Scroll Top

Laurel Aitken

Episode this artist appeared in

Brief History

Born in Cuba on 22nd April 1927, Lorenzo ‘Laurel’ Aitken spent the first eleven years of his life on the island before moving with his family to Kingston, Jamaica, where his developing taste in popular music was further shaped by local Caribbean sounds, along with the American R&B and Jazz records broadcast by US radio stations and played at the island’s clubs and sound system dances.

Throughout his adolescence, Laurel worked on his singing and dancing techniques, honing his skills performing for visiting tourists and appearing on local talent contests, most notably Vere John‘s ‘Opportunity Hour’, regularly held at Kingston’s famed Ambassador Theatre. His singing ability was duly recognised by Stanley Motta who in 1957 took him to JBC‘s recording studio to cut ‘Roll, Jordan Roll’ and ‘I Met A Senorita’, both of which saw issue on pioneering record producer’s MRS label.

A number of popular discs for Dada Touri‘s Caribou Records followed, although his first major hit arrived with ‘Little Sheila’ b/w ‘Boogie In My Bones’, recorded for Chris Blackwell‘s fledgling company, Island Records. Released in 1959, the single reportedly spent some eleven weeks at the top of the Jamaican charts and marked the beginning of a run of hits for both Blackwell and the legendary Duke Reid.

In 1960, while at the peak of his popularity in the Caribbean, Laurel moved to London, where he was promptly signed to Emil Shallit‘s Melodisc Records, which had already issued a number of his Jamaican-produced sides on its Blue Beat imprint, including ‘Boogie Rock’, the label’s inaugural release.

Blue Beat subsequently issued a number of popular 7’s by the singer, but by 1963 Laurel had begun working with a number of Melodisc‘s rivals, including Rio, R&B and Island, which had also relocated to the UK. By now, such was his popularity that even mainstream operators, Columbia and Decca, licensed his material, although Laurel preferred to maintain a degree of independence by working for a variety of companies.

By the close of the sixties, ska and rock steady had been supplanted by reggae, the favoured music of Britain’s growing skinhead population, resulted in Laurel services becoming in even greater demand. After a number of hugely popular discs for Graeme Goodall‘s Doctor Bird Records, he produced a catalogue of skinhead favourites for Pama Records, while also working with the UK’s leading reggae company, Trojan, in the process gaining the mantle, ‘the High Priest of Reggae’.

The end of the original skinhead era and the rise of roots reggae in the mid-seventies brought Laurel‘s run of successes to a temporary halt, but although he began to ease off from his studio work, his popularity on the live circuit remained virtually undiminished. As the seventies drew to a close, Laurel began to be championed by a new generation of ska and vintage reggae fans, and in 1980 he finally enjoyed long overdue UK Pop chart success with ‘Rudie Got Married’, issued on Arista Records’ I-Spy imprint.

Now acclaimed as the ‘Godfather of Ska’, Laurel continued to tour and record over the years that followed and in 2002 was finally reunited with Trojan Records with his ‘Live At Club Ska’ album. But sadly, just three years later, on 17th July 2005, aged 77, he passed away after suffering a major heart attack from which he never recovered.