The Lost Photos of Laurel Aitken

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.

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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

 

And finally, a link to a blog post I wrote a few years back on Laurel Aitken’s Sally Brown:

 

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