies, on all of the Melodians songs. He only sang lead on one song, “No Sin At All,” and left the lead duties to both Dowe and Brevett. Other classic songs include “Little Nut Tree,” “Sweet Sensation,” “Come On Little Girl,” “I’ll Get Along Without You,” “Ring of Gold,” and “Swing and Dine.” This is one of those CDs I put on in my car, crank it, and sing at the top of my lungs on the way to work.
The Melodians performed together since they first began in 1963 in the Greenwich Farm neighborhood of Kingston. They recorded for Duke Reid, Sonia Pottinger, and Leslie Kong and they were frequently backed by Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. The first time they appear in the Daily Gleaner was on July 21, 1965 for the Jamaica Festival competition at the Palace Theatre where they competed for most popular singing group against The Jamaicans and The Clarendonians, as well as other groups like The Flippers, The Sparkles, The Staggers, The Dukes, and The Lunch Boxers. The Jamaicans won that competition, earning an award of £100.
Roy Black in the Jamaica Gleaner, September 21, 2014 wrote, “One of the prominent features of 1960s and 1970s popular music was the prevalence of singing groups. The feature seemed to have been triggered by the penchant of many artistes of that period to emphasise harmony in their musical output. According to the late Brent Dowe, leader of the 1960s Jamaican vocal trio, The Melodians, ‘At the time, the whole emphasis was on harmony, not on the lead singer. Harmony was the thing. That’s why I had to sing in the background many times,’ he explained to me in an interview.”
In February 2017, the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) honoured The Melodians with its Iconic Award and McNaughton accepted the award on behalf of the trio. He said, “Well, it means a lot, and knowing that they still remember us in Jamaica to give us an award make me feel good all over.”
Stephen Nye wrote the following for the Trojan Records website on the Melodians:
In the mid-sixties Jamaica enjoyed a particularly hot summer. This Caribbean heatwave is often cited as the reason that the driving rhythms of ska slowed down to the melodious style of rock steady although the prominent Melodian, Brent Dowe had a theory that seems more likely. In the BBC television series ‘The Story Of Reggae’, he explained how he believed rock steady evolved…
“The ska was very fast.
You had to spin, you had to dance, and you had to dance at a fast pace.
So what we did was, at the time most of them, had the same bass line.
Because the bass man didn’t have enough time to emphasise his bass line.
So what we did was cut it down a little, so the bass man could move his fingers and have a line.”
While Jamaican performers such as Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis benefited from the laid back rhythms it was chiefly the island’s vocal groups such as the Maytals, the Paragons and the Wailers who benefited most from the change of tempo. The laid-back style of rock steady introduced a new wave of groups and of these, none proved more popular than the aptly-named Melodians.
Tony Brevett, who was the nephew and namesake of the legendary Skatalite, Lloyd, formed the group while still at school. He initially enrolled George Alison, Bradfield Brown and Eddie Fraser before the line-up settled with the aforementioned Brent Dowe alongside Trevor McNaughton who replaced Eddie and George. It is widely rumoured that the group initially recorded with Prince Buster although the result of these sessions are believed to have remained on acetate for the producer’s Voice Of The People sound before Bertram left the group in 1966.
The Melodians continued to perform as a trio and embarked on recording sessions for Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd at Studio One. Their debut, ‘Lay It On’ proved a local hit and led to further releases recorded at Brentford Road, such as ‘Meet Me’, ‘I Should Have Made It Up’ and ‘Let’s Join Hands’. Usually the group’s songs were self-compositions, written individually and collectively, although some of their more famous hits were either solely or co-written by their long time associate and silent partner, Renford Cogle.
In 1967, the trio began recording for Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid, Coxson’s main rival. The Duke allegedly paid the group a more generous fee, which attracted them to his Treasure Isle studios in Bond Street. This partnership resulted in a series of hits such as the legendary ‘You Have Caught Me’ that provided the foundation to U Roy‘s classic ‘Version Galore’ and the celebrated, ‘Last Train To Expo.’67’. Following further sessions that resulted in ‘Come On Little Girl’, ‘I Just Know How She Feels (aka Far Away Love)’ and a re-make of their earlier Studio One hit, ‘Let’s Join Hands’. Their run of hits with the Duke came to an abrupt end in 1968 when the group ironically fell out with the Duke over money.
After leaving Treasure Isle their next sessions were recorded with the Orange Street-based Tip Top Record Shop owner, Mrs. Sonia Pottinger. The partnership resulted in the hugely popular hits, ‘Little Nut Tree’ and ‘Swing And Dine’. It was at the same time as working with Mrs. Pottinger that the group teamed up with fellow label mates, the Gaylads, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson, to set up the short lived Links label. Whilst with the cooperative, the Melodians released the favoured ‘Sweet Rose’ before the company folded towards the close of ’68.
Immediately after the demise of Links, the trio were briefly linked with Winston Lowe‘s newly launched Tramp imprint, where they were given the freedom to produce their own material including ‘When There Is You’, ‘Ring Of Gold’, ‘You’ve Got It’ and ‘Personally Speaking’. They also returned to recording hits with Mrs. Pottinger as well as Coxson Dodd and, having resolved their financial wrangles with Duke Reid cut ever popular ‘Everybody Bawlin”, alongside the lesser known ‘Lonely Nights’, ‘Hey Girl’ and the succinct `What More Can I Say’ for the producer.
The Treasure Isle sessions that yielded these sides were immediately followed by a move to Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label. Kong was enjoying unparalleled success in the UK with Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and the Pioneers all crossing over into the British pop listings. The Melodians’ debut with Beverley’s was the celebrated ‘Sweet Sensation’, which despite limited national airplay climbed into the lower reaches of the UK pop chart, peaking at number 41 in January 1970.
While further British mainstream success proved elusive, the quality of the group’s output for the producer remained undiminished, with their releases from this period including ‘A Day Seems So Long’, ‘Say Darling Say’, ‘It Took A Miracle’ and the renowned ‘Rivers Of Babylon’. While the latter failed to make the British charts, it featured on the soundtrack to ‘The Harder They Come’, a film that played a major role in introducing reggae around the world.
A cliched disco version of ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ also provided the manufactured pop group, Boney M with a huge international hit, with the record spending 40 weeks on the UK chart, becoming the second best-selling UK single in the history of record sales at the time.
The Melodians themselves meanwhile recorded a plethora of additional material at Beverley’s and while working with Kong also moonlighted for Mrs. Pottinger, who produced a handful of sides by the group, including ‘Love Is A (Doggone) Good Thing’ and ‘No Nola’. But it was the partnership with Kong that continued to prove most rewarding, with their final sessions at Beverley’s resulting in ‘Come Ethiopians Come’, ‘My Love My Life’, ‘No Sins At All’ and ‘The Time Has Come’, all of which were recorded shortly before Leslie Kong’s untimely demise in August 1971. Despite of the devastating loss of their producer, the trio rose above the tragedy to record some of their finest material, which included Tony Brevett‘s productions of ‘This Beautiful Land’ and ‘Without You’.
In 1971, the trio released two hit medleys with Mrs. Pottinger: ‘The Sensational Melodians’ and ‘The Mighty Melodians’ and worked with Sid Bucknor who produced the inspiring, ‘In Our Time’, Warrick Lyn, for whom they cut ‘You Are My Only Love’ and the enigmatic Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, who issued ‘Round And Round.’
As 1972 came to a close, the group returned to Treasure Isle for their final sessions with the Duke, cutting the laudable ‘Passion Love’ and ‘Love Makes The World Go Around’ before re-united with Mrs. Pottinger to record the deeply spiritual ‘Black Man Kingdom Come’. But sadly for lovers of the group’s close harmonies the Melodians began to concentrate on their solo careers.
Tony Brevett had already recorded material such as ‘You Took Me By Surprise’ for Jimmy Riley and ‘Don’t Give Up’ with Bunny Lee as well as the self-produced ‘Don’t Get Weary’, ‘So Ashamed’ and ‘Black Girl’. Following the official break-up of the Melodians soon after, he recorded a series of exceptional releases, such as ‘Words Of Prophesy’, ‘Star Light’, ‘I’ve Got To Get Back Home’ and an outstanding version of ‘Over Hills And Valleys’.
Brent Dowe had also recorded as a soloist notably with Byron `Smitty’ Smith and Leslie Kong and following the group’s demise he recorded a number of hits for Mrs. Pottinger, many of which featured on his debut album, ‘Build Me Up’. Although most of his work was with Mrs. Pottinger, he recorded on an occasional freelance basis having released ‘Down Here In Babylon’ for Lee Perry and a re-recording of ‘Your Turn To Cry’ for ‘Prince’ Tony Robinson. He also cut two fine versions of the Jamaican favourites, ‘Things You Say You Love’ and ‘Come On Pretty Woman’, while, as is often the case in the field of reggae, he went into self-production, issuing ‘A Deh Pon Di Wicked’ along with ‘No Sweeter Way’ and ‘Unfaithful Mankind’.
By 1974, while the group had officially disbanded, Brevett, Dowe and McNaughton re-formed to record ‘It’s All In The Family’ and a rare cover version of the Drifters’‘I’ll Take You Where The Music’s Playing’. The group also recorded with the Revolutionaries who provided the backing to ‘Why Little Girl’ along with a re-make of ‘Passion Love’ at Channel One studios.
Other releases credited to the group from the seventies include ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’, an updated version of ‘Swing And Dine’ with the Soul Syndicate band, as well as ‘Stop Your Gang War’, produced by Yabby You. Furthermore, the group returned to Brentford Road where they cut three singles, namely ‘Burning Fire’, ‘Loving Feeling’ and an updated version of the classic, ‘Little Nut Tree’.
In 1983, the Washington-based RAS label commissioned the group to record an album’s worth of material. The sessions resulted in the suitably titled ‘Irie Feelings’, with notable tracks including ‘Warning’, ‘Jah Reggae’, ‘Get Up And Dance’ and the melodious title track. Also included were two earlier recordings from the group, ‘Down Here In Babylon’ and `You Don’t Need Me’ from 1975 and 1967, respectively. The trio’s reunion was short-lived and it was some years before they again recorded as a group.
Soon after the release of the RAS album, Trinity‘s brother, Clint Eastwood teamed with General Saint to record a version of the trio’s ‘Last Train To Expo 67’ as ‘Last Plane (One Way Ticket)’, resulting in a return to the UK Pop charts for the song writing skills of Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, with the disc peaking at number fifty-one in the British national listings.
The group’s next reunion was with celebrated DJ-turned-producer, Tapper Zukie who in 1992 released ‘Song Of Love’, which led to the veterans performing in a series of highly praised shows in Jamaica. The trio continued to tour sporadically throughout the remainder of the 1990s and into the new century, but on 28th January 2006, after a rehearsal for a performance at the Jamaican Prime Minister’s residence , Brent Dowe suffered a fatal heart attack.
Over the years that immediately followed, Tony Brevett and Trevor McNaughton maintained the group’s name with regular live appearances throughout Europe and the USA, but on 25th October 2013 Brevett passed away in Miami from the effects of cancer. His passing left McNaughton, the only surviving original member of the group to tour as a solo artist prior to forming a new versiuon of the Melodians, featuring former Mellotones‘ singer, Taurus Alphonso and Winston Dias, previously of the Movers.
My sixth book, Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound has now been published and is available for sale. You can purchase it for only $20 US from my newly redesigned website, skabook.com, or Amazon worldwide.
Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound is the story of how ska came to America in 1964 and the events surrounding the comprehensive and strategic effort. It is a look at the period surrounding Jamaica’s independence on August 6, 1962 when ska music played in yards, dancehalls, and in recording studios while this new nation celebrated. The Jamaican government, tourist and business industry, and newly developing music industry made it their mission to debut this music through events they termed Operation Jump Up. This book is a detailed narrative of that effort and how, for a brief time, ska rivaled the Beatles and the Twist.
Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Soundis the sixth book from Augustyn on Jamaican music and culture. The book features dozens of interviews with musicians, businessmen, and government officials involved in the efforts including the Honorable Edward Seaga who served as Jamaica’s prime minister from 1980 to 1989 and was charged with leading his country’s efforts to promote music and culture in the early 1960s. Other exclusive interviews include Island Records Founder Chris Blackwell; Minister of Information, Youth, Sports & Culture, the Hon. Olivia Grange; vocalist Millie Small of “My Boy Lollipop” fame; Federal Records Engineer Graeme Goodall; band manager and advertising executive Ronnie Nasralla; and musicians Bob Andy, Keith Lyn, Carlos Malcolm, Roy Panton, Lynn Taitt, and others. The book also includes exclusive photographs and memorabilia that supplements personal narratives and archival material.
Augustyn is also author of Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music with co-author Adam Reeves, Half Pint Press 2017; Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, Half Pint Press 2016; Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, McFarland 2013; Ska: An Oral History, McFarland 2010; and Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation, Scarecrow Press 2013. She is continuing lecture in the Department of English at Purdue Northwest and she has been invited to speak on Jamaican music at Rototom Sunsplash in Benicassim, Spain; the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston, Jamaica, and throughout the United States. She lives with her husband and two boys in Chesterton, Indiana. Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound is available at skabook.comand Amazon worldwide.
When I heard the news on NPR this morning that Paul Allen had died, my mind immediately went to Sister Ignatius. I had long heard rumors that Allen, co-founder of Microsoft with Bill Gates and billionaire businessman and philanthropist, purchased Sister Ignatius’s record collection and so I inquired and confirmed this fact in December 2015 with the director of curatorial affairs for the Experience Music Project, the museum that Allen founded in Seattle. Today the museum is called the Museum of Pop Culture and one year after it opened in 2000 it housed an exhibit called, “Island Revolution: Jamaican Rhythm From Ska To Reggae, 1956-1981.” It was then, for this exhibit and for their permanent vaults, that the museum purchased a number of artifacts from Alpha Boys’ School, including instruments (one of Don Drummond’s trombones), the iconic Alpha sign (which was loaned out to the Jamaica! Jamaica! exhibit in Paris in 2017), and Sister Ignatius’s own turntable.
But it is Sister Ignatius’s record collection that is in Allen’s private collection. These are the records that Iggy used to instruct the boys, shaping their musical education by illustrating the sounds of all genres of music. Here is an excerpt from my chapter on Sister Ignatius in Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music that illustrates how important this record collection was to her boys:
“It was because of her passion for all kinds of music that the band program prospered. It is quite a sight to imagine ‘Bones’ in her full habit, spinning records at a DJs turntables, music pumping from the huge speakers for the boys who danced to the hits, but that’s exactly what Sister Ignatius did on many occasions at Alpha Boys School. Sparrow Martin recalls his days as a student when they all listened to her tunes. ‘So she would come on Saturdays and she would have a whole lot of record, you name it, classical, jazz record, pop record, all kind, Latin, American, European music, Cuban music, and mento music, and she would say, “Okay today we are going to listen to classical music,” and she would take out Beethoven, Bach, and she says, especially to the band boys, “Listen to your classical music.” Then she’d say, “Okay, I’m going to play jazz for you today,” and she’d play jazz music. Then she’d play Cuban music. Now we don’t speak Spanish but she would take Spanish music from Cuba and she’d say, “Listen to the drums, listen to the bass, listen to how they play saxophone.” She would sit down with you so you have the interest,’ says Martin … Tony Greene remembers her spinning records for the boys and said she had a fine ear for popular music. ‘She know everything that was going on outside on the street. She could tell you what song was number one what song was number two, anywhere in the world. She used to amaze us! We’d say, “How she know that? How she interested in that?”‘
So what will happen to Sister Ignatius’s record collection? One would assume that it will become part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Pop Culture, but this is likely a matter for the lawyers and estates. I do know that I asked the curator of the museum to donate the Alpha Sign back to Alpha Institute or to the Jamaica Museum Museum since it is part of Jamaica’s cultural and historical heritage and is not even on display in Seattle and sitting in the vaults. I was told that it is available for loan, if the institutions in Jamaica wanted to borrow it. Though I know that Sister Ignatius had the best intentions of her boys at heart, selling these items to acquire essential funds for the school that have deeply benefited the education and care and well being of these children who now will go on to lead productive and healthy lives, thanks to this sale; I still cannot help but feel that it is somehow wrong for a wealthy American businessman to essentially exploit and harvest the fruits of the rich cultural heritage of Jamaica. If the items were on display (and I know that a large percentage of museums have their valuable collections in vaults and not on display), that might be different since the public would be able to view, enjoy, learn from, and be inspired by these artifacts. But when they are in storage, and worse yet, in a private collection, that just feels like the spoils of wealth. I don’t doubt for a second that Paul Allen deeply loved and cherished these records and that he was a worthy vanguard but this seems different than just a record collection–these are historical artifacts.
What are your thoughts?
Here is some more information on Paul Allen:
According to Business Insider, May 21, 2015, Paul Allen’s $200 million superyacht named “Octopus” has plenty of amenities, including a glass bottom swimming pool, basketball court, movie theater, two submarines, and two helicopter landing pads. Also notable though is that “Mick Jagger has used the recording studio onboard. A longtime fan of rock and roll — he built an entire museum dedicated to Jimi Hendrix memorabilia — Allen reportedly lent Octopus’ recording studio to Mick Jagger when he was recording an album with SuperHeavy in 2011. Usher, Dave Stewart, U2, and Johnny Cash have all reportedly performed onboard Octopus.”
According to Reuters, April 30, 2013, the following is a shortlist of Allen’s involvement in various sectors of business and philanthropy:
Microsoft – Co-founders Allen and Bill Gates started off with a 64/36 partnership. Allen’s share was worth about $30 billion at the company’s zenith in 1999-2000. He now has only a small stake.
Asymetrix/Starwave/Metricom – his first projects after leaving Microsoft in 1983 never lived up to expectations.
Interval Research – Allen set up his own idea lab in 1992, but it was too unfocused to bring its ideas to life. He shut it down in 2000.
America Online – Allen dumped his 24.9 percent stake in 1994 for a $75 million profit. Those shares would have been worth more than $40 billion at the height of the tech stock bubble.
Charter Communications – Allen calculates he lost $8 billion on cable firms Charter and RCN in an unsuccessful attempt to buy into the internet delivery business.
Wireless Spectrum – Allen’s advisers say he has made a “very large profit” investing in wireless and telecom tower infrastructure.
Vulcan Energy Corp – a unit of Vulcan Capital, invested $200 million in Plains All American Pipeline several years ago, and says it has generated $2.25 billion in returns.
DreamWorks SKG – Allen invested about $700 million in the movie studio in the 1990s, eventually doubling his money.
Seattle’s South Lake Union (SLU) – Allen has made a massive profit from renovating this dilapidated commercial area, boosted by the growth of Amazon.com
Portland Trail Blazers – The basketball franchise Allen bought for $65 million in 1988 is now value at $457 million.
Seattle Seahawks – Allen bought his hometown football team for $194 million in 1997. It is now valued at more than $1 billion.
Seattle Sounders – Allen is part of the ownership group of Major League Soccer’s best supported team.
EMP Museum – Pop/rock music museum in Seattle inspired by Jimi Hendrix and housed in swirling Frank Gehry-designed structure costing $250 million.
Allen Institute for Brain Science – inspired by watching his late mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Allen has invested $500 million in this research institute.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation – Run together with his sister Jody, the main arm of Allen’s philanthropic activities focuses on the Pacific Northwest.
Universities – Allen has given millions of dollars to the University of Washington and his alma mater Washington State University, chiefly for libraries, medical and science research.
Allen puts his total giving at more than $1.5 billion.
SpaceShipOne – An Allen-funded team won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004 by sending the first privately built manned rocket into space.
Stratolaunch Systems – Allen set up this new company to ferry people and cargo into space. First flight of the launch aircraft is slated for 2016.
In 1998 I had the pleasure of seeing Laurel Aitken perform live at Subterranean in Chicago. I took a bunch of photos at the time using film! Yes, that’s right kids, film–a strip of transparent plastic film base coated on one side with an emulsion of silver halide crystals that, when exposed to light, produce a photographic image. I had them developed at Triangle Photo on North Broadway, may it rest in peace, and though I used one of these photos for a book, the others I threw into a shoe box where they languished from move to move and basement to basement for years. Until this past week. I have uncovered a treasure fit for archeologists of pharaohs. Okay, well maybe I’m getting a little carried away here, but suffice to say that I was excited to find these relics–partly because they were nostalgic for me as I remembered seeing this legendary vocalist up close and personal (along with New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, which was also worthy of attendance at this show), but also because Mr. Aitken has now passed away, some 13 years ago, which is hard to believe. To celebrate the life of this unsung pioneer, I am posting these photos here (admittedly they are not great, but they are an historical record, not a display of artistic ability!) along with an article from The Beat magazine in 2005 written by Grant Thayer.
From The Beat Magazine:
Passings: Laurel Aitken 1927-2005
Ska performer Laurel Aitken died on July 17, 2005, at age 78. The singer’s career is profiled.
Laurel Aitken, known as the ‘Godfather of Ska,’ died of a heart attack in England on July 17 at the age of 78. Grant Thayer, who worked with the seminal singer, offers this tribute to Aitken.
When you meet a living legend, you always will cherish that memory. When you get to work and travel with a legend, your life will change. When the Godfather of Ska jumped the pong to tour the U.S. and Canada in July 1999 for a month and a half, I was lucky enough to be a part of that cross-country journey which altered my life forever.
Laurel Aitken ws born Oliver Stephens in Cuba on April 22, 1927 and moved with his family in 1938 to his father’s homeland of Jamaica. They settled in West Kingston, a working-class area where Laurel’s love of music continued to flourish. Jamaica’s music was evolving from calypso and mento to include new influences fro American r&b and jazz. Those elements were made accessible to the island community thanks to the influx of both American records as well as American radio broadcasts hitting Jamaica’s shores.
Boats laden with foreigners arriving in Kingston would encounter a young Aitken singing jazz (Gershwin’s ‘Embraceable You,’ ‘Blue Moon’) and neighboring islands’ calypso songs. The adolescent’s voice and his unmistakable smile garnered the attention of the members of the Jamaican Tourist Board, who recognized his talents and hired him to entertain tourists.
His status grew as he won several talent competitions in the 1950s. Shortly after, his first recording effort, ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ on Stanley Motta’s Caribou Records, was a hit in Jamaica. This led to many followup sessions during that decade, which also included, ‘I Met a Senorita,’ ‘Aitken’s Boogie’ and ‘Nightfall in Zion.’ His early efforts for Caribou brought recognition from other producers (Leslie Kong, Duke Reid) who then captured his music.
In 1959, a young Chris Blackwell approached Laurel about recording for a record label he was starting which resulted in Island Records’ first release, a double A-side with ‘Boogie in My Bones’ and ‘Little Sheila.’ The song remained number one for 11 weeks, the very first Jamaican radio hit. With the growing Jamaican immigrant population in the U.K. (which had been steadily increasing since the post-World War II labor shortage), Blackwell’s Jamaican label licensed the single to Starlight Records in England, the very first Jamaican single ever released in the U.K. That single started a steady musical influx from the island that blossomed in Britain in the 1960s. That musical foundation led to the Two Tone ska revival of the late 1970s bringing the world the likes of the Specials, the (English) Beat, Madness, Bad Manners, Selecter and many more.
In 1960s, Laurel emigrated to England to focus his recording efforts with Melodisc and Blue Beat, the latter becoming pseudonymous with the style of music. In fact, his ‘Boogie Rock’ would be the initial release for the Blue Beat label. Once again Laurel Aitken was a pioneer in the music industry. In 1963, Laurel returned to Jamaica and recorded singles (many backed by the Skatalites) for different producers (Duke Reid, Leslie Kong, King Edwards) including ‘Bad Minded Woman,’ ‘Zion City Wall’ and ‘Sweet Jamaica.’ Laurel’s popularity soared within the immigrant community while bringing in the young white English skinheads and mods, who shared those working class roots.
The ’60s were his most prolific era, with well over 100 singles released on various labels. Laurel’s involvement with many different labels (often simultaneously) demonstrates his dedication to promoting his music and his career. He would use his past accolades as footing for the next step in his musical journey. ‘Sugar Sugar’ for Coxon Dodd in 1965, ‘Fire in My Wire,’ ‘Jesse James’ and ‘Skinhead Train’ (all in 1969) would be some of this most recognizable anthems.
In the 1970s, Laurel continued his output of material, but the world’s appreciation of Jamaican music had shifted to the new phenomenon of reggae, as championed by Bob Marley and the Wailers. He helped bring over another blossoming star from Jamaica who had also recorded for Island Records, but was at a musical crossroads. Jimmy Cliff would then go on to fame and fortune via The Harder They Come, and thanks to the support from Laurel.
Laurel’s musical genius would continue to steer emerging bands: The English Beat paid homage with their ‘Ranking Full Stop,’ a remake of Laurel’s 1969 song ‘Pussy Price.’ Meanwhile, the Specials released ‘A Message to You Rudi’ in 1979, which would be answered by the Godfather’s ‘Rudi Got Married’ in 1980, keeping Laurel in tune with the musical happenings. Laurel continued to record and in 1985 ‘Sally Brown’ and ‘Mad About You’ were recorded by Gaz Mayall’s label in London, again thrusting ‘El Bosso’ into a new generation of fans.
Laurel was a legend in the Jamaican music industry, but unfortunately, for the mainstream he did not show up in the headlines, but only the footnotes. I was lucky enough to be with him as tour manager for six weeks in 1999, a tour I will always cherish. I got to hear first-hand accounts about the people who shaped the music I love. I looked forward to watching his set every night, and saw his talent and charisma in action. We remained good friends after that tour, talking regularly and visiting when our schedules permitted.
I would like to share one story from that tour which epitomizes how this legend lived in a world oblivious to his contributions. We had the pleasure of going to see Jimmy Cliff at the House of Blues in Los Angeles on a day off. Laurel waited in the crowd, near the VIP area while I tried to find someone to ‘recognize’ his status and allow this legend to enter the reserved area to enjoy the show in luxury. Meanwhile, Laurel had befriended the woman guarding the roped-off VIP section. When I returned, he was already comfortably seated in the balcony overlooking the stage, exactly where he deserved to be. I leaned in to the security guard to thank her for letting him sit there, and she told me: ‘It is No Doubt’s table–if they show up, he has to leave!’
While his writing and recorded songs were appreciated by the fans, he never was able to achieve the commercial recognition he deserved not only as an early pioneer of ska, but also as an innovator and ambassador of Jamaican music. He truly is the Godfather of Ska, and without him, we can only wonder if No Doubt would even be around today.
Here is another article on Laurel Aitken–his obituary from The Telegraph, July 22, 2005:
Laurel Aitken, who died on Sunday aged 78, was often known as “The Godfather of Ska” and was a key figure in the development of Jamaican music from the form of calypso known as “mento” through to reggae.
Aitken was a particular favourite of the British white skinheads who embraced ska, a variant of boogie and American R’n’B with a strongly accented upbeat, which also shaped the mod, rudeboy and two-tone movements; bands such as the Specials, Bad Manners and Madness drew much of their inspiration from the style.
Ska had developed from the sound systems which dominated Jamaican popular music from the mid-1950s, replacing dance bands. They were often set up outside bars and liquor stores, and increasingly competed in volume and strength – 30,000 watt bass speakers were not unknown.
The brand of New Orleans boogie and R’n’B they played was soon emulated by live bands, but with the guitar part often stressed on the upbeat in imitation of the banjo line in mento. Over this background, the lyrics initially concentrated on producing a feelgood, party atmosphere, but gradually gave way, with the rise of reggae and the Ras Tafari movement, to nationalist and religious themes.
Lorenzo Aitken was born of mixed Cuban and Jamaican ancestry on April 22 1927 in Cuba, one of six children (his brother was the singer and guitarist Bobby Aitken). The family emigrated to Jamaica, his father’s homeland, in 1938 and young Laurel was singing calypso for tourists by the mid-1940s, often for the Jamaican Tourist Board.
At 15, he entered a talent contest at Kingston’s Ambassador Theatre and began his career singing at clubs around the capital. His first records, Roll, Jordan, Roll and Boogie Rock, appeared on the Caribbean Recording Company owned by Stanley Motta, a garage owner and electrical supplier, and were later reissued by the Kalypso label; they showed the influence of shuffle and boogie on traditional mento.
In 1958 he scored his first great hit with Boogie in My Bones and Little Sheila, a double A-side produced by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records (it was later to be the label’s first release in Britain). Aitken and Blackwell were the only Jamaican elements of the record, though; the backing was provided by a group of white Canadian session musicians.
Even so, it was Number One in the Jamaican hit parade for 11 weeks and stayed in the charts for more than a year.
He followed them up with a number of other hits, and appeared regularly at the Glass Bucket Club and before sound systems, but in 1960 decided to join the growing exodus of Jamaicans for Britain. There he “flew the Blue Beat flag” with a number of recordings for that record label, which dealt exclusively in Jamaican music for a British audience.
Aitken was industrious during the 1960s, releasing more than two dozen records on the Rio label alone, as well as working for Ska Beat and Dice, and writing for artists on the Nu Beat Label (which paid his child support money after Rio went bust). He moved, too, from his own party numbers to more reggae-tinged songs, such as Haile Selassie, Woppi King and Fire in Me Wire. His lament for the increasing cost of prostitutes, Pussy Price, was later rewritten by the English Beat as Ranking Full Stop. He attracted an increasing audience amongst young white skinheads: Skinhead Train was specifically aimed at this fanbase.
But with the rise of rocksteady and then of pure reggae in the 1970s, and particularly with Bob Marley’s domination of Jamaican music, Aitken’s style began to look increasingly old-fashioned. He faded from view, stopped recording, and was reduced to moving to Leicester.
But he never entirely abandoned performance, and could still draw audiences of enthusiasts. When the two-tone revival of the late 1970s began, Aitken, along with Prince Buster, was revered as a pioneer, and he recorded Rudi Got Married, which became, in 1981, his only British chart hit. He began touring again during the 1980s and appeared with David Bowie in Absolute Beginners, an appalling film of Colin MacInnes’s novel, in 1986.
UB40 covered his Guilty, which he had released under the pseudonym Tiger in 1969, on their album Labour of Love. Live at Club Ska was released last year, but Aitken can be heard to best advantage on the Reggae Retro release The Pioneer of Jamaican Music, which includes such rarities as Nebuchanezzar, Aitken’s Boogie and Baba Kill Me Goat.
Here is the announcement of that Chicago show from the Chicago Reader, August 6, 1998:
LAUREL AITKEN/NEW YORK SKA-JAZZ ENSEMBLE
By J.R. Jones
A hero from ska’s illustrious past and an enticing prospect for its future share the stage this week when 71-year-old Laurel Aitken rolls through town with the New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble. The Cuban-born Aitken, who immigrated to Jamaica as a child in 1938, is rightly known as the godfather of ska: in 1958 his hit single “Boogie in My Bones”/”Little Sheila” established the now famous Island label. In retrospect the two tunes together composed a crude recipe for ska; “Boogie,” with its whorehouse baritone sax, grooved like American R & B, while “Sheila” revealed Aitken’s Latin roots. But as the genre evolved in Jamaica, Aitken moved on to England, where he pioneered the ska variant dubbed “blue beat,” setting the stage for the 2-Tone movement of the late 70s. The Blue Beat Years (Moon Ska), a 1995 collection of remade classics, finds Aitken’s warm, bluesy voice still in remarkable shape. Aitken’s backup band on this tour, the superb New York Ska-Jazz Ensemble, opens the show with a set of its own; formed in 1994 by members of the Toasters, the Skatalites, and the Scofflaws, the six-man outfit follows ska’s roots in swing out into the harmonic space of modern jazz. Its debut recording adapted Monk and Mingus, and its new release, Get This! (Moon Ska), includes a rendition of Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty” and a gently syncopated version of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” The ensemble also dabbles in soul (a skanking cover of the Aretha Franklin hit “See Saw”), jump (saxophonist Freddie Reiter’s “Arachnid”), and salsa (trombonist Rick Faulkner’s “Morningside”), and should have no trouble adapting to Aitken’s vintage material. Wednesday, 10 PM, Subterranean Cafe & Cabaret, 2011 W. North; 773-278-6600. J.R. JONES
Trolls are nothing new. Even in the mid 1960s in Jamaica, decades before the internet, trolls took their aim at various gripes in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Daily Gleaner, and ska could be the target. I’ve started a file of these funny little gems, and offer two excerpts here, from just one day, an average day, on March 22, 1964. It’s worth a little giggle.
The first, from E.A.W. Morris, concerns his experience in Cinchona Gardens in the Blue Mountains. Morris states in the beginning of his letter, which he titled, “Strange Practices,” that he is a temporary resident of Jamaica, and he airs his grievances, including the location of a “no parking” sign and an encounter with a police offer, but it s the end of the letter that I include below:
The very same section of “Letters to the Editor” includes a different writer, G. McKenzie, who complains about sacrilegious ska music. It is not the first such letter I have read. Some found that certain lyrics were meant for one arena only–the church–and to include them in ska music, which was not sacred, was akin to blasphemy.
So the next time to dance to ska, watch the flowers, will ya? And make sure you’re not yelling “Amen!” every time a trumpet finishes a killer solo!