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 fathers 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 Johns Opportunity Hour, an amateur talent contest held on Friday nights at Kingstons Ambassador Theatre. He won the show for several weeks running, and his success there led to his establishment as one of the islands most popular club entertainers. His first sessions were for Stanley Mottas 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 Blackwells 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 Shaletts new Blue Beat Records label, created to handle Jamaican music exclusively in the UK, one of its first releases being Aitkens 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 Goodalls 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 Aitkens popularity among Britains 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 Aitkens brand of simple knees-up. It was probably not to his advantage that he spent so long away from Jamaicas 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. UB40s bestselling 1983 release Labour Of Love featured a cover version of Guilty, and three years later Aitken appeared in Julien Temples 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.