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Interview: Ernest Ranglin (Part 1)

Interview: Ernest Ranglin (Part 1)

Interview: Ernest Ranglin (Part 1)

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"Ska was done by two of us. Me and Coxsone"  


There is no one, single most important person in Jamaican music. But if such a contest were to be tallied, guitarist, arranger, A&R man and all round eminence Ernest Ranglin would be very high on the list. Spanning jazz, mento, ska, rocksteady and reggae the Manchester parish born maestro seems to have been present at nearly every crucial moment in the music's history. From playing on the first mento discs to cutting the maiden album on Island Records, from birthing the ska with Coxsone to working behind the scenes at Rocksteady HQ with Duke Reid, from overseeing arguably the first reggae session in 1967 to working on Police and Thieves in 1976, Ernest has done it all. Not least the steady stream of highly acclaimed solo albums including 1972's Cedric Brooks collaboration 'Ranglin Roots' and the jazzified reggae standards of 1996's crossover 'Below The Bassline' - alongside his spar Monty Alexander who he met in the late 1950s playing with Clue JU and The Blues Blasters.

Angus Taylor spoke to the great man during a brief return to Jamaica after some exultant shows in London and Tokyo - the latter featuring him, Monty and Sly & Robbie all on one stage. Mr Ranglin warned his memory for names was not perfect, given his countless musical activities over the years. But he still gave an interesting interview, part one of which is below.

Ernest Ranglin

Tell me about how you first picked up the guitar...

I saw my two uncles playing and I would wait until they went to work and then would try to go behind their backs and do whatever they were doing! But that wasn't really anything that could lead on into writing music or reading music. So I didn't really start to play and start practising properly until I was about fourteen years old. I asked someone to teach me and the price they told me was so expensive that I said "Ok, I have been to school and I think I had an idea. I can understand what I read" so I bought a guitar tutor. Two books that I studied were Ivor Mairants from England and Mick Manilow  from Australia. Those were the two books that I started with. After that I started with some other books that teach you general rudiments and so forth. I started to try to learn to read and there was one person who taught me a few ideas about the reading.

Who was that?

It was Tommy Tomlins - a gentleman who played the violin who died many years ago now. I got one or two lessons from him. He taught me the value of the notes and so forth. So some day I would try to do some of the reading practice and then one of the great things that happened was I started to play in a band professionally at around fifteen. Val Bennet's band. It was good enough that they had horns in the band - saxophone, trumpet and trombone  - and when I was there rehearsing I would go behind their [music] stands and try to follow the notes they were reading! I also asked questions about what key the person was in - because various instruments have their own key signature even if they have their own concert signature so you have to transport from the main concert signature to other instruments' different signatures. So that's how I learned to do arranging eventually.

You played on some of the earliest mento records. Tell me about this and some of the other local traditions that fed into your music at the time.

I started out playing with those big bands and I was generally playing music like Count Bassie and Duke Ellington, bands like those. And from there, when I used to hear the calypso sound that was like inborn! It's in you so that's no big thing, like! So you'd hear calypsos and mentos and so forth and I just got into that because it wasn't really as hard as what I was trying to do, trying to play the American music as it was. Then luckily, I heard a lot of Broadway music that a lot of artists would come down from various countries all over the world. I remember even playing for a lady who I think was an Egyptian! It was really weird for me. I had a bass player so the two of us could really figure what she was doing! (laughs) So I had access to many, many types of music and these things gave me a lot of the experience that's how I go along.

I had access to many, many types of music and these things gave me a lot of the experience

You were present at the birth of ska. You played on the tune Shuffling Jug which is credited to the Clue J Band which many believe to be the first proper ska tune.

Yes, in a sense. But it was not Clue J Band. A lot of people think that it's Clue J Band but that was my bass player. Now this ska was done by two of us. Me and Coxsone from Studio 1. Clement Dodd. The whole birth of that thing rests on the both of us. He wasn't really a musician but he had ideas and we could collaborate together and decide, then I was the person who could put these things on paper. So that's how that came in. The first guy that did the first ska tune was a guy called Theophilus Beckford and his tune was Easy Snappin'. That was in about 1958 and from there it started. I was the arranger.

You've covered the tune Honky Tonk by Bill Doggett in the past. How important was that American recording in the birth of the ska music?

Ernest RanglinI did that so many times because, as a young guy, that was part of the boogie and I think that was from where we had decided to do the ska. People like Bill Doggett I used to love. I heard the tune and I really liked it because it was a guitar player who did it also so it just started the whole thing. And people loved it so I just continued to play it.

You taught Jah Jerry from the Skatalites how to play guitar, didn't you?

Yes. I taught his father first. His father was a blind man. I went to his home and I saw this blind man trying to play but he could only play about one or two chords so I realized this would be very good company for him and I would try to make him more comfortable. So I decided that this would be something good for him and I taught him to play. During the time I was teaching him Jerry decided that he wanted to play also, so I taught him also.

How much time have you spent teaching?

I taught many, many people you know. I've been doing that my whole life. Even when I don't really have the time I see some guys come along and I let them know I don't really have the time to teach them. Because I don't like to teach people and then when they reach half way nobody is there to help them. But I try to give them and show them what I know and give them things to keep them occupied for maybe a month or so and then let them see me again. I still do it now - and I don't charge them. Generally I never charge and one of the main reasons why I never did that is because when I was a young boy and wanted to learn to play the guitar the people I would go to would charge me so much and I couldn't afford it. So I learned for myself by reading books. And I try to help people who are interested and I help them.

I taught many, many people to play guitar... and I don't charge them

A lot of musicians at that time went up into the hills to Count Ossie's camp. Did you ever go up there?

Not much. Maybe one or two times. I never really played much with them up there. I think it was more horn players who were the people who went to play there. It was a big place where you had enough space that all of their drummers would make a concert, sing certain tunes and play those rhythms to it. Some interesting rhythms too, very interesting. Because on one of my LPs from about 1972 named Ranglin Roots I think, there is one tuned that I entitled Hail Count Ossie because of the rhythms he used to do. And eventually, some but not all of the bands would come to recording studios. There was that group [The Melodians] that had a big hit with Rivers Of Babylon - I was the guy that was in charge of that recording.

As well as playing and arranging you worked in Artists and Repertoire too...

Through all those years I was the A&R man for most of these record companies. I didn't start out from the very beginning with Duke Reid but I eventually became one of his A&R men also for years, Federal Recording Company, Gay Feet - all those tunes with Baba Brooks it was done by me as A&R man, and I was the bass player for that group because I was contracted to Federal at that time exclusively so I couldn't play the guitar. But I could arrange and because I played the bass also, I used to play the bass for that band. Some of the records done by Gay Feet, this was the same Baba Brooks band. Patsy O'Brien played the bass on the lovely hits that they had, and guys like Ernie Smith who'd come as the side guys and play bass and as the arranger. But that is my work that I was doing for a lot of these companies. I was the A&R man.

In 1964 when ska was being taken to the New York World's Fair you had gone to London where you played at Ronnie Scott's. Some jazz critics today can sometimes find it hard to accept reggae as a serious art-form. Have you ever found that?

Well in jazz, I think it was in Metronome magazine, I was rated by Dizzy Gillespie as the number three player, I think in about 1953. I've been playing jazz for years and years but I never had any good managerial situations. So I guess I was not exposed in the right and proper way, so I was known only among musicians who knew of me and my ability but not known so much to the public in America and places like that. The only time I was really exposed was when I came to London in '64 and played at Ronnie Scott's. 

I was rated by Dizzy Gillespie as the number three player, in about 1953

While you were in England you kick-started the ska in the UK by arranging Millie Small's My Boy Lollipop. That was released by Chris Blackwell - who you had been recording with since his very first album release in 1959.

Yes. Generally the reason why this happened was that Chris Blackwell was in charge and I was the first A&R man for his company too. The ska was going around there but they didn't have many horn players at that time. If there was a horn player maybe they'd have just one soloist or something. He said to me "If you come over maybe you can do arranging. Why don't you come and pull out a few of the tunes and put horns together? Maybe it will be more interesting..." So he invited me to England because I was at Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation where I was staff at that time as arranger and guitar player. You had to be able to do three things so I was bass player, horn arranger and guitar player. There were five of us and whoever was on the staff as musicians had to be able to do three things. Chris was next door. Because from Montego Bay I had been doing his works and then came to Kingston in front of the Broadcasting Station where he had an office and I was doing his works aside from what I was doing for the radio station. Then about nine months after he came to England he went to me and made the suggestion that I go out a road. When I came eventually, out of all these English musicians there was only one Jamaican out of the lot! It was a trumpeter who we would call AKA Bushy Hall. He was the only the Jamaican and it was all English musicians from bass to drums to everything. They were the first people who did that song and they didn't really know anything about the thing so it was an adventure for me also! So I'm glad it came out how it came out!

How did you find England on your arrival?

Just another place, I guess! A little colder than mine! (laughs) I enjoyed being there. It's good to know different places because I think widens your knowledge to know them. Know what's happening around the world and one day you can figure out things for yourself.

You were also involved in the early Wailers work - giving them their first hit with It Hurts To Be Alone. Did you help Bob out with his guitar at all?

Not much actually. Because at that time when he really came to me to teach him guitar I was Jimmy Cliff's musical director and I was in Jimmy Cliff's group. But I gave him his very first hit anyway, It Hurts To Be Alone. Studio 1 had just opened and that was the tune that opened Studio 1 also. I did about four tunes for him after that but that first tune was a very big hit for him all around between here and America.

I am not going to say I am the first person who did rocksteady but I would say I am the first person who did reggae

You were also involved in the rocksteady trend. You already mentioned you worked very closely with Duke Reid. Both yourself and Lynn Tait were playing guitar and doing a lot of arranging at that time.

Lynn Tait did a lot because he had his own group also. Even when I was Federal there were times when I liked to play with Lynn Tait. I would let him be one of the members of the group that I had and of course at Duke Reid he was around as well. But I am not going to say I am the first person who did rocksteady but I would say I am the first person who did reggae. It was done with Scratch Perry and... there were two of them who were the producers...

Clancy Eccles?

That's right!

Lynn Tait may have played on what is considered by many to be the first rocksteady tune but you played on the session for Clancy Eccles in 1967 that yielded Eric Monty Morris' Say What You're Saying which many believe to be the first reggae tune...

Yes! How do you know this? You have a lot of good informants! (laughs) There was a drummer called Hugh Malcolm. He was the first reggae drummer. He used to play in a band that just came back from England. I formed that band under the name Granville Williams [Orchestra]. He was a keyboard player but I tailor-made everything for him, all the arrangements, because he was the bandleader. This guy Hugh Malcolm was one of the drummers in the band and I got to find out that he really had the reggae beat going. Every session all over, Hugh Malcolm was the man who everybody wanted to play on their session, but he was with me most of the time. When we did that session he was the main drummer and we had the bass player who used to play with Duke Reid most of the time whose name I can't remember, then Gladdy [Anderson] used to play piano, his uncle was on keyboards. The bass player still plays with Toots and the Maytals until now [Jackie Jackson]. That was the group that played he first reggae that came in and I think Clancy won the title for "Reggae For Days and Extra Days" [Feel The Rhythm] Say What You're Saying was for Monty Morris as you say. It was four tunes we did anyway and that was the birth of that.

And the key landmarks didn't stop there. You played on Rivers Of Babylon as you mentioned but you also played on the rhythm for Police and Thieves for Scratch, one of the biggest roots reggae tunes of all time.

Yes, I played on a lot of stuff for Scratch but it's hard to remember, he wouldn't always give me the title of the tune! But I did a lot of things for him.

Hugh Malcolm was the first reggae drummer

Which of your own albums are you most proud of?

I like all of them! I tried to do all of them the best I could. People who listen I guess they are the ones who have their favourites! (laughs)

My favourite is Ranglin Roots.

Ernest Ranglin - Ranglin RootsRanglin Roots I had a big enough group. I think I had Cedric Brooks on tenor. I had two drummers, I think I had two bassplayers but I'm not certain. Not to play together but maybe they did! It's hard to remember the names of the musicians because it was back in 1972! I've had so many different projects and so many things have happened over so many years! It's like how a lot of artists today are big artists and they become number one but some are not alive today. But I can't even remember some of them! It's like sometimes I meet people and they said "Oh, you did my first record for me!" and I say "Oh sorry!" because there are so many that it's hard to remember.

There is a story that you were given a special guitar by George Benson. Can you tell me about that story?

(laughs) Well to tell you the truth I've already given you a lot of stuff when I have a book I'm trying to write! And if I give you everything I won't have anything to put in my book! Whenever I have a little time I try to sit down and put down things I can still remember. I would really like to put it out whenever it's finished.

Read part 2 of this interview.

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