Spectropop remembers

LAUREL AITKEN (1927 - 2005)

The Godfather of Ska.

Laurel Aitken, who has died in Leicester aged 78, was a key figure in the development of Jamaican music from the form of calypso known as mento through to reggae. He was a particular favourite of British skinheads who embraced ska, a variant of boogie and American R'n'B with a strongly accented upbeat, which also shaped the mod, rude boy and two-tone movements; bands such as the Specials, Bad Manners and Madness drew much of their inspiration from the style.

Ska had developed from the sound systems which dominated Jamaican popular music from the mid-1950s, replacing dance bands. They were often set up outside bars and liquor stores, and increasingly competed in volume and strength - 30,000 watt bass speakers were not unknown. The brand of New Orleans boogie and R'n'B they played was soon emulated by live bands, but with the guitar part often stressed on the upbeat in imitation of the banjo line in mento. Over this background, the lyrics initially concentrated on producing a feelgood, party atmosphere, but gradually gave way, with the rise of reggae and the Ras Tafari movement, to nationalist and religious themes.

Lorenzo Aitken was born of mixed Cuban and Jamaican ancestry on April 22nd 1927 in Havana, Cuba, one of six children (his brother was the singer and guitarist Bobby Aitken). The family emigrated to Jamaica, his father's homeland, in 1938 and young Laurel was singing calypso for tourists by the mid-1940s, often for the Jamaican Tourist Board.

At 15, he entered a talent contest at Kingston's Ambassador Theatre and began his career singing at clubs around the capital. His first records, "Roll, Jordan, Roll" and "Boogie Rock", appeared on the Caribbean Recording Company owned by Stanley Motta, a garage owner and electrical supplier, and were later reissued by the Kalypso label; they showed the influence of shuffle and boogie on traditional mento.

In 1958 he scored his first great hit with "Boogie In My Bones" and "Little Sheila", a double A-side produced by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records (it was later to be the label's first release in Britain). Aitken and Blackwell were the only Jamaican elements of the record, though; the backing was provided by a group of white Canadian session musicians. Even so, it was #1 in the Jamaican hit parade for 11 weeks and stayed in the charts for more than a year. He followed them up with a number of other hits, and appeared regularly at the Glass Bucket Club and before sound systems, but in 1960 decided to join the growing exodus of Jamaicans for Britain. There he flew the Blue Beat flag with a number of recordings for that record label, which dealt exclusively in Jamaican music for a British audience.

Aitken was industrious during the 1960s, releasing more than two dozen records on the Rio label alone, as well as working for Ska Beat and Dice, and writing for artists on the Nu Beat Label (which paid his child support money after Rio went bust). He moved, too, from his own party numbers to more reggae-tinged songs, such as "Haile Selassie", "Woppi King" and "Fire In Me Wire". His lament for the increasing cost of prostitutes, "Pussy Price", was later rewritten by the Beat as "Ranking Full Stop". He attracted an increasing audience amongst young white skinheads: "Skinhead Train" was specifically aimed at this fanbase.

But with the rise of rocksteady and then of pure reggae in the 1970s, and particularly with Bob Marley's domination of Jamaican music, Aitken's style began to look increasingly old-fashioned. He faded from view, stopped recording and moved to Leicester. But he never entirely abandoned performance, and could still draw audiences of enthusiasts. When the two-tone revival of the late 1970s began, Aitken, along with Prince Buster, was revered as a pioneer, and he recorded "Rudi Got Married", which became, in 1981, his only British chart hit. He began touring again during the 1980s and appeared with David Bowie in the film Absolute Beginners in 1986.

UB40 covered his "Guilty", which he had released under the pseudonym Tiger in 1969, on their album "Labour Of Love". "Live At Club Ska" was released last year, but Aitken can be heard to best advantage on the Reggae Retro release "The Pioneer Of Jamaican Music", which includes such rarities as "Nebuchanezzar", "Aitken's Boogie" and "Baba Kill Me Goat".

In 2003 he was hospitalised with double pneumonia, but recovered better than expected and returned to performing. His last concert was in January 2005. Aitken, the Godfather of Ska, was felled by a heart attack six months later.

(From the Telegraph)

Lorenzo (Laurel) Aitken, ska singer and songwriter: born April 22nd, 1927 - died July 17th, 2005.