Laurel Aitken

'Godfather of ska'
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The Independent Online

Rightly hailed as "the Pioneer of Jamaican Music", and alternately known as "the Godfather of Ska" and the "High Priest of Reggae", Laurel Aitken was one of the first singers to record in Jamaica. During the foundation days of the island's music industry in the mid-1950s, Aitken recorded in a wide variety of styles, including the indigenous mento form and pan-Caribbean calypso; he was one of the first to record ska music and later scored dozens of hits in rock steady and reggae. One of the first Jamaican vocalists to produce his own material, he was also among the first to record and produce in Britain.

Aitken was born in Cuba to a Jamaican father and Cuban mother; the family moved to Kingston when he was 11 years old. In the early 1950s he won several talent contests with spirited renditions of American jazz standards, leading to a job with the Jamaican Tourist Board welcoming cruise-ship visitors to the Kingston Wharf with traditional Caribbean calypsos, as well as residencies at leading Kingston nightclubs. His first recording, the self-produced "I Met a Señorita", was made circa 1957.

As the island's forward-thinking entrepreneurs made concerted efforts to establish a viable music industry in Jamaica, Aitken's first noteworthy hit took the form of the spiritual "Roll Jordan Roll". Then came an international breakthrough with "Boogie in My Bones", a rollicking rhythm-and-blues number produced by Chris Blackwell in 1959. The song stayed at the top of the Jamaican charts for 13 weeks; it was also highly popular in Britain. The following year, Aitken began working solidly for Duke Reid, a former policeman who rapidly became one of the island's most important producers; the gospel-influenced "Judgement Day" was his biggest hit for Reid.

Frustrated by a lack of proper payment, Aitken travelled to London to record for Melodisc, then the largest outlet for black music in Europe: in addition to recording several singles for their famous Blue Beat label, Aitken also produced work by Beresford Ricketts, Ruddy and Sketto and Bobby Kingdom for the company, while other self-produced singles were issued by the rival Starlight label. Aitken was based in Brixton for several years but returned briefly to Jamaica in 1963, cutting ska singles such as "Zion City Wall" and "Lion of Judah" for the upcoming producer Leslie Kong, followed by singles for Prince Buster and King Edwards, including the hit "Bad Minded Woman".

As the slower rock steady style emerged in 1967, Aitken came back to Britain to cut pop-oriented material for EMI; such efforts included Aitken's take of "Blowin' in the Wind" and the romantic "Never You Hurt", which was regularly featured on the pirate station Radio London.

When reggae came to the fore in 1969, Aitken he scored hits such as the suggestive "Fire in Me Wire" and "Pussy Price" and the energetic "Moon Hop" and "Skinhead Train", both hugely popular with white, working-class audiences, plus the "rude boy" opus "Whoppi King", which paid tribute to a legendary Jamaican gangster; further material was issued under the alias Tiger. Another big hit came in 1975 with the humorous "Fatty Bum Bum Gone A Jail". Then, in 1980, as the Two Tone movement placed focus back on Jamaica's veteran originators, Aitken scored his biggest hit ever with the witty "Rudi Got Married", released by Arista; he also appeared in the 1986 film Absolute Beginners.

Although his recorded output slowed thereafter, Aitken's widespread following ensured regular appearances all over the world. As revealed by the CD Live at Club Ska, released two years ago, he still packed a mean punch in the live arena after passing his 75th birthday.

David Katz