Paul Allen, owner of Sister Iggy’s record collection, dies

paul-allenWhen 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.

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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?”‘

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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?

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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.”

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According to Reuters, April 30, 2013, the following is a shortlist of Allen’s involvement in various sectors of business and philanthropy:

TECHNOLOGY

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.

ENERGY/RAW MATERIALS

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.

ENTERTAINMENT

DreamWorks SKG – Allen invested about $700 million in the movie studio in the 1990s, eventually doubling his money.

REAL ESTATE

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

SPORTS

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.

CULTURAL

EMP Museum – Pop/rock music museum in Seattle inspired by Jimi Hendrix and housed in swirling Frank Gehry-designed structure costing $250 million.

PHILANTHROPY/SCIENCE

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.

AEROSPACE

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.

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:

Ska kills flowers

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:

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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.

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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!

The Frats Quintet, Nina Simone, and Edward Seaga

The Frats Quintet were a vocal group popular in the 1950s in Jamaica who sang traditional folk music that is still performed today. Songs like “Linstead Market” “Sammy Dead-Oh” and “Slide Mongoose” (also titled “Sly Mongoose” at times or just “Mongoose”) are staples of the Jamaican culture. One of the very first recordings of these songs came from the Frats Quintet and Edward Seaga, who had been researching and recording folk traditions during this time, had his hand in helping to put these songs in people’s homes, or at least those who owned a record player.

Two years earlier, in 1956, Seaga had recorded and released his “Folk Music of Jamaica” recording with the Smithsonian. This came as a result of his study of revivalist cults including Pukkumina, Kumina, and Zion. He had been speaking to organizations in Jamaica upon his return from studying in the United States, having obtained a degree in anthropology from Harvard in 1952. Perhaps he was getting his feet wet for a political career, as he entered this arena in 1959 as the youngest member in history of the Legislative Council, appointed by Sir Alexander Bustamante (nick-namesake of Prince Buster). He then became elected to Parliament in 1962 for the West Kingston district and was appointed  to the Cabinet as Minister of Development and Welfare where he championed Jamaican arts, music, and culture, especially in the name of tourism. Of course, he later went on to become fifth prime minister of Jamaica in the 1980s. I am writing a book this summer on Seaga’s role in the promotion of ska during the post-independence years, as well as all of the efforts during this time to establish Jamaican identity through ska.

I came across this short article in the Jamaica Gleaner from June 10, 1958 that announces this Frats Quintet recording, which was recorded in Kingston, but pressed in the United States. 

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Here are a few photos of that actual album:

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The following is an article from the Daily Gleaner that provides some more information about this important vocal group. Of particular interest, at least to me, was the memory of Nina Simone:

Remembering the Frats Quintet

Published: Wednesday | July 22, 2009


Members of the 1950s group Frats Quintet from left, Henry Richards, Winston White, Granville Lindo, Sydney Clarke and the only surviving member, Wilfred Warner (back). – Contributed The following is an article on 1950s Jamaican folk group Frats Quintet.

It was written by Patrick Warner, the son of one of the group’s members, and previously appeared in Canada’s Abeng News.

In the years before reggae, rocksteady and ska put Jamaica on the world musical map, mento and folk ruled the roost and the top folk exponents of the day were the Frats Quintet.

None of the Frats Quintet members were formally trained in voice dynamics. They sang for the love and appreciation of the art and a fondness for the songs, the majority of which originated from the plantations and from the hearts of the slaves who would sing as they worked. Since work time conversation was not allowed, music not only entertained and made work more tolerable, but messages were conveyed in song. Even post-Emancipation songs were composed and sung in the same manner to make heavy work light, while some songs reflected the social order of the day.

Before the Frats Quintet, there was the Young Men Fraternal. Their home base was the East Queen Street Baptist Church under the baton of J.J. Williams. Back in the day, it was the largest men’s choral group in Jamaica, and the sound they produced could make your hair stand on end or bring you to tears. A Sunday night evensong at the church was a treat not to be missed.

As a child, I can clearly remember visiting the Baptist Church a few times to hear the Young Men’s Fraternal sing to a packed house on a Sunday night. They would always be elegantly dressed in their vicuña cream jackets, white Oxford shirts, black bow ties and black trousers. The overflowing audience would take their places anywhere that offered a good vantage point; some were content to just listen.

It was from this group that the Frats Quintet was formed in 1951. The five, young men, Sydney Clarke, Henry Richards, Granville Lindo, Winston White and my father, Wilfred Warner, travelled the length and breadth of the island on a busy schedule, in addition to working their full-time jobs.

Household name

“Over the period of one year, we must have performed in every parish and major town in the island, as well as overseas,” muses my dad, the sole survivor of the group. “We rehearsed in the evenings after work, because our weekends were solidly booked at the hotels, and on Sunday, the services.” He never hesitates to add confidentially: “I met your mother at a performance in Savana-la-Mar you know.”

The group became a household name in Jamaica in the ’50s, doing ads on the radio (who could forget Ajax, the foaming cleanser?), and travelling the world, representing Jamaica on the international music scene. Some well-known songs from their repertoire included Linstead Market, the lament of the vendor as her provisions return unsold from the market, Shine-Eye Gal (she want, and she want, and she want everything!), Sammy Dead-Oh, and Nobody’s Business, which Peter Tosh retooled to the popular reggae beat.

I can remember once attending a night function at my elementary school where the quintet was to perform, and the police had to be called to restore order as a stampede occurred outside the school grounds. The concert was sold out, and spectators were positioned in trees just to hear Jamaican folk music. It was a night to remember.

There was always music in the home; I would be doing homework to the sound of folk music or negro spirituals from the rehearsals, and when those rehearsals were over, my father would exercise the double bass of his vocal chords loudly enough to wake the dead. Perhaps, with this immersion, there was absolutely no way I could avoid becoming a member of The Jamaica Folk Singers later on, but that was a different era.

The Frats Quintet also became the musical ensemble on and offstage for the National Dance Theatre Company, and their crisp trademark a cappella interspersed the scenes in a few of our pantomimes.

Most memorable recording

The quintet also ushered in Jamaica’s Independence celebrations, and sang their way into a few televisions around the island to welcome the now-defunct JBC TV. One of the group’s most memorable recordings, according to my dad, was providing the backup for late Soprano Joyce Laylor when they recorded the timeless Jamaican classic Evening Time, a celebration of the end of the workday, the setting sun and the cool evening breeze.

“You could feel the energy in the studio,” he beams, “and we were so in sync together, even the first take was exceptional.” My father is fond of reminding me that, in those days, there was no fooling around in the recording studio, as all artistes had to perform together on a single track. “It had to be perfect the first time,” he reflects.

The most disappointing moment for the group? Although the exact date is not clear in his mind – he remembers the late 60s – my father still has an angry glint in his eyes when he recalls jazz diva Nina Simone being booed onstage by an unappreciative audience at the Carib Theatre. Apparently, the quintet had warmed the stage for her, and when she appeared, the audience expected her to open with one of her more popular numbers. When she didn’t, they did not hesitate to voice their disappointment. Father still bristles, he says, with the shame.

The Frats Quintet took Jamaican folk songs on the international stage, performing at UN functions in New York, Expo ’67 in the Jamaican Pavilion and before world dignitaries in Montreal, the popular Eistedfod Music Festival in Wales (1958) where they copped a second-place award, and while in Britain gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

Later, there was another performance on tap for Princess Alice, the then Chancellor for the University of the West Indies, and the group also performed on many occasions in Cuba, much to the delight of Fidel Castro. As Jamaica’s musical ambassadors, they performed for visiting dignitaries at state functions and dinners.

For my father, the ire of the Nina Simone episode is only eclipsed by the much-publicised disappearance of audio and video material from the JBC archives. “So much of our rich cultural history – gone just like that,” he snaps, full of emotion, and suddenly, the fire is gone from his eyes. At least in his head he still has the folk songs he can remember.

Tools of the Trade for Charley Organaire

Charley Organaire, whose real name is Charles Cameron, performed on April 14th in Chicago alongside Lester Sterling, the last living instrumentalist in the Skatalites, and Sultan Ali, son of Prince Buster. It was a fantastic show, billed as Two Legends and a Son and it was organized by Organaire and Chuck Wren whose dedication to ska music across the generations has been unwavering.

Here are a few photos I took at the show, including Charley Organaire’s beautiful coat that he wore during the show, his harmonicas in their cases, and of course, plenty of Charley!

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The following is a post I wrote in 2014 about Charley called “Charley Organaire–Master of the Harmonica:”

You may know Charley Organaire best from his harmonica solo in Stranger Cole’s classic “Rough and Tough,” (listen to it here: Rough and Tough), or over 1,000 other Jamaican recordings over the years, but did you know that Charley is still going strong, singing and harmonizing all over the world? His song, “I Never Stop Loving You” was featured in the classic movie “Love Jones.” And Charley Organaire is performing tonight in his hometown since the mid-1970s, Chicago, to kick off his European tour with the Prize Fighters, a stellar band from Minneapolis. Charley Organaire, along with Roy Richards, was responsible for pretty much all of the harmonica in ska and rocksteady, even reggae, during the 1960s and 1970s in Jamaica (unless you count Lee Jaffe on Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues,” because we all know, he sure likes to count himself!). The harmonica is an important but overlooked instrument in Jamaican music. But the harmonica not only provides lyrical musical harmonies—it also gives Jamaican music its spine, the essential rhythm that makes ska ska, rocksteady rocksteady, and reggae reggae.

Charley not only performed the harmonica back in Jamaica, but he also sang. In fact, in 1967, at a New Year’s Day show, a three-hour show at the Ward Theatre, Organaire was touted for his vocal performance. The Daily Gleaner article on January 3, 1967 stated, “One of the featured singers, Charlie Organaire, brought down the house with such popular hits as ‘Goodnight My Love,’ and ‘Stand’ By Me’ and was called back to give another performance.” As Rico Rodriguez would say, “Nice!”

According to the Jump Up! Records website, which is the label founded and operated by Chicago ska, rocksteady, and reggae authority Chuck Wren, Charley Organaire has a rich history as a musician and entertainer. The Jump Up! website states, “Charles Cameron was born in Kingston, Jamaica on March 20, 1942. He was inspired by the singing of his mother Louise, and his neighbor Mr. Randolph, a mean harmonica player. From the early age of 5, Charles started performing in neighborhood concerts, churches, and lodge halls – reciting poems, singing and playing his plastic harmonica. At the age of 9, a talent scout named Vere Johns had Charles performing on the “Opportunity Knocks” radio program and at various theatres in Kingston, such as the Palace, Ambassador, Gaity, and Majestic. He performed with all the big singers like Jimmy Tucker, Winston Samuels, and Laurel Aitken, plus was a side-kick to Bim and Bam, Jamaica’s leading comedians at the time. In his teens, Charley “Organaire” Cameron performed with big bands lead by Carlos Malcolm and Sonny Bradshaw. Then Charles teamed up with Bobby Aitken and formed a band called the Carribeats, recording the hit track “Never Never” with Bobby on vocals, Charley on harmonica. Charley “Organaire” was now unstoppable, becoming a well known studio musician performing on sessions with Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Tenors, Derrick Morgan, Millie Small, Toots and the Maytals, Phyllis Dillon, Stranger Cole, and Lord Creator. The “Organaire” worked for the biggest labels in Jamaica: Prince Buster, Studio 1, Beverly’s, Duke Reed, Treasure Island, Highlights and King Edwards. Charley also started producing hits for his Organaire label, most notibly “Little Village/Little Holiday”, “London Town”, Illusive Baby”, “Sweet Jamaica”, “Your Sweet Love”, and “Let me Go”. Being one of the most popular entertainers in Jamaica, he moved to the north coast and worked in the tourist industry. Playboy, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Yellow Bird, you name it, he played there. Charles moved to Chicago in the late 70’s, eventually forming his own band called “The Charles Cameron & Sunshine Festival”. The “Organaire” band played in various night clubs, for major corporations, and political functions throughout Chicago including events for former Mayors Harold Washington and Jane Burn. Charles also played at Chicago Fest, Festival of Life, Taste of Chicago, and the African Fest. Charley “Organaire” Cameron continues to write and record to this day, the title track from his “Never Stop Loving You” CD appeared in the movie “Love Jones” starring Nia Long and Lorenzo Tate, and his newly released “Friends” CD features collaborations with Charlie Hunt and Steve Bradley. In 2012/2013 Charlie Organaire became a regular fixture at Chicago’s Jamaican Oldies productions at Mayne Stage, performing with Stranger Cole, Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison, Eric Monty Morris, Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott and Dennis Alcapone.”

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My friend Aaron Cohen wrote a fantastic article on Charley Organaire in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune. Here is the text from that article:

“Charley “Organaire” Cameron is a harmonica player and singer, but sitting in the Good To Go Jamaican restaurant in Rogers Park, he is regarded somewhere between a celebrity and favorite uncle. He deserves both roles.
More than 50 years ago, Organaire performed in the instrumental section on a plethora of pivotal early Jamaican ska and rocksteady recordings. Since 1976 he has lived in Chicago, where he’s worked in different musical idioms; until relatively recently only a few fans knew about his historical role. But his upcoming first European tour will focus on the music that he helped originate.
“Charley was the harmonica sound of ska music, as well as an important arranger,” said Chuck Wren of Chicago’s Jump Up Records, which released three new Organaire ska singles this month. “He was on so many sessions; that Wailers tune you hold closest to your heart could have been 90 percent arranged by him.”
All of which began simply enough. Organaire listened to his mother sing and a neighbor play harmonica while he was growing up in 1950s Kingston. He heard different music through Radio Jamaica and from signals farther away.
“That one radio station in Jamaica would play country, blues, jazz and classical music,” Organaire said over glasses of Caribbean ginger beer. “A Cuban station would play Latin music. But where all music came from is basically the R&B from New Orleans.”
When Organaire was a teenager, he picked up a chromatic harmonica, which could play all 12 notes on a scale, as opposed to the more typical diatonic model that covers eight. His colorful tone and dexterity throughout shifting tempos made him valuable on pioneering ska and rocksteady recordings by the Wailers, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff. He owned his own record label, also called Organaire, which released his locally popular “Elusive Baby.”
“Back then we’d start every day at 9 in the morning and do no less than eight songs for each session,” Organaire said. “I had a great time working with (saxophonists) Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso. Since they were jazz guys, I learned so much from them.”
Those lessons proved helpful when Organaire got fed up with the Kingston record industry’s often desultory (at best) payment system, and he left to work in hotels and resorts on the country’s north coast. He’s still amazed that tourists preferred hearing him sing jazz standards instead of Jamaica’s own music.
After Organaire accepted an invitation to play in a Greek venue in Chicago in 1976, he stayed here. That gig turned into engagements at the Latin clubs that thrived here decades ago, including El Mirador and Las Vegas in Humboldt Park.
“I would play salsa and a little jazz,” Organaire said. “I’d also sing ‘My Way.’ It didn’t matter if you were from China; everybody knew ‘My Way.’”
A show at the reggae club the Wild Hare led to Organaire’s appearance singing his ballad “I Will Never Stop Loving You” in the 1997 film “Love Jones.” But for the past 27 years, his contributions have not just been musical. He has also worked on behalf of Chicago Concerned Jamaicans, a foundation that raises money to provide scholarships to needy students on the island.
“One student’s mother had six children and couldn’t afford a home,” Organaire said. “We helped her through a scholarship, and now she’s an engineer.”
Organaire’s generosity also emerged two years ago when he began participating in the Jamaican Oldies concerts that Wren has organized at Mayne Stage. Along with performing, Organaire helps the veteran artists feel more at ease working with much younger American backing ensembles. The musicians in one such group, the Minneapolis-based Prizefighters, have been fans of Organaire’s early ’60s sessions and perform on his new recordings. He does not expect this to be the last generation to rediscover his legacy.
“When the right time comes, all you have to do is be ready,” Organaire said. “If you stop, it’s over, and I will keep going on until I drop.”

Read even more about Charley Organaire here: World of Harmonica article

Read an interview with Charley here: Reggae Vibes interview

And visit Charley’s website: Charley’s website

And see Charley with the Prize Fighters on tour: Tour

Here’s a great blog post on the harmonica in Jamaican music: Harmonica