Tuesday, July 19, 2005

SKAOBIT: Laurel Aitken

The death has been announced of Laurel Aitken, the Godfather of Ska.

Born in Cuba in 1927, Aitken's family relocated to Jamaica when he was eleven years old; it was here that he first started to carve out a musical career for himself during the 1940s. Always knowing how to please a crowd, Aitken was happy to follow the current trend for Nat King Cole style vocals, but also had the knack of adapting his voice to other types of music as well - R&B, soul, calypso and mento alongside his own favourite, boogie. During the 1950s, he turned his attention from live music to recordings, enjoying some minor success (most notably Roll, Jordan, Roll) before hooking up with Chris Blackwell. Blackwell had just started to pull together his idea for a record label, and so it was that Aitken came to be the first singer to release a single on Island records. Little Sheila was a massive hit in Jamaica, racking up eleven weeks at number one; more importantly for the course Aitken's life was to take, it opened up the chance for him to relocate to the UK.

The large Jamaican community in London had long been relying on dodgy bootlegs from the Carribean - something Aitken called round to have a word about when he found out. From that meeting with bootleggers grew a legitimate label, Blue Beat, which concentrated on the growing and lucrative expat Jamaican market; it gave Aitken a base from which he built a huge fan base; he was the only Jamaican artists to tour the UK regularly, and the numbers of copies of tracks such as Fire in Mi Wire, Bartender and Landlord and Tennant sold - although unacknowledged by the mainstream chart return shops - established him as one of the country's most solidly-performing artists across the 60s and 70s.

In the 80s, Aitken enjoyed a second wind, carried aloft by the enthusiasm of Two Tone artists - not only did he tour with Secret Affair, but he also worked with The Ruts (yes, those Ruts). It was during this period that the classic Rudi Got Married saw a reelase on Arista; if Aitken had a signature tune, it would be that. Even a part in ill-conceived David Bowie/Patsy Kensit film Absolute Beginners couldn't dull his shine.

Recently, Aitken had been living in Leicester; he'd suffered an extended period of ill health but had carried on performing - indeed, he had been due to play last Friday but pulled out on medical advice. During the onset of serious illness, he had married his long-standing partner Sandra. Talking to the Leicester Mercury, she said "Everybody loved him. When there was a piece in the Mercury saying he was in intensive care, there were so many well-wishing cards. We met in 1970, when he was on at a dance. I didn't know anything about him at the time but he was such a gentleman."

A tribute night is being organised for the Leicester Athena on September 23rd. His funeral will take place on Thursday.

[Thanks to Simon T for the news]