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Island's Rhythm

A new ska compilation charts the early days of Island Records

By Nicky Baxter

Ask Neville Livingstone, and he'll swear that Island Records main man Chris Blackwell was responsible for the breakup of the Wailers, Jamaica's most brilliant musical union. According to Livingstone (a.k.a. Bunny Wailer), Blackwell's conniving convinced Marley that he didn't need original members Peter Tosh or Bunny to succeed globally. At a Bay Area concert some years before his tragic death, Tosh once "dreadicated" his song "Mark of the Beast" to Blackwell, spitting out the lyrics with a venomous passion. Others believe Blackwell to be a savvy businessman. More likely, the truth can be discovered somewhere between these two poles.

The new two-CD Island compendium--Volume One: 1959-1964 Ska's The Limit and Volume 2: 1964 -1999 Rhythm & Blues Beat--is a valuable thumbnail overview of the label's back catalog, even if by billing it as a 40th-anniversary set, Blackwell is jumping the gun by a couple years. The two separately packaged discs span a considerable portion of post-colonialist Jamaican music, starting with the Caribbeanized boogie of Laurel Aitken ("El Cuno") and concluding with Desmond Dekker's skanky cautionary tale "Israelites."

Released in 1968, Dekker's gambit pole-vaulted its way onto the UK's pop charts, the first reggae tune to quickly ensconce itself at the top of the heap. What "Israelites" accomplished for reggae, the slyly salacious "My Boy Lollipop" (1964) did for ska, a combustible fusion of stateside R&B and indigenous folk forms. Millie Small's thin, reedy vocal concerning a guy who makes her heart go "giddyup" is agreeable enough, but what makes this ditty, all two minutes of it, such a guilty pleasure is Ernest Ranglin's jack-rabbit guitar rubbing up against exclamative horns.

One of ska's brightest stars, singer/songwriters Derrick Morgan hand-crafted a spate of hits for himself and others. Two of his most popular tunes, "Housewife's Choice" and "Forward March," are collected here; the latter was adopted by London's mod youth movement as its own.

Even more influential than Morgan was the music (and philosophy) of Robert Nesta Marley. As early as 1962, Marley was fashioning anthems for Jamaica's "downpressed" majority. On "Judge Not" Marley, all of 17 years old, admonishes middle-brow critics of "rudebwoy" culture with the authority of one twice his age.

As a vocalist, however, Marley is anything but authoritative; no surprise considering that this was his first recording date. Musically, "Judge Not" is nothing special; in fact, the flute accompaniment sticks out like a bald head among dreads. Still, though sales were negligible, the song would provide the philosophical blueprint for future Marley releases.

Appropriately, Jimmy Cliff's "King of King" follows. It was Cliff who introduced Marley to Leslie Kong, the eventual producer of "Judge Not." Though his religious affinities at the time were unknown, Cliff infuses the tune with the sort of African-centered mystical fervor later associated with the Rastarfarians.

While ska could claim for itself a number of fine vocalists--most notably the aforementioned Small, Morgan and future reggae star Cliff--it was the wild style of the instrumental units that really "hotted" up the music. And no ensemble better illustrated just how hot ska could get than the Skatalites.

Equal parts Count Basie brashness and James Brown steamy funk, the Skatalites practically invented the form. Indeed, prior to ska's advent at the start of the 1960s, the unit was working out a tropical version of jazzed-up R&B. Things reached fruition when the eccentric but brilliant trombonist Don Drummond muscled in on the scene sometime around 1962. A year later, the Skatalites were hatched under producer Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd's indefatigable stewardship.

Besides their single-handed construction of ska, rocksteady and reggae's rhythmic roots are directly traceable to this extraordinarily talented aggregation. (More than three decades have passed, but the Skatalites survive, original lineup more or less intact.) Their "Guns of Navarone" contains many of the elements that made the band such a formidable musical force: tightly wound interplay between the horns and rhythm section and a superb solo turn by trumpet player Johnny Moore, all enhanced by a dramatic, well-conceived arrangement.

A licensing deal with Sue Records allowed Blackwell to release U.S. titles like Inez Foxx's call/response classic "Mockingbird" in Great Britain. Reissued for English consumption as well were Jimmy McGriff's soul-jazz "The Last Minute" and Bob and Earl's brooding chart-topper "Harlem Shuffle," all are included on the second disc. These American-made singles are certifiably cool tunes, but they have little to do with Island's true legacy. Furthermore, while the inclusion of the Spencer Davis Group's "Keep on Runnin'" and "Gimme Some Lovin'," along with the V.I.P.s' (later renamed Spooky Tooth) "I Wanna Be Free" are intimations of the label's latter-day involvement with the more lucrative rock market, these songs bear little relevance, thematically or musically, to the rest of this set.

My advice would be to pass on Rhythm & Blues Beat--chances are you've heard it all before somewhere else. Go with Ska's the Limit and hear how the evolution of a musical form coincided with that of a fledgling-turned-megabucks music company. Loathe him or love him, Blackwell's label has left an indelible imprint on Jamaican popular music.

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Web exclusive to the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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