Down At The Sombrero Club (Jamaican Soul)

The James Bond theme tunes are still a big deal. It is only a couple of weeks ago that Adele picked up an Oscar for “Skyfall”, the latest in a series which ,I must admit, I kind of gave up on when Sean Connery quit. The very first Bond movie “Dr No” (1962) is the only one of the films to have 2 opening themes. The well known John Barry composition is there & alongside it is “Kingston Calypso”, a tune by the premier big band in Jamaica, Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. As a better British actor than those who have played 007 would say, “Not many people know that” !

Byron Lee & the Dragonaires were a very adaptable & professional unit. They gigged in Kingston’s tourist hotels & backed the US stars who visited the island. Jazzers who turned their hands to calypso, rock & roll, R&B,whatever style was required. When Ska became popular they were on that too. In 1964 the island’s head of Social Welfare & Economic Development Edward Seaga organised a showcase of Jamaican music to perform at the New York World’s Fair. Seaga, a future Prime Minister who had sold his record label to Lee, chose the Dragonaires as the backing band. Incredibly, this is how that show looked & sounded.

Oh Yes ! The Blues Busters, “the Jamaican Sam & Dave”, who hit big 2 years earlier with the Lee produced “Behold”, a startling slab of ska-soul. I only discovered these boys a couple of years ago & I love their stuff. The sound of a penny dropping as the influence of US vocal styles would obviously be around. I just had not heard such a raw sound in ska before. Out of my way, I need to be near the front for this ! The ‘Busters, Philip James & Lloyd Campbell, will lift you at any time. “I Don’t Know” is just one of a set of great singles which switched easily between ska & soul. The 26 track Trojan anthology includes the 1967 sessions in Muscle Shoals when they tried to make it in the US.

And what about this clip? The Sombrero Club in Kingston, 1964 is buzzing, the clothes are sharp & the dancing is just the ticket. The nearest I ever got to this was nights down Gaz’s Rocking Blues in Wardour St. Off to the time machine. Set the controls for the heart of the ska !

The emerging Jamaican recording scene intrigued a young man who had spent his childhood on the island & in the UK. Chris Blackwell was involved in the production of “Dr No” but turned down an opportunity in the film business to concentrate on music. In 1962 he transferred his label to the UK intending to sell to the niche market of West Indian immigrants. He took with him his discovery, a young talented singer/songwriter, Jackie Edwards who helped out around the fledgling Island label. In 1964 Blackwell produced an international hit with the teenage singer Millie Small. “My Boy Lollipop”. This financed an expansion of Island & he signed Birmingham R&B band the Spencer Davis Group. 4 singles were released with minor success before the breakthrough with 2 successive #1 records in the UK in 1966. These hits were not  soul-blues re-makes but new, upbeat pop songs written by Jackie Edwards.

“Come On Home” is from a 1965 LP  & is as sweet as. Maybe the strings are too sweet but Jackie was writing such good tunes at this time & this is Jamaican soul at its best. Jackie was always sweet anyway. His militant 1976 tune “Get Up”, the inspiration for the Clash’s “Revolution Rock”, is cool & honeyed despite the angry lyrics. His own version of “Keep On Running”, that first hit for Spencer Davis, is a stomping floor filler. Jackie continued to record, leaving Island in the late 60s, Chris Blackwell made his label into the world’s leading independent record company. He did more to popularize reggae music than any other individual. Jackie Edwards played his part in establishing Island as more than just a vehicle for the obscure records of the Caribbean & American R&B.

Back to the Sombrero Club for more of that 1964 showcase. The best of Jamaican music had gone to the World’s Fair. Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster & Millie “lollipop” Small among them. Apparently there was a little friction between the “uptown” Dragonaires & the new, less sophisticated singers. The cabaret calypso confections were now a colonial curio. This newly independent country was confident & was finding its own voice. Here, out of Coxone’s Studio One are Raleigh, Jerry & Toots, the Maytals. Jamaica’s star vocal trio. I love the trio tradition in Jamaican music, the Wailers, Culture, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru (& Wailing Souls, Heptones, Mighty Diamonds, it’s a fine list).

After winning the first ever Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest the Maytals carried the swing through the decade. They did not add the “Toots &” until 1971. To see as well as hear the teenage Toots perform is such a treat. With the boys gathered around one microphone there is less of the showmanship of his later shows. There does not have to be because his husky, gospel-tinged voice is just beautiful. I have written about Toots before here. It was 1976 before Toots sang “Reggae Got Soul”, those of us who had heard his records knew that thing already. Here is “Sweet & Dandy” again just because it will make you happy.

Well, there is no time machine so I’m grateful that I am able to see these great performances, this music that went from ska to rock steady to reggae &  always had true emotion, honesty & soul. One Love !