I’ve always tried to alert readers of this column whenever an important figure in popular music is passing through our corner of the world. That’s why I’m happy to tell you that Ernest Ranglin, an 83-year-old Jamaican guitarist, will be performing Aug. 6 at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael.
Never heard of him? Other than hard-core Jamaican music aficionados, not many have. But we’ve all heard his playing on records by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff and other stars of ska and reggae, two genres this humble, soft-spoken gentleman helped invent.
The New York Times called him no less than “the patriarch of Jamaican music.” On the Public Radio International show “The World,” host Marco Werman praised him as “a living legend.” And when he played recently on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts with a band that includes Marin musicians, he was described as “a key figure in shaping the sounds of ska.”
Researching and writing this column has been an education for me. I hadn’t known that ska — popularized in this country by the likes of No Doubt, Sublime, Rancid and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones — was conceived by Ranglin in the ’50s as Jamaica’s take on honkin’ American R&B. He once described the difference between R&B and ska, saying R&B goes “CHINK-ka” and ska goes “ka-CHINK.” He calls it his “li’l riddim.”
ROCK STEADY TO REGGAE
A decade later, Jamaican musicians were playing a slower version of ska they dubbed “rock steady.” Ranglin thought it was too laid back, sped it up and, viola, reggae was born.
For many years, he worked as a guitarist, multi-instrumentalist and arranger at Kingston’s famed Studio One, playing on thousands of records, including “Simmer Down” and “It Hurts to Be Alone,” the first commercial successes by a tall, skinny kid named Robert N. Marley.
“Oh, yeah, Bob got his first hits from me,” Ranglin said in a 1997 New York Times interview.
In 1964, he was summoned to London by Island Records owner Chris Blackwell to work with some of his artists, including a Jamaican teenager named Millie Small. He played guitar and arranged her recording of “My Boy Lollipop,” a tune I’ve always dismissed as early ’60s fluff, not realizing its importance in music history. A proto-reggae record, it was the first time most mainstream audiences would hear the now familiar chukka-chukka beat Ranglin helped invent, and they liked what they heard. It sold more than 6 million records worldwide, becoming one of the best-selling reggae/ska hits of all time.
While in London, Ranglin joined the house band at Ronnie Scott’s, the celebrated Soho jazz club, where Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John McLaughlin and other British guitar heroes would come and see him play.
THE MARIN CONNECTION
Four years ago, producer Tony Mindel, who grew up in Marin and graduated from the Branson School in Ross, met Ranglin, one of his musical heroes, at a music festival.
“I don’t know what to attribute it to, but I felt a deep spiritual connection with him right away,” Mindel said.
In high school, he and classmate Jonathan Korty, a founder of the Marin band Vinyl, soaked up Ranglin’s distinctive sound, listening to him on records they’d get at Village Music in Mill Valley.
“His jazz-reggae was part of my growing up,” Mindel said. “Somehow, our paths crossed.”
He put together a band, Avila, named after the San Francisco street where the group rehearses, that includes Korty on keyboards, Israeli bassist Yossi Fine and South African drummer Ian Inx Herman, and arranged for the octogenarian guitarist to record an album, “Avila, featuring Ernest Ranglin,” at In the Pocket Studio in Forestville, the same studio where he’d produced all of Vinyl’s albums. The cover art, by Mill Valley’s Neil Osborn, is a painting of an old ship sailing toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
Last year, Mindel brought Ranglin into the Forestville studio again to record a second album, “Bless Up,” a 16-track CD that features several of his original compositions.
“Something special happened in the studio right away,” Mindel said. “When Ernie played, you could hear his style, from the very beginning to the present. You know it right away, from the first note.”
Mindel, who has visited Ranglin at his home in Jamaica and considers him one of his closest friends, has also booked tours for him and the band over the past four years.
Korty, who calls Ranglin “a musical Dalai Lama from Jamaica,” has been in the band for most of that time, playing a memorable sunset show at the High Sierra Music Festival and Ranglin’s 80th birthday concert with Vinyl at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
“Playing with Ernest Ranglin has been one of the great thrills of my life,” he said.
The elderly guitarist left his home in Jamaica this week for an eight-date West Coast tour that begins tonight at the Pickathon Music Festival in Portland, Oregon. He’ll have a big band with a full horn section when he plays Terrapin next Thursday night.
“I just hope to continue making music as long as I can,” he wrote in an email from the road. “And I hope the good vibes keep following me.”