Andy Royston pays a heartfelt tribute to Rico, the ‘bone man from Wareika, who died in London on September 4th after a short illness.
Rico Rodriguez – Ska Trombone Legend
From crucial horn breaks on the earliest ska and rocksteady songs (recorded by Coxone Dodd and Duke Reid), though session work for Chris Blackwell and Island Records (touring with Bob Marley and the Wailers) to providing the brass backline for one of the UK’s legendary ska bands Specials, Rico has made an unforgettable mark on the world’s music scene.
Think of that haunting trombone signature of Ghost Town and you’re entering Rico’s world…
Rico – Somethin’ Special
My tribute to Rico
One of Jamaican music’s best loved instrumentalists.
I first saw Rico perform way back in 1980.
I’m not sure I was in the least aware of it – I was there as an excitable teenage punk to see one of the most exciting musical tours that Britain had ever seen – Two-Tone label’s UK tour that took in my home town.
Ska was popular again – not only musically (ska had been a mainstay of 70s skinhead music for many years) but also fashion-wise, as many UK teenagers leapt into this lively musical explosion led by groups like Madness, The Beat, Selector, Bodysnatchers and Coventry based Specials and adopted a dress influenced by ‘rude boy’ fashions from Kingston Jamaica: Black and white button-down mod suits and pork-pie hats.
That was an easy follow for provincial British teens. Many fans had recently left school so the black-and-white narrow tie uniform was easy to replicate with a few modifications to the old school garb. A quick trip to the local barber for a Number One and you were good to go!
Specials were a lively and energetic British ska act with a teen punk and dance-orientated audience. I was one of those drawn to the huge energy of this influential act, and Rico was one of the brass section during their live shows.
The Specials, led by Jerry Dammers and featuring laconic singer Terry Hall, were very compelling and in the drama of their shows it was very easy to overlook the quiet Rico Rodriguez, at the back of the stage, bringing a Jamaican swing to this punky interpretation of a much older caribbean genre.
Not that I was paying a great deal of attention – I was hoping to run into a new girlfriend and spark off something more than that casual relationship. She was hot little mod, and looked great in a checkered pattern dress – just a perfect little ska gal. I was smitten.
But she didn’t show.
Her best friend had been told tell me that the terminal boyfriend was back. With a ring.
Too Much Too Young struck up on stage, appropriately.
Back to the birth of reggae.
Many ordinary Jamaicans made a courageous life-changing step and emigrated to England in the late 50s and early 60s looking for a better life. Rico Rodriguez was among the first.
He’d already lived a life or two. Born in Cuba and raised along the rougher edges of Kingston Jamaica and had been schooled by a notoriously disciplined institution run by Catholic nuns. There was a strong marching band tradition at the Alpha Boys School and soon many of its alumni would shake Jamaican music to its roots. Four founding Skatalites, Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace and Yellowman to mention a few all passed through the Alpha doors.
At the Alpha Boys Club Rico was fast friends with one of the greats: Don Drummond quickly emerged as one of the greatest trombone players of his generation. Don and Rico were soon busy with the emerging recorded music scene, built by the likes of Coxone Dodd, Duke Reid and Ken Khouri, who operated the most sophisticated studio of the day, Federal. None made any money back then but the buzz and the invention was amazing.
Top musicians such as the Skatalites were all adept at adopting popular touristy styles like mento, calypso and steel drum to more inspiring American influences like jazz, boogie-woogie and rhythm and blues. Both Don and Rico brought a wide musical knowledge to their work, and Don Drummond in particular led the way, becoming one of the Skatalites leading players.
Popular sound systems had schooled Jamaican dancing audiences in the music of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. Now it was time for invention, and very soon a new home-grown Jamaican style of music was born. First Ska, then Rock Steady music emerged from this newly independent country with a newfound pride in its own indigenous culture.
Rico moved to inner city London (Cambridge Road, Kilburn) back in the days when things were not easy. Making it as a musician Kingston was hard enough, but it was no easier in England where the home-grown scene was barely off the ground. There were some quality sound systems already making waves in the city and Rico was soon a regular at Roaring Twenties, a West end outfit.
One of the first Caribbean artists to build up a reputation was Laurel Aitken, a London-based Blue-beat singer who had a loyal following among the first and second generation West Indian community. His label owner was always keen to make connections back in Ja and soon acts like Prince Buster were recording in London too.
Songs like My Boy Lollipop, a doo-wop cover by novelty act Millie Small (arranged by top Jamaican musician Ernest Ranglin and produced by Island’s Chis Blackwell) had been a UK smash hit. Rico, schooled in jazz and classical music and a pioneer of the now fashionable ska sound, was always on the scene to arrange the brass section and give recordings some extra Jamaican punch.
Me? I always loved The Prince.
Prince Buster was a major character on the reggae scene both in Kingston, where he produced provokative (and funny) songs about the Rude Boys (Judge Dread, Hard Man Fe Dead you know) and in England where he was quick to pick up on the bawdy inuendo that the UK audiences loved.
Making a musician’s living.
Chris Blackwell, Island Records owner and a pioneer of this wonderful reggae music was quick to recognise that in Rico Rodriguez he had a first class musician capable of playing the widest range of musical styles right there in the city of London.
Soon Rico was on the Island Records books as a professional session man, playing with Jim Capaldi, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals and supporting Bob Marley and the Wailers in their ’78 European tour. You can hear Rico’s distinctive sound on so many cool songs of the era. Paul Young’s pop hit Love Of The Common People (which had been a big Joe Gibbs produced roots hit for Nicky Thomas) was one. Joan Armatrading, Ian Dury and reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson all featured Rico solos.
A quote from John Martyn, whose song Certain Surprise features a Rico solo. Martyn said in his sleeve notes “Rico walked in, played the one solo and walked out. I couldn’t believe it. It was a difficult tune – semitones all over the place, a tricky little number – and then he walked in and did it in one. I love Rico. One of my favorite people in the world. A gentle man”.
It is in this period – funded by Island – that Rico’s best known record merged. Man From Wareika is the most stunning International Reggae work. Rico’s Jazz, classical, ska and caribbean influences all come into play, a genuine landmark in Jamaican instrumental music.
The record was made in Jamaica and was Rico’s tribute to his years as a teenager hanging out with the wild rastafarians who lived in the Wareika Hills immediately east of Kingston overlooking the bay.
It’s hard to put a hat on Man From Wareika, recorded in a number of important studios of the era including Joe Gibbs, Randy’s and Island Record’s own Basing Street back in West London. We’re talking Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Bunny McKenzie, Junior Marvin, Lloyd Parkes, Ansel Collins, Tony Washington, Duggie Bryan… A who’s who of the top roots reggae stars of the day.
The White label dub of this costs major benjamins! If you have a copy let me know 🙂
Rudy, A Message To You
Reinventing ska to a whole new audience.
Rico got a call from Jerry Dammers, leader of The Specials, once he found out that the man behind the brass solos on the original Rudy was based in the UK.
Before you know it Rico was playing on the song once more, as The Specials had made the old Dandy Livingston standard a major song in their furious punk-ska set. Rico not only played on it, but was soon running the backline for this amazing band.
“It’s like a revolution, the band was like a revolution. The crowd loved the band so much, man” said Rico and he was right.
After this point, well the cream of the UK music scene knew that they had a legend in their midst. Rico’s band toured with The Police and he would bond with one of England’s most enthusiastic musical evangelists Jools Holland. Rico’s worked with Holland for nearly 15 years – he was in demand worldwide and was very much a part of Jools’ Big Band operation right up until his passing on September 4th 2015 aged 80.
“People book me all over the place, people book me in Japan, people book me in Brazil, people book me all over the world, an’ I still have my job with Jools. Respec’ to him an’ his family an’ the musicians that I play along with, better respec’ fe them also for they’re professional”. Rico Rodriguez – Reggae-vibes.com
I’ll always love Rico’s music. So much is hard to find, but trust me, it’s well worth seeking out!
An Interview with Rico
ABOUT THE AUTHOR