Laurel Aitken

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b. 1927 in Cuba - d. July 17, 2005

Laurel Aitken's career remains an example for the development of Jamaican music from it's roots in Jamaica to the world wide interest.

Rico Rodriguez worked regularly with Laurel Aitken during the 1960s and 1970s. They came together during the so-called 3rd wave ska revival, e.g. for Laurel's The Story So Far (1995), or with Gaz Mayall's Ska Island project and the two had a kind of reunion in 2000 playing at Club Ska in London. Both are very different in type and character, but they have a common history as people developing Jamaican music in England, and both have - as far as we know - family origins in Cuba.

Several of those old tracks with solos by Rico have been re-issued over the years, e.g. "Daniel Saw The Stone" "This Great Day" and "Jenny, Jenny" on various volumes of a series called The Godfather Of Ska and released on the German Grover label and on The Pioneer Of Jamaican Music (by Reggae Retro) ...

Laurel Aitken "described himself as a river. During the good times and the bad times it just keeps flowing. And even when you don't hear about him he's still somewhere making good music." (George Marshall, 1989)

The Pioneer Of Jamaican Music IS 500

Laurel in form

1927 - 1948

Laurel Aitken spent most of his childhood in Cuba. At the age of eleven, in 1938, he moved with his family from Cuba to Kingston, Jamaica. "'My dad is Jamaican, my mom is Cuban,' he explains, 'and my dad has just wanted to go back home.'" (Katz 2003, p. 13) Laurel's younger brother Bobby Aitken (now known as Rev. Robert Simmonds), who started around 1960 with the Caribbeats and became a sought after drummer in the rock steady era, told Katz (2003, p. 68) a slightly different story: he said that both parents were Jamaicans, went on a honeymoon to Cuba and stayed there until ca. 1939. His parents, Bobby reports, died one after the other around 1940/1941, what means that Laurel lost his family when he was 14.

1949 - 1962

However the family situation might have been, Laurel already sang for a long time and sometime he started to earn his living with making music. We don't know how he learned to play piano and where he trained his voice and taste.

But: "By 1952 Aitken was a popular figure on talent shows. 'I used to sing from [when I was] a little boy in Cuba, and when I came to Jamaica there was nothing like ska. You had to sing jazz and calypso, which come from Trinidad. I sang "Blue Moon", "Embraceable You", and I won three big contests in Kingston with "Pennies From Heaven". At the time I used to work with the Jamaican Tourist Board, welcoming people with a bib broad hat at the wharf when the ships come in, singing calypsos: "Welcome to Jamaica", "Jamaica Farewell", "Coconut Woman", and they fling money and give me.'" (Katz 2003, p. 13/14)

Shallit later used the knowledge of and his access to this music and in 1959 he started to release "almost fifty different titles on 45 rpm singles (plus one EP)" on his Kalypso label for the London/UK market. They "include the first known recordings of future stars Laurel Aitken and Lord Tanamo …" (cf. Barrow/Dalton 1997, p. 8)

Laurel Aitken remembers his recording debut at Motta's studio: "The first recording that I did, I did it for myself, that was a song called "I Met A Senorita". I used my own money and got my own musicians - nobody that's living now. The saxophonist [went by] the name of "Number One" - he was well known in those days. Then I did a merengue, "Merenguita", and it was released by a man that had a record shop on King Street, by the name of Mr. De Pass." (Katz 2003, p. 14)

"After establishing a residency at the Colony Club in Half Way Tree, Aitken recorded further material. His first substantial hit was released by Dada Tewari [often written Tuari, b], another early entrepreneur ..." (Katz 2003, p. 14) Katz quotes Aitken who described the meeting with Tewari: "V-Rocket used to be a top sound, he heard me doing some rehearsal and said, "I'll take you to see Dada". I did quite a lot [of songs], but the biggest one I did for him was "Roll Jordan Roll", my first big hit in Jamaica." (Katz 2003, p. 14)

"It is said, that much locally created non-calypso music at first remained exclusive to the sound system, and was not presed for general release. The turning point seems to have been 1957, when Caribou [Ken Khouri's label linked with Federal, braunov] released "Aitken's Boogie". The song was a local variant of the type of rhythm and blues that originated in New Orleans - black American music with a pronounced, shuffling beat - and was the template for much of what would follow." (Katz 2003, p. 17)

During this time the owner of Melodisc Records, Emil Shalit had collected his first experience with releasing Jamaican music in the UK (e.g. Louise Bennett: "Linstead Market"; Leslie 'Jiver' Hutchinson: "Bongo Man", made in 1951). In the early 1950s Melodisc handled the pressing of Stanley Motta’s calypso recordings on 10" 78s for release in Jamaica on the MRS (Motta’s Recording Studio) label.

Shalit's Kalypso label released with cat.-no. XX 16 in late 1959 or early 1960 "Aitken's Boogie" in the UK, which "pointed the way forward. ... this was the first Jamaican R&B music to see issue in Britain." (Koningh/ 2003, p. 22)

Laurel Aitken's next big thing was recorded in 1958 by Chris Blackwell and called "Boogie In My Bones". The song was the first hit for Blackwell's label. "It entered the JBC chart in October 1959 and stayed at number one for thirteen weeks. 'Chris came to see me one day, he say, "You been doing quite a few things recently and I like them, I've got to do something with you," and i say, "Quite possible," Aitken recalls. 'When Chris came the second time, we went to a bar with a piano and i played him a few of the things That I have written. He said, "I've got a a band I would like you to meet." They was five white guys - I think they were Canadian. We went to JBC with a friend of mine, [saxophonist] Carol McLaughlin, and I did "Boogie in My Bones" and "Little Sheila".' " (Katz 2003, p. 20/21)

"Aitken quickly tried to reproduce the formule with "Boogie Rock", one of a handful of tunes cut with a group dubbed the Boogie Cats for aspiring producer Ruddy Abrahams, whose Downbeat label releases were pressed by Tewari's Carribean Recording Company; other numbers included "I'm Crying Over You", and the mento-styled "Baba Kill Me Goat". (Katz 2003, p. 21)

As early as in 1957 Laurel Aitken started to play music with so called "conscience" content or biblical lyrics and using burru drumming to underline the song's messages. "Ghana Independence" and "Nebuchanezer" have been released around 1957 on Caribou 78s and made "use of African percussion techniques" long before "Oh Carolina" hit the charts. Barrow and Dalton see the source for those biblical themes not in the Rastafarian movement but in the strong influence of revivalist churches in Jamaica. "…the man who would later become a skinhead favourite in the UK, Laurel Aitken, was responsible not only for popular tunes about alcohol and women, but for such gospel-influenced items as "Zion", "Judgement Day" (both Duke Reid’s), "What A Weeping" (Beverley’s) and "Brother David" (Starline)." (Barrow/Dalton 1997, p. 24)

Aitken left Jamaica at the age of 33 in 1960 to find out his opportunities in England. And he was involved in the early development of Blue Beat, featuring on BB 001 in the same year, and releasing 16 more titles on the label during it's early days.

Later he went on recording for Columbia (and Columbia Blue Beat), Rio and many more labels.

1963 - 1970

Aitken developed his position as one of the key artists developing Jamaican music in the UK and profiled himself as one of the main producers.

During 1963 and 1965 Rio released many sides by Laurel Aitken, most of which had been produced by King Edwards. The London recordings were produced at Advision in Denmark Street as Denzil Dennis remembers (Koningh 2003, p. 55). "Later I went over with him [Graeme Goodall] to his studio in Fulham Road with Laurel Aitken and recorded the Fire In My Wire album. Graeme Goodall made some good sounds ..." (p. 56)

In 1967 he produced UK reggae band The Bees. Montgomery 'Monty' Neysmith remembers: "Siggy Jackson was our manager, but he didn't produce any of our recordings - Laurel Aitken actually did the producing and, in fact, he was the one who got us signed to EMI, when we were the Bees. He didn't have a deal with them himself, but he got us on the label. It was really great of him." (Koningh 2003, p. 39) The group became Laurel's backing band for recordings with Graeme Goodall for Trojan/Doctor Bird. (p. 40/44)

Denzil Dennis said remembering the same period: "In 1968 Dandy, myself and Laurel Aitken - whereever we heard a good group, our idea was to take them into the studio." (Koningh 2003, p. 17) The Cimarons came to the attention of Aitken after returning from a successful West African tour in 1968. "... the now confident band were quickly hot property on the session scene, often recording under various aliases as 'The So-and-so All Stars'", writed Koningh (2003, p.45). "They were soon doing work for Pama via Laurel Aitken ..."

"It was when rocksteady was changing into 'reggae' at the end of the 1960s that Laurel Aitken began producing himself and others for the Palmer Brothers-owned Crab and NuBeat/New Beat concerns … His audience then widened to take in the white skinheads. Records like "Woppi King", "Jesse James", "Haile Selassie" (one of the very few Rasta-slanted records to find favour with the skins) and "Pussy Price Gone Up" stand among the more enduring UK-productions of the period – in part because they employed the slower rhythms emerging from Jamaica itself. Aitken also made a couple of credible deejay records as Tiger not to be confused with the ragga star) and produced other performers over similar rhythms, including Winston Groovy ("Island In The Sun") and the Classics ("History Of Arica"). (Barrow/Dalton 1997, p. 328) Koningh (2003, p. 79) describes Nu Beat in 1969 as a label that "has become something of a Laurel Aitken speciality outlet, and hits for him ... followed. Laurel in fact recorded and produced his records himself and licensed them to Pama (a standard arrangement he adopted with other UK issuing companies) and retains all the issuing rights to this day."

Koningh remarks a change in the relationship with Dandy who was engaged by Trojan/B&W Records. In 1969 it seems to become more a competition than friendship and he point out a 7"-flipside on Unity (UN 506) called "Donkey Man", "which could be about Dandy ('you copy the donkey') and his relationship with Rita King of R&B Discs (it refers to 'the lady from Stamford Hill' taking him in). Clearly there was some animosity between the two men, and lyrically this is a fascinating tune. Each to their own, of corse, ..." (Koningh 2003, p. 82)

Again we find some confusion with names. Aitken produced more and more sides for "his" Nu Beat label; uncertain seems to be if it's always another artist than Laurel himself. For Winston Groovy who was "apparently discovered [by Laurel Aitken] in the West Midlands" (Koningh 2003, p. 90) things are clear, but Tiger is for Barrows Laurel under pseudonym, for Koningh he's somebody else; On King Horror Koningh writes: "Horror was actually Laurel on some sides but not others (it largely depended on which company he was leasing the material to and who was around in the studio at the time)." (p. 90) Recordings for Groovy and King Horror were also released on Trojan's Jackpot and Grape labels.

"As the reggae era dawned, the UK's cosmopolitan nightclub scene cross-pooluted musical styles. James Brown's "Popcon" was a smash hit and forward-thinking producers quickly pulled the vibe into a reggae rhythm, in particular Laurel Aitken who had a hit with "Mr. Popcorn" and then "Reggae Popcorn", using The Cimarons as his funky reggae band." (Koningh 2003, p. 111)

"After 1969 and the change of the labels title to Newbeat, Laurel started singing more ballad-style material in a commercial vein. After his "Mr. Popcorn" and "Reggae Popcorn" came out, subsequent releases like "Baby I Need Your Loving" (NB 063) and "Let Your True Love Begin" (NB 078) were not so eagerly bought by the skinheads. However, his "Nobody But Me", tracked away on the flip side of the so-so "Baby Please Don't Go" (NB 054) is a cracker and was the original cut to Tiger's "Guilty" (Camel CA 70)." (Koningh 2003, p. 90)

Laurel also brought Ian Smith's all-white Inner Mind reggae band to Pama's attention ..." (Koningh 2003, p. 90). During 1969/1970 The Rudies backed Laurel Aitken. (Freddie Notes quoted by Koningh 2003, p. 49)

1971 - 1978

Reggae developed from skinhead music to roots and Laurel Aitken, now in his mid 40s, seems to have lost a bit the ground. But this is not the whole truth. Koningh (2003) documented his work and development in this period:

"After 1971 and the decline of the skinheads, Laurel's 'boss reggae' sounds pretty much fell out of favour. ... Seamingly leaseing less material to Pama, he started doing more with Trojan where he had a near-miss in the national charts with "It's Too Late (To Say You're Sorry)" on the main Trojan label and a couple of singles on Big Shot. There was also a commercial one-off shot with EMI's outmoded Columbia label, namely "Pretty Face (In The Market Place)", which sank without trace. He was involved too with Ian Smith and his Hot Read label at various times between 1972 and 1974 and continued to be in big demand as a live act." (Koningh 203, p. 132)

"Laurel was continuing to record himself and other artists (often utilising Rico Rodriguez's talents) at his own studio sessions, leasing tracks to Trojan or Pama, and pressing them up with blak labels to promote himself. The matrix for these was usually 'LA SP', and from our experience these blanks never generally gained formal release by any of the companies. Another blank matrix associated with Laurel is 'PEP'. For one reason or another, his own label - apparently to be called Faith - never materialised, although a blank-label issue of Tiger's "Guilty" did appear on it. In fact it would be nigh on impossible to collect a complete set of Laurel's releases from this period as there were so many 'unofficial' waxings around. A particularly good one is Laurel And Girlie doing a thing called "Hot Pants Parade" on an LA SP matrix." (Koningh 2003, pp. 132/133)

As Koningh described the situation for Laurel Aitken he got more and more under pressure by the changing taste of the younger generation of reggae listeners who looked for The Mighty Diamonds, for Carl Malcolm or Big Youth. "Laurel did his best, though, with a version of "Fatty Bum Bum" (covering a hip Carl Malcolm on Pama's revived Punch label) and the answer tune "Fatty Bum Bum Gone To Jail" (on Trojan's Horse subsidiary) - an odd case of putting two related tunes with two rival companies." (Koningh 2003, p. 133) As a result his career went on a lower profile. He "once again looked like launching his own label, this time called Karlene, but a solitary issue, "Rebel Woman", never seemed to get beyond the white label stage." (Koningh 2003, p. 133)

1979 - 1993

It needed 2Tone and the ska revival at the end of the 1970s to bring him back to general attention.

In 1980 he had a memorable hit with "Rudie Got Married" shortly after The Specials' success with their "Message" to the rudies. Both tracks got their credibility by Rico Rodriguez' trombone.

Later he recorded with Gaz Mayall and Potato Five.

1994 - 2005

Ska and Jamaican music found their place in the global music scene. All over the world people enjoyed it and discovered old and young singers and musicians, older and younger stars, one of whom was and remained Laurel Aitken. It makes no wonder, that a label in Germany (Grover) started to re-release Laurel's hits in a series of compilation albums. Already in his 70s, he continued to play club dates until ca. 2002 when he started to have more and more health problems.

A news on Dec. 17, 2003 reads as follows:

Laurel Aitken Seriously Ill
Laurel Aitken, the "Godfather of Ska," is currently being treated for double pneumonia at a hospital in Leicester, England. Word from the family is that his condition is serious and they do not expect Aitken, 78, to be able to perform or sing again. There will be a benefit and tribute show for Laurel and his family on January 3rd at Club Ska in the UK, featuring Pat Kelly, Intensified, and other bands. This show was originally scheduled with Laurel Aitken headlining to promote his new CD on Trojan Records, Laurel Aitken, Live at Club Ska.
He recovered better than expected and went once again on stage: His last concert was in January 2005.
After a heartattack Laurel Aitken passed away in Glenfield Hospital, Leicester, on Sunday, July 17, 2005.

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