Sonny Rollins Plays ‘St. Thomas’

Listen to this track from post-bop last man standing, jazz giant, and respected saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins. It’s “St. Thomas” his signature song from 1956’s album named, appropriately enough, Saxophone Colossus.  This is a tune for which Rollins is credited for composing, although in actuality it’s derived from  a folk song originating  from the country of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the birthplace of his parents, and a tune he would have heard as a child.

Like many jazz musicians, Rollins started out his recording career at a very young age. He mixed with a rich talent pool of contemporaries on the scene by the late 40s and early 50s New York City including Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis.  This was a time when be-bop was winding down to cool jazz and post bop.  The sounds of R&B didn’t  escape his musical ear either, inspired as he was by Louis Jordan’s jump blues, which is a musical strain that led directly to rock n roll by the end of the decade.

But, Rollins’ path remained to be straight stylistically on the jazz road for the most part, but for this little gem of a track on the Prestige label (same as Miles Davis by the mid-50s) that featured on his essential Saxophone Colossus album. The record also features Tommy Flanagan on piano and the incomparable Max Roach on drums.  The album is recognized as his masterpiece, and this tune to be his signature.  And what a tune it is, beaming with sunshiny optimism, helped along by Rollins keen emphasis on melody and roundness of tone that make it a welcoming invitation to jazz fans and newbies all at once.

Still, Rollins would not stop here, but neither would he continue without interruption.  He took a musical sabbatical by the end of the decade (one of a number), simply to re-evaluate his direction (while still maintaining a regimen by practicing regularly on the  Willamsburg Bridge in New York City).  He returned in 1962 with the comeback record, again appropriately enough, The Bridge.  In the meantime, “St Thomas” took on a life of its own, re-entering the vocabulary of island jazz musicians such as the Skatellites, who recorded it in 1964 and helping to usher in ska as an independently defined style. Ska as a musical form of course would later go on to influence new wave and punk.

Rollins would continue to delve into various musical avenues off of the main street of post-bop jazz, including fusion, jazz funk, and continue an exploration of Calypso forms as well.  He is an active musician today an one of the remaining pioneers of post-bop jazz, touring and recording regularly even in his 80s.

For more information about Sonny Rollins, check out


The Selecter Perform ‘On My Radio’

onmyradioListen to this song by ska revival-oriented new wavers The Selecter with their 1979 single ‘On My Radio’, a UK top ten hit that served as a herald to their their debut 2-Tone LP Too Much Pressure.

Being one of the bands associated with the 2-Tone ska revival along with fellow Coventry band The Specials, the Selecter burned twice as bright for half as long, at least in its original incarnation. Yet, this single knocked it out of the park, proving them to be a singularly great new wave band before dissolving the next year, around the time the ska-revival craze died out too.

The band showed tremendous promise, even if their sound was fused to the life of the ska-craze as championed by the better known Specials and the Beat.  Along with those two bands, they appeared in the film to document that scene, 1981’s Dance Craze along with like-minded bands Bodysnatchers, Bad Manners, and Madness.

Where the many of those bands took the frisson of punk and mixed it with traditional Caribbean ska, The Selecter borrowed from the new wave diva sounds of Lene Lovich and  Toyah Wilcox.  This was largely realized by lead vocalist Pauline Black, who brought a new wave herky-jerky delivery which complemented the tense ska  backdrop which framed the band’s material.

Like many of the 2-Tone bands, The Selecter was made up of members of mixed heritage, something of a subversion of the violence between communities which was a problem during the economically-depressed times of the late 70s, early 80s industrial Britain.  Yet even if the band’s material also covers a lot of this thematic territory, this tune is a pure pop song, designed to get stuck in your head.  Perhaps purposefully, the song is about the joy of pop music and how attractive it is, with hooks galore mixed in with a tough ska sound that is true to its origins.

Even of the Selecter’s prime period was this brief 1979-81 time span, the group would reconvene in the 90s.  In the meantime, Pauline Black had made something of a second career as an actor, appearing on the stage and on British television.  Yet, the group would be most associated as a pop group that captured the zeitgeist of Midlands Britain and the celebrated 2-Tone sound that would inspire bands for decades to come, including many American bands like No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and many others.

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Prince Buster Performs “Whine & Grine”

whine-and-grineListen to this song by first wave ska innovator Prince Buster.  It’s “Whine & Grine”, a song which was not only a signature tune for Prince Buster, but would also inspire the British ska revival in late-70s Britain.

Before there was reggae, there was ska, developed primarily in Jamaica when the local folk music was applied to an attempt at creating a local take on soul music and Motown pop.  Along with Toots & the Maytals and Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster (born Cecil Bustamente Campbell in Kingston Jamaica, 1938) was a towering giant in Jamaican music in the 60s.  And of course, his influence would extend across the Atlantic to Britain by the 70s, when Carribean immigrants imported ska sounds, and further inspired young Britons to form bands of their own with reggae and ska as major ingredients to the music.

This tune is a Prince Buster standard, yet the first time I heard it was on The (English) Beat’s debut I Just Can’t Stop It.  Ska had become to British groups in industrial areas what American R&B music had been in the 1960s.  And full of the same sexual innuendo too, with “rough riders” and “smooth strokers” a-plenty. Above all, it’s dance music, party music, meant to amuse.  And in the late 70s Britain, a little bit of that was needed, with unemployment being at epidemic levels.

Prince Buster meanwhile would remain to be an active force in music, active today and venerated at the same time as one of the architects of reggae and rocksteady, and is considered to be one of the prime figureheads of first-wave ska.

For more information about Prince Buster, and more music, check out this article from The Guardian.


The (English) Beat Perform “Save It For Later”

special_beat_serviceListen to this song by first-wave ska revivalists The Beat, AKA ‘The English Beat’.  It’s their 1982 track “Save It For Later” as taken from their last album together, Special Beat Service.  Even though it was written in the early 80s, it really could have been written yesterday.

By 1982, The Beat had garnered a following both at home in the UK, as well as in North America, the latter mainly through alternative college radio.  And in terms of style, they continued with a unique strain of ska, soul, dancehall, and punk. Yet on this last record of their Special Beat Service, they were beginning to embrace straight ahead guitar-pop too.  And “Save It For Later” is not only the best example of this in their own body of work, but one of the best of the genre overall.

Yet, by this point the band were running on fumes, soon to collapse completely, and to break into at least two different bands as the decade progressed – General Public, which took a lot more of a pop-rock direction, and Fine Young Cannibals who explored a Motown inspired pop and dance path.  Yet, both trajectories had been established by the Beat;  Northern soul, new wave, and other influences having percolated into the stew of their sound over their three-album career.

There are currently two different touring versions of the band.  One led by vocalist Ranking Roger and drummer Everett Morton called  and another,  ‘The English Beat’ which is ironically US based, led by vocalist/guitarist Dave Wakeling.  Both are startlingly good live acts, by all reports.  But, this song is a testament to how great these guys were together.

For more music, check The Beat official site in the UK,


The (English) Beat Perform “Mirror in the Bathroom”

Here’s a clip of British ska revivalists The Beat performing their 1980 track “Mirror in the Bathroom” from their album I Just Can’t Stop It.

The Beat were a major part of the British ska revivalist scene in the late 70s and early 80s, centred in Birmingham and Coventry. Along with The Specials, Selecter, and Madness (a London band), The Beat took many of its musical cues from Caribbean music, most notably the Jamaican ska of Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and others and infused it with the tense political edge that was common to the times.

The English Beat - Beat Girl

The band was comprised of both black and white members, some being immigrants from the islands, a large number of whom had emigrated to Britain at the beginning of the 60s. Their saxophonist, aptly named “Saxa”, had played with both Dekker and Prince Buster in the 1960s, adding a certain level of authenticity to the band. The group mixed the spikiness of punk with the jubilant energy of ska, and created a sound that was both aggressive and celebratory in equal measure.

The band’s sound and the thrust of the whole scene came off as a sort of musical fist in the air to Thatcherism and to the racial intolerance that existed particularly violently in urban centres of the country at the time. The band covered Prince Buster’s “Whine and Grind” and fused it to their own song, “Stand Down Margaret” which was a not-so-subtle commentary on the current Prime Minister.

The scene as a whole was short-lived, but The Beat would make the biggest impact overseas of all of the bands that were a part of it, championed mainly by anglophile fans, alternative rock radio, and supporting appearances with the Police and the Pretenders, among others. Of course, they’d have to change their name to “The English Beat” Stateside, as there was already a band called the Beat as led by Paul Collins, formerly of power pop lost legends the Nerves. But as soon as they had begun to crack the States, internal tensions led the band to split in two. Lead vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left to form their own group, General Public who would have a smash hit in their lead single “Tenderness” as taken from their 1984 album All the Rage. Bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals with vocalist Roland Gift. FYC would have hits in ” Johnny Come Home”, a version of “Suspicious Minds” in 1985, and later their ubiquitous single “She Drives Me Crazy” in 1989.

The Beat would reform as an ongoing live act in 2005, without many of its original members, and is currently led by Ranking Roger and original Beat drummer Everett Morton. They remain to be a popular live band in Britain. Meanwhile, Dave Wakeling tours in his own “The English Beat”, based in the States, and also known to be an energetic live act.

“Mirror in the Bathroom” is one of my favourite songs by anyone, with an insistent bassline, and a sort of speed-fueled edge to it thanks to the prickly rhythm guitars and Wakeling’s rapid-fire vocal. And a saxophone has never sounded so menacing. The song is eminently danceable, defying you to stand still in fact. In essence, this song is the template of the band’s whole sound – the joyousness of Jamaican ska, with the anger and darkness of punk fused to it. It gives me the same rush now to hear it as it did when it came out!