Laurel Aitken has often been called the Godfather of Ska , and given his
history, it is not all surprising. After all, his “Boogie In My Bones’,
produced by a very young Chris Blackwell in 1959, was certainly one of
the early Jamaican recordings to gain not only a great deal of attention
in Jamaica but also in the UK. While never becoming a ‘pop’ hit in the
UK, it most certainly introduced Laurel to a whole generation of
Jamaican immigrants in Britain. As Mike Atherton points out in his
admirable liner notes to ‘Boogie In My Bones – All the major Hits From
1957-1960’ (Pressure Drop PDROP CD8), Laurel started out recording Mento
for Dada Tewari’s Caribbean Recording Company, his recordings coming out
on the Caribou label. Caribbeans other label, Downbeat licensed US R & B
recordings, mainly from Aladdin. His Mento songs, sometimes in a
religious vein such as ‘Nightfall in Zion’ (Roll Jordan Roll), ‘Sweet
Chariot’ and ‘Walls of Jericho’ or more secular such as ‘Mas Charlie’,
‘Calypso Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Rege Dege Ding’ earned him a considerable
degree of popularity, and his ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ / ‘Sweet Chariot’ became
his first UK release, on Emil Shalit’s Kalypso label.
However, by the end of 1957 our man was becoming a lot more interested
in Rhythm & Blues, and his recording of ‘Aitken’s Boogie’ on Caribou,
with its electric guitar and and saxophones indicated both the path that
Laurel was taking, but also the future direction of Jamaican music.
Mike, in his notes, makes the point that it was not just Rosco Gordon
who exerted a great influence on Jamaican music, but also Wilbert
Harrison. I had not known this, but now that I do, I also understand why
Chris Blackwell issued a Harrison cut (licensed from the USA) in the
first few months of starting Island in the UK. And talking of Blackwell
brings us back to ‘Boogie In My Bones’. I find it quite fascinating that
after his earliest recordings, made with Jamaican musicians, for ‘Boogie
In My Bones’ he was accompanied by an Australian group, The Caribs.
Denis Sindrey (guitar), Keith Stoddart (piano) and Lowell Morris(drums).
Augmented by Lloyd Brevett on bass and Laurel’s friend Carl McLaughlin
on tenor, this polyglot group made the record that introduced many many
people to Jamaican music. Denis Sindrey, as you will remember, is one of
the players who is all over that great ‘Legends of Ska’ movie, and deservedly so.
The record was a massive hit in Jamaica, and made number on one the
Jamaican charts in early 1960. It was released in UK on Starlite and
Kalypso, and by 1965 was re-issued on Island. I remember that when I
worked there in 1965 the record still sold a respectable amount every
week. Back then a hit song had a long life!
I think that’s what I personally love about Laurel Aitken, is all
the variety in his musical menu as he worked through so many stylistic
musical shifts. A little Mento, some rhumba, some boogie Blues
shuffles and onto Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae. I know he’s wasn’t the
greatest singer in a league with cats like Alton, Delroy, Ken Boothe,
etc… but he had such a charm and delivery that is irresistible. You
mentioned Dennis Sindrey and all those great early musicians and I
think it’s intriguing that Dennis and some of his other bandmates were
Australian. Just goes to show that the foundation of Jamaican music is
so deep and varied when it comes to the ancestral background of the
contributors. Most people that are fans of the music don’t realize
Indeed, it is very interesting. It rather reminds me of those white
musicians from Memphis and Muscle Shoals who were among the session
guys on those sixties soul records that have come to define black music.
Fans of all genres of music expect everything to occur in a linear fashion
that strengthens their preconceptions. How many blues fans know that
Robert Johnson played pop songs and waltzes in his shows? Or that Roy
Brown’s favorite singer was Bing Crosby. Or that one of Johnny Hodges
favorite sessions was the one he did with Lawrence Welk?
Right. Folks get very dogmatic in their opinions and perceptions
about music and musicians, etc…. and yes, I agree about how many
people would be surprised by singers and musician’s inspirations.
It’s always blown my mind how much Alton Ellis dug Andy Williams, not to
mention Sinatra and The Beatles besides James Brown, and Sam Cooke,
Laurel of course sang pop songs, though I’m not sure if he did any waltzes.
Likewise I don’t know of his regard for Der Bingle – I do know he never
recorded with Mr Welk however! He did, as you so rightly say, cover an
awful lot of stylistic ground over the years. If you had to name your
favorite five recordings of his, what would they be?
Wow! That’s a hard question to answer. I really love the first
few years of his recording career the most, but here goes. “Baba Kill
Me A Goat” is pure Mento flavored musical bliss. Of course how could
I not list “Boogie In My Bones” with it’s infectious boogie blues
shuffling by Mr. Sindrey and cohorts? I guess my other three favorites
would be the sweet and romantic Doo Wop vibes of “Heavenly Angel”, the
slightly drunken and lopsided rhumba “Judgement Day” and the straight
up Calypso/Mento of “Tribute To Collie Smith” whom I believe was a
famous cricket player. If I could add a sixth fave, I’ve always loved
Laurel’s lovingly faithful cover of Floyd Dixon’s “Hey Bartender”.
Collie Smith indeed was a cricketer – he was killed in a car accident
in the UK in September, 1959, at the age of 26 or so. Over 60,000
mourners showed up at his funeral in Kingston.
I too love ‘Hey Bartender’ and included it as the opening track on ‘The
Trojan Story’, that 3 LP compilation of Jamaican music I put together
back in 1971. In fact, I never heard Floyd Dixon’s recording until
several years later. That was what I loved about Laurel, the respect and
love he showed to R & B. When I saw him at the Wembley Reggae Festival
in 1970 or 1971 (wish my memory was better!) he brought the house down
with a laconic but relentless version of the Chris Kenner / Fats Domino
tune ‘Sick And Tired’. The place went wild!
He hung in there as the scene changed over the years, adapting his style
to current trends, but his ‘Laurel-ness’ was always apparent. Whatever
he did, he made it his own, which is, I guess, the definition of a true
He left us a great body of work.