ERNEST RANGLIN performing as part of ISLAND SOUL at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Sunday (August 5), 3:30 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. www.harbourfrontcentre.com. Rating: NNNNN
Bob Marley's profoundly moving songs and label mogul Chris Blackwells sharp salesmanship may have helped make Jamaican music a global concern, but its the largely overlooked contributions of guitar great Ernest Ranglin that paved the way.
Exceptionally modest and easy-going, the genial Ranglin isn't the sort to brag about his accomplishments; he prefers to let his axe do the talking. But the innovative six-string slinger played a crucial role in the urbanization of Jamaican music, following its evolution from its folkloric roots in mento through ska, rocksteady and, ultimately, the reggae explosion that rocked the world.
Ranglin's supremely tasteful guitar licks transformed literally hundreds of tunes, including the Melodians' Rivers Of Babylon and the Wailers' It Hurts To Be Alone, into timeless classics. If it's not Ranglin playing guitar on your favourite reggae track, it's likely someone he inspired.
You've probably heard Ranglin work his magic and just don't know it. Anyone who's seen the classic James Bond film Dr. No is familiar with Ranglin's slinky guitar fills that accompany the action in Jamaica all the way through. Today, though, few people realize it's Ranglin because he was never properly credited, either in the original film or the accompanying soundtrack album.
Fortunately, Carlos Malcolm, aka the "Quincy Jones of Ska Music," can verify that Ranglin's behind those guitar sounds. At the time, Malcolm was the musical director at the newly established Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation. He became involved with the 1962 Bond series being shot in Jamaica when composer Monty Norman decided Dr. No needed to be spiced up with some local flavour and hired Malcolm for the job. Malcolm, in turn, recruited Ranglin to play the incidental music for the film.
"There's a creepy guitar sound every time Dr. No appears onscreen that's Ernest," says Malcolm from his Florida home, "Ernie actually played on the whole session.
"He's such a gifted musician. What he does with guitar is totally unconventional, yet it always sounds right. He used to frustrate me I would write out a chart for him, and he'd first play it straight, as I'd written it, then do the Ranglin version, which always left me wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?'
"And he never plays a tune the same way twice. He's constantly creating, almost unconsciously."
Among the first to recognize Ranglin's potential for groundbreaking innovation was a 21-year-old Chris Blackwell, who saw the guitarist leading a jazz quintet at Blackwell's family's Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay back in 1958 and wasted no time signing him.
"What initially impressed me was Ernest's fluidity and speed on the guitar," remembers Blackwell of that chance encounter. "Also, he was the first who could play in octaves, way before Wes Montgomery came on the scene."
Soon after, Ranglin's first recording for Blackwell would launch his Island Records label. And now, 49 years later, Ranglin has rejoined his old label boss for a new album on Palm Pictures that will collect some of his vintage classics along with unheard new material. The album also represents an unlikely debut for Ranglin, who at 75 is still seeking new challenges.
"I've been involved in producing records for other artists over the years," says Ranglin from his Ocho Rios home, "but this is really the first session I've produced for myself. It's a mixture of all kinds of different things just not jazz. That music is very tricky to market, and I don't want to starve."
In Island Record's first six years, Blackwell learned first-hand the difficulties of selling jazz; Ranglin's excellent early LPs 1960's Guitar In Ernest and 1962's Wranglin' went nowhere. He hasn't forgotten the less than cordial greeting Ranglin received in 1964 when he accompanied his guitar ace to Ronnie Scott's Club for an introduction to the British jazz scene.
"I asked the manager of Ronnie Scott's if it would be possible for Ernest to sit in with the band," recalls Blackwell, "but was given the brush-off. After a few more requests, he reluctantly let Ernest get up onstage to play a song. Well, as soon as he got through his first solo, the entire audience gave him a standing ovation. The club manager rushed over, apologized and offered him a residency."
For the next nine months Ranglin wowed crowds nightly at Ronnie Scott's, becoming the top "new star" in Melody Maker's jazz poll while a catchy tune by another Blackwell signing, Millie Small, rocketed up the charts. My Boy Lollipop became the first Jamaican song to hit internationally and finally put Island on the map.
The brilliant arrangement for Small's bouncy ska confection was Ranglin's concept and he showed the UK studio geezers at Landsdowne how to navigate the unusual rhythmic structure. No one better understood the mechanics of ska than Ranglin, who created the blueprint with Theo Beckford's Easy Snapping, generally considered the first-ever ska recording.
"It's based on the heavy shuffle rhythms we knew from the R&B records by guys like Bill Doggett," Ranglin explains, "but we wanted to try something a little different that we could call our own. There were a few others at that Easy Snapping session, including Coxsone Dodd, but people still credit Cluett Johnson because "Clue J' appears on the original record. He was just my bass player when I played the Half Moon. You see, back then I was known as a jazz musician, and doing such recordings wouldn't merit me in jazz circles. So a lot of my studio work from around that time was listed as Clue J & His Blues Blasters."
And there was another reason for Ranglin's use of the alias. At the time of the record's release, he was under contract with Ken Khouri at Federal. While it certainly restricted his ability to moonlight at other studios and release records on different labels, Ranglin found a loophole.
"I was under contract to Federal as a guitarist," clarifies Ranglin with a mischievous chuckle. "So while I couldn't play guitar for anyone outside of Federal or release records under my name for any other label, it didn't say anything about arranging for Coxsone Dodd or Duke Reid" or playing bass. All of those early Prince Buster records, about 30 songs including Wash Wash and his other big hits, that's me you hear playing the bass! I also did some singles for Coxsone Dodd under fictitious names where I changed my guitar style so nobody would know it was me. It seemed to work, because people didn't catch on."
Unfortunately, there was a downside to the nom-du-disque ruse that didn't occur to Ranglin until years later. While he may be troubled by seeing other people get rich and famous from his musical creativity, he doesn't sound embittered by his experiences.
"Coxsone was putting out so many singles not using the names of the artists, writers or arrangers that a record could be a hit in England and the artist in Jamaica might never hear about it. The less the artist knows, the better for those getting the royalties. I never really made any money from my recordings, and the pay for studio work was so small, it's not even worth mentioning.
"When we did Easy Snapping, I tried to put my own stamp on the ska beat with a song I wrote for the B side called Silky," Ranglin continues. "I was disappointed to learn my song wasn't going to be used, but I didn't give it any more thought. On my last trip to Japan, a collector showed me a copy of a single with Silky on it. I never knew Coxsone had put it out!
"We musicians of that era weren't very knowledgeable about the business. We played the music because we loved it, but we weren't aware of what was really going on."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Ernest Ranglin explains why he never performed or recorded with his good friend, saxophonist Joe Harriott while in England
After Ranglin made his head-turning debut at Ronnie Scott's Club in 1964, he played a lengthy residency that could've laster longer than nine months.
Sampling ISland Soul
Beyond Ernest Ranglin's T.O. return, the Island Soul festival (August 3-6) promises to make Harbourfront a hot spot all through Caribana weekend. Here are the music and film highlights.
Friday (August 3)
6:30 pm Calypso Dreams screens in the Studio Theatre
9:30 pm Black Stalin , Lord Superior and Macomere Fifi on the Concert Stage
Saturday (August 4)
2 pm Made In Jamaica screens in the Studio Theatre
4:30 pm Sequins, Soca, Sweat: The Hidden Heart Of Notting Hill Carnival screens in the Studio Theatre
9:30 pm Mighty Sparrow , Crazy , Singing Sandra and Lord Superior on the Concert Stage
Sunday (August 5)
1 pm The Harder They Come screens in the Studio Theatre
3:30 pm Ernest Ranglin on the Concert State
9:30 pm Barrington Levy on the Concert Stage
Monday (August 6)
4:30 pm Gospel Extravaganza with Pastor Rich Brown , Kay Morris , Marc Masri , Ammoi Levy and the U of T Choir on the Star Stage