Laurel Aitken Biography

Oliver Stephens, 22 April 1927, Cuba, d. 17 July 2005, Leicester, England. Of mixed Cuban and Jamaican descent, Laurel, with his five brothers (including the veteran guitarist Bobby Aitken) and sisters, settled in his father’s homeland, Jamaica, in 1938. In the 40s he earned a living singing calypso for the Jamaican Tourist Board, as visitors alighted at Kingston Harbour. By the age of 15 Aitken, like many of the early Jamaican R&B and ska singers, including Owen Gray and Jackie Edwards, entered Vere John’s Opportunity Hour, an amateur talent contest held on Friday nights at Kingston’s Ambassador Theatre. He won the show for several weeks running, and his success there led to his establishment as one of the island’s most popular club entertainers. His first sessions were for Stanley Motta’s Caribbean Recording Company, where he recorded some calypso songs, the spiritual ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ and ‘Boogie Rock’. The latter was one of the first ever Jamaican R&B/shuffle recordings. In 1958 he recorded ‘Little Sheila’/‘Boogie In My Bones’, one of the first records produced by future Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, using a Jamaican saxophonist and a white Canadian backing band. It emerged on Blackwell’s R&B label (where it spent over 12 months in the Jamaican chart), and in the UK on Starlite and, some years later, Island.

Between 1958 and 1960, Aitken made a number of recordings in the pre-ska shuffle mode, including ‘Bartender’ and ‘Brother David’ for Ken Khouri, ‘Judgement Day’, ‘More Whisky’, ‘Mighty Redeemer’ and ‘Zion’ for Duke Reid, and ‘Remember My Darling’, ‘The Saint’, ‘I Shall Remove’, ‘What A Weeping’/‘Zion City Wall’ and ‘In My Soul’ for Leslie Kong. On the strength of the popularity of these records in the UK, Aitken came to London in 1960, where he recorded a number of songs including ‘Sixty Days & Sixty Nights’, ‘Marylee’ and ‘Lucille’. These were released on the entrepreneur Emile Shalett’s new Blue Beat Records label, created to handle Jamaican music exclusively in the UK, one of its first releases being Aitken’s ‘Boogie Rock’. Aitken returned to Jamaica in 1963 and recorded ‘Weary Wanderer’ and ‘Zion’ for Duke Reid: these, too, were released on Blue Beat.

Back in London, Aitken recorded for Graeme Goodall’s Rio Records, which released around 20 titles by the singer between 1964 and 1966, including ‘Adam & Eve’, ‘Bad Minded Woman’, ‘Leave Me Standing’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’, other titles appearing on the Ska Beat and Dice labels. In 1969 he enjoyed great success on Nu Beat, a subsidiary of the Palmer brothers’ Pama Records group of labels, writing songs for other artists, including ‘Souls Of Africa’ for the Classics. He also recorded ‘Guilty’ by Tiger (which was Aitken under a different name), and enjoyed great success with his own exuberant reggae songs such as ‘Woppi King’, ‘Haile Selassie’, ‘Landlords & Tenants’, ‘Jesse James’, ‘Skinhead Train’, ‘Rise & Fall’, ‘Fire In Me Wire’, and the notorious ‘Pussy Price’, in which he bemoaned the rising cost of personal services. During this period Aitken’s popularity among Britain’s West Indian population was matched only by his patronage by white skinhead youths, and it is mainly with successive skinhead and mod revivals that his name and music have been preserved.

The emerging trend towards cultural and religious (i.e. Rasta) themes among a new generation of young UK (and Jamaican) blacks in the early 70s sharply contrasted with Aitken’s brand of simple knees-up. It was probably not to his advantage that he spent so long away from Jamaica’s rapidly changing music scene, where producers such as Lee Perry and Bunny Lee were coming up with new rhythms and ideas in production almost monthly. Aitken spent the 70s in semi-retirement, gave up regular recording and moved to Leicester, performing the occasional club date, his show-stopping act undiminished despite his advancing years. He recorded intermittently, almost achieving a Top 40 hit with ‘Rudi Got Married’ for Arista in 1981, and riding for all he was worth on the 2-Tone bandwagon. UB40’s bestselling 1983 release Labour Of Love featured a cover version of ‘Guilty’, and three years later Aitken appeared in Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners. Throughout the 90s and into the new millennium, Aitken remained a popular draw on the live circuit, performing with a number of UK-based ska bands. He died of a heart attack in 2005.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.