STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Fifty years ago, a record company in England released an anthology of Jamaican music, which introduced ska and rock steady and reggae music to many people around the world who hadn't really heard it before. Today that three-record set is being rereleased. Here's Jon Kalish.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Growing up in Southern England, Bob Bell fell in love with Jamaican music when he bought his first recording in 1963. As far as he was concerned, the explosion of musical creativity fueled by thousands of Jamaican immigrants in the late 1950s and early '60s was being ignored. At the time, the U.K.'s musical gatekeepers didn't share his enthusiasm.
BOB BELL: Most of the establishment media denigrated reggae. The establishment just called it monotonous. It annoyed me because I'd come up listening to blues and R&B. And to me, the Jamaican music scene was quite similar in a way to the post-war record scene in the U.S., where you had a plethora of independent labels.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE ME ALL YOUR LOVE")
THE CONTINENTALS: (Singing) Give me all your love - oh, yeah - every day. Give my all your kisses every night beneath the moonlight. Tell me that you love me all the time. And baby, say you're mine.
KALISH: In 1965, Bell went to work for Island Records, which would later signed Bob Marley as well as Toots and the Maytals. When Trojan Records was launched in 1968, Bell became its production manager. At first the label's records sold mostly via word of mouth after people heard them at clubs or on pirate radio.
BELL: It didn't see any national exposure at all until some of these records started to make a little bit of noise. By 1969, 1970, we'd had several records in the Hit Parade in Britain.
KALISH: Bob Bell came up with the idea of putting out a triple-LP anthology, titled "The Trojan Story," in 1971 and was in charge of selecting its 50 tracks, which ranged from mento - the Jamaican cousin of calypso - to ska, rock steady and reggae. But Bell made a conscious decision not to include any hits on the compilation. Instead, he emphasized the music's breadth.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE DROP")
TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) It is you - oh, yeah. It is you, you - oh, yeah.
KALISH: The 1969 song "Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals didn't make it onto the U.K. charts, but it's one of two songs from "The Trojan Story" that made it into the soundtrack of "The Harder They Come," the 1972 film credited with greatly expanding reggae's popularity. The Trojan anthology had been out for a year before the film was completed.
BELL: I didn't want to make it all reverential, necessarily, and scholarly. But I wanted to give it some respect. I wanted people to be able to listen to the music and say, oh, I see. Well, that sort of influenced that, and then that influenced that. And ah, here we are; now we're at reggae.
KALISH: "The Trojan Story" anthology accomplished just that, says Kwame Dawes, a scholar of reggae music who teaches at the University of Nebraska. Dawes grew up in Jamaica.
KWAME DAWES: This compilation is really covering about 10 years of important musical evolution in Jamaica. Establishing that narrative of the evolution of the music to say that these are all in conversation with each other, that concept of a music that is evolving was one of the achievements of that compilation.
KALISH: Dawes says "The Trojan Story" is also valuable because it includes lesser-known recordings by reggae superstars like Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. And, says Dawes, the anthology contains examples of what he refers to as the reggaefication (ph) of songs that aren't part of the canon of indigenous Jamaican music.
DAWES: Let's take the Maytones' "Black And White." That tune is a ditty done by Pete Seeger in the 1950s. Then it becomes this reggae hit in this compilation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK AND WHITE")
THE MAYTONES: (Singing) A child is Black. A child is white. The whole world looks upon that sight, a beautiful sight (ph).
DAWES: And then it's picked up in the reggae style by Three Dog Night later on.
KALISH: One of the tunes on "The Trojan Story" that might be recognizable to even those unfamiliar with Jamaican music is "Message To You, Rudy," which was covered by The Specials and rose to No. 10 on the U.K. Singles Chart in 1979. The original version was recorded in 1967, a time when there were several dozen songs about rudeboys committed to vinyl. A rudeboy is the Jamaican equivalent of a hooligan. Rudeboys had their own fashions.
DANDY LIVINGSTONE: The summer of 1967, the whole rudeboy thing was happening big in Jamaica.
KALISH: Dandy Livingstone wrote and performed the original song.
LIVINGSTONE: Everybody was on to a rudeboy song. So I said to myself - why not come up with something? - which I did. And say no more (laughter) - "Message to Rudy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MESSAGE TO YOU RUDY")
LIVINGSTONE: (Singing) Stop your running about. It's time you straighten right out. Stop your running around, making trouble in the town, uh-huh. Rudy - a message to you. Rudy...
Trojan lasted - what? - seven years, only that. But it seemed like 70. It was only seven years, from '68 to '75. Within those seven years, man, Trojan Records influenced the world.
KALISH: According to Bob Bell, at one point Trojan put out as many as 16 new singles a week. That marketing strategy was ultimately blamed for the company's demise. Bell, now 74 and living in Oakland, Calif., has no regrets.
BELL: We had enthusiasm - enthusiasm and love for the music. And you can't beat that. (Laughter) That becomes contagious.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS' "DO THE REGGAY")
KALISH: "The Trojan Story" is available on vinyl, CD and as a digital download.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THE REGGAY")
TOOTS AND THE MAYTALS: (Singing) I got a rich one - yeah.
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