If I told you that Ska and its lovechild Reggae got its start in Tennessee, would you believe me, or would you think I was out of my ever lovin' gourd? Well its true my friends, and I'm here to tell you all about it, in a quickie music education course. Are you up for it?
First of all, I have a lot of conversations with people that start out like this: "Oh, what do I do at JPR? Well...I host a daily classical music program. But that's not what I'm necessarily all about, musically speaking." If you make a habit out of reading this column, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. But today, when one of my dedicated volunteers walked into my office - a volunteer I've known for well over a decade - we had a conversation about music that left both of us a little stunned, I think, that we both had a pretty deep understanding and fondness for a genre of music that neither of us really gets a chance to show off on the airwaves.
Derral Campbell has been one of JPR's Blues DJs for many a year, and has graced our airwaves with his great knowledge and affection for Soul and Blues on many a Saturday night. That's 10-Midnight on 89.7FM for anyone within about 100 miles of Redding. This morning Derral dropped by some Sam Cooke for another volunteer to play in an upcoming show spotlighting Soul artists. A musical discussion ensued, as it always does when Derral and I get together for more than 5 minutes. But this time we went down the rabbit hole and ended up in Alice's Ska Wonderland.
Up until that moment, Derral had no idea that my Senior thesis in the music appreciation class I took in college was on the development of Ska and Reggae and its influence on the Punk/New Wave/Alternative Music scene. Likewise, I had no idea that Derral could take the Ska family tree one step beyond...to Tennessee.
The way it went down, if I remember it correctly, was that we received a new Colin James cd in the mail. Derral was unfamiliar with him, perhaps a little skeptical about giving him a shot on Late Night Blues. But I knew Colin James. I grabbed the disc out of his hand and threw it on to give it a listen.
Derral asked if James was a Brit. I said I didn't think so. We googled him, and found out he was from Regina, Saskatchewan. I wanted to share my favorite Colin James song from a few decades ago, so I pulled up "No More Doggin' Around" and played it. Derral was familiar with the original version (I didn't even know it was a cover), as done by some other Blues artist from way way back in 1952, a guy from Memphis Tennessee named Rosco Gordon.
Derral regaled me with a story about how Rosco was known for incorporating a beat different than anything anyone else was doing into his Blues music, "a backbeat kind of thing," he said. Somebody in the islands got a hold of the record, and suddenly the dance halls of Jamaica were filled with the upbeat sound of Rosco Gordon. Gordon's obituary (he died in 2002) had a quote from Islands Records exec Chris Blackwell, who said, "They got hold of this beat, cheered it up a bit, added some cute lyrics and called it ska. From 1959 onwards, this was all the rage."
One of the biggest figures in Jamaica to embrace this new sound was singer and producer Prince Buster, who recorded the original version of "One Step Beyond." If you don't recognize it from Prince Buster, you'll most certainly recognize it from a version that came many years later in a land far away from Jamaica. But that's a whole other rabbit hole.
You see, in Jamaica, Ska eventually gave birth to Rocksteady, which then gave birth to Reggae as we know it today. That's how we got Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. But when the British Mods, those wild kids on the other side of the world with their Vespa scooters and tailored suits got a hold of it, they made it theirs (just as their rival rockers had motorcycles, leather jackets and rockabilly). Some of the Mod music that grew out of this subculture included Small Faces and The Who, as weird as that might sound.
Eventually Ska gave birth to a newer, edgier genre called 2 Tone (after the record label) - kind of a stepsister to the Jamaican equivalent - Rude Boys. Then, as the Punk movement grew in the 1970's, Ska was incorporated into that as well, by bands like The Clash. That's how I was first introduced to Rosco Gordon's backbeat, around 1982 when I bought my first Ska album (it was Pauline Black and The Selector, "Too Much Pressure"). I was immediately smitten, and not long after added The Specials, The English Beat and Madness to my record collection.
And then you know what happened? Ska came back home, to the USA, when bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Untouchables and a little band you may have heard of, No Doubt, put the beat and the horns to work in their music.
Believe me, I'm simplifying things...but basically, when you get down to it, you've got a guy from Memphis to thank for the beat that went all the way around the world and came back home.
Today's Spotify playlist incorporates a lot of this great music, starting off with the song that started it all, both the discussion and the whole genre. And it's a great opportunity to pay our respects to Prince Buster, who passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 78.