Perhaps more than any other city on earth, Memphis has played an integral role in the development of several musical genres, from blues and rock ‘n’ roll to subgenres such as power pop and trap. Lost in this mix is the important role that the Bluff City has played in the history of reggae and ska, and the small but important scene that continues to call our city home.
“The people who really know reggae and understand it’s history know that there is a debt owed to cities like Memphis and New Orleans,” says Joseph Higgins, a founding member of the city’s seminal reggae band Chinese Connection Dub Embassy. “I wish a professor or music scholar would sit down and really map out how the roots music from the South spread worldwide from Jamaica to England to everywhere else to create all these new types of music. When you step back, you can see that it’s all one.”
Before it was known as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, Sun Studios—then known as Memphis Recording Service—was the home to some of the greatest Black R&B musicians of the 1950s. Among them was a pianist named Rosco Gordon, a member of the Beale Streeters who was known to perform with his whiskey-drinking rooster Butch sitting atop his piano. In 1952, Gordon scored a hit with his track “No More Doggin’,” which would inadvertently prove to be a major influence on early ska and reggae. Although Gordon was unfamiliar with the music of Jamaica (and would remain so for decades), the island nation was absolutely enamored with American R&B, buying records from the American South by the droves. When “No More Doggin’” reached the Caribbean, it quickly became a local sensation, due in large part to Gordon’s signature piano technique. Known as “Rosco’s rhythm,” the pianist’s unique style emphasized the off-beat, a quirk that would become an important hallmark of ska and reggae for generations. “Ump-ska, ump-ska, ump-ska…”
During the 1960s, artists from Memphis and Kingston were in regular conversation with each other, at least musically speaking. Stax artists such as Otis Redding proved to be particularly influential to reggae legends such as Dennis Brown and Toots Hibbert, while Memphis acts such as Booker T. & the MGs began incorporating elements of ska into their own music. The MG’s 1968 single “Soul Limbo” is a particularly notable example.
“I learned about ska in the early ’60s from (audio engineer) Tom Dowd, so that was still fresh in my mind when we began recording ‘Soul Limbo’,” MGs guitarist Steve Cropper explained. It should be noted that “Soul Limbo” is the long-running theme tune for BBC Television’s cricket coverage, a nod to the dominance of Caribbean nations in the sport.
In 1988, the musical worlds of Jamaica and Memphis would come crashing together like never before when iconic reggae artist Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals arrived in the Bluff City to record his masterpiece “Toots in Memphis,” a collection of soulful reggae covers of Memphis classics such as “Knock on Wood,” “Freedom Train,” and “Love and Happiness.” Recorded at Midtown’s Ardent Studios with backing from some of Memphis and Jamaica’s greatest session musicians, “Toots in Memphis” is a bona fide classic of the genre and one of Hibbert’s finest albums.
“The people who really know reggae and understand it’s history know that there is a debt owed to cities like Memphis and New Orleans.”
Even Bob Marley, the undisputed King of Reggae, has some important ties to Memphis. In fact, without the help of Memphian Danny Sims, there is no guarantee that Marley would have reached the level of global superstardom that he eventually achieved. Sims, a music producer and promoter, first saw Marley in 1968 while traveling in Jamaica and instantly knew that the young singer had the so-called “it” factor. “What I heard was the next Bob Dylan,” he said years later. Sims promptly signed Marley and his vocal trio the Wailers to their first international recording contract, setting the stage for his cultural dominance during the next decade.
“He is one of the people most responsible for Bob Marley’s success who has gotten the least amount of notice for it,” reggae historian Roger Steffens told the New York Times.
Although it is undeniable that Memphis’ reggae scene has never been particularly large, artists like Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Yuba Kazungu and others are ensuring that the unique Memphis-to-Jamaica musical connection remains strong.
“What I love about right now is that artists have had time to sit down and really focus on their art,” says Higgins, who credits CCDE’s slate of new releases to the free time offered by quarantine. “Right now, we’re one of the only reggae groups in Memphis who keep it going all year round, not just when the weather is hot. But I’m hopeful that we can be a leader in continuing to build this community and organizing all of the different reggae acts together once things get back to normal. That has always been the goal of CCDE: building community and bringing folks together.”