“Roland’s flavor was one of the first tastes of the nation’s emerging musical identity. His saxophone sounds shaped Jamaican music at its “Boogie Shuffle” inception and into Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae.”
Embedded in this version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by the artist dubbed “The Chief Musician” of Jamaica, Roland Alphonso is the alchemy that so often defines essential recordings in any genre: the fusion of the individual artist’s spirit, with history, the expression of a clear voice that is enhanced by echoes of the past.
This performance, or interpretation remains open, expressing vulnerability where contrasts can co-exist. There is something both melancholy and stirring about this music, from the very opening moments, in its purposefully naive interpretation of the extremely famous song. My use of the word “naive” is not a criticism, but quite the reverse, as I have never liked the Procol Harum original – here is a video of a 1968 live performance - that was a massive hit (winning a Grammy, reaching first place on the UK charts, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide), but I love the Roland Alphonso version and some other reggae takes, also included here.
Some have said that the Procol Harum song is the most popular/best/greatest British song of all time, sharing the honour with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody: two songs notable for their inclusion of the word “fandango” in their lyrics. The original may, or may not borrow from the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, one of the group’s song-writers, Allan Moore has said that there is “a certain family resemblance” that “creates the sense of [Bach’s] music but no direct quotation. (The music also borrows ideas from "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge, apparently).
Here is a truly beautiful performance of the Bach piece by the Mito Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa from 1990. I realise that the video might be a bit distracting, to get a sense of the wonder of the performance it might be best to listen to the music without it. Notice how the musicians allow the music to stay still at certain moments, allowing the music to rest before returning to the fold.
There are many performances of this piece, as you would expect for such a famous work; many if not most have a deep, unified approach that can border on the schmaltz, unfortunately, To get a sense of an alternative approach that is less lyrical but still retains some delicacy, not weighed down by this “united front” see this rendition by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.
Other reggae artists covered the song, soon after its release: principally Alton Ellis, prod. Coxsone Dodd, on his 1967 album Alton Ellis LP : Sings Rock & Soul:
This cover is another marvel (for me); the combination of the manic/maniacal keys and one of the best basslines, a mix of tentative and insistent - going no particular place - the jagged beat and then the really special delivery of Alton Ellis, all those added syllables and stretching of words, it’s so heartfelt. Beautiful.
Pat Kelly released his version in 1979, production by Ossie Hibbert:
While researching this work I came across two really excellent extended pieces on Roland Alphonso; these two essays stood out, even if there wasn’t much available online on an artist whose career spanned five decades and included working with the key figures and being a founding member of the Skatalites.
The first by Brian Keyo (see his site, Tallawah.com here which includes a great introduction to the era, “From The Aces To The Zodiacs, A Primer in Jamaican Rock Steady”) covers Alphonso’s career in enormous detail, with anecdotes that are both informative and frequently touching. After reading his essay, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998, A Remembrance of the Chief Musician” I felt like I had not only increased my knowledge of the artist, alongside his contemporaries but also had a sense of the man’s character and personality.
The second comes from reggaevibes.com and linked to the 2016 reissue of ABC Rocksteady on Dub Store Records. You can read it in full here, but following this is an extract that puts Alphonso’s career in context:
“Mrs. Sonia Pottinger is one of Jamaica’s reggae pioneers. She was the first female Jamaican record producer, running her Gay Feet and High Note labels out of her Tip-Top Record shop in Orange Street, Kingston. After some minor hits during the ska period she broke through in the rocksteady era with gigantic hits from The Melodians, The Gaylads, Ken Boothe, Stranger & Patsy and Delano Stewart. In the seventies she delivered excellent productions by Culture, Marcia Griffiths, Justin Hinds, Bob Andy and Big Youth. In 1985 she left the business. Sonia Pottinger died at her home in Kingston on 3 November 2010.
In 1968 she released an instrumental album by Roland Alphonso, “ABC Rocksteady”. The original liner notes reveal the motivation behind the making of this album: “It came about as a result of four months of intensive and extensive study by the producer – the need for proper orchestration was the first consideration – the lack of that “something” in most rocksteady arrangements, made it necessary to select a group of musicians who apart from their individual ability, could together provide unequalled harmony.” The album was known as “Roland Alphonso With The Originals Orchestra – ABC Rocksteady” and appeared on the Gay Feet label in Jamaica, in the UK it was issued by High Note Records with a different sleeve. The Original Orchestra were Aubrey Adams on organ and Lynn Tait on guitar. Bass player Boris Gardiner arranged and conducted the project at West Indies Studios with Lynford Anderson aka Andy Capp as engineer.
Roland Alphonso aka “The Chief Musician” (12 January 1931 – 20 November 1998) was a Jamaican tenor saxophonist, and one of the founding members of the Skatalites. Born in Havana, Cuba, Alphonso came to Jamaica at the age of two with his Jamaican mother, and started to learn saxophone at the Stony Hill Industrial School. In 1948 he left school to join Eric Deans’ orchestra. In 1956 he first recorded for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, although these early recordings were lost before they were mastered. He became a regular member of the in-house band of session musicians for producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid. He also acted as arranger at many of Dodd’s recording sessions.
By 1960, he was recording for many producers on the island and he took part in the creation of The Studio One Orchestra, the first session band at Dodd’s newly opened recording studio. This band soon adopted the name of The Skatalites. When the Skatalites disbanded by August 1965, Alphonso formed the Soul Brothers (with Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, and Jackie Mittoo) to become The Soul Vendors in 1967. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, he kept on playing on numerous records coming out of Jamaican studios, especially for Bunny Lee. He was awarded Officer of the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1977, and started to tour more often in the US. He took part in the reformation of the Skatalites in 1983, with whom he toured and recorded constantly until he suffered a burst blood vessel in his head during a show at the Key Club in Hollywood. He died on 20 November 1998 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.”
Below is an interview with Roger Steffens, where Roland Alphonso speaks in depth about his career on “The Reggae Beat”show. It also includes a live performance from 1985. Steffens starts by asking one of the “most controversial questions” in reggae history (relating to Coxsone Dodd and the Skatalites) to get a crazy-sounding laugh from Alphonso in reply as he shares his knowledge.