A User’s Guide to Laurel Aitken
Probably no one had a lengthier career in Jamaican music than Laurel Aitken. He started in his early 20s, back at the dawn of the 1950s, singing on early mento (akin to Jamaican calypso) recordings. He was there when Jamaican boogie was born, giving the fledgling Island records its first hit with the seminal "Boogie In My Bones" in 1959, and stayed involved in everything from ska all the way through to dancehall before his death in 2005.
More than anything, though, he was the voice of the West Indian Diaspora. Like so many others, he moved to England, and after settling in London in 1960, he was a conduit between the emigrants — who generally found Britain to be a poorer, bleaker place than they'd imagined — and the nostalgic warmth of home. He wasn't a chronicler of the immigrant experience, but one who kept them in touch with their homeland through song, whether it was calypso-ska ("Woman Is Sweeter Than Man"), music that evoked sunny memories like "Sloop John B" and "Kingston Town," or in the evolving musical styles, from ska through rocksteady to reggae and beyond.
But the root of it all, as with so many Jamaican singers (and also true of American soul), was gospel. It permeated all his music, a continuing influence and inspiration, but never more so than on Original Jamaican Ska, where so many of the tracks bear the imprint of the church. The form might have been new, but the message was the same, and spoke loudly to a black population trying to find its way in a new land.
Although he was already established, it was ska that confirmed him as a star, and it remained his calling card, always superbly performed with a distinctive, confident roughness in his voice. Long experience in the music business had made him versatile; unlike so many other singers, he was completely at home on all types of material, whether it was typical boy-girl innocence, the sly double entendre inherited from calypso, or delving into more serious territory, as with the conscious lyrics of colour and politics (witness "Freedom Train") reflecting the rise of black consciousness around the globe in the '60s. There were even nods to Rastafarianism on cuts like "Lion of Judah" and "Heile Heile," long before dreads and tams became the trend. Although the bulk of his output came from his own pen, he wasn't averse to slipping in the occasional cover tune, mostly on the classic soul tip, like "If You Need Me" and "Stand By Me," although there was the odd venture into the bizarre — a ska version of "You Are My Sunshine," anyone?
Aitken was a veritable hit machine all through the '60s, reflecting Jamaica into England, but toward the end of the decade he moved into overdrive when the uniquely British genre known as Skinhead Reggae stomped into the charts. Whether it was reggae at all was debatable; named for the boots and braces crowd, Skinhead Reggae — loud and proud, and typified by tracks like Dave and Ansell Collins '"Double Barrel" — was essentially ska on steroids, popular music with mass appeal, and the first full-fledged acceptance of Jamaican music in the UK. Aitken was at the forefront on the new sound. Tracks like "Reggae 69" and "Skinhead Train" caught him at the top of his game. But that was no real surprise; he'd spent years honing his chops, and he seized the opportunity with both hands. Suddenly he was more visible than ever before.
Where Aitken's music had once largely been the property of West Indians trying to forge new lives in Britain's cities, now he enjoyed a much wider audience. And he took advantage of that, preaching the growing gospel of Jamaican music on albums like The High Priest of Reggae and Scandal in a Brixton Market (whose title cut name checked the Afro-Caribbean area of London). Of course they contained genuflections at the altar of Skinhead Reggae, but mostly they served as a platform for Aitken to serve up the whole variety of his sound, with — of course — a whole heaping helping of ska, tempered by rocksteady and the still-new reggae. There was fun ("Pussy Got Thirteen Life," "Pussy Price (Gone Up)"), a touch of nostalgia ("Save The Last Dance" and a very convincing stab at Elvis's "Don't Be Cruel"), and a dose of politics ("Stop The War In Babylon").
By the time the '70s arrived, Aitken was well into his 40s. But on the musical evidence he was still a young man, relishing every single note, skanking joyfully through "Souls Of Africa," throwing himself into the emotion of "I'll Never Love Another" and "Guilty Tiger" (strings and all). By the end of the decade he was back in style once again, first by the 2Tone bands, who saw him as a father figure, then UB40, who covered "Guilty." And he kept performing, still lively and vital, for the next 20 years — until he was 86.