The sound of Jamaica in the early Sixties was bluebeat, dance music that ‘had a good beat and was bluesy’. The definition came from Sigmund ‘Siggy’ Jackson, the man who licensed the music from the island’s record labels and brought it to London where Emile E Shalit’s Melodisc Records took it to the market.
This is the fifth in an ongoing series of compilations of Blue Beat singles, issued in 1962: more than 400 singles plus a handful of LPs were released in the label’s seven-year lifespan. Only one (Prince Buster’s release ‘Al Capone’) made the UK charts, but the label proved so influential that its name came to define a genre.
We kick off with Prince Buster, Blue Beat’s most prolific artist. Born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in 1938, he fast became one of the music’s poster boys, blazing a trail in both London and Jamaica. Opening track ‘My Sound That Goes Around’ has definite echoes of Fats Domino, the New Orleans R&B pianist whose music had been beamed to Jamaica from US radio stations for several years. But Buster filtered this though his own unique musical personality, and the result was a legendary figure to whom Madness (who took their name from one of his songs) paid tribute in 1979 with their own composition, ‘The Prince’.
In 1960 Owen Gray was one of the first artists to be produced by Chris Blackwell; indeed, his ‘Patricia’ single was the first record ever released by Blackwell’s Island Records. The singer was invited to London, but as soon as he arrived was spirited away and signed to Blue Beat. In the Eighties Gray, who offers three singles here, would relocate to Miami, and now concentrates on ballads and religious music.
Next up was Laurel Aitken, known to many as the ‘Godfather of Ska’. Cuban-born Aitken moved to London in 1960 and over the next few years would help establish Blue Beat as the UK’s most recognisable West Indian music imprint. ‘Lucille’ is no relation to the frenetic Little Richard hit but a loping and equally infectious dance number. As with Prince Buster, the horn-punctuated New Orleans influence is apparent.
Trench Town singer Eric ‘Monty’ Morris, best remembered perhaps as the original vocalist for the Skatalites, is featured here on two singles backed by Prince Buster and also legendary drummer Drumbago. Real name Arkland Parks, Drumbago was one of the unsung creators of Jamaican music, and Morris admired his ‘melodious drumming to the music’.
Millicent ‘Patsy’ Todd was another female singer making a mark on the Jamaican music map. She grew up with Prince Buster as a neighbour but moved to the United States on the late Sixties to work as a medical secretary in Manhattan. ‘We weren’t being paid, it was like working for nothing. Artistes were getting something like £5 a side those days,’ she explained.
She features in two pairings here, with Roy Panton as Roy & Patsy (backed by Hersang and his Combo) and Derrick Morgan in Derrick & Patsy. Morgan, who persuaded Patsy to make her disc debut with him in 1959 at the age of 15, was a leading figure in Jamaican music, characterised by his narrow-brimmed pork-pie hat. Panton had various female partners, most notably Millie Small of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ fame, and ended up marrying one, Yvonne Harrison.
Keith And Enid were probably the first male-female vocal pairing to make it big in Jamaica, taking their cues from Shirley & Lee on the American R&B scene. Keith Stewart and Enid Cumberland got together in 1958 and sang together until the late Sixties. The Jamaica Observer described Keith’s smooth-voice as ‘a vocal texture that lacked friction’ in their obituary when he died in 2010. He had latterly entertained tourists with mento and folk songs on the hotel circuit on the island’s North Coast.
Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962, a phenomenon addressed by ‘Independent Blues’ by B (Basil) Gabbidon and ‘Independence Song’ by Prince Buster & Blue Beats. These classics were undoubtedly dusted down in 2012 when the 50th anniversary was celebrated. The deed was done on 6 August, hence the B-side of Buster’s offering featuring celebrated trombonist Rico Rodriguez.
Jamaican music from the golden era survives and thrives in the digital domain on labels like Trojan, Island, Studio One and Beverley’s. Now Blue Beat is joining them on the island’s roll of honour. Enjoy these 25 A sides of musical sunshine.