Blue Beat Records was founded in London in 1960 by Sigimund ‘Siggy’ Jackson as a subsidiary of Emile E. Shalit's Melodisc Records, a jazz and blues label established in 1947. More entrepreneur than musicologist, Shalit recruited music publisher Jackson to source material to licence. Seven years later, the new imprint was set up to specialise in the new Jamaican music which Jackson christened ‘Blue Beat’ because ‘it had a good beat and was bluesy’. Blue Beat was so successful that its name became synonymous with early Jamaican pop irrespective of whether it was actually connected to the label.
Blue Beat left a remarkable legacy, releasing more than 400 singles in its seven-year lifespan and exerting an influence out of proportion to its size. We pick up the story in 1962, when a ready-made audience for Jamaican pop existed in London. Since the late Forties, considerable numbers of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, the majority from Jamaica, had been arriving in the city. Plus there was the growing Mod movement, style-obsessed young men who loved black music. Blue Beat was eminently danceable and still largely unknown to the general public, important qualities for Mods.
Many of the founding fathers of ska released singles through the label. Derrick Morgan, whose 45 ‘Sunday Morning’/‘Be Still’ starts this collection, was so popular in his homeland that he achieved the amazing feat of holding the top seven positions in the singles chart in 1960. ‘Be Still’ and ‘In My Heart’, A-side of the final single featured here, were among them.
Morgan discovered future superstar Jimmy Cliff, whose early single, ‘I'm Sorry’, was his only release on Blue Beat. It was recorded while he was still at school and released when he was just 14. Cliff later signed for Island Records and became a reggae legend.
The B-side of ‘I’m Sorry’, ‘Roarin’, was something of an anomaly, showcasing the tenor saxophone of white British session musician Red Price backed by the Blue Beats. Price was a member of bandleader Ted Heath’s group and novelty act Lord Rockingham’s XI. The Blue Beats, also heard here on songs by Girl Satchmo, Bobby Kingdom and Laurel Aitken, were alternatively known as the Les Dawson Blues Unit/Combo and formed part of Prince Buster’s stable of artists.
The material here predates the start of Buster’s recording career in his own right but his presence is keenly felt – not least via his house band Buster’s Group, sometimes known as Buster’s All Stars, who accompany Eric Morris, Gabbidon, A (Alton) Ellis, and Bobby and Laurel Aitken.
For ‘Headache’ and ‘Isabella’, Derrick Morgan also uses Buster’s Group, but Buster and Morgan soon developed a fierce rivalry. The aggravation between the two camps was so fierce that, in 1963, the Jamaican government was forced to intervene.
Another ska pioneer, Eric ‘Monty’ Morris, grew up on the same street as Derrick Morgan in the area of Kingston now known as Orange Street. Morris was one of several Jamaican artists who performed at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, along with Millie and Jimmy Cliff. ‘Sinners Repent And Pay’ and ‘Money Can’t Buy Life’ feature another of Buster’s associates, the legendary drummer Drumbago. Real name Arkland Parks, Drumbago was one of the creators of Jamaican music according to Eric Morris, who also praised his ‘melodious drumming to the music’. Drumbago’s All Stars get top billing on ‘Duck Soup’, B-side of the Derrick and Patsy single ‘Love Not To Brag’.
That song launched the career of Jamaica’s most popular boy-girl duo, with Morgan duetting with the previously unknown Millicent ‘Patsy’ Todd. He also teamed up with Yvonne for ‘Meekly Wait’/‘Day In Day Out’. Another fine example of the boy-girl genre is the one-off Kent and Jeanie seven-inch ‘Daddy’/‘Hello Love’.
Millie Small (later of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ fame) and Owen Grey got together for ‘Sit And Cry’/‘Do You Know’. Elsewhere, he eulogises his singing partner on ‘Girl Millie’ originally released in Jamaica on Prince Buster’s label. Grey is acknowledged as Jamaica’s first native star vocalist, and his records proved so successful in England that he emigrated there in 1962.
Laurel Aitken was also hugely popular in the UK, and became known as ‘the Godfather of Ska’. ‘Back To New Orleans’/‘Brother David’ was one of many of his singles licensed by Blue Beat. Laurel’s brother was actually called Bobby, and ‘Never, Never’ was his debut 45 for the label.
Another name familiar to British audiences is Rupert ‘Rupie’ Edwards, who had a Top 10 hit in 1974 with ‘Ire Feelings (Skanga)’. ‘Guilty Convict’, featured here, was his first recording from 1962.
Drummer and bandleader Count Ossie was a pioneering Rastafarian and the first to use the faith’s ritual nyabinghi drumming on record. He was behind the kit on what is generally acknowledged as the first ska record, the Folks Brothers’ ‘Oh Carolina’ (licensed to Blue Beat in Britain). ‘Babylon Gone’, recorded with Winston & Roy and featured here, contains an early musical mention of the Rastafarian term ‘Babylon’.
Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1962, but British listeners still enjoyed unrivalled access to Caribbean island’s innovative new music via Blue Beat.