ROSCO GORDON AND THE BIRTH OF SKA
Become fixated on Jamaican popular music and stay that way long enough, and sooner or later you’ll run into the legend of Franklin Delano Alexander Braithwaite, aka Junior Braithwaite, aka Bratty (1949–99). In the history of that history-making band the Wailers—Bob Marley’s band—Bratty is decidedly Ur. He’d even been in the Teenagers, the Kingston vocal group that preceded and turned into the Wailers. If you’ve heard of Bratty it’s likely from hearing Marley mention him in one of the interview excerpts on the posthumous album Talkin’ Blues. Bob’s mellifluous patter, fatigued, stoned, cunning. “The Wailers?” he says. “Well . . . the original Wailers, you see, was Junior Braithwaite, Cherry [Green or, later, Smith], Beverley [Kelso], Peter, Bunny, and Bob. Right?” Marley put Bratty’s name first like that. Bunny does, too, when telling the story: “So I went by where they were rehearsing and stuff. When I went there, there was Junior Braithwaite.”
“And Junior split,” Bob says on the tape. “[Then the] two girls split and leave. [So it was] Peter, Bunny, and Bob.” That’s the end of the story of the beginning.
The early days were the early Sixties. The pop renaissance created as a kind of vibration between the musical “university” of Studio One and the talent factory of Trench Town brought out hundreds of young hopefuls, including a group of kids who’d been groomed for fame by a respected local singer named Joe Higgs. They came in to audition. Little Bratty, not Bob, was considered the frontman then. Bob had begun to develop as a songwriter, and he sang gamely, but his voice was still a bit croaky, whereas Bratty had this magnificent tenor, boyish, shining, sad. He sounded like a twelve-year-old who’d lived for a thousand years. Which reminds you that he was in fact thirteen or fourteen years old when those earliest Wailers hits were cut. He was a child. They were all teens, but Bratty was one of the youngest. And he was small, short, slight (the nicknames: Junior, Bratty).
The legend of Junior Braithwaite is that he came into the studio, sang a single song—one written by Bunny Wailer, or Wailers as they still call him in Trench Town (“B. Wailers,” it says on the original disc), a song called “It Hurts to Be Alone.” And that the song was astonishing, that it was heartbreaking, that it was immortal. That the lyrics were so elemental they could have been by ABBA or by Sappho. Bratty drops his “H”s in Jamaican style, such that the song always seems to begin with the word aftaree.
Breaks your ’eart,
Then you’ll be sad,
And your teardrops start.
Then you’ll know ’ow
It ’urts to be alone.
Bob’s in the background with the others, doing ah-ah-ahs. The Skatalites’ soon-to-be guitar player, the untouchable Ernie Ranglin, already a grown man at this point, is doing a jazzy little dance with the kid. Ranglin’s at his most tender here. One track (one track!), eight channels. Primitive. Ah, but it’s Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s ears in the cans, Dodd’s fingertips on the knobs. Dodd, the producer, perhaps the least dispensable figure in the whole story, who discovered and recorded half of Jamaica’s best singers and robbed half of them blind, mentor to the crucial producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, mentor to the innovator Prince Buster. During a season spent cutting sugarcane on Southern plantations, Dodd had been exposed to the new black music happening there, the forms that were spilling in after the blues, r&b, boogie-woogie. At night after work the cane-cutters went to block parties. Dodd had business sense. He started bringing records back to Kingston from the States. Set up a studio and a label. Dodd meets Marley: the collision that will send the island’s music scene global. The afternoon of August 28, 1964, a little convocation of greats who’d never be in the same room all together again, so brief it almost didn’t happen.
The day after Bratty sang the song, he left the island with his family. He got on a plane for the States, where he stayed for twenty years, not returning to Jamaica in that whole period. His song became a hit (so did “Simmer Down,” on which Bratty’s high backing voice is the first, most distinctive one you hear), thus clearing a way for the band, which went on to become the biggest thing ever to come out of Jamaica. Bratty was Pete Best if Best had played drums on the second, hit version of “Love Me Do,” not the first one, which the Beatles discarded—and over which they fired him, at George Martin’s urging—whereas Bratty had been singled out by Dodd as among the most talented in the group. Now his abrupt departure had cleared the way for his friend Nesta to step forward and take leadership. Which Bob had coveted. According to some sources, he tended to run down Bratty’s contributions, to the others. And in fairness, when you listen to more recently unearthed demos of songs Bratty did in those days, such as “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” prepare for a come-down. He sounds like . . . well, he sounds like a gifted child singer.
All that time, throughout those decades, while his chums were putting “world music” on the map, Bratty was out there. Alive but gone. He must have known, must have paid some attention, but he seems to have just watched it happen. He was in Illinois, he was in Wisconsin. He was a male nurse. Had a family, then an estranged family. He was hanging out in the park.
Twenty years later, he got a call from Bunny, who’d tracked him down somehow. Did he want to come back to Jamaica to participate in a Wailers reunion project? He said yes. He flew back to the island. The next day he was shot dead in a drug-related killing. He himself had not been the target.
Bratty’s, as it turns out, is one of those cases where the legend is pretty much true. Not entirely true. That rendition, the way I heard it, does require some exaggeration in places. He didn’t sing one song that day but four or five; he wasn’t shot the day after getting home but after a period of weeks or months; and it wasn’t that trip in the Eighties, it was a different, second trip, in the Nineties. Not much exaggeration, though. In the genre of music legends who walked into a building (after school, in his case), did something magnificent, and vanished, Bratty’s bonafides are golden.
When I went to Kingston three years ago, looking for Bunny Wailer, I had in my mind that if I found him and the interview went okay, if Bunny were up for talking about the Sixties, I might learn more about Junior, what had happened to him and what he’d meant to the group. Roger Steffens, the reggae über-historian, had done a telephone interview with Bratty in 1985. He got intriguing stuff, such as that Bratty grew up in the same household as Roy Wilson, of Higgs & Wilson, pioneering Jamaican vocal duo whose proto-ska number “Manny, Oh”—think the Everly Brothers if they’d grown up with Fats Domino in the Caribbean—sold more than 50,000 copies in 1960. Curiously, the song was produced by the future C.I.A.-friendly, Reaganite, two-time prime minister Edward Seaga. Music and politics in Jamaica can’t be pulled apart; they’re a double helix, something necessary to understand in order to get the significance of that famous One Love Peace Concert footage, in which Bob calls onstage and all but forcibly joins above his head the hands of Seaga and Seaga’s main leftist enemy, Michael Manley. The political conflict between those two, a crypto-front of the Cold War, was generating unprecedented levels of bloodshed in the “garrisons,” as Kingston calls its politically polarized urban districts. Our government feared the spread of communism in the Caribbean, and saw the democratic socialism of Manley as a step on the slippery slope to it. Bob was an on-the-record Manley supporter. All of a sudden it mattered geopolitically what this pot-headed dreadlocked mulatto street kid wanted to do.
It wasn’t Bob’s first experience of finding himself at the center of Jamaica’s violent political life. Not two years prior to that concert, he’d been shot by thugs loyal to Seaga, or men he assumed were Seaga thugs. That was in 1976. They burst into his home, firing on him and his wife, also his manager and a friend. Incredibly no one was killed. A mere forty-eight hours after the attack, he came down out of the mountains and went onstage (at another famous show, the Smile Jamaica concert) in front of 80,000 people, knowing full well that there were individuals in the crowd who wanted to finish him. He said he would do one song and did a dozen. In the footage you can see that he tries at one point to unbutton his shirt and show the crowd his bandaged wounds, but the police intervene and whisk him off the stage. Now it’s 1978, and he comes out of exile in England to do another full set in front of a huge Kingston crowd at the National Stadium, risking his life every minute and dancing like a rasta-colored dervish, delivering an improvised poem on the theme of unity, before spontaneously deciding to call up Manley and Seaga, two men literally at war with each other, one looking like he’s about to puke and pass out, the other smiling like he’s made of stone, but neither of them able to resist the power of Marley, who brings their hands together and holds them, hopping with his arm around Seaga (one of those moments that underscore the tragedy of reggae’s reputation, i.e., that so many people dismiss it as the stuff of bongs and dorm-room posters).
To listen to Higgs & Wilson’s ebullient, almost annoyingly irresistible “Manny, Oh,” while bearing in mind that it marked the debut on the Jamaican cultural stage of not just Higgs & Wilson but also soon-to-be Prime Minister Edward Seaga, and further recalling that it’s this same Joe Higgs who would go on to train the Wailers, helping them become the kind of group that could do “It Hurts to Be Alone,” can give you a taste of what it means to get into the weirdness of Kingston. And when Higgs & Wilson were practicing in the back lot in the late Fifties? That was behind Junior Braithwaite’s house. Roy Wilson had even reconnected with Braithwaite in Chicago. Bratty seemed baffled by his destiny. “It was just a pastime thing for me,” he told Steffens. “Who would expect that Bob would become the great King of Reggae and all this?”
Bunny Wailer ended up being an unexpectedly gracious and patient subject, until he wasn’t, but before that he said many memorable things. On the subject of Bratty, he didn’t say much. You could tell it was a painful memory. He didn’t get mad, the way he did when talking about Coxsone Dodd or Chris Blackwell, but he got glum and shook his head a lot. “He was cool, he was good,” Bunny said, “but he got messed up going to college in the U.S. You know, the college campus thing, and just all kinds of exposure to all kinds of drugs.” I was receiving an anti-drug lecture from Bunny Wailer. “And he got caught up in that, and that really damaged him a lot, ’cause even when he came back he didn’t have his head on one hundred. So, I tolerated him, because he was a Wailer, because once a Wailer, always a Wailer.”
Bunny said that when Bratty was killed in ’99, he’d been living at Bunny’s house in Kingston. “In my little room that I used to live in, round the back,” he said, pointing along the side of the house. “I put him there . . .” But Bratty had started “keeping company with some little guys who have guns in their possession.” The guys had a small studio at their house. Bratty liked to hang there. “And in his going there,” Bunny said, “the situation arose where people came there to kill this guy, and Bratty was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s how he got killed. And I warned him. I told him to stop going to people’s place, you know ’t I mean? ’Cause I been living here since 1967, and I don’t go nowhere to hear somebody singing in them yard. Other people told him to stop, and he wouldn’t hear. So that was the end result of that.”
What if Bratty had never left? If he’d stayed in Jamaica, or come back like Bob would a few years later, after he’d gone to the States?
“He would be a champion,” Bunny said. “He was a real singer. He would have developed like us. And we would have been together. I can’t see nothing else happening. We would have been together.”
We sat in his courtyard on plastic chairs under a lime tree in the overcast morning in Kingston and listened to “It Hurts to Be Alone” on a little boom box. I asked him to describe the room for me, what was happening as they recorded.
“We all around,” he said. “That was how it is in those times, everybody used to sing into the same mic. We didn’t have enough money for microphones.”
What did the room look like?
“It was a club before,” he said. (A place called The End. The beginning was in The End.) But then Dodd bought the building “and transformed it, made a voicing room, made the control room out of the space that was available, took down all of the shelves and all of what relates to a club.”
How would it work? How did they communicate with Dodd?
“Him have a control room. He was talking to us through the intercom system.”
“To say, go back or come up. Sometimes Peter’s voice was so strong, he’d have to stand a little way back from the mic, while we record, because his voice was very strong. So we’d have to position. We’d say, okay, move back a little Peter, come forward a little Junior.”
What was Dodd doing?
He kept a “little grip” on the knobs of the reel-to-reel, Bunny said, imitating a person in a posture of hunched focus. “When he gets that first balance that comes into the mic, then he did the rest with his little knobs that he had at his disposal.” (Bunny Wailer’s English was music to listen to.)
“That was a genius,” he said.
More than one, I remarked.
“We knew exactly what was required of us,” he said.
Bunny also said many angry things against Dodd, and against Scratch Perry, whom he is reported once to have threatened with a ratchet knife. As for Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, Bunny once threatened to shoot him in the forehead (Blackwell had just tried to guilt him for not having flown to Germany to visit an ailing Bob Marley). Bunny is a guy who in his life has made loads of money for a lot of other people, but never had much himself and still doesn’t, and felt psychologically bruised (“mashed up,” he said) by his one encounter with international fame, in the mid-Seventies, and although he’d dealt with the bitterness pretty well for the most part, there were flashes of justified rage. As for Dodd’s own attitude toward compensating artists, it’s said that when Joe Higgs came to him one night asking what had happened to his royalties on the hit version (the early ska version) of “There’s a Reward,” Dodd pistol-whipped him, blinding him in one eye. Longevity and being a great Jamaican recording artist have long traveled on diverging paths. That’s one of the things that made sitting there with Bunny so moving. It wasn’t just that he’d been there, it was an “I only am escaped alone to tell thee” vibe. And he was in a good humor. He focused on Dodd’s gift. His “talent for the ear,” as Bunny put it. I marveled that although we were listening to the song on a cheap plastic portable stereo in the open air, with no acoustics, the music rang, the song made itself the center of the space we inhabited. Bratty sang the lines that Bunny had written almost half a century before: “Now you’re defeated / by your own weapon . . .”
“Better than now!” Bunny said. “Remember that. When I’m listening to those old songs, and what them got nowadays, all of the tracks that we have, and these things are just thinned out and spaced out and you know diluted.”
He pronounced it like tinned. He squeezed his finger and thumb together and squinted at them as if studying an insect in tweezers. “So tin,” he said.
It was a few years ago, this conversation, and I no longer remember what prompted the following statement, possibly nothing, or nothing other than what was occurring, that we were huddled there listening to Bratty, but at some point Bunny tapped two fingers stiffly against his temple and said emotionally if somewhat cryptically, “I don’t like care in all the world I know them songs, they’re living in my brain.”
When I got back home and was trying to write about Jah B., doing my best to stake out some understanding of what was going on musically in Kingston in the late Fifties and early Sixties, I ran into the riddle that bedevils every person who gets lost in this particular cultural maze, namely, where did ska come from? That strange rhythm, that chop on the upbeat or offbeat, ump-ska, ump-ska, ump-ska, exemplified quintessentially in “Simmer Down” (or in parts of Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven,” if there’s doubt of its relevance). Did someone think that up? Can it be traced to a particular song or band, or accident, or earlier Caribbean style (mento, calypso)? Maybe its evolution should be followed out of the island’s deeper past, from African and Afro-Caribbean sources, and Indian influences—both kinds of Indian, in Jamaica’s case. There were a disproportionate number of Chinese-Jamaicans helping to shape Kingston’s music scene—did that have any effect?
As with almost all cases of musicological origin-hunting, the answer is something tedious like, “Yes and no to all of the above.” Multiple streams converged to prepare the ground for that rhythm, for it to become a rhythmic move that would make sense to the Jamaican ear (and body), or to the fingers of a Jamaican guitarist.
Nevertheless there are moments that can be pointed to, when you hear the insistent uptick venturing forth. Theophilus Beckford’s piano on the classic Fifties proto-ska “Easy Snappin’” is one. You hear it there in the way Beckford’s pounding the chord, hear the rhythm offering itself, If you felt like going all the way, we could play it like this. Count Ossie’s polyrhythmic Rasta drumming on the Folkes Brothers’ “Oh, Carolina” is another such moment. The horns on Cuban-Jamaican blues master Laurel Aitken’s “Boogie in My Bones.” (Or over in the States, electric-guitar pioneer Wild Jimmy Spruill’s string-scratching fingernail technique on Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 “Kansas City”—Spruill a sharecropper’s son from Fayetteville, North Carolina; Harrison a churchgoing city kid from Charlotte). Sit down with any ska freak, and they’ll give you many other moments. Rest assured that whatever your personal candidates may be, they are insane and idiotic. Jimmy Beck’s “Pipe Dreams,” anyone? Or how about Derrick Morgan’s 1960 “Fat Man”?—or even more so, the B side to that record, “I’m Gonna Leave You,” not a great song but definitely a ska song, or if still proto-ska, then sharing ninety percent of mature ska’s DNA.
YouTube has made little musicological quests like this one dangerously easy. Both in the sense that you can easily make mistakes, on the basis of sloppy recording-date info, and in the sense that you can easily lose weeks of your life exploring blind caves. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every socially isolated lifelong record collector on the planet has uploaded or is in the process of uploading his or her record collection to the Web. They’re just putting the records on the turntable one at a time and filming them as they play, so the audio isn’t ideal, though it’s often pretty good (it’s vinyl). You sit there at home and watch them spin, like a Norwegian television channel. You get to read the labels. You can’t have the objects—it’s perfect for the collectors; you still get the special feeling of exclusivity and possession; you get to sit there and make the whole world listen to your records—but the benefit for the scholar or passionate listener can’t be overstated, because of course, everything is out there, all of the basements and attics are being streamed, and it’s possible now, when you’re chasing some footnote across the filaments, to find yourself on a routine basis outdoing even the most reliable discographies, the same way you can sit there on the Web and predate OED first usages, if you want to, not through any ability of yours, much less any wisdom, but because the robots have gathered such vast harvests, made them accessible, searchable, unavoidable. What has been gathered at a nonhuman speed we are digesting at a human one.
Remember when you had to feel sort of sheepish, when saying you’d done some piece of research “on the Internet,” as it represented an index marker for hackdom? The feeling lingers nowadays as an atavistic social tic. These days, not to have done your research on the Internet is to condemn yourself to pitiable ignorance. Not that you don’t still have to do the old-fashioned stuff, the touchstone texts, the comparative method, the rigor. You have to do all that and try to master newly discovered oceans of documentary sources. It can be fun, though. Once, writing about Bunny, I spent the better part of a week getting completely out of my mind and surfing through songs, trying to pinpoint the emergence, from the chrysalis, of the ska sound. I wanted to be able to hold the evolution of it in my head, just for a minute, to say how it happened, session by session. You can’t really do it. Even when you know everything, I mean. There were too many active participants, too many shared influences, you’re inside an echo chamber with two hundred people shouting. Also there’s a weird fuzzy period between the rhythmic shot over the bow of “Easy Snappin’” (1957? 1958?—we’re not even sure) and 1960–61, when a little cluster of very ska-like songs gets recorded, in not entirely certain order.
At one point, at the end of a small-hours’ binge, I thought I might have a tenuous hold, but it crumbled like a sand sculpture. The only claim—call it a glimmer—that proved retrievable from the experience later was a strong suspicion that the minor 1961 hit “Pine Juice,” a Dodd-produced instrumental by Clue J. and His Blues Blasters (who sort of morphed into the Skatalites), was the first undeniable ska song, i.e., the first song that, if you were to blast it from car speakers at one end of a field, and put fifty DJs at the other, they’d say, that’s ska. “Pine Juice.” You can put a pin in that and feel secure that you’re hearing something self-knowingly inside a genre. But the half-decade before that, when the elements were co-mingling, gets muddy, and indeed has about it the necessary muddiness of foment.
Maybe the least expected of the factors that went into making ska in those years, and the one many would argue that most nearly approached it in sound, leading most directly to its birth, came not from Jamaica at all, or even from the Caribbean, but from West Tennessee, and more specifically from South Memphis, and more specifically than that, from the band called the Beale Streeters, and most specifically of all from the right hand of their pianist and sometime singer-songwriter, a Memphis native named Rosco Gordon.
The Beale Streeters—one of those bands that existed whenever the members got together, and nobody agreed on who the members were: Johnny Ace, Bobby Bland, B. B. King, all wicked cats. The thought of faking it in that band!
Rosco Gordon was a short, slender guy with a strong jaw and a long face and eyes set so far apart he looked wall-eyed, if photographed straight on. Ever-so-faint moustache. Bow tie. Sly smile. Carried a pistol. Prone to impulsiveness and clowning and barroom woman-chasing, prone to Tourettic yawps during songs. He liked to perform with a rooster on top of his piano, a rooster named Butch who drank whiskey from a glass, which featured heavily when he did the songs “Chicken in the Rough” and “The Chicken (Dance with You).” You can see both bird and Rosco in clips from a 1957 cult movie called Rock, Baby, Rock It. The version of “Bop It” on there is the place to start.
Near the end of his life, Gordon cut an album—for the Canadian label Stony Plain—that won him a W. C. Handy “Comeback Artist of the Year” nomination. The album includes a seventeen-minute interview with Gordon, which is worth quoting, because it’s one of the only places I know where you can hear his charming, raspy voice, and even hear him talking about his own beginnings. The interviewer asks him how he got started. “I won first prize on the Wednesday night amateur show at the Palace Theater on Beale Street,” Gordon says.
My friends and I, we were Mogen David wine drinkers, so this particular night we had no money for wine. So if you go on the stage, you’re gonna get X amount of dollars, you know, just by appearing there. So they boost me up to goin’ up and doin’ a show to get the wine money. So I go up and I win first prize. And the Thursday I was on WDIA. I was interviewed by Nat D. Williams. And everybody sent cards and letters and called. And so that Friday I had to go back. And that Monday I had my own show.
The interviewer asks how he’d handled the nerves, playing in front of people. “As a kid I always sang in the cotton field,” Gordon says.
People would, you know . . . When you get off the truck to go to the field, they’d flock around me, because they knew I was gonna entertain them all day. You know, I sang in the cotton field, of course. So I was already familiar with the audience. Even before I recorded I was familiar, because of the people in the cotton fields.
Rosco liked to stand when he played. And he typically played with the piano facing to the right, that is with his own right side toward the crowd, so he had to sort of incline his torso that way. Small guy. Weight on his arms. When you stand and play piano you can’t help supporting yourself a little bit, it’s natural. And his head would bobble. At moments, dancing, he looked like a bobblehead doll of himself. Especially when he’d had a few, which by his own admission was most nights. Whether any of this affected the way he played is debatable, but something moved him to create in or around 1951 what Sam Phillips and the Sun Studio session crowd called the Rosco rhythm.
Did Gordon “invent” it? That gets you into a riddle as solution-less as the whole “who invented ska?” game. There are people who’ll argue that you could already hear the rhythm a couple of years earlier, in New Orleans stuff, Fats Domino, Tuts Washington (“Tee Nah Nah”), or most conspicuously in the Professor Longhair song “Willie Mae.” It’s true that there’s plenty of overlap. It’s even truer to say that at some time, on some night, in some bar in New Orleans, the rhythm surely got played, and was a variation on something they were doing there. But Rosco brought an extra inflection to it, especially on an infectious track called “No More Doggin’.” There he pounds his right-hand chords on the off-beat or upbeat or bluebeat or whatever you want to call it, just keeps hitting them over and over, it’s four on the floor only four off the floor. In fact, if you want to hear, in as naked a fashion as possible, what ska is in brute musical terms (it has of course manifold other levels) you couldn’t do better than listening to “Willie Mae” and “No More Doggin’” back-to-back. Professor Longhair is hitting the upbeats (as countless jump-blues players had been doing for nearly a decade), and he’s even hitting them sharply and repetitively, but it’s the left hand that dominates the rhythm. The other beats, what we can call for the sake of convenience the ska beats, are counterpoint accents atop a familiar walking blues piano pattern. Or by the same token, listen to Fats—say, “The Fat Man,” from 1950—he’s doing the ska beats with his left hand, they’re bass-y, but it’s what he’s doing with his right, the fantastic jazzing, that’s determining the color of the song. Rosco shifts the emphases around. His right hand is hammering the ska beats, like in Professor Longhair, and it’s dominating, like in Fats. Tonally the effect is hard to miss. Rosco blasts the upbeats, like horn bursts; they’ve taken over, or almost.
You might ask what this has to do with Jamaica. Well, if you’ll cast back momentarily to the part where Sir Coxsone Dodd was buying records in the States and carrying them home? He wasn’t bringing them home to sell, he was bringing them home for his sound system. The sound systems were essentially movable discos. You pulled up a truck with a PA in the back, connected to turntables, and you had a giant outdoor dance party. The urban poor in Kingston, many of whom had very recently been the rural poor, couldn’t afford radios, much less record players and speakers and records, but they could dance to the sound systems. So it became an essential way to communicate to the masses in Kingston, which made it a tempting target for political co-option. And you had rivalries, especially among the three big systems, Duke Reid’s Trojan, King Edwards’s Giant, and Dodd’s own Downbeat. Neighborhood loyalty partly determined which sound system you patronized, but mainly it was which could make you dance harder.
This constant competition had the effect of turning the battling DJs into professional record scavengers. Jamaica wasn’t making its own music yet—they were dependent on American stuff (and had always been involved in a passionate binary relationship with it; they had songs they were calling “blues” by the late Twenties). The Jamaican DJs made plane trips, or sent trusted emissaries, to Florida, New Orleans, Nashville, and New York, hunting for hot numbers. The ultimate prize was to locate and fly home with a wicked, obscure disc, one nobody had heard, and to scratch off, back in Jamaica, the title and the artist’s name from the label, so the other DJs’ spies couldn’t see it, and thereby to gain what was known as an “exclusive.” Word would get around that, say, Giant was spinning this mind-blowing record, and the other sound systems didn’t have it, hadn’t heard it, couldn’t find it, so that’s where the crowd went, that’s where the money went, that’s where the votes went (thus, for someone like Seaga, the contagious nature of pop melody could become a tool of political power). Coxsone made a specialty of wielding these secret, overpowering songs. He found one called “San Diego Bounce,” a 1950 vaguely proto-ska instrumental by a hard-bop saxophonist from Houston named Harold Land. Dodd brought it home, scratched off the identifying text, and called it “Coxsone’s Shuffle.” No one else had it. When others got it, Dodd lost interest in it. He found another mystery song and called it “Coxsone’s Hop.” People freaked out over that one so much, Dodd started using it as a kind of theme song, opening dances with it. Supposedly it took his arch-enemy Duke Reid years to figure out what the song was. They say that when Reid or one of his searchers finally located another copy—a 1951 tune called “Later for the Gator,” by the Miami-born saxophonist Willis Jackson—and Dodd heard a report that it had been played from the Trojan sound system, he passed out.
Point being: part of operating a successful sound system in Jamaica in the mid-to-late Fifties was pursuing a trans-national hunt for exceptionally catchy, preferably lesser-known Southern jump-blues and boogie-woogie tracks from the late Forties and early Fifties. It was literally your job to do this. And if you were doing this, sooner or later, you were going to run into Rosco Gordon and Rosco’s rhythm, and that was liable to be an exciting moment. To have been at the dance the night Downbeat first spun “Let’s Get High”!
Several of Rosco’s songs had second lives in Jamaica. These were cuts that had been hits in the States in ’52 or so, entering the charts in Jamaica a half-decade later or more. His career had stayed alive in the interim, but less visibly, in part because of a chill between him and Sam Phillips. Phillips reportedly felt betrayed after Rosco sold one of the songs they’d done together to another label. Which was true. Mind you, Phillips himself often did the same thing, but that was when it benefited Sam, not when it benefited Rosco. So here’s a chance to notice one of the interesting and potentially missable things about ska, that it was in part a retro movement, not just later in England, with the ska revival there, but initially, in Kingston. The working-class people liked this slightly older, dirtier stuff, and the DJs could wage their battles on this terrain. Any fool could play the new hits, after all. These crowds liked something bluesier. They were living in a period when over in the land where the blues was born, rock & roll had already largely occluded it. “So while the middle classes raved to the sound of Bill Haley and the Comets,” remembered a journalist in the Jamaica Gleanertwenty years ago, “the workers and unemployed masses got down to the music of Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Rosco Gordon . . .”
Of the Rosco songs that charted in Jamaica, none made a deeper impression, it seems, than “No More Doggin’,” which happens to be the tune in which Rosco’s rhythm is most exaggerated. Chris Blackwell was interviewed about ska in 1964—so a source close to the beginning both in time and familiarity—and he told the writer that “Towards the end of the ’50s Jamaicans got keen on rhythm and blues, particularly a record called ‘No More Doggin’,’ sung by Rosco Gordon . . . They got a hold of this beat, cheered it up a bit, added some lyrics and called it ska.”
Blackwell was being simplistic. But in giving prominence to Rosco that way, he joined a chorus of voices belonging to people who’d been there at the flash point, who’d listened to it happen. “Some people have said that reggae music and ska came from Pocomania or calypso,” said the great vocalist Alton Ellis, “but it was nothing of the sort. The ska came from American music. We used to dance to that music, because Coxsone used to buy rhythm & blues music from America . . . songs by people like Louis Jordan and Rosco Gordon” (that from John Masouri’s excellent Wailing Blues). Bunny said that when he’d fashioned his first handmade guitar, and was teaching a boy Bob how to play back in Nine Mile, they’d played Rosco Gordon songs. (He rolled the “R” of Rosco, “RRRRRRosco Gordon!”) Derrick Morgan (of “Forward March” fame), interviewed about ska, mentioned Rosco first. Laurel Aitken mentioned him first. The massive DJ Bunny Goodison mentioned him first. You don’t have to know who these people are, but know that they aren’t marginal, they’re some of the people who invented ska. And it isn’t that they don’t name other musicians—some include Fats, some say Louis Jordan, some throw out lesser-knowns such as Amos Milburn or Lloyd Price—but all mention Rosco Gordon, and some mention only him.
If we don’t want to place undue trust in personal testimony—if we prefer an attack with a greater objectivity—look what happens. Consider, for a moment, Theo Beckford’s “Easy Snappin’,” the song that nine out of ten skavoovies would say is the real first ska, the “Rocket 88” of ska, the King Tim III of ska. If you’ve never heard it, this essay will have done one good thing by causing you to play it. Beckford’s voice was shy syrup. You can hardly understand the words. Impossible to find lyrics on the Web. People have tried to sort them out, but the results are gibberish (“. . . he stood across the door, / Mama said, now, Papa, you’re real, but now”—?). But just the most gently, seductively danceable song. If “Easy Snappin’” comes on and you don’t feel at least a flickering, phantom-limb-like urge to move your body, you should be checked out to see if you’re dead. It was huge at the sound systems. You can tell how huge, because Coxsone hid it, the same way he hid those American songs. Those were his “exclusives.” Now that he was producing his own stuff, he called them “specials.” “Easy Snappin’” was a special. There are people who think Dodd recorded it as early as 1956 but didn’t put it out until 1959, to keep the other sound systems from having it. And Theo Beckford repeatedly, when asked about “Easy Snappin’” (“Where’d it come from?”), would tell people, Rosco Gordon. Rosco Gordon showed up in Theophilus Beckford’s obituaries (he was stabbed to death in Kingston in 2001). Little-mentioned thing: if you look at “Easy Snappin’,” as it was released in 1960 in England on the Blue Beat label, the B side is a song called “Goin’ Home,” more or less a sloppy cover of Rosco’s “Goin’ Home,” released in the States the previous year.
Another song Theo Beckford may have played piano on, a year later? “Pine Juice.”
In short, the more you get into the evidence, the more the claims for Rosco Gordon’s supremacy as a ska progenitor seem not out of proportion, and the less crazy it feels to say that, in a sense, ska was born in Tennessee.
Try this, as an experiment. Go onto the Web and listen to these eight songs in order:
“Willie Mae,” Professor Longhair (under his real name, Roy Byrd), 1949.
“The Fat Man,” Fats Domino, 1950.
“No More Doggin’,” Rosco Gordon, 1952.
“Easy Snappin’,” Theophilus Beckford, 1956(?)–1959.
“Boogie In My Bones,” Laurel Aitken, 1958.
“Kansas City,” Wilbert Harrison, 1959.
“Pine Juice,” Clue J. and His Blues Blasters (Beckford on piano?), 1961.
“Jamaica Ska,” Annette Funicello, 1964.
That’s a shameful list. It leaves out scores of singers and bands, and erases multiple micro-period distinctions, and everything on it (with the exception of “No More Doggin’” and “Easy Snappin’,” the real pivot, you see, the torch-passing, from Rosco to Beckford) can be contested. But if you listen to these songs or even listen to thirty seconds of each, you can hear the rhythm we’re talking about begin to change in flip-book fashion. You hear it persist, you hear it move from song to song, but you hear it changing. You hear the emphasis on the upbeat getting stronger, hear an essential garishness creep in, feel the tempo getting faster, everything sort of sliding forward in the measure. African drumming, calypso and mento and Cuban counterpoint, Rastafarian groundations, the sound systems, and something quintessential but indefinable that is Jamaican, all of these had readied the people, certain people, for this change, to receive this rhythm from the States and just crank it a little, then send it back. In those eight songs you can hear ska unfurl as another tendril out of the blues, the great mother root. It’s as tidy a demonstration as I know of the fact—deeper than ska, deeper than Rosco, deeper than the South—that black popular music in the twentieth century can’t be comprehended except as a phenomenon of what Bernard Bailyn calls the Atlantic world. In this case the old West Indian world, of which Tennessee lay at the northern fringe. It’s the shatter-zone of the slave diaspora. Circulating currents. We gave Jamaica blues. Jamaica gave us ska. Jamaica gave us dub, we gave back hip-hop. It’s been happening for four hundred years.
In the fall of 1960, it was announced in the Gleaner that, come November, the Platters, then on a Latin American tour, would play dates in Jamaica. “Supporting the Platters will be Rosco Gordon,” one article read, “a real favourite with Rhythm and Blues Fans.” Rosco had just had another, isolated hit (his last in the States) with 1959’s “Just a Little Bit,” probably his best-known song today. He was hot again. An advertisement for the show touted “Rosco Gordon’s band, the band with the beat!” A few weeks later, another Gleaner piece focused exclusively on Rosco. “He is noted for his authentic treatment of the blues,” the writer informed Kingstonians, “and for getting into his music a rhythm and beat that are part of his individual style.”
Those attending the show today in the Coral Theatre Montego Bay and tomorrow, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at Regal Theatre, Kingston, will get the benefit of hearing Rosco in both media. He will do a long spot of vocalising on the programme, and will certainly trot out his many big hits . . . . He has a new number known locally as “The Rocket.”
Was this unidentified “new number” a version of the oft-cited first rock & roll song, “Rocket 88”? Rosco had known Ike Turner in Memphis. It was Ike who scouted the Beale Streeters for Modern Records. “Rosco has always been a hard worker,” the piece concluded, “and is said to be a good crowd pleaser. There can be hardly any doubt that the combination of Rosco Gordon and the Platters will leave the patrons shouting for more.”
That seems to have been foretelling, albeit not as intended. Many decades later, Rosco recounted to an interviewer (Mohair Slim) that he’d felt “genuine embarrassment” when the Jamaican crowds had continued shouting for him throughout the Platters’ headlining set. This may not have been false modesty. The Platters were Gordon’s meal ticket. Not cool to show them up. And it’s likely that the middle-class, respectable people in the audience (or a noticeably higher ratio of them) were there for the Platters, while the rudies had come for Rosco, and those ruffians were probably doing most of the shouting. They wanted to hear their hero. They might not have said it yet—or no more than a few of them would have—but they wanted ska. Months later they had it.
The story of Rosco Gordon and Jamaica has a surprisingly happy ending. In the early Eighties he connected in New York with none other than Coxsone Dodd, and did some songs for Studio One, including a track called “A Night in Jamaica.” The quality is not what it had been, or even what it might have been, but it’s nice to know that the circle was closed, and the long interplay of both men’s contributions ratified.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.