The music of Jamaica has been popular in Britain since the 1960s. British artists such as Georgie Fame and The Beatles showcased Jamaican influences in their music as early as 1964. The first British Ska and Rock Steady groups such as The Cimarons, The Bedrocks, and Symarip began appearing towards the end of the decade. The 1970s saw the development of the British sub-genres Two-tone Ska and Lovers Rock. Groups like The Specials, Madness, The Beat and Bad Manners brought Ska to a new generation. British-born artists such as Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson and Deborahe Glasgow all found fame with Lovers Rock hits. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of British Reggae bands including Steel Pulse, Aswad, Black Slate, and Matumbi. For better or worse, non-Reggae artists tried their hand at Reggae numbers throughout the 1970s and beyond. In Britain these included The Clash, The Police, Culture Club and The Rollings Stones. The best known example is Eric Clapton’s 1974 take on ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Whether it’s Ska, Rock Steady, Lovers Rock, Dancehall or Dub, British artists have continued to be a part of the worldwide Reggae scene. Below is a list of 100 of the best examples of British Reggae and Ska.
Humpty Dumpty – Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1964)
Tom Hark Goes Blue Beat – Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1964)
El Pussy Cat – Georgie Fame (1967)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – The Bedrocks (1968)
Skinhead Moonstomp – Symarip (1969)
Skinhead Girl – Symarip (1970)
Black And White – Greyhound (1971)
Love is Strange – Wings (1971)
Big Six – Judge Dread (1972)
C Moon – Wings (1973)
I Shot The Sheriff – Eric Clapton (1974)
I A Rebel Soul – Aswad (1976)
After Tonight – Matumbi (1976)
Cherry Oh Baby – The Rolling Stones (1976)
Back To Africa – Aswad (1976)
Silly Games – Janet Kay (1977)
Watching The Detectives – Elvis Costello (1977)
Police & Thieves – The Clash (1977)
Up With The Cock – Judge Dread (1977)
Feel Like Making Love – Elizabeth Archer And The Equators (1977)
Prodigal Son – Steel Pulse (1978)
I Do Love You – Janet Kay (1978)
Empire Road – Matumbi (1978)
Can’t Stand Losing You – The Police (1978)
Walking On Sunshine – Eddy Grant (1978)
Dreadlock Holiday – 10cc (1978)
Emotion – 15 16 17 (1978)
Five Nights of Bleeding – Poets And The Roots (1978)
Ku Klux Klan – Steel Pulse (1978)
Bluebeat And Ska – Matumbi (1978)
Roxanne – The Police (1978)
Living On The Frontline – Eddy Grant (1978)
Rat Race – The Specials (1979)
One Step Beyond – Madness (1979)
Ranking Full Stop – The Beat (1979)
A Message To You Rudy – The Specials (1979)
On My Radio – The Selecter (1979)
Night Boat To Cairo – Madness (1979)
Fite Dem Back – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)
Points of View (Squeeze A Little Lovin) – Matumbi (1979)
Too Much Too Young – The Specials (1979)
Madness – Madness (1979)
Walking On The Moon – The Police (1979)
Arrow Through Me – Wings (1979)
Forces of Viktry – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1979)
Too Much Pressure – The Selecter (1980)
Lip Up Fatty – Bad Manners (1980)
I’m So Sorry – Caroll Thompson (1980)
Inglan is a Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson (1980)
Let’s Do Rock Steady – The Bodysnatchers (1980)
Mirror In The Bathroom – The Beat (1980)
Warrior Charge – Aswad (1980)
Living In Babylon – Dennis Bovell (1980)
Murder – The Selecter (1980)
Food For Thought – UB40 (1980)
Hands Off….She’s Mine – The Beat (1980)
Amigo – Black Slate (1980)
The Bed’s Too Big Without You – The Police (1980)
Bankrobber – The Clash (1980)
Too Experienced – The Bodysnatchers (1980)
Special Brew – Bad Manners (1980)
Baby Come Back – The Equators (1980)
One In Ten – UB40 (1981)
Walking In The Sunshine – Bad Manners (1981)
Ghost Town – The Specials (1981)
Pass The Dutchie – Musical Youth (1982)
Do You Really Want To Hurt Me – Culture Club (1982)
Neeomi (Sometimes spelt Nii Moi) ‘Speedy’ Acquaye was born in James Town, Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana) on 7 June 1931. He began playing drums from an early age after his parents bought him a drum as a gift. He began attending Royal School in Accra at the age of 12. Despite encouragement from family and friends and a couple of teenage bands, Speedy showed no interest in a musical career at the time.
After a brief period in the armed forces as a company boy he travelled to England in 1947 at the age of 16. He settled in Leeds in West Yorkshire and undertook a factory job before beginning his career in showbiz. His first taste of show business came when he played the role of Man Friday in a pantomime in Nottingham. He then bought a pair of bongos but didn’t yet take up music full time. Instead, he joined a travelling circus as a dancer, fire-eater, and conga player.
During his time in Leeds, Speedy spent a lot of his time dancing in the local ballrooms. Most pubs in the city would close at 10pm and couldn’t compete with the excitement of the ballrooms. While some pubs had a ‘colour bar’ in place, ballrooms were more welcoming to African and West Indian punters. They were not, however, free from racism. Africans living in Leeds discovered that some of the best places to dance were Leeds Town Hall and Armley Baths, where wooden boards were places over an empty pool to create a dance floor. A highlight was Saturday nights at the Mecca Ballroom in
the Country Arcade where Jimmy Savile was the general manager and DJ. Savile held no prejudices and African and West Indian men found a warm welcome at the Mecca. The ballroom had two floors. The downstairs room had a ‘strictly ballroom’ pre-war polite atmosphere and Ross McManus’s band would play there. (McManus would father Elvis Costello in 1954.) The upstairs room allowed jiving and became popular with the black community in Leeds and visiting African American GIs. Speedy became known for his dance moves and wild antics. He would delight the girls by pulling up his trousers and setting fire to his legs. Speedy also made a lot of male friends at the ballrooms including Nigerian David Oluwale.
Speedy left Leeds around 1953 and moved to London to begin a career in music. A regular at Soho clubs, Speedy became friends with African and local Jazz players. He first played with Tubby Hayes Group and made his recording debut with the group on the 1961 album ‘Equation In Rhythm’. Speedy then joined Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists who blended British Jazz with African sounds. He later played with Ronnie Scott’s group for a time before meeting Georgie Fame in 1962.
Speedy met Georgie Fame at the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street and the pair became instant friends. Speedy joined Georgie Fame’s group The Blue Flames in May 1962. The group had originally been Billy Fury’s backing band until they were sacked in 1961. The Blue Flames continued on without Billy and Georgie Fame took over on vocals. Speedy played with the Blue Flames at the Flamingo Club during the group’s three-year residency at the club, showcasing a new wave of appreciation for African musicians. Speedy was a pioneer in introducing African instruments into Western Pop music. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones would soon follow suit. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames’ debut album ‘Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo’ was released in September 1963 but didn’t feature Speedy on percussion. Speedy had recently been busted by the police and was in prison on a drug offence during the time of recording. He was briefly replaced by Tommy Thomas. The album and the follow up singles failed to chart. During his time with The Blue Flames, Speedy played alongside drummer Jimmie Nicol for a time before the drummer left to replace Ringo Starr for 13 days during The Beatles’ 1964 Australia tour. The group’s first chart success came in October 1964 with the album ‘Fame At Last’ which went to number 15 in the UK. ‘Fame At Last’ was Speedy’s recording debut with The Blue Flames. The group had a number one single in January 1965 with their version of ‘Yeh Yeh’ and a couple of notable TV appearances followed including ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and ‘Top of The Pops’. The Blue Flames even made an appearance on the American TV show ‘Hullabaloo’ in 1965 where they were introduced by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.
Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames achieved a large Mod following and helped introduce Ska music to the subculture. Speedy plays on the 1964 EP ‘Rhythm And Blue Beat’ as well as a number of other Ska songs by the group. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames also recorded a version of Lord Kitchener’s Calypso classic ‘Dr. Kitch’. While Speedy enjoyed some elements of Mod culture (he was known to take Purple Hearts) he refused to give in to Mod fashion and often wore traditional Ghanaian dress on stage and especially when appearing on television. Speedy ensured that he became part of group’s stage act and would sometimes step in front of his instrument to perform African dances. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames toured across the UK and were part of the popular Tamla-Motown UK Tour of 1965. The tour came to Leeds on 31 March. Georgie Frame and The Blue Flames would return to Leeds the following year, playing at the Odeon on both occasions.
The Blue Flames underwent several line-up changes throughout the group’s time together. In December 1965 Mitch Mitchell became the group’s drummer. Georgie Fame disbanded the Blue Flames in October 1966 to pursue a solo career and Mitch Mitchell joined the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Speedy went on to join Herbie Goins and the Night Timers. He appeared on their 1966 EP ‘The Incredible Miss Brown’ and their 1967 album ‘Number 1 In Your Heart’. Herbie Goins and the Night Timers made an appearance on French TV in 1968 performing ‘The Same Old Song’. During the same period Speedy also recorded with The Small Faces after building up a friendship with Ronnie Lane. Speedy appears on their self-titled 1967 album. Speedy left the Night Timers around 1969 and began working as a session musician, playing with Poet and the One Man Band on their debut self-titled Psychedelic Rock album. Around this time he joined Alexis Korner’s live band, bringing him to the attention of a new generation of musicians including Denny Laine, Rod Stewart and Ginger Baker.
Speedy joined Ginger Baker’s Airforce in September 1970 and appears on the group’s second and final album ‘Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2’. The group were popular in Germany were they were given their own television special on the series ‘Beat-Club’. Airforce also toured the UK throughout 1970, playing at Leeds Town Hall on 20 November. After the band’s breakup in 1971, Speedy went on to form the group Akido. Akido were managed by Ronnie Lane and performed regularly at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. Going back to his days with the travelling circus, Speedy would perform fire-eating on stage during the band’s gigs. Akido worked the college circuit and in 1972 they released their self-titled album.
Speedy continued to work as a session musician throughout the 1970s and became the go-to-guy when it came to African drumming. He made recordings with Third World War (1971), Rod Stewart (1972), Faces (1973) and John Martyn (1973). He is also reported to have recorded with The Animals and The Rolling Stones but details are lacking. Speedy’s session work often saw him working alongside friends and in 1979 he began working with Georgie Fame again. He played on Georgie Fame’s albums ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ and ‘Right Now’. He also worked with Denny Laine again who he had previously played with when both men were members of Airforce. Denny Laine went on to join Wings and Speedy features on their 1979 album ‘Back To The Egg’ as a member of the Rockestra. In December 1979 he performed at the Concerts For The People of Kampuchea as part of the Rockestra and appears on the 1981 album of the concerts.
In the mid-1980s Speedy began working with Adzido. Formed by George Ozikunaj in 1984, Adzido was Europe’s leading traditional African dance company. Speedy later returned to Ghana and worked with the Ghanaian band Dade Krama. Speedy took ill in 1990 during a visit to Ghana and had to return to Britain to seek medical attention but wasn’t diagnosed with liver cancer until shortly before his death. Speedy died in London on 15 September 1993 aged 62. Georgie Fame, who had been working with him shortly before his death, helped pay for his body to be flown back to Accra where he was buried following a wake at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, London.
Full Album Discography
Equation In Rhythm – Costanzo Plus Tubbs (1961)
Fame At Last – Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1964)
Sweet Things – Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1966)
Number 1 In Your Heart – Herbie Goins And The Night Timers (1967)
Small Faces – Small Faces (1967)
Poet And The One Man Band – Poet And The One Man Band (1969)
Aireforce 2 – Ginger Baker’s Airforce (1970)
Third World War – Third World War (1971)
Never A Dull Moment – Rod Stewart (1972)
Akido – Akido (1972)
Solid Air – John Martyn (1973)
Ooh La La – Faces (1973)
That’s What Friends Are For – Georgie Fame (1979)
Right Now – Georgie Fame (1979)
Back To The Egg – Wings (1979)
Concerts For The People of Kampuchea – Various artists (1981) (Recorded 1979)
Home From Home – Heads, Hands & Feet (1995) (Recorded in 1968)
The 1960s was a remarkable period for popular music with genres developing and evolving at an extraordinary rate and Jamaican music for no exception. The 1960s saw the development of Ska from Jamaican R&B and the birth of Reggae via Rock Steady. In Britain, Jamaican music helped unite British and Caribbean youths through music, dance crazes and fashion trends. With sound systems and clubs dedicated to playing Jamaican music, it was the sounds of Jamaican that united the British Caribbean communities during the sixties. The decade saw the development of sampling, dub, and toasting and the rise of stars such as Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff, Millie Small, Desmond Dekker, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and even Bob Marley and The Wailers. Below is a list of 150 of the greatest examples of Jamaican music released during the sixites that help tell the story of Jamaican music. It includes R&B, Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae. All dates given are UK single release dates unless specified otherwise.
Boogie Rock – Laurel Aitken (1960)
Fat Man – Derrick Morgan (1960)
Dumplin’s – Byron Lee And The Dragonnaires (1960)
Easy Snapping – Clue J. And His Blues Blasters (1960)
Running Around – Owen Grey (1960)
Boss Girl – J.E. Stick & Drumbago All Stars (1961)
Luke Lane Shuffle – Rico Rodriques (1961)
Blackberry Brandy – Roland Alphonso (1961)
Bar Tender – Laurel Aitken (1961)
Humpty Dumpty – Eric Morris (1961)
Let The Good Times Roll – Derrick And Patsy (1961)
Mash! Mr. Lee – Byron Lee And The Dragonnaires (1961)
Carolina – The Folks Brothers (1961)
Feel So Fine – Derrick And Patsy (1961)
Forward March – Derrick Morgan (1962)
Independence Song – Prince Buster (1962)
Miss Jamaica – Jimmy Cliff (1962)
Housewife’s Choice – Derrick And Patsy (1962)
Hully Gully Miss Molly – Basil Gabbidon And Buster’s Group (1962)
Blazing Fire – Derrick Morgan (1963)
Honour Your Mother And Father – Desmond Dekker And Beverleys All Stars (1963)
Ten Commandments – Prince Buster (1963)
Tears On My Pillow – Derrick Morgan (1963)
Fever – The Vikings (1963)
King Of Kings – Jimmy Cliff (1963)
Enjoy Yourself – Prince Buster (1963)
One Cup of Coffee – Robert Marley (1963)
Madness – Prince Buster (1963)
King of Ska – Desmond Dekker And His Cherry Pies (1964)
Number One – Eric Morris (1964)
She Loves You – Prince Buster (1964)
Jamaica Ska – Byron Lee And The Dragonaires (1964)
My Boy Lollipop – Millie Small (1964)
Sea Cruise – Jackie Edwards (1964)
Want Me Cock – Owen And Leon Silvera (1964) (UK release 1965)
Eastern Standard Time – Don Drummond And Band (1964)
Sammy Dead – Byron Lee And The Dragonaires (1964)
Penny Reel – Eric Morris (1964)
Soon You Will Be Gone – The Blues Busters (1964) (No UK release)
Sweet William – Millie Small (1964)
Simmer Down – The Wailers (1964)(UK release 1965)
My Girl – Prince Buster (1965)
One Love – The Wailers (1965) (No UK release)
Al Capone – Prince Buster (1965)
I Should Have Known Better – Roland Alphonso (1965) (UK release 1966)
Guns of Navarone – The Skatalites (1965)
What’s New Pussy Cat? – The Wailers (1965)
In The Mood For Ska – Lord Tanamo (1965)
Bonanza Ska – Carlos Malcolm And The Afro Caribs (1965)
Girls Town Ska – Baba Brooks Band (1965)
One Step Beyond – Prince Buster (1965)
El Pussy Cat – Roland Alphonso (1965)
Lion of Judah – Buster’s All Stars (1966)
Keep On Running – Jackie Edwards (1966) (No UK release)
Rub And Squeeze – King Perry And The Soulettes (1966)
James Bond – Roland Alphonso (1966)
Respect – Prince Buster (1966)
Bend Down Low – Bob Marley And The Wailers (1966) (UK release 1967)
Pied Piper – Rita Marley (1966)
I’ve Got A Date – Alton Ellis And The Flames (1966) (UK release 1967)
Phoenix City – Roland Alphonso And The Soul Brothers (1966)
Storm Warning – Lyn Taitt And The Boys (1966)
Take It Easy – Hopeton Lewis (1966) (UK release 1967)
Stop That Train – Keith & Tex (1967) (UK release 1968)
Judge Sympathy – Duke Reid (1967)
Fattie Fattie – The Heptones (1967) (No UK release)
Tougher Than Tough (Rudi In Court) – Derrick Morgan And The Aces (1967)
Judge Dread – Prince Buster (1967)
Duke of Earl – Alton Ellis And The Flames (1967)
Let’s Do Rock Steady – Dandy (1967)
007 – Desmond Dekker And The Aces (1967)
Stir It Up – Bob Marley And The Wailers (1967) (UK release 1968)
Train To Skaville – The Ethiopians (1967)
Train To Girls Town – Prince Buster (1967)
I’m Still In Love – Alton Ellis (1967)
And I Love Her – Prince Buster (1967)
Rude Boy Train – Desmond Dekker (1967)
Train Tour To Rainbow City – The Pyramids (1967)
The Tide Is High – The Paragons (1967)
You Don’t Love Me – Dawn Penn (1967) (No UK release)
Puppet On A String – Ken Boothe (1967)
Darker Shade of Black – Jackie Mittoo (1967) (From the LP “In London”)
I Will Get Along – The Melodians (1967)
Real Rock – Sound Dimension (1967) (No UK release)
Mellow Mood – The Wailers (1967) (UK release 1968)
Rudy A Message To You – Dandy (1967)
Blam Blam Fever (Gunfever) – The Valentines (1967)
54-46 That’s My Number – The Maytals (1968)
A It Mek – Desmond Dekker And The Aces (1968)
The Upsetter – Lee Perry (1968)
Soul Limbo – Byron Lee & The Dragonaires (1968)
There Is A Man Who Lives Next Door – The Paragons (1968) (UK release 1969)
Engine 54 – The Ethiopians (1968)
Do The Reggay – The Maytals (1968)
No More Heartaches – The Beltones (1968)
Nanny Goat – Larry And Alvin (1968)
Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da – The Bedrocks (1968)
Hold Me Tight – Johnny Nash (1968)
Feel Like Jumping – Marcia Griffiths (1968)
Israelites – Desmond Dekker And The Aces (1968)
Kansas City – Joya Landis (1968)
The Scorcher – Prince Buster And All Stars (1968)
Watch This Sound –The Uniques (1968)
Cuss Cuss – Lloyd Robinson (1968)
People Funny Boy – Lee(King) Perry (1968)
A Place In The Sun – David Isaacs (1968)
Tighten Up – The Untouchables (1968)
Angel of The Morning – Joya Landis (1968)
All My Loving – Prince Buster And The All Stars (1968)
Spanish Harlem – Val Bennett (1968)
It’s Reggae Time – D. Tony Lee (1968)
Rudi’s In Love – The Locomotive (1968)
Donkey Returns – Brother Dan All Stars (1968)
Wet Dream – Max Romeo (1968)
Reggae In The Wind – Lester Sterling (1968)
Cupid – Johnny Nash (1968) (Uk release 1969)
I’m Your Puppet – Dandy (1969)
Monkey Man – The Maytals (1969) (UK release 1970)
Wear You To The Ball – Hugh Roy And John Holt (1969) (UK release 1970)
Reggae In Your Jeggae – Dandy (1969)
Pressure Drop – The Maytals (1969)
Return of Django – The Upsetters (1969)
The Liquidator – Harry J. All Stars (1969)
Loch Ness Monster – King Horror (1969)
Red, Red Wine – Tony Tribe (1969)
Wonderful World, Beautiful People – Jimmy Cliff (1969)
People Get Ready – Dandy (1969)
Elizabethan Reggae – Boris Gardner (1969)
Moon Hop – Derrick Morgan (1969)
Wreck A Pum Pum – Prince Buster And All Stars (1969)
The Ugly One – King Stitt (1969)
Don’t Let Me Down – Marcia Griffiths (1969)
Give Peace A Chance – The Hot Chocolate Band (1969)
Long Shot Kick De Bucket – The Pioneers (1969)
Skinhead Moon Stomp – Symarip (1969)
Wreck A Buddy – The Soul Sisters (1969)
Fattie Fattie – Clancy Eccles (1969)
Ain’t Too Proud To Beg – Slim Smith (1969)
How Long Will It Take – Pat Kelly (1969)
Fire Corner – King Stitt (1969)
Dynamic Fashion Way – U-Roy (1969) (No UK release)
Barbwire –Nora Dean (1969) (UK release 1970)
Sweet Sensation – The Melodians (1969)
Clint Eastwood – The Upsetters (1969)
Birth Control – Lloyd Charmers (1969) (UK release 1970)
Sitting In The Park – Alton Ellis (1969) (USA release only)
Ali Baba – John Holt (1969)
Hailes Selaise – Laurel Aitken (1969)
Herbsman Shuffle – King Stitt And Andy Capp (1969) (UK release 1970)
When Laurel Aitken arrived in England in 1960 wearing a sharp suit, shades and a pork pie hat he was surprised to see his singles were already on sale in the record stores. Born in Cuba in 1927, Laurel Aitken (real name Lorenzo Aitken) moved to Jamaica with his family in 1938. He began his career performing mento songs at nightclubs and in 1958 he began recording and releasing singles in Jamaica. In Britain, the Kalypso label had been the first to release music by Laurel Aitken when, in 1958, they released his single ‘Boogie In My Bones’. Produced by Chris Blackwell, the single was the first time Jamaican popular music had been released in the UK. Laurel Aitken continued to have singles released in Britain on the Starlite and Melodisc labels. He arrived in London in 1960 and settled in the Brixton area. He was signed to the newly formed Blue Beat label and became the first artist to be released on the label with his 1960 single ’Boogie Rock’.
Blue Beat was founded in London in August 1960 as a sub-label of Melodisc Records after the success of Laurel Aitken’s release of ‘Lonesome Lover’ on the Melodisc label. Sigimund ‘Siggy’ Jackson was in charge of the label and chose the name Blue Beat because the music sounded like “blues with a great beat”. During the label’s first year, Blue Beat released 24 singles by the likes of Laurel Aiken, Byron Lee And The Dragonaires, Derrick Morgan and Duke Reid And His Group all performing rhythm and blues with a Jamaican flavour. Jamaican rhythm and blues quickly evolved into ska music with artists such as Clancy Eccles helping to bridge the gap. Singles released on the Blue Beat label became extremely popular with the West Indian communities living in Britain and ska music began being known as ‘Blue Beat’.
Byron Lee And The Dragonaires became one of the label’s biggest stars. Originally formed in Jamaica in 1950, the group had played mento and calypso music before moving to ska at the end of the 1950s. They released their debut single, ‘Dumplins’, on Blue Beat in 1960 which was followed by ‘Mash! Mr.Lee’ in 1961. The band’s big break came when they were cast as the hotel band in the 1962 James Bond movie ‘Dr.No’. A couple of their songs appeared on the album soundtrack, exposing white Britain to the music of Jamaica.
Although it would be a few years before ska music would make the charts in Britain, by the end of 1962 it had become popular with the mod sub-culture in London and other parts of England. In Jamaica, ska had quickly become the island’s national music and with songs like ‘Independence Song’ by Prince Buster, ska became the soundtrack of an independent Jamaica. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1938, Prince Buster (Real name Cecil Campbell) began his recording career in 1961 and released his debut single ‘Little Honey’ that year. He also began producing music and produced the Folkes Brothers’ version of ‘Oh Carolina’ in 1961, which was released on the Blue Beat label in the UK. With its Niyabinghi-style drumming and chanting, ‘Oh Carolina’ became a landmark single in the development of Jamaican music.
Prince Buster arrived in the UK in 1963 and with releases on the Blue Beat label; he became Britain’s biggest ska artist during the 1960s. In 1963 he had success with ‘Ten Commandments’, ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and ‘Madness’. 1963 also saw the UK debut release by a young Jamaican who would go on to became reggae’s biggest star, 18-year-old Robert Marley. Born in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica in 1945, Bob Marley began recording in 1962. He recorded four tracks at Federal Studio and in 1963 his debut single ‘Judge Not’ was released on Island Records both in Jamaica and Britain under the name Robert Marley. In 1964, along with his group The Wailling Wailers, Bob Marley was signed to the Coxsone label in Jamaica and released the single ‘Simmer Down’ which sold 70,000 copies. The Wailers, with Bob Marley and sometimes Peter Tosh taking the lead, continued to release singles throughout the 1960s and in 1966 they released their debut album “The Wailing Wailers”. Despite their success in Jamaica, the ska group failed to make an impact in Britain.
The Blue Beat Girl
The first ska song to make the charts in the UK was Millie Small’s take on ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Millie Small (Real name Millicent Dolly May Small) was born in Clarendon, Jamaica in 1946 and began recording in 1962 at the age of 15. She released duets with Owen Gray and Roy Panton before recording on her own. Chris Blackwell became her manager in 1963 and he took her to London later in the year. In London she recorded ‘My Boy Lollipop’ using an almost all-white British backing group. Unfamiliar with ska music, the session musicians took a quick lesson from Chris Blackwell before the recording took place. The Blue Beat label were also using English musicians on their recordings. In 1963, Georgie Fame played Hammond organ on Prince Buster’s “I Feel The Spirit” album – the first ska album released outside of Jamaica.
Georgie Fame had met Prince Buster at Count Suckle’s club, The Roaring Twenties. The club was opened on Carnaby Street, London in 1961 and was one of the first clubs to play ska outside of Jamaica. Some of the records played by Count Suckle at The Roaring Twenties were sent to him from Jamaica by Prince Buster and hadn’t been released in the UK at the time. Once Prince Buster arrived in England in 1963 he became a regular customer at the club along with English musicians such as Georgie Fame, The Rolling Stones and John Paul Jones. In 1964, Count Suckle opened his second club, The Cue (later The Q), in Paddington, London. The Cue became a regular venue for touring Jamaican musicians during the sixties including Prince Buster, Don Drummond, Rico Rodriguez, Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, and Baba Brooks. In London, ska music could also be heard at clubs such as the Marquee Club and The Flamingo. With sound system owners such as Count Suckle and Duke Vin playing the latest sounds from Jamaica, clubs such as these helped introduce ska music to a white British audience that included some of Britain’s biggest pop stars such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Millie Small’s version of ‘My Boy Lollipop’ was released in February 1964 and went to number two on the UK singles chart. Despite being released on the Fontana label, Millie Small became known as ‘The Blue Beat Girl’ and had another top 30 hit in the UK in June with her single ‘Sweet William’. Millie Small became popular around the world and in Britain she made several appearances on television including Top of the Pops, Ready, Steady, Go!, Juke Box Jury, and Thank Your Lucky Stars. In May 1964 she appeared on the TV Special ‘Around The Beatles’ and in December she made her acting debut in the ITV drama ‘The Rise and Fall of Nellie Brown’. In January 1965, Ready, Steady, Go! gave Millie Small her own special titled ‘Millie In Jamaica’ which featured Prince Buster, Jimmy Cliff, and Byron Lee.
Dance The Ska
By mid-1964, thanks to the success of Millie Small, a wider British audience had been turned on to the sweet sounds of Jamaican ska. Artist like Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals, Eric Morris, Byron Lee, and Desmond Dekker had all become popular with working class teens both black and white. Ska became the latest dance craze and teenagers could learn how to ‘dance the ska’ with step by step instructions printed on the back of various LPs. The BBC aired the documentary ‘This Is Ska’ which featured numbers by Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, The Maytals and Byron Lee. The latter cemented the idea of ska as a dance craze with his 1964 single ‘Jamaican Ska’ which included lyrics that gave instructions on how to do the ska (“swing your arms, shake your hips”). The documentary, hosted by Tony Verity, showed the ‘authentic style’ of the new dance craze, and gave step by step instructions on ska dance moves.
Ska rhythms slowly began appearing in pop music with an early example being The Beatles’ 1964 song ‘I Call Your Name’. Georgie Fame, who had recorded with Prince Buster, was hugely influenced by ska music and in May 1964 he released the EP ‘Rhythm And Blue-Beat’. Along with a cover of Prince Buster’s song ‘Madness’, the EP also included a version of the Eric Morris song ‘Humpty Dumpty’ which in turn was covered by Tommy Quickly and The Remo 4 as well as Jimmy Nicol And The Shubdubs. These releases gave Britain its first taste of cod-ska and for a short period ska became the latest trend in the British dancehalls. 1964 saw the release of several ska compilation albums, the first of their kind in the UK. They included ‘Fly Flying Ska’, ‘Jamaica Ska’, ‘The Jamaica Ska’ and ‘National Ska’.No dance craze would be complete without novelty dance numbers. Dinah Lee released ‘Do The Blue Beat’ while Ray Rivera released a different song of the same name. The Beazers released the single ‘Blue Beat’ and Brigitte Bond And The Blue Beats recorded ‘Blue Beat Baby’.
After a brief period in the limelight, ska returned to the underground music scene. In cities with large West Indian communities like London, fans of ska music could find Jamaican imported records in their local market places but the majority of record buyers had to rely on British labels that released Jamaican music. In the first half of the 1960s, Blue Beat was by far the most popular of these but by 1965 fans of Jamaican music had a number of labels to choose from. Island Records was founded by Chris Blackwell in Jamaica in 1959. Chris Blackwell relocated to Britain in 1962 and began releasing music by artists that he had signed in Jamaica. Island Records’ first UK release was ‘Independent Jamaica Calypso’ by Lord Creator, released in June 1962. Discs by Owen Grey, Derrick Morgan and Jimmy Cliff soon followed. The ‘Ska Beat‘ label was founded in London the following year. It was a sub-label of R&B Discs Ltd, a British record company set up in 1959. They released records by the Baba Brooks Orchestra, Tommy McCook, and The Skatalites.
Rudy, A Message To You
By 1965 the term ‘ska’ was beginning to replace ‘blue beat’ as the name used to describe the Jamaican music but both names were used until the end of the decade with some even considering blue beat and ska to be separate genres. The name ska began to appear more frequently in song titles such as Lord Tanamo’s ‘In The Mood For Ska’, Carlos Malcolm’s ‘Bonanza Ska’ and Baba Brooks Band’s ‘Girl Town Ska’. Another term that began cropping up in ska lyrics was ‘rude boy’ or ‘rudy’. Originating in the poorer sections of Kingston, the rude boy sub-culture of Jamaica was associated with violence and crime and was an increasing problem during the mid-1960s. The Rudies admired
American Westerns and Gangster movies as well as the British series of James Bond movies. This was reflected in their natural music of choice, ska. Songs like Roland Alphonso’s take on the James Bond theme and Desmond Dekker’s ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ are prime examples. However, a majority of ska artists were against the rude boy sub-culture in Jamaica and addressed the problem in song. In 1967, Dandy Livingstone recorded ‘Rudy, A Message To You’ which advised “stop your fooling around, time you straighten right out, better think of your future, else you’ll wind up in jail”. In Britain, it was the fashion of the rude boys that had the biggest impact. Mods in London, and later across Britain, began adopting the style of young Jamaica: Short and tidy hairstyles, sharp suits, thin ties, shades, and pork pie or Trilby hats. Laurel Aitken was an early pioneer of this style in Britain from as early as 1960 but it was with the mods and West Indians in London in the mid-1960s that the look first took off.
Let’s Do Rock Steady
In 1966 a new style of ska began to emerge when musicians recorded songs with a slowed down tempo. This new sub-genre of ska became known as rock steady. An early example is Alton Ellis’ 1966 single ‘I Have Got A Date’. He followed it with ‘Rock Steady’ in 1967, the first song to refer to the name of the new genre. Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1938, Alton Ellis began his recording career in 1960 recording for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One. He recorded Jamaican R&B before switching to rock steady in 1966. His biggest success came in 1967 with the release of ‘I Am Still In Love’.
In 1967 Alton Ellis toured the UK with Ken Boothe. The same year also saw Prince Buster touring the UK at the height of his fame. His single ‘Al Capone’, first released in 1965, had gone to number 18 on the UK singles chart in March 1967. His UK tour followed in the spring with one performance at the Marquee Club being recorded and later released as the album ‘Prince Buster On Tour’.
While ska had been fairly underground during the 60s with very few artists becoming mainstream, rock steady brought Jamaican music to the forefront and onto the UK singles chart. The Skatalites had a minor hit with ‘Guns of Navarone’ in April 1967, Desmond Dekker had his first chart success with ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ which peaked at number 14 in July and The Ethiopians took ‘Train To Skaville’ into the top 40 in September. 1967 also saw a British ska group chart for the first time in the form of The Pyramids. Formed in London by Frank Pitter and Michael Thomas, the band consisted of members of West Indian descent and was originally called The Bees. As The Bees they recorded a number of singles for Blue Beat and were produced by Laurel Aitken. In the spring of 1967 they supported Prince Buster on his UK tour before being signed to President. They changed their name to The Four Gees and then The West Indians, and the Original Africans before settling on The Pyramids. As The Pyramids they released the single ‘Train Tour To Rainbow City’ in 1967. The single was written and produced by 19-year-old Eddy Grant and peaked at 35 on the UK singles chart in November. These hits, as few as they were, were the first time ska songs had been in the UK charts since 1964.
Like ska before it, rock steady was more than a genre of music. From the get-go, rock steady was a dance craze. Alton Ellis’ 1967 song ‘Rock Steady’ was the first to mention the new dance. The song opened with the lines: “Better gets ready; come do Rock Steady, you got to do this new dance”. Dandy Livingstone’s 1967 single ‘Let’s Do Rock Steady’, originally the B-side to ‘We Are Still Rude’, helped cement the idea of rock steady as a dance craze. Dancers could learn the latest steps from the back of various LPs such as Byron Lee & The Dragonaires’ album “Rock Steady Explosion” and from music newspapers. Although the genre was short lived, it did see a number of compilation albums released including “Get Ready Rock Steady” (1967), “Rock Steady” (1967), “Put It On, It’s Rock-Steady” (1968) and “Rock Steady Coxsone Style” (1968).
Rock steady was also responsible for bringing Jamaican music to the attention of the British music press for the first time in years. Music newspapers such as Melody Maker began publishing a ‘BlueBeat Hot 10’ chart but it would be some time before Jamaican music was considered anything but a novelty and as one Melody Maker reader put it in 1969 – “joke music”.
With the rise of rock steady, ska took a backseat and by the end of 1967 Blue Beat had stopped releasing singles and shut up shop completely the following year. New record labels such as Pama and Trojan, both founded in 1967, began releasing Jamaican music. Trojan Records was formed after Lee Gopthal merged his record retail chain Beat & Commercial with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. The label took its name from one of Jamaica’s best loved record producers Duke Reid who was known as ‘The Trojan’. Trojan’s first release came in July 1967 with Duke Reid’s single ‘Judge Sympathy’.
In Jamaica, Duke Reid (real name Arthur Reid) had begun his career as a sound system owner in 1953. Sound systems had been a part of Jamaican culture since the late 1940s, playing American R&B and later Jamaican R&B along with calypso and mento before switching to ska. Duke Vin founded England’s first sound system, Duke Vin The Tickler’s, in London in 1955. The sound system consisted of a turntable, one speaker and an amplifier. Count Suckle set up his sound system, The Count Suckle Sound System, the following year which led to England’s first ‘Sound Clash’ in 1958. Sound systems became popular in London in the sixties. Members of the West Indian community would build their own sound systems to provide the community with the latest sounds from back home. These sound systems usually consisted of one or two large speakers around 3-4 feet tall and a turntable. The front of the speaker would often be painted with the name of sound system. Once a week, they would be taken to an indoor public place such as a church hall and a dance would be held, bringing the community together. One example of a late sixties sound system is the Duke Letts Superstonic Sound run by St Leger ‘Duke’ Letts in Brixton, London.
Sound systems would play records not just by Jamaican artists but by local talent too. Dandy Livingstone (real name Robert Livingstone Thompson) was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1943 and had moved to the UK at the age of 15. He began recording in 1964 as a duo with Tito ‘Sugar’ Simone. They were billed as Sugar ‘N’ Dandy and their debut, ‘One Man Went To Mow’, was released on the Carnival label in 1964. The duo’s biggest success came later that year with the single ‘What A Life’ that sold 25,000 copies. Dandy Livingstone began recording as Dandy in 1966 and in 1967 he found success with ‘Rudy A Message To You’. The song, although not a hit on the charts, was popular with
England’s rude boys and featured another local talent on trombone. Rico Rodriguez (real name Emmanuel Rodiguez) was born in Havana in Cuba and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. He became a session musician and began recording for Coxson Dodd in 1956 and later worked for Prince Buster. He recorded his first solo effort, ‘Rico’s Special’, in 1960. He came to England in December 1961 and his debut was ‘Luke Lane Shuffle’ released on Blue Beat. He formed his first group, Rico’s Combo, in 1962. As well as recording with his own group under various names, Rico Rodriguez continued to work as a session musician, playing on records by Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and Dandy Livingstone.
Do The Reggay
During the second half of the sixties, Jamaican music underwent rapid developments. Ska had evolved into rock steady in 1966 and by 1968 rock steady had further evolved into a brand new genre of music. This new music was known as reggay (later spelt reggae) and like rock steady; it started life as a dance craze. The Maytals were the first to mention ‘The Reggay’ in music with their 1968 single ‘Do The Reggay’. ‘Do The Rggay’ is one of three contenders for the first reggae song. The other two are ‘No More Heartaches’ by The Beltones and ‘Nanny Goat’ by Larry Marshall. Despite the important role all three songs played in the development of Jamaican music, none of them charted in the UK. In fact, not a single Jamaican artist made the UK chart in 1968. The closest it came was when American singer Johnny Nash took the rock steady number ‘Hold Me Tight’ to number five in September. Born in Texas in 1940, Johnny Nash had travelled to Jamaica in 1968 to record rock steady music. While there he met with local talent Bob Marley And The Wailers and signed them to his JAD label. Under the name ‘Bob, Rita and Peter’, the group had their American debut in December 1968 with ‘Bend Down Low’ backed with ‘Mellow Mood’. Both songs had already been released in Britain.
Despite its lack of chart presence, Jamaican music began having an influence on British rock and in London a group of musicians that included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton were all being influenced by Jamaican sounds. Rock band The Spencer Davis Group signed a recording contract with Chris Blackwell of Island Records in 1964. In 1965 they recorded a rock version of ‘Keep On Running’, a ska song which had originally been recorded by Jackie Edwards. They took the song to the top of the charts in 1966. It was followed by another song written by Jackie Edwards, ‘Somebody Help Me’, which became the group’s second number one single in 1966. British and Jamaican artists had a two way love affair and Jamaican artists recorded covers of British rock songs. Prince Buster was among the first when, in 1964, he used the chorus of The Beatles’ song ‘She Loves You’ in his own song of the same name. A year later The Wailers recorded their version of the Tom Jones song ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and in 1966 Rita Marley recorded a version of the song ‘The Pied Piper’ which had been recorded by English pop singer Crispian St. Peters. In 1968, The Beatles recorded the ska-influenced song ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ which was released on their
‘White Album’ in November. The song was later recorded by Prince Buster in 1969 by which time it had already been a hit for one of the UK’s first rock steady groups, The Bedrocks. Made up entity of West Indians, The Bedrocks were formed in Leeds in 1966 and began recording in 1968. Their debut single, ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, was released in 1968 and became a top twenty hit at the beginning of 1969. They were joined in the chart by an all-white group called The Locomotive. They had formed in Birmingham in 1965 and began recording two years later. They recorded a cover version of the Dandy Livingstone song ‘Rudy A Message To You’ in 1967 and followed it up with ‘Rudi’s In Love’ in August 1968. The single peaked at number 25 on the UK charts.
As the new Jamaican music reggae became increasingly popular towards the end of 1968, ska and rock steady artists began to adapt their repertoires. By 1969, rock steady had become a thing of the past and reggae was here to stay. British musicians were quick to cash in on the popularity of the latest trend. Groups began forming with the sole purpose of covering reggae songs. In Brixton in 1968, a Jamaican singer called Errol Brown and his bassist friend Tony Wilson from Trinidad joined such a group. Calling themselves The Hot Chocolate Band, they recorded a reggae version of ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Before releasing the single, the band sent a copy to the song’s author, John Lennon, for his approval. John Lennon liked their version so much that he offered the band a contract with The Beatles’ record company, Apple. The single was released in October 1969 but failed to chart. Another group, formed in Wolverhampton in 1966, took advantage of the controversy surrounding fans of reggae music at the end of the sixties to attract publicity. Despite being a rock group, Ambrose Slade (later known as Slade) changed their image to match that of the much-feared skinheads.
Originally known as ‘peanuts’ or ‘bovver boys’, skinsheads (skins for short) began emerging in London around 1968. Their style of dress was based on the rude boys of Jamaica with a British working class twist. The short hairstyles were kept but the sharp suits were replaced with polo shirts, jeans with braces, donkey jackets and hobnail boots. Like most youth sub-cultures of the day, skinheads were considered to be a danger to society. Melody Maker reported on the danger of skinheads in February 1969 and in December the BBC aired the documentary ‘Man Alive’ that explored the “truth about Hell’s Angels and Skinheads”. The BBC documentary highlighted how skinheads had moved from fashion to fascism in the space of a year. As the sub-culture spread from
London to other working class areas of Britain, it had become less about ska and reggae and more about football hooliganism and racism. While most skinheads had no problem with West Indians, it was Pakistani immigrants that became the victims of the savage ‘Paki bashings’. As the popularity of skinheads increased, British ska bands began to cater to the new trend. The Symarip re-wrote the lyrics to Derrick Morgan’s ‘Moon Hop’ and turned it into a skinhead anthem under the name ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’. The Symarip became a favourite among skinheads along with Laurel Aitken, The Pioneers, and Desmond Dekker.
Desmond Dekker (real name Desmond Dacres) was born in Saint Andrew Parish, Jamaica in 1941. He began his recording career in 1963. Backed by the Beverleys All Stars he released his debut, ‘Honour Your Mother And Father’ both in Jamaica and Britain in 1963. He quickly became popular in Britain with releases on Island Records before moving to Pyramid in 1966. He had his first chart success in 1967 with his single ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ – a favourite among rudies. Desmond Dekker continued to release singles aimed at a rude boy audience that included ‘Rudie Got Soul’ and ‘Rude Boy Train’ (both from 1967). His most successful year was 1969 with two of his singles making the top ten in the UK. Released in 1968, ‘Israelites’ became the UK’s first reggae number one in April 1969. It was followed by ‘It Miek’ which peaked at number seven in July – making it the first hit single to include Jamaican patois in the lyrics. The success of the two singles led to Desmond Dekker moving to England in 1969 – making him the latest in a line of talented Jamaicans that came to live and record in Britain in the 1960s. He made several appearances on British television, including five separate appearances on Top Of The Pops in 1969 alone.
Desmond Dekker wasn’t alone in the charts, reggae hits made the chart throughout 1969. Johnny Nash took his version of ‘Cupid’ to number six in April and Tony Tribe had a minor hit with his version of ‘Red, Red Wine’ in August. November was reggae’s most successful month of 1969. The month saw top ten hits by three Jamaican artists. The singles chart from 23 November had Jimmy Cliff at number 7 with ‘Wonderful World, Beautiful People’ followed by The Upsetters at number 8 with ‘Return of Django’ and at number 9 was Harry J. All Stars with ‘The Liquidartor’. The Pioneers also had a top 30 hit in November with ‘Long Shot Kick The Bucket’.
With so many reggae numbers making the charts, compilation albums were bound to follow. Among the first was ‘Reggae In The Grass’, released by Studio One in 1968. Others, such as ‘Reggae Hits The Town’ (1968) and ‘Reggae Time’ (1969), soon followed. The most popular of these reggae compilation albums was the first in a series of ‘Tighten Up’ albums released by Trojan Records in 1969 with Volume 2 following later in the year.
During its formative years, reggae underwent massive developments. Artists such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry introduced new elements to the genre such as sampling and early examples of dub. Johnny Nash was one of the first reggae artists to add strings to his recordings beginning with 1968’s ‘Hold Me Tight’. The 1960s also saw the rise of DJs such as King Stitt and Hugh Roy (U-Roy) as well as female artists such as Rita Marley, Dawn Penn and Nora Dean. Stars like Prince Buster with his 1969 song ‘Wreck A Pum Pum’ and Max Romeo with his 1968 song ‘Wet Dream’ brought a rude element to reggae. The latter was extremely popular among skinheads and became a top ten hit in the UK in August 1969, despite being banned by the BBC and spending 25 weeks moving up and down the chart. By the end of the decade, reggae had begun to move away from its association with the skinheads in Britain and the rude boys of Jamaica and began its lasting relationship with Rastafarianism. Early examples being Laurel Aitken’s ‘Hailes Selaise’ and ‘Selassie’ by The Reggae Boys, both released in 1969.
The Bedrocks were a six piece soul and reggae group formed in the Chapeltown area of Leeds around 1966. They were originally called The Bedrock Sunshine Band, taking their name from the fictional town of Bedrock from the popular cartoon series The Flintstones. For the majority of the group’s career the members were:
Trevor Wisdom (organ and vocals)
Owen Wisdom (bass and vocals)
William Hixon (lead guitar and vocals)
Leroy Mills (trumpet)
Paul Douglas (tenor saxophone)
Reginald ‘Reggie’ Challenger (drums)
All six members of the group were West Indian migrants who had come to England from various Caribbean islands; three from Jamaica (Trevor, Owen and Paul), two from St.Kitts (Reggie and Leroy) and one from Montserrat (William). The Bedrock Sunshine Band were just one of the black groups playing in Leeds at the time but their unique style made them stand out from the rest. Drummer Reggie Challenger was the last to join the group, replacing original drummer Rick.
Having had a passion for drumming from an early age, Reggie took up the instrument while living in Leeds. “My forte was soul music” he said in 2017 “we call it soul drumming, with a lot of emphasis on your bass drum.” Around 1965 he began playing with a band named The Opells, playing in pubs around Leeds. It was at a gig at the Spinning Disc in 1966 that Reggie first played with The Bedrock Sunshine Band when their drummer, Rick, was unable to play. In 2017 Reggie recalled “we had a gig to play there and because their drummer had put his hand through a plate glass window…he couldn’t play, so they asked me”. Playing with The Bedrock Sunshine Band proved to be a challenge for Reggie. “I had never played with them before” he recalled in 2017 “they had what they call a running show, non-stop. When they start off they never stopped, they go from one into one into one.” This style of playing was unfamiliar with Reggie who only had a day to learn it.
Reggie was taken on as the band’s regular drummer. In 1968 Reggie gave Melody Maker a quick history of the group. “We have all played with other groups before but never had any success” he told the music newspaper. They played one night stands in pubs around Leeds. (In 2017 Reggie named The White Swan and The Mucky Duck as two of the pubs they played at).
The Bedrock Sunshine Band shortened their name to The Bedrocks in December 1967 and turned professional around April 1968. The band would occasionally rehearse in a friend’s (Mr and Mrs. Wynter’s) basement on Cowper Street in Chapeltown. They took on a local man, Stanley Sher, as their manager/agent. “He was an agent actually” Reggie recalled in 2017 “He used to book us to go play. He was our agent and a manager, but he was more of an agent as opposed to a manager.” Stanley began booking the band gigs as far as Barnsley and London. “We have been playing round the country for a year” Reggie told Melody Maker in December 1968 “but people who hadn’t seen us didn’t want to know. But when we did get a booking, the audience liked our music”. Reggie went on to tell the newspaper what music the band played. “We play soul, ska and blue beat” he said “that’s what we like” he added. Once the band had played a venue once, they could almost grantee a re-booking. “We always got re-booked” Reggie told Melody Maker in 1968. To travel the country, the band needed transport and so bought an unused ambulance to take them from gig to gig. A road manager, Ian Masson, was hired to get the band around.
The Bedrocks often performed with a singer named Lou Prinze. Originally from Barbados, Lou Prinze lived in Birmingham and performed calypso music under the name Lord Prinze. On several occasions he had entered the annual Calypso King contest held during the Leeds West Indian Carnival from 1967 to 1972. By October 1968 the group had built up a nation-wide following. They made their TV debut on the BBC 2 programme ‘Colour Me Pop’ which aired on 9 November 1968. On that occasion they were billed as ‘Lew Prinz and The Bedrocks’ [sic].
The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ was released on 22 November and included the ska influenced number ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ which was quickly added to The Bedrocks’ repertoire. It was during a gig at Barnsley Town Hall that The Bedrocks first got spotted in the autumn of 1968. “Somebody was there who liked us and asked about us” Reggie recalled in 2017. After speaking to Stanley, the band were invited to play some gigs in London. In 1968 Reggie told Melody Maker what happened next. “We’d played in London a couple of times and on one of our gigs, Norman Smith of EMI heard us and liked the band.” By the time Norman Smith had contacted the band they had returned to Leeds.
“He asked us to come to London and record a song he’d heard” Reggie told Melody Maker in 1968. ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ was one of the songs they played the night Norman Smith saw them. Norman Smith had liked what he heard but had one problem; he didn’t feel any of the three singers were good enough for recording purposes. Instead the band recuritted singer Lou Prinze to perform the lead vocals. Still an unofficial member of the band, Lou was used for session work only and made very few public appearances with the band, and was rarely mentioned in any publicity.
The Bedrocks also had a problem, their ambulance had broken down and they had no money. “We had spent all our money the last time we’d been in London” Reggie explained to Melody Maker in 1968. Not wanting to miss the opportunity they managed to borrow £25 and hired a van to take them to London. They arrived in London, penniless, in early December 1968. As Reggie explained in 1968 “We had no money at all. We didn’t eat for the two days we were in London. We used a club called the London Cavern to rehearse the Beatles’ number in and they let us kip down on the floor”.
After signing a contract with Columbia records, the band’s first recording session took place at EMI studios on 3 December. During the four hour session they recorded both sides of their debut single. With Norman Smith behind the production desk, The Bedrocks recorded a version of ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ and a song written by the band’s booking agent/manager Stanley Sher. The single, ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ b/w ‘Lucy’ was recorded, mixed, pressed and in the shops within two days. By which time, the band had already travelled back to Leeds.
The single received a lot of radio play and first appeared in the charts on 18 December at number 34. A version by the Scottish band Marmalade had already been in the charts two weeks and was currently at number nine. “Everyone likes the record” Reggie told Melody Maker in 1968. “The song’s good and it’s a good number for a West Indian band to do.” The following week the single had rose to number 30 and by the first week in January 1969 it had reached number 20 while Marmalade’s version was number one. Looking back in 2017 Reggie suspected some foul play. “They actually bought themselves into the charts” he claimed before adding “If you had the money you could go and say ‘listen, I want to buy 10,000’ and then it gets into the charts and once it gets into the charts people will buy it and then you just sell them back at a price. And that’s what used to happen.” The Marmalade version wasn’t the band’s only competition. The Spectrum and Joyce Bond also released versions of the song in 1968. However, only Marmalade and The Bedrocks charted in the UK. In December 1968, Melody Maker reported that “The Bedrocks were slightly disappointed that the Marmalade’s version beat them into the charts” and quoted Reggie as saying “But we believe in live and let live”.
The Bedrocks weren’t alone in thinking their version was better than Marmalade’s. In December 1968 one newspaper reported “I would have thought the Bedrocks’ rendering was by far the best. The Marmalade have, however, the name behind them and that, it seems, is that.” The success of ‘Ob-la-di,Ob-la-da’ led to the band making several TV and radio appearances in late 1968 and early 1969. A black and white promo video was filmed at Kirkgate Market in Leeds.
By January 1969 The Bedrocks had reached the attention of The Beatles, in particular Paul McCartney and his then girlfriend Linda Eastman who discussed the song during The Beatles’ Let It Be sessions in January 1969. The couple agreed The Bedrocks’ version of the song was their favourite, putting it above versions by The Marmalade and Arthur Conley. The Bedrocks even managed to meet the Fab Four. In 2017 Reggie recalled the meeting: “We did a programme for African TV in London and they (The Beatles) were there. You know, John, Paul, George and Ringo. Because they liked our version of it, because they said it sounded more authentic and more what they would like it to be, a bit more upbeat.”
On the official UK charts, The Bedrock’s debut single didn’t chart higher than 20 and beginning in the second week of 1969 the single started slipping down the charts. By February it had left the charts completely. However, the NME Top 30 from 22 January 1969 shows The Bedrocks at number 17 – their highest position. The Bedrocks’ debut did better outside of the UK reaching number one in Japan and number two in South Africa and Australia.The single also reached the top ten in Sweden. In December 1968 The Bedrocks had high hopes. Reggie told Melody Maker “We’re hoping that this is the start for us. And that we can go on from here and make a lot more records”.
More records followed with The Bedrocks returning to EMI studios in 1969.There was even talk of an album. On 3 January the Newcastle Journal ran a story about three local songwriter, brothers Alan and Graeme Nicholson and Irving Bamford, who had been successful in selling some of their songs. It was reported that Dave Hunter was to record ‘I’ll Get By’ and that The Bedrocks were to record ‘You’ll Come Back To Me’ for their forthcoming album. If the song was ever recorded, it was never realised nor was an album. When asked in 2017 Reggie Challenger didn’t recall any mention of an album.
For their following single they recorded a version of the rugby song ‘The Lovedene Girls’. The B-side, ‘I’ve Got A Date – La La La’, was written by the band’s saxophone player Paul Douglas. Once again the single was produced by Norman Smith and was released in the UK on 7 February 1969. It was also the band’s only release in America, released in March 1969. With its up-tempo ska beat and sing-a-long chorus, ‘The Lovedene Girls’, had all the hallmarks of a hit and seemed like the perfect follow-up single for ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’. Unfortunately, a lack of airplay meant the single failed to chart and one reviewer called it “pointless”.
Not everyone felt the same way however. Matt Nodwell, the manager of the Irish band The Philosophers, had heard the song on Gay Byrne’s ‘New Releases’ radio show and liked it. He felt it would be perfect for The Philosophers and they recorded it as a comedy number but stuck to the ska beat of the Bedrocks’ version. The Philosophers version, released in mid-May, also made no impact on the charts.
The Bedrocks continued to perform across the country, playing their hit single. December 1968 saw them performing at the All Fours Club in Liverpool where they were billed as ‘The Bedrocks with Lou Prince’ [sic]. In February 1969 they were at The Newmarket Discotheque in Bridgewater, Somerset with plenty of other gigs in between. In July they were the headlining act at the ‘Soul Mania’ concert held at Torquay Town Hall. The same month saw a newspaper ad, with photo, declaring that the group were “now accepting cabaret engagements”.
The Bedrocks received a couple of mentions in the entertainment newspaper The Stage. One from October 1969 referred to them as “one of clublands better groups”. It also announced the release of their third single, a reggae cover of Sam Cooke’s 1960 song ‘Wonderful World’.
The B-side, ‘Before You Came’, was again written by a band member. The funky soul number was written by the band’s bass player Trevor Wisdom. Both sides were again produced by Norman Smith and both sides had hit potential and the single received good reviews. One reviewer wrote “I am very critical of reggae music nowadays as there is so much rubbish being released lately. This one isn’t so bad.” Another reviewer wrote that the single “may well increase the bank balance of a group that has already had its fair share of hits”. But the British public were not yet used to reggae and, despite an appearance on BBC radio the day of release, a lack of radio play meant the single went almost unnoticed.
1969 was, without a debut, the peak of the Bedrocks’ career. A series of events during the following year however would lead to the band’s downfall. The first two months of 1970 was a tough time for the band. New Year’s Eve saw them performing a gig at the Scene Around Discoteque in Glossop, Derbyshire. After the gig, the band members helped roadie Ian Masson upload their equipment into the van. As the equipment was uploaded, a drunk driver crashed into the back of their stationery vehicle causing serious injuries to guitariest William Hixon. He was taken to Aston-under-Lyne Hospital. Both his legs had been crushed in the accident. His left leg was badly fractured and his right leg needed to be amputated below the knee. The story made national press, appearing in several newspapers the following day. A spokesman at the hospital reported that William was “rather poorly”. The almost identical news reports all give William’s name as ‘Hickson Cadwell’. William stopped playing with the band while he recovered.
The band continued to travel the country without him and by the time he had fully recovered the Bedrocks had broken up. Known to his friends as ‘Lanks’ due to his height, William Hixon continued to play guitar and built up a large collection of Jazz LPs. He passed away in August 2008. The band’s bad luck continued into February. On 22 February 1970, the group’s van crashed in Aldershot, hospitalising their driver Ian Masson with a broken leg. A mechanical breakdown led to them missing a gig later in the month. In April a newspaper reviewer wrote “The Bedrocks just can’t escape bad luck.” No longer performing with the group took a financial toll on William. To help him out, a charity concert was held on 6 March. Magicians Stanley Watson and Diane were the star attraction at the concert held in Farnborough Town Hall. Later in the month, The Bedrocks performed at The Cobweb in Hastings. An advertisement in the local newspaper described the band as “6 Specialists of Soul and Beat”.
The Bedrocks’ fourth single, ‘Hit Me On The Head’ was released on 10 April. ‘Hit Me On The Head’ was another up-tempo ska number with a sing-a-long chorus. It was the kind of number the band had now become known for. It was backed with an almost instrumental Reggae song, ‘Musical Clowns’, written by Trevor Wisdom. ‘Musical Clowns’ showcases an early example of toasting – talking or rapping over a rhythm (riddim). The single didn’t receive good reviews and failed to chart.
The Bedrocks’ fifth and last single, ‘Stone Cold Dead In The Market’, was released on 17 July 1970. It was a cover of the calypso song composed by Harry Houdini. For the B-side they recorded a song written by the band’s trumpet player Leroy Mills, ‘Every Night And Every Day’. For this single The Bedrocks were no longer produced by Norman Smith and instead Gene Latter arranged and produced both sides. Again, the single failed to chart and the group never recorded again. The band remained popular and continued to perform live. An Ad from October 1970 bills them as “Britain’s No. 1 Soul and Reggae group, Stars of TV and Radio”.
In November 1971 they returned to Hastings to perform at a student’s dance held at the Aquarius Club. The Bedrocks eventually broke up around 1972.
Reggie Challenger continued to play drums and even tried his hand at steel pans, becoming a member of the Esso Steel Band. During the 1980s he was a compere for the Leeds West Indian Carnival Queen Show. Bass player Owen Wisdom also tried his hand at steel pans. In 1975 he travelled to Dundee in Scotland with singer Cleveland Walker to join a steel band there. The pair didn’t play with the steel band for long and instead joined Scottish musicians to form their own band, Rokotto. In November 1977, ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine reported that the band’s name was “the word for ‘making love’ in some African dialect”. The multi-racial band also included Stuart Garden from Perth on keyboards, Derek Henderson on guitar, drummer Howard ‘Bongo’ McLeod and Hugh Paul and Sister B. (real name Lorna Bannon) on vocals, all from Dundee. The Funk band were signed to State Records in August 1976 and released their debut single ‘Get Up And Dance Now’ in May 1977. Their follow-up single, ‘Boogie On Up’ was released in October 1977. The single reached number 40 on the UK singles charts and the group appeared on Top Of The Pops. In November Rokotto went on a UK Tour with Motown legends Four Tops. The tour included a concert at the Albert Hall in London on 9 November. Another tour in 1978 saw them share the stage with Brass Construction. By July 1978 the band had added two more members, Neil Ferguson and Geoff Inns had both previously been members of the group Bus Co.
A self-titled album was released in 1978. The album’s closer, a cover of ‘Brick House’ showcases Owen Wisdom’s bass playing. The album also showcases Owen’s skill as a songwriter. Four of the album’s ten tracks were co-written by Owen Wisdom, Cleveland Walker and Howard McLeod. The team also wrote a number of B-sides for the band. Rokotto continued to release singles until 1981 and had a second top fifty hit in 1978 with ‘Funk Theory’ which peaked at number 49. The success of ‘Funk Theory’ lead to the band making another appearance on Top Of The Pops. The band made several more appearances on TV including appearances on The Entertainers and Roadshow Disco. Rokotto broke up in 1982. State Records released ‘The Best of Rokotto’ album in 1996. Owen Wisdom went on to found Wisdom Coaches in Leeds. In 2007 Cleveland Walker began performing as a Barry White tribute act called ‘Cleveland Walker and the Love Disciples’ The Love Disciples included Owen Wisdom on bass. Lou Prinze formed the soca and highlife group The Macassars in 1985. As a touring group, The Macassars found success across Europe and released an EP in 1986.
The true legacy of The Bedrocks as pioneers of reggae music in the UK is often overlooked. Today, the band are remembered for their hit single ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’, which many consider to be the best version of the song. Apart from several appearances on sixties completions, The Bedrocks’ music has never been released on CD. However, fans can find most of the group’s singles on Youtube and ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ can be heard on Spotify where it has over a million plays.
All releases on Columbia
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da/ Lucy (DB 8516) 6.12.1968
The Lovedene Girls/ I’ve Got A Date – La La La (DB 8539) 7.2.1969
Wonderful World/ Before You Came (DB 8620) 10.10.1969
Hit Me On The Head/ Musical Clowns (DB 8669) 10.4.1970
Stone Cold Dead In The Market/ Every Night And Every Day (DB 8699) 17.7.1970