Trojan
 
 

I was still at school when I picked up the eight page, 9x4 booklet from Bree's, a record shop in the middle of Leicester. It's front cover proclaimed 'Jamaica's Best On Record Up To March 1967' and its pages catalogued well over a hundred single releases of what we used to call 'blue beat' on four obscure labels: Rio, Direct, Pyramid and Doctor Bird.

Later, in my bedroom, I perused the pages of the leaflet while I was supposed to be doing my homework, wondering what the unfamiliar acts listed in it might sound like. Desmond Dekker I knew because his '007 Shanty Town' (on Pyramid) had, incredibly for a small-label release, reached the Top 20 thanks to heavy airplay on the offshore pirate radio stations. Indeed, I had bought a copy myself; my dad listened to it and asked me if it was Chinese, neither of us realising that the tune's producer, Leslie Kong, was indeed from that background. 'Copasetic' by The Rulers (on Rio) I knew because while I was in Bree's a mod had listened to and bought a copy, but I had no idea what the title meant. Baba Brooks, who cropped up fairly often on Doctor Bird, was, I reckoned, a trumpeter, as his 'Girls Town Ska', with prominent trumpet, also received copious airplay on the pirates. It would be many years before I discovered that his real Christian name was Oswald.

But most of the other names, and there were some resounding ones, were totally unfamiliar to me. Some would go on to varying degrees of fame: Byron Lee & The Dragonaires appeared on Doctor Bird, The Wailers both on Doctor Bird and Rio (how odd: didn't these chaps have recording contracts, I wondered) and The Pioneers on Rio. Others were destined to remain totally obscure, which has merely added to their mystique as the years have passed: 'Yea Yea Baby' by The Sons Of Soul, anybody?

In those days, singles were what you bought and LPs were what you got for Christmas: this was true for pop music and even more so for blue beat, a market where the latest, hottest 45 was king. Nonetheless, tucked away apologetically at the bottom of a page, the leaflet did list some albums: just six of them, some with cryptic titles and descriptions. What did 'Ska-Boo-Da-Ba - Top Sounds From Top Deck' mean? And what on earth was 'Gayfeet - The Every Night' LP? A clue to the latter was the cursory artist listing: Joe White, Baba Brooks etc. I didn't know who Joe was, but the presence of Baba must mean that the disc would include some blue beat, or ska as it was more correctly known, instrumentals. I decided to keep a lookout for it, but it's lucky that I didn't hold my breath: it was fully 20 years before I saw a copy, offered at a 'collector's' price in that treasure house of uncommon vinyl, Beano's Records in Croydon. Despite many of the label's singles selling in their thousands, 'Gayfeet' had obviously found very few takers.

That's the album that forms the basis of this CD on the revived Doctor Bird label. The first 12 tracks are the ones which were on the LP; but don't expect rip-roaring blue beat from the word 'go'. Joe White and Chuck Josephs, who had previously recorded together as members of The Leaders, duet on a classic country-styled heartbreak ballad, with Lyn Taitt's lilting, chiming guitar well to the fore. Jamaican people have always enjoyed a bit of country music, and this record shot to No.1 in the island's charts. That was quite an achievement, as the title of the next track, the B-side of the original single suggests: this was indeed the 'First session' held by producer Mrs. Sonia Pottinger in 1965 for her new Gay Feet label, and early in the following year it became the first release on Doctor Bird over here too. Massive sales helped to set both labels on their way to lasting success.

'First Session' with Baba nimble on trumpet and Lyn fluent on guitar, was one of several instrumentals included on that original LP, most of them in a zestful jump-up style like 'Mosquito Jump-Up', 'Ki Salavoca', the percussive 'Pretty boy' and 'Bugle Boy' whose fascinating rhythm recalls 'Peanut Vendor', a song with its origins in 1920s Cuba, which has long been a favourite of Jamaican bands. The best of the bunch, though, is 'Faberge', a charming piece featuring Baba on muted trumpet in front of a billowing horns section and a strong ska beat, who's enduring popularity led to its reissue on Mrs. Pottinger's High Note label in 1969.

Though the musicians aren't listed on the original LP sleeve, it sounds as if Baba Brooks supplied the house band for ots remaining vocal tracks, such as the airy 'By The Sea' by young male vocal group The Saints, about whom you probably know just as much as I do. Joe White and Chuck return in a much tougher vein than on their big hit with the cautionary ska 'Hold Your Head In Front'. Claudelle Clarke sings the r&b ballad 'What Must I Say' in a strong voice, though at this early stage of her career she betrays a slight lack of confidence; she would later hit her stride on a series of gospel singles and LPs. Oddly enough, despite her gender, she was also a member of those sons Of Soul who we met earlier; hear her duetting with Bunny Robinson in fine style on their 'So Ashamed', if you can find a copy! But vocally the stars of the show are The Techniques, with the soulful tenor of Slim smith leading the group through the driving ska 'Heartaches' with an outro by Lyn Taitt, who also features strongly on their beat ballad 'What Love Can Do'.

Those 12 original tracks are appetising enough, but on this collection they are augmented by some of Sonia Pottinger's best productions from the ska era, kicking off with blind singer/harmonica player Roy Richards' shrill, stomping instrumental 'Contact', which reached a wider audience when it became the only Gay Feet production to be included on the first blue beat LP to sell widely beyond the music's core audience, Island Records' 'Club Ska '67'. Despite the strong American influence in '60s Jamaican music, there's no hint of the blues in Roy's playing; indeed, he comes over more like a military bandsman, as the title of his other big seller 'South Vietnam' suggests. You may, however, detect an r&b influence in his singing on the equally lively 'Maureen', which even borrows a line from a Fats Domino song.

Two future stars of Jamaican music combine on the bright teenage love song 'Lollipop Tonight', Roy Shirley's intense delivery blending with the smoother tones of Ken Boothe, while Joe White and Chuck return with the patriotic independence anniversary celebration 'One Nation', complete with one of Baba Brooks' more blazing solos. The mysterious Saints offer the beat ballad 'Brown Eyes', another track which is embellished by Lyn Taitt's tasteful guitar playing. The group recorded at least half a dozen tracks for Mrs. Pottinger, and a group of the same name later recorded for Duke Reid and other producers, but they remain in the shadows of history.

The rest of the bonus tracks features various permutations of 'Baba Brooks And His Recording Band', as they were somewhat quaintly credited on Gay Feet's labels. Tenor saxman Sammy Ismay steps out front for a sure-footed rendition of 'Cocktails For Two', a song written by Arthur Johnson and Sam Coslow in 1934 to celebrate the end of prohibition in the USA, and probably best known through Spike Jones' hit 1944 comedy version - which the composers apparently hated until they saw the size of the royalty cheques that it generated. Even more venerable is the tune 'King Size', which started life as 'Makin' Whoopee', a hit for saucer-eyed entertainer Eddie Cantor as long ago as 1928. Mr Brooks, aided by his Recording Band, transforms it into a bright, sunny ska number that fully deserved its place on Volume 2 of 'Club Ska '67' LP. Our man Oswald evidently had a soft spot for those golden oldies, as he gives a florid performance, set to an easy-swinging ska rhythm of 'Lavender Blue'. Though popularised by Burl Ives in 1949, this is a song of considerable antiquity, having its roots in the 17th century English folk song 'Diddle Diddle', although it's likely that Baba knew it from Sammy Turner's 1959 US r&b hit revival.

The band gets more low down on the slinky, bluesy ska of 'Open The door', with some rasping trumpet, and break into a cantor on the exhilarating 'Musical sermon', issued in Jamaica on Gay Feet's rare Excel sub-label ('One Nation' was it's flip-side). An electric organ solo adds to the tune's appeal; Baba was one of the first ska bands to include the instrument in their line-up, which can also be heard to good effect setting a plopping rhythm for 'The Scratch'. But it's another organist, guest star Granville Williams, a band leader in his own right, who steals the show on the utterly groovy melange of soul and ska that is 'The Jerk', a number whose rarity and quality makes it a contender for the 'worth the price of the CD on its own' tag. Granville is best known for his collaboration with Ernest Ranglin 'Honky Tonk Ska', but this one runs it close.

I never did manage to get a copy of the Gayfeet LP, but this sparkling collection has been worth the wait, I'm sure you'll agree. Now, I've been having another look through my 'Jamaica's Best On Record' booklet and I'm trying to figure out what Doctor Bird will revive next...

Mike Atherton
(Echoes/Record Collector)
June 2017

EVERY NIGHT – Joe White & Chuck
1ST SESSION – Baba Brooks
BY THE SEA – The Saints
MOSQUITO JUMP UP – Baba Brooks
HOLD YOUR HEAD IN FRONT – Joe White & Chuck
BUGLE BOY – Baba Brooks
FABERGE – Baba Brooks
HEARTACHES – The Techniques
WHAT MUST I SAY – Claudelle Clarke
PRETTY BOY – Baba Brooks
WHAT LOVE CAN DO – The Techniques
KI SALABOCA – Baba Brooks

THE SCRATCH – Granville Williams
LOLLIPOP TONIGHT – Ken Boothe & Roy Shirley
COCKTAILS FOR TWO – Sammy Ismay
KING SIZE – Baba Brooks
ONE NATION – Joe White & Chuck
LAVENDER BLUE (BLUES) – Baba Brooks
OPEN THE DOOR – Baba Brooks
BROWN EYES – The Saints
MAUREEN – Roy Richards
THE JERK – Granville Williams
MUSICAL SERMON – Baba Brooks

Trojan
© Doctor Bird Records