It was the small record label that transformed music in the UK, and provided a platform for some of the biggest stars of the 1970s. Now, 50 years on, the legacy of Trojan Records is being celebrated by the Jazz Jamaica All Stars – whose Trojan Story project heads to Birmingham’s Town Hall on Friday 25 October 2019.
"Trojan was so important to all sorts of people, from all sorts of class backgrounds," says Jazz Jamaica's Gary Crosby. "We wanted to celebrate that particular contribution to English culture with this project."
The story of Trojan Records begins in 1968 as the London-based distribution company began licensing Jamaican ska singles for UK release. Although their early buyers may have been from the resident Jamaican communities, scattered across London, Birmingham and other major urban conurbations, the appeal of the music quickly spread to white mod and rock audiences. Within a couple of years, tracks by Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker, Harry J’s All Stars and The Maytals had all cracked the UK singles charts.
Also releasing records by Bob Marley, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and others, the label’s popularity and influence increased further with a run of well sequenced compilation albums, including the Tighten Up and Reggae Chartbusters series. Suddenly, the music was no longer the preserve of pirate stations and roaming sound systems.
Although the label's fortunes briefly floundered, the ska revival of the late 70s and early 80s quickly renewed interest in the original Jamaican artists who had inspired The Specials, The Selecter and Madness, and a new generation were soon clambering for Trojan releases. And the brand is still with us today, regularly digging into the archives to re-present tracks by Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Bob and Marcia, and other pioneers.
Growing up in London, Gary was very aware of the Trojan roster as friends and family had connections to the operation, and their seven-inch singles sound-tracked his life. Though he made his name as a founder member of the Jazz Warriors during the 1980s, Gary went on to form the jazz/reggae-influenced Jazz Jamaica the following decade, and it was the Jazz Jamaica All Stars’ 2012 tribute to Bob Marley and The Wailers' Catch A Fire album which sowed the seeds for his grand Trojan tribute.
"It was really on that Catch A Fire tour that myself and Brinsley began to talk about a Trojan celebration," recalls Gary of his discussions with Aswad vocalist Brinsley Forde. "He was up for it then. Noel McKoy was another person I’d thought about – he’s from a Jamaican background and understands that music, even though a lot of people think of him as a soul person. His brothers were DJs on sound systems."
The resulting live extravaganza features not just vocalist contributions from Brinsley and Noel, but also an orchestra of 20-plus musicians including saxophonists Denys Baptiste and Camilla George, string quartet Tomorrow’s Warriors’ StringTing, vocal trio Dem 3, and (in Birmingham-only) the THSH Reggae Choir. Together they dip into Trojan's monumental back catalogue of ska, rocksteady, reggae, roots, lover's rock, dub, and more.
Choosing the actual set-list would always present a challenge, but Gary – whose far-reaching contributions to music and music education have resulted in both an OBE and the Queen’s Medal For Music – was keen to start with some familiar tunes.
"I could have chosen stuff like Burning Spear, which would only be known by a select group of people. But we decided to go for the stuff that people would know, that had either charted or was well-known amongst the people who enjoyed that music – specifically like the Jimmy Cliff's Wonderful World Beautiful People, and [Millie Small's] My Boy Lollipop, which is known the world over."
Red Red Wine by Tony Tribe, Dawn Penn's You Don’t Love Me (No No No), The Skatalites' Ball Of Fire, The Harry J All Stars’ infectious Liquidator, and Israelites by the sharply dressed Desmond Dekker, are among those that also make the live set.
"It was very difficult choosing the tracks because there are so many!" Gary continues, adding that he hopes this will just be the start of a bigger project. "We are hoping that this will be a success, and that will give us the opportunity to do Volume Two – where we could do some of the other tracks. We had an idea of calling it a People’s Choice, so that the people we’ve played for on this tour would get the opportunity to suggest to us what we should play next time around."
The forerunner of reggae, ska music, with its distinctive shuffle, was born in Jamaica in the 1960s, with many of the early architects rooted in jazz music. Among them were The Skatalites' Don Drummond and Crosby's uncle, Ernest Ranglin, who played with Prince Buster and Lee 'Scratch' Perry.
"Jazz was the popular music of the 1940s-1950s to a lot of these guys," Gary explains. "My first band had Rico Rodriguez and Eddie Thornton in, and I learnt a lot from them, about when they were in Alpha Boys School [in Kingston, Jamaica], and what they were listening to at the time – the hip music, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and Stan Getz.
"A lot of people don’t give the older Jamaican musicians credit for the breadth of music they were listening to. It could go from Ace Cannon to John Coltrane in five minutes, to [country singer] Charley Pride and [pianist] Bill Doggett, blues to modern jazz. It was listened to on the radio, from New Orleans – it wasn't until the late 1950s that people like [producer] Coxsone Dodd would buy songs and bring them back to Jamaica. They’d listen to whatever was on the radio, and if it was on the radio it was good … or at least entertaining. They were very practical."
It was the combination of North American jazz, and rhythm and blues, coupled with Jamaican mento music that shaped the early bluebeat and ska popularised by Trojan.
Says Gary: "If you listen to that music of the 1950s, along with Jamaican R&B and soul, you can hear that’s where ska comes from."
And the influence of those Trojan releases can still be felt today, with the membership of the Jazz Jamaica All Stars perfect proof of its generational appeal.
“It goes from us old geezers to these young teenagers,” laughs Gary. “That does show you the breadth of influence of that music.”
Jazz Jamaica All Stars: The Trojan Story is at Town Hall Birmingham on Friday, 25 October 2019.