Ska had given birth to rocksteady and by the late 1960s, another innovation was under way. The entire approach to musical instruments changed, especially the drums and bass but the keyboards – in particular the electric organ – also played a crucial role in the creation of this new sound, far more than it had previously done. The guitar had an equally essential role, which I’ll touch upon.
Reggae grew out of musicians drawing even deeper upon indigenous musical styles and traditions unique to Jamaica; they looked back in order to move forward. Reggae (and ska) were often seen by rock-oriented music historians as ‘upside down rock and roll/r&b’. American influences played a huge role in the music’s growth however, its most fundamental elements are indigenous to Jamaican musical styles. One of these styles was mento, a pre-ska style similar to calypso played on acoustic instruments.
In mento, the acoustic guitar or banjo does an offbeat strum that was directly brought into reggae. This is a 1952 mento recording by Lord Messam, where you can already hear the offbeat that would later characterise reggae and rocksteady, a good decade before both of those musics ‘officially’ began.
Organists began to mimic this guitar pattern, and it added a new, choppy rhythmic feel to the music. Based upon the older mento style, it was a completely original approach to the keyboard. The musician that many cite as the originator is keyboardist Glen Adams, who featured on the Wailers’ landmark recordings with Lee Perry. The keyboard style was nicknamed as the ‘John Crow Skank’. The story goes that the alternating left and right hand action of the keyboard player apparently looked like the flapping of the John Crow bird’s wings, hence its name!
Here’s Adams playing on Slim Smith’s Everybody Needs Love.
There’s an incredibly large amount of organ-led instrumentals in early reggae. With the exception of the early digital/computerised dancehall tracks of the mid 80s, keyboard-based tracks had never been so prevalent. They caught on in late 60s/early 70s Britain; the Trojan ‘Tighten Up’ series of albums had sold well in the black community, and then with the first wave of skinheads.
A few of these tunes did well in the UK charts; Double Barrel, featuring Ansel Collins on the keys, topped the British charts. Others such as Liquidator and Elizabethan Reggae also crossed over into the pop charts. The organist on those two tunes is Winston Wright.
There’s something about the keyboard-led tunes that reminds me of fairgrounds; indeed these tunes and other vintage reggae records were played at fairgrounds even up until the 1980s – and perhaps it’s because the organ has a traditional link to fairs that strengthens the connection.
‘Live Injection’, a Lee Perry production featuring the Wailers rhythm section and Glen Adams on organ is an exciting tune. The sound of the Hammond organ jumps out of the speakers. This sound informed 2 tone, in particular Desmond Brown’s playing on early Selecter records. (Listen to his solo on ‘On My Radio’.)