BB01 - Boogie Rock c/w Heavenly Angel - Laurel Aitken & The Boogie Cats
BB02 - Dumplins - Byron Lee & Dragonaires c/w Kissing Girl - Buddy Davidson w/ Byron Lee & The Dragonaires
BB03 - Manny Oh! c/w When You Tell Me Baby - Higgs & Wilson with Ken's Comets
BB04 - Lollipop Girl c/w Dearest Darling - The Jiving Juniors with Duke Reid's Group
BB05 - My Heart's Desire c/w I Love You - The Jiving Juniors with Duke Reid's Group
BB06 - Worried Over You c/w Everything Will Be Alright - Keith & Enid
BB07 - Fat Man c/w I'm Gonna Leave You - Derrick Morgan with Trenton Spence & His Group
BB08 - Cutest Little Woman c/w Running Around - Owen Grey with Kenneth Richards & His Band
BB09 - Album Of Memory c/w Why Did You Leave Me - The Magic Notes with Kenneth Richards & His Band
BB10 - Jeannie Is Back c/w If It's Money You Need - Laurel Aitken
BB11 - Send Me - Keith & Enid c/w People Will Say We're In Love - Trenton Spence & His Group
BB12 - Don't Cry c/w I Pray For You - Derrick Morgan & The Ebonies
BB14 - Judgement Day c/w Yea, Yea, Baby - Laurel Aitken & The Harmonisers
London, 1960, a grey post-war scenario poised on an economic boom, cold and smoky - yet, with the collapse of the British Empire, still inviting to a host of newly acquired races and cultures forever destined to influence and mutate its future.
At a time when radio was omnipresent, Croatian immigrant Emile Shallit had been busy for a few years with MeloDisc, one of the UK's first independent record labels, a laudable and risky enterprise, as no other station but the BBC would be broadcasting popular music until the secon half of the 60s, and "Auntie" was mainly churning out light orchestral and easy listening music. Shallit literally created his own market at the beginning of the decade, with the invaluable help of Siggy Jackson, by founding Blue Beat, a new label showcasing the pioneering work of the producers and musicians of the Caribbean.
This was to be an immediate success as up until this time only a few Jamaican folk recordings had surfaced in Britain, mainly on MeloDisc, Starlite and Calypso labels. It was serendipity and a matter of right place, right time: in Jamaica, thanks to the pioneering spirit of Chris Blackwell and few others at Federal Studios, then the only recording venue on the island, where producers had just begun venturing in the recording of some pretty faithful copying of the American R&B styles. As they had been interested in maintaining their popularity achieved via sound system showcases and radio shows first cutting dub plates and soon limited runs of 45rpm records -import juke blues had been king throughout the 'fifties- thus initiating the great Jamaican vinyl era.
Shallit, despite his willingness to invest in the vinyl medium, didn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of the music scene, but, if you weren't deaf, there was an undeniable buzzing little show of hands around the streets of London's Soho, where you'd hear skiffle mingling with import blasts of rhythm n' blues, the real rock n' roll, definitely not the BBC, who at the time only played light music, vocal and instrumental, classical and orchestral, while pop and what you'd call rock n' roll was still strictly white.
While the immigrant population from the West Indies was establishing itself mainly around the Brixton, Notting Hill/Shepherd's Bush and Hackney areas of London, Shallit's new imprint would soon become its undeniable voice. Recording in the Capital and getting records cheaply into the little stores, markets and corner shops where an established buying public, nostalgic and proud of its roots, could buy both new and licensed recordings from Jamaica pressed in the UK, thus steering the company into the new decade while establishing a new sound that, although initially derivative of its transatlantic counterparts, became so distinctive that managed to cross over to the youth of the nation... a whole genre was named after the label that was successful enough to notch over 400 single releases [45RPM, 7" singles, the black ones, no, smaller, smaller.. push-out centre...hmmm...] in seven years or so...this was Blue Beat.
In this first chapter we can detect the ingredients for most of what is to come in the quest for the roots of Jamaican music as it appeared in Britain in the 60's.
From the first release the accent is on replicating the latest American rock n' roll teen craze: Jamaica's greatest early export, a very young Laurel Aitken dishes out two slices of juke box gold: the lively Boogie Rock and the doo-wop infused ballad Heavenly Angel, both accompanied by the Boogie Cats courtesy of Jamaican label Downbeat and produced by Ruddy Abrahams. Byron Lee & the Dragonaires were ubiquitous in the record world perhaps because their leader knew what the white audiences wanted, although they are undeniably one of the prime examples of a ska big band, their sound was polished and versatile, supplying back-up to countless vocalists in the studio as well as at festivals or on TV...but that was yet to come. In 1960 they served Dumplin's [sic] dished with Lee's trademark Fender Jazz bass sound [the first electric bass guitar on the Island, fruit of many a show at the posh hotels where the In Crowd would party to the exotic sounds] while on the flip Buddy Davidson takes the helm for another rocking showpiece.
Produced by future Prime Minister Edward Seaga, Joe Higgs & Roy Wilson's Manny Oh! had been out on W.I.R.L [West Indies Recording Label] two years earlier and features many of the session players of the island, including Alpha School star pupil Rico Rodriguez. While bridging the gap between gospel, roots and pop with its unsettling handclapping and Hallelujahs, this was one of the first Jamaican-recorded non-mento discs, adapting American R&B and doo-wop, yet retaining the percussive patterns that would lead to reggae in the space of a decade .
A major producer on the horizon was the colourful Duke Reid, playful gun-toting arch-rival of Sir "Coxsone" Dodd, who'd found in Derrick Harriott's dulcet vocals, adorned by the close harmonies of the Jiving Juniors, the perfect counterpart for his super grooving group, the tightest in the land [most of the embryonic Skatalites in fact] and equally loose a collective which included anyone who wouldn't argue with the liquor dealer, armed or not, about his penchant for love songs. Keith Stewart & Enid Cumberland, with S L Smith at the controls began singing many duets as Keith & Enid, first Everything Will Be All Right, cheekily accompanied by Studio One mainstay Trenton Spence & His Group who soon retiled Roger & Hammerstein's People Will Say We're in Love into Trenton's Hop for a flip, while Derrick Morgan voiced the first of many confrontational classics in Fat Man, with its erstwhile dismissive b-side telling of a love gone wrong: I'm Gonna Leave You.
Owen Gray, equally at home with Kenneth Richard and band in the hands of Smith, also tells of the delights of the chase, while the Magic Notes were a doo-wop styled vocal group with a distinct DIY feel. Still, Laurel Aitken's rocking swagger was in demand and licensing two sides from Regal guaranteed another minor hit, enough for Blue Beat to improve the pressings that would gradually get commissioned out to Philips and similar, according to requirements. Of course Jamaican producers were finding their feet in the singles market and Blue Beat was not the only imprint to release some of this decade's early genius, you will find further releases by all these artists released in parallel on Melodisc,Ska Beat and Fontana, while Blackwell also soon would initiate his Island imprint, all this way before Trojan became a contender.
More sides were licensed in to keep a pace in the releases, from the listeners point of view records were becoming sought after for their low price, reliable quality and entertainment value, as the artists were not yet performing in Britain. Quality indeed, Derrick Morgan with sweet voiced backup by the Ebonies gets all pleading, we sample Studio One sounds via Theophilus Beckford with Cluett Johnson, Blues Blasters and the great Alton Ellis debuting with Eddy Parkins, The Mellow Larks's pleasant boppin' doo-wop, Monty Robinson & the legendary Cyclones and round off with a slam of Duke Reid's finest early outings utilising the vocal talents of Derrick Morgan and harmony duo Chuck & Dobby [Chuck Josephs and Dobby Dobson with Aubrey Adams & band], the poker is in the instrumental.
Happy listening, more soon. [please find the password in comments]
P.S: You may soon notice a couple of gaps in the discography sequence, well...there will be gaps because I still haven't found all the tracks that were released, however BB 013 was not issued, while later some tracks were released twice with a new cat# and others are still just impossible to find. After decades of research, I've not yet known anyone who had the complete set of all the Blue Beat singles in playable condition. These things are very rare and too many different copyright owners have resulted in all this work to be unavailable for nearly 50 years, virtually impossible to repackage commercially, only a few are now out on the respective artists' collections. Look out for these vocalists, musicians and producers as they shaped via these grooves so much of what we now know as Blue Beat and more generally original SKA.
[*] I'm missing this track! Higgs & Wilson & Kens Comets feat. Rico Rodriguez "When You Tell Me Baby" UK BB 003 originally on W.I.R.L. and most likely a Sir Dodd [Coxsone] production. Anybody able to help?