Derrick Morgan is a legend – rougher than rough, tougher than tough, the once rude boy who helped shape the ska sound in the 1960s.
Singing cocky songs and loving duets for over 60 years, Morgan has cemented his title as the King of Ska. Her personality – described as cheerful, funny and straightforward – combined with her pristine, soulful vocals have made her a fan favorite for generations.
“They are nice people. They always come to my show and like me!” Morgan, 82, says of her international fan base back home in Jamaica, “They all give me a good round of applause and so on.”
Morgan’s laid-back attitude belies his important and long musical history. Morgan recorded his first songs in 1959 for legendary producer Duke Reid, influenced by the sounds of James Brown, Smiley Lewis and Professor Longhair coming over his radio from Miami stations. When the opportunity arose, Morgan recorded Clement “Coxsone” Dodd on a competing sound system and later went to Orange Street in Kingston for producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley label. Although many of Morgan’s early songs were boogie shuffles, by 1960 he was undisputedly leading the ska movement with songs simultaneously in the top seven of the Jamaican pop charts. Among his Kong hits was “Housewives Choice,” a bouncy ska duet with recurring collaborator Millicent “Patsy” Todd.
“Housewives Choice” ignited a highly publicized musical war with Prince Buster, an equally popular singer-producer, who accused Morgan of stealing his songs. Although the feud was strictly musical—the two were private friends—their series of “attack songs” netted Morgan several classics, including “Blazing Fire.”
As the “elder statesman” of the burgeoning ska scene, Morgan became Kong’s test subject, giving the crucial green lights to Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Eric “Monty” Morris. Although several artists claim to have discovered him, Morgan recalls auditioning a young Bob Marley, who at the time was “more of a dancer than a singer.”
Back home in the UK (where he lived until the early 80s), Morgan produced dozens of rocksteady and reggae tracks, including early tracks by Garnett Silk and Tony Rebel. Many of Morgan’s own songs, such as “Conquering Ruler” and “Moon Hop”, have become legions of singalongs for international reggae lovers. Recorded for the famous producer Bunny Lee in 1969, “Seven Letters” is often cited as one of the earliest examples of reggae.
Morgan has performed his songs around the world, supported by young reggae musicians who draw significant inspiration from the singer.
Morgan takes the stage in Los Angeles atEl Rey Theater on August 20 In celebration of Jamaica’s 60th anniversary of independence. The line-up, which includes the pairing of Steady 45s-backed Morgan and ’90s ska band Ocean 11, is a multi-generational look at Southern California reggae (with a little help from Capsouls, like the minds of Bakersfield). It is also a showcase for the sounds of Jamaican freedom that have influenced cultures thousands of miles from Kingston.
“Derrick’s work in the early stages of Jamaica’s independence and since has been informative [our] the band plays styles,” says Steady 45s trumpeter Alfredo Barrios. Adds 45-year-old guitarist Joe Nieves: “We’re part of that tradition. These guys got us started, we were inspired by them and covered their songs when we started, and then now we get to back up quite a bit of them.” Ocean 11 singer Persephone Laird, aka Queen P, often sings parts of Morgan’s duets. “It means a lot to be able to represent these women,” she says. “Standing on stage next to Derrick and singing these duets, I cry every time because it’s truly a gift.”
Although about half a dozen of Morgan’s contemporaries are alive, few perform regularly. Although failing eyesight requires his wife Nellie to accompany him on stage, the man still embodies the “conquering ruler.”
After decades of decolonization efforts, Jamaica gained independence from Britain on August 6, 1962. Morgan, then 22, was inspired and quickly wrote a hymn to freedom.Mars forward.” The song was released on Independence Day and became an instant hit.
“I’m not political. But I’m a man who used to write songs about what I heard was going on around me. When I heard that the two leaders of Jamaica—Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley—went to fight for independence and they survived, I said I should write a song,” Morgan recalls, adding that “Onward March” was recorded in one take at Federal Studios, which now features storied session players.
That night, Morgan toured Kingston in a truck with a sound system, singing “Forward March” alongside Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker. “There was a great celebration… all the different nations were there. And I was in the box of the truck singing with my band and everybody was dancing with everybody, hugging and jumping up and down,” Morgan recalls. “I’ll never live to see it in Jamaica, because you won’t find that party again.”
Although ska was on the horizon, and “Forward March” is the perfect bridge between Jamaica’s interpretation of R&B shuffle and future ska. (Most scholars and fans date ska’s “official” arrival to 1963, when the instrumental supergroup the Skatalites formed.)
“Until independence, many artists played American R&B. Some of these musicians, especially those who were prone to dreadlocks, wanted their own music,” reflects Junior Francis, an emcee and KXLU DJ who has collaborated with Morgan for several years. “That search for their own, for themselves, for independence drove the musicians.”
Franciscus was 11 years old when he became independent. He remembers hearing “Forward March” and other ska hits on his transistor radio – as a child. “I didn’t just hear them from far away, I heard them everywhere I went!”
Independence certainly changed Jamaica, which before ’62 was “good and not so good,” Morgan says, adding that today there is a visible difference in the country and culture. “The leaders who take power will do their best. We are at the top right now; The only thing that matters is the crime, he says. “We are building the country, we are improving every day. I am not a politician, but I like what is happening now.
But what is No There’s a ska music thing going on in Jamaica now; the genre largely fell out of favor in the 70s and has since made way for reggae, dub and dancehall. “I like some of them [genres],” Morgan says. “But the best music is just ska because you’ve got a whole orchestra with you. With the music they’re making now, they’re just computer, drum and bass, you know?”
Even if it’s not a popular sound on the island, ska lives on forever because fans, collectors and bands play the traditional style. Morgan has been backed by many of these new groups, including local 45ers and the Delirians, Minnesota’s Prizefighters and Mexico’s Travelers All Stars. “They support me like Jamaicans [did]”, he notes, adding, “My music, everybody likes it. Old and young. I remember one night [in Spain] I came out of my hotel room and went downstairs…some small youth waiting for me in the lobby. About 14 years old!”
LA is certainly doing its part to keep ska alive and in the public eye. “We just want everyone to continue to create that open space for a strong community,” Laird says of the El Rey exhibit. “You’re going to see a legend; you’re going to see a veteran band; you’re going to see a newer band; you’re going to hear a DJ. We’re all going to be in one big room and keep passing the music on because that’s the most important thing.
Morgan – whose legs may be a little weaker, whose performance is perhaps less energetic than his last run through town – marches on, his strong tonality a marvel. He has released new music through his son’s label and collaborated with Sean Kingston and also Bob Marley’s son Ky-Mani Marley. In the fall, he will be honored at New York’s True Tribute Awards gala, which celebrates legends of Jamaican music and culture. On Jamaica’s Independence Day, Morgan will be presented with the Jamaican Music Icon Award from the Ministry of Culture.
Asked if there’s anything else he’d like ska fans to know about him, he chuckles and apparently rolls his eyes behind his dark glasses. “The amount of interviews I do, they should know everything!” he exclaims. “We have to find something else to tell them!”
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