|Laurel Aitken at his home in Leicester, 1980 (photo by Janette Beckman)|
The longer you live, the more people die.
I always read the obituaries, not that I'm looking for anyone in particular. Oftentimes, it's fascinating to learn about someone who made extraordinary or quirky contributions to the world -- people that I didn't even know existed, but whose lives touched mine in some strange way, like the inventor of the Slinky. And then there is the pain of coming across someone who you thought would have defied the odds and outlive you, like the gutter poet Charles Bukowski...(RIP).
Sadly, I don't think that many newspaper obit editors will remember Laurel Aitken. I learned that this great singer/musician passed away on July 17, 2005 from a heart attack (after a long illness) at age 78. Laurel, known as the "godfather of ska," was the first artist to release material (one of the first ska releases ever) on Island Records back in 1959, a new label founded by Chris Blackwell (who would later release albums from such superstars as Bob Marley and U2). Some consider Laurel to be Jamaica's first recording star, with his string of hit singles in the 60s and 70s in both JA and the UK. The 2-Tone revival in 1979 saw a great resurgence in his popularity, and he played with the English Beat, toured with the mod band Secret Affair (and was backed by the reggae- loving punks The Ruts!). He later sang with the brilliant British ska band the Potato 5 in the 80s, and collaborated with Japan's Ska Flames, Germany's Busters, and America's Toasters during the 1990s. He even appeared with David Bowie in the mod film "Absolute Beginners."
I met Laurel on his tour of the U.S. in 1998. He had released a best-of CD on the label I worked for, and I was overseeing the publicity for his tour. Offstage, he was a quiet, kind, almost reserved fellow -- a kindly grandfather. But on-stage with a mic in his hand, he was a master entertainer, his voice sounding better than it had in his youth. He signed autographs at our record store in the Village, and was kind enough to pose for dozens of pictures with fans young enough to be his great-grandchildren (I have my photo with him in my family picture album, though I was young enough to be his grandson). Apart from managing the publicity team that was arranging for press, radio interviews, and in-store appearances during his tour, I also became his haberdasher...fans kept on swiping his signature pork pie hat (that topped off his two-tone suit, skinny tie, and shades). So, I'd head up to 99X, buy another hat and FedEx it to whatever club he was appearing at the next day. From then on, he always remembered me as the guy who bought his hats for him.
In 1999, when I started my own, ill-fated digital download label, 7 Wonders of the World Music, Laurel and I had many transatlantic phone calls, as I tried to persuade him to license some tracks to my label. Nothing ever came of it...Laurel wanted to release CDs and I was trying out what was a new model for distribution at the time...but he was always charming over the phone and I loved talking to him about things going on in the ska world.
I last saw Laurel on NYC's Central Park Summerstage in 1999 (and brought my toddler son to meet him backstage). He was simply incredible that day, and had the huge crowd on their feet, dancing for his entire set. No doubt, that's what's happening wherever he is now.
(A good deal of Laurel's music is still available from Grover Records in Germany -- I highly recommend "Rise and Fall," "Rudi Got Married," "The Long Hot Summer," and "The Pama Years".)
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Finally, a little recognition for the Godfather of Ska...the BBC (God bless the Beeb!) is running a short obit for Laurel, and he even has a blurb on MTV's website (scroll down). I'm still waiting for the New York Times to do their thing (they did one for Coxsone Dodd when he died last year...).
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A few more Laurel Aitken obituaries have appeared that flesh out his life a bit more. Check out the articles from the Jamaica Observer and the Telegraph. The piece in the Observer claims that he was bitter over not receiving much recognition in Jamaica for his pioneering musical legacy. This may be true, but it casts a pall over a man who really seemed to enjoy life and performing...