Legend has it that the genre name “Ska” — Jamaica’s mid-sixties precursor to reggae — was coined to describe the sound of Ernest Ranglin’s guitar. When I interviewed the seminal jamaican guitarist in 1997, he had this to say on the matter:
“I invented the music, but not the word. And even reggae — I didn’t invent that word either, but I invented the music.”
To someone unaware of Ranglin’s immense contribution to the history of Jamaican music, this statement might seem boastful. But if you dive deep into the island’s formidable musical legacy, you’ll find the compelling rhythmic skank and muted-string poetry of Ranglin’s guitar on countless landmark tracks. He has worked with many of the greats — Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, the Melodians, the Gladiators, and numerous others. He was the first-call session guitarist and arranger for all the key producers who shaped Jamaica’s trifecta of popular music genres — ska, rock steady, and reggae — Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, Prince Buster, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Island Records chief Chris Blackwell.
When you consider the numerous ska revivals that have taken place worldwide since the Sixties, and also factor in reggae’s tremendous influence on rock music, it’s an inevitable conclusion that a legion of guitarists owes a stylistic debt of gratitude to Ranglin. The Specials, The Selector, Madness, the Clash, the Police, the Slits, the Ruts, Rancid, No Doubt, the Slackers, Hep Cat, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, Sublime... the list goes on and on. All these groups and more can trace some portion of their guitar aesthetic back to Ranglin’s pioneering work.
Ironically, though, Ranglin’s first love is jazz. That’s the music he started out playing and has returned to over the years. “I was really an ear player at the beginning,” he told me. “I didn’t really start to study the instrument professionally until I was 14. I used to like to listen to Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins, Bill Doggett, and people like those. But I would also hear Lionel Hampton, and that’s where I started to hear Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman and those people. When I was a little older, about 15, I began to play in big bands. They would make stock arrangements of their recordings, so we could play just what they did.”
Ranglin and his contemporaries played the kind of gigs available to Jamaican musicians back then — hotels and cruise ships. It was music for the island’s predominantly white tourist trade, for the most part. This influence — a “tropical,” Latin-tinged, midcentury cocktail jazz vibe — can be heard on a record that Ranglin played on in 1959: Lance Heywood at the Half Moon Hotel. It was the debut release from Island Records — a modest beginning for the legendary label that would bring reggae greats like Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Black Uhuru to international acclaim in the Seventies.
Ranglin and Island chief Chris Blackwell became close musical collaborators. Island’s second release, in 1960, was Ranglin’s solo debut album, Guitar in Ernest, a set of jazzy instrumentals that showcase some of Ranglin’s nimble fretwork. By this point, he’d also embarked on a busy career as a session guitarist and arranger, first at Federal Recording Studios in Kingston and then at the Jamaica Broadcasting Company (JBC) Studios. It was during his time at Federal that he met and began working with another legendary figure in Jamaican music, the aforementioned gun-toting, visionary record producer/entrepreneur Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd.
Dodd is the man who signed Bob Marley, as part of the vocal group the Wailers, to his Studio One record label in 1963. Marley and his fellow Wailers — whose ranks also included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer — joined a growing roster of artists on Dodd’s Studio One record label. As Studio One’s house arranger, Ranglin anchored the studio group, The Skatalites, that accompanied Marley and the Wailers on their debut Studio One single, “Simmer Down,” backed with “It Hurts to Be Alone.” Marley had previously released a few singles as a solo artist on another label, Beverley’s. But they had met with only modest success. This first session with Dodd and Ranglin would yield a far more satisfactory result. Ranglin told me he could immediately sense Marley’s enormous potential; the two would work together again.
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