A Conversation Between Rusty & Bob Bell: Bitty McLean

Rusty:

As you know Angela and I saw Bitty McLean with Sly & Robbie a few weeks ago. What a breath of fresh air Bitty is! No stereotypical Reggae dogma or clichés in his presentation, songs, stage presence, or dress. Just great singing and timeless sounding sweet Reggae, Rock Steady & Ska. Very clean cut and well dressed cat with a real soulful and sincere vibe. He and I hung out a bit and it was real nice to reason with a likeminded gentleman about music. I think I told you this before but he grew up with nothing but high quality classic music through exposure to his parent’s taste. They’re both from JA and Bitty is the youngest of a family of six siblings I believe. He says he still has his father’s 78 record collection of which contains the likes of Johnny Ace, Fats Domino, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, etc….

Bob:

If they are UK pressings they are probably worth a lot of money. Most of the US R & B / R & R guys came out on London American, which was part of Decca Records, a major label. Earlier, back in the forties and very early 50’s, the label would have been Brunswick – that’s what his Louis Jordans are probably on. But there was another label, Vogue Records, who understood the fledgling West Indian market in the UK, and who released some great stuff. They had Duke, King, Aladdin and probably other US labels. I expect you can find a Vogue listing on line. Amos Milburn, Wynonie Harris, Shirley & Lee, Gene & Eunice, Earl Bostic all came out on Vogue in the fifties. It’s interesting … EMI’s Parlophone label used to put out King records at the same time. They must have had some kind of mutual deal whereby if Parlophone passed, Vogue got it. Parlophone of course, ended up with the Beatles a few years later. Anyway, those 78’s, especially the Vogues, are really collectible in the UK, and mainly because of the West Indian connection, I think.

Rusty:

Get’s confusing after awhile. LOL!  Check out Bitty’s version of “Never Let Me Go” that he always opens his show with.

Bob:

I really love this … his phrasing reminds me of Sam Cooke. Not his tone, of course, which is darker. Who is playing organ, do you know? Is his vocal double tracked, or is it enthusiastic reverb? Great tune, heartfelt performance.

Rusty:

Bitty is playing organ on this. Not sure about the double tracking but I don’t think it is double tracked. Check out ‘Fall In Love’

Bob:

Man, that is so sweet. He puts out yet holds back at the same time … it’s very soulful. I was trying to figure out what the rhythm was … ‘Moonlight Lover’ of course, by Joya Landis. We put it out on Trojan, TR 641 or somewhere around there.

Rusty:

Yeah, I’ve come to love this song as much as “Moonlight Lover” which is obviously saying a lot as that is an all time JA classic! Did you know apparently it was Alton Ellis who discovered her in New York and talked her into coming to JA and he took her to Duke Reid. I was blown away when I found out she was American.

Bob:

Just love ‘Only You’ – he reminds me of Jackie Edwards at times here, Great sound.

Rusty:

Interesting comparison and I think Bitty would be flattered as I know he’s a big fan of Jackie Edwards. Take a listen to Bitty’s ‘My lover’s Call’

Bob:

That’s really nice. I presume the solo is new?

Rusty:

I think so but not 100% certain.

Bob:

When I first started listening to these cuts, I was torn between enjoying the great vintage sound and at the same time couldn’t help reflecting that the effect of voicing new tunes over old rhythms was perhaps a little ‘karaoke-esque’, but after listening again, I have to say I am more in favor of what he has done, and more to the point, how well he has done it. I know that reusing rhythm tracks has been going on for many decades in Jamaican music, so I am not surprised by it. I guess it is that there will always be a part of me that is a bit of a purist.

Rusty:

It’s difficult to not love what Bitty does with an existing riddim even if one is not a fan of that concept. He’s so musical and elegant to where he’ll always come with a brilliant new song and melody and then will proceed to sing the hell out of it!

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