I was so sad to learn this morning that Rico Rodriguez has died. He was one of the sweetest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to and had a genuine warm spirit and immeasurable talent. The world is a better place because of the talent and joy that Rico gave to all of us, his fans.
Emmanuel Rodriguez, also known as Rico, Reco, or El Reco, was born on October 17, 1934 and he spent his entire life dedicated to music. I interviewed Rico a number of times over the phone, about his career, his relationship with Don Drummond, and his days at Alpha Boys School. Here’s a bit of our conversation from 2011 that have been excerpted from my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist.
Rico says he came to Alpha Boys School at the behest of his mother, Amy. “My mother think that I need some correction, you know? She was working. I used to go down to the waterfront. It was rough. Rough,” says Rico. So instead of going to school, Rico went to the docks to hustle for money from the sailors who came into port. When he got hit by a car and was seriously injured, Rico’s mother had him sent to Alpha, afraid for his safety and life. He says that he tried many trades at Alpha before finding music as his occupation. “The first job I did in Alpha was in the garden. We didn’t have a jet, a jet-type to water the garden. We used to take a paint pan and dip it into a hole for the water. We used to catch the water and water the plants like that. And sometime you eat what you grow, carrot, beet root, the onions and everyting, you know? I used to go to the pottery too, learn to make brick and pot, with clay, with clay, yea. And to get that special shine into the clay you have to use horse dung and lead and then when it goes into the kiln it shines in the pot, but I used to be in the garden most of the time. It wasn’t easy to get into the band. I tried, but I get in because I have a few friends in the band, like Don Drummond and Tony Brown and Ossie Hall, a few good friends in the band. They take me in and I decide to do horns, horns. F horns, F horns. I used to play that thing and you just play ‘pop pop pop pop,’ you know? I did a lot of different instruments before. A little trumpet and saxophones, there were two saxophones. The most things they had at school was clarinet and trumpet. Trombones were full so I didn’t go on trombone. The bandmaster [Reuben Delgado] was very good at it, you know. Anyone who come out of that teaching was brilliant. He was the bandmaster, the bandmaster, so him keep the show. Delgado was the man in charge and the bigger ones look after us.”
One of the bigger ones who looked after Rico was Don Drummond. Rico told me, “I met him in the band and he was an excellent player and he show me things. He was a little bit quiet, you know? A very very quiet person. You don’t know what he’s going to do next, you know? Not like a lot of others, he was a quiet man. He don’t talk a lot, quiet. He was my friend, my friend. Through the bandmaster and on account of the band, he was a trombone teacher, you know? He write some different things we used to play and so forth, so there is always someone from the band that can teach you something. When he write the music he get you to come and sit with you and play the music with you. He taught me the double tongue and things like that, yea, different styles. Don was first trombone. And I was a learner, a learner (laughs). I’m a student. I’m a new player in the band at that time. I used to take his stand in his practice. When the band goes out I carry his stand, music stand, carry the music for him. The ones who were more advanced show the ones who were not so advanced. He used to give me some scales to study, one or two scales for the day and he would see how I was getting on. He show me everything. He’d play the scale and show me before so I get the feel, you know? He was tough on me, tough on me. He told me, ‘If you want to be a musician you have to take everything seriously and practice.’ He was okay with me. He was a friend, a friendly-type of person.”
After his time at Alpha, Rico performed in a number of bands around Kingston and on a number of recordings in the studios at the birth of the recording industry. He spent time in the Wareika Hills with his fellow musicians and Rastas and entitled his first album in 1976, “Man from Wareika.” He talked to me about his time in the hills.
“Count Ossie was like a chief. He was like a chief in the hills. Everyone look up to him. Once he told me he wanted to learn trumpet but he was more into the drums, so he played the drums instead of the trumpet. A lot of Rastas around and I used to go home. I used to go home. We go away and play and I don’t go back to my mother’s house no more until I’m ready to come to England. I was leaving from Wareika Hills to come to England. Some of us stay in Wareika Hills. It was safe there. We cook and eat and they had Wareika school for the children to teach them about history. Communication everyday was about prayers, psalms and we chant psalms and play instruments. No really bed, just makeshift, yeah. Rough living, you know? No house, shelter, sheltered place. Everybody lived in stiffs, a variety of stiffs, you know? But it was a community. We play music all day, all day, all day and night. When we go, he [Don Drummond] used to tell me, ‘Don’t play man, just listen. Don’t play, just listen to me.’ Sometimes I get to play with him sometimes. Listening to Drummond gave me a much deeper opportunity to hear it. Not being in a band, just free playing. I am happy to have heard him playing the trombone with the drums around him, more than anything else. He was a Rasta in the Wareika Hills, so I went. I used to go up there and look for them, you know, if Drummond was one of the trombone players, so I just go and look for him and he could give me a good ting or two. When we go to Wareika Hills we used to play together. Sometimes he was so busy I don’t wait for him. Sometimes he call me to go play with him. And when I go up to Wareika then I used to go home, you know? And he said to me, ‘Rico mon, you see this area? Come up.’ And when he used to tell me that, I stay at Wareika and I don’t leave until I leave for England. I never leave that year until I was coming to England. He was a good man. He was so excellent, he was so good that I want to be as good as him so I work real hard, reading and so forth, writing. When he write the music, he get you to come and sit with you and play the music with you. Drummond was a quiet person, but he was my very good friend, you know? I held his music stand fe him. Whenever he wrote any music he always call me to come play it with him, you know? He was a very good person. He was a very good person. He always come and pick me up to go and practice with him, you know? And sometimes I didn’t have a trombone and I used to go and borrow his trombone. But sometime he don’t want to lend me. Before he give me he always shine it up. ‘Look after this and bring it back.’ I didn’t have one, he used to lend me his.”
Today, we lost a member of our band and although it is a sad day, we celebrate the music of this incredible legend.
Enjoy a selection of my favorite Rico tunes:
“Rudy, A Message to You,” by Dandy Livingston with Rico on trombone
The Specials’ “A Message to You Rudy,” featuring Rico
“Trombone Man” from Tribute to Don Drummond
“Rockfort Rock”–a Don Drummond/Skatalites tune by Rico & His Band
Rico singing and playing “I’m in the Mood for Love” with Jools Holland
To read a wonderful interview with Rico on the Reggae Vibes website, click HERE.
A fascinating documentary clip HERE.