On September 4, Rico Rodriguez – a pioneering ska trombonist who worked with The Specials, Toots & The Maytals and more – died aged 80, after a long illness. FACT’s David Katz remembers Rodriguez, with quotes from a past interview conducted with him.
The expressive trombonist Rico Rodriguez made massive contributions to the establishment of ska, not only in his native Jamaica but in his adopted home of Britain. Rico took a multifaceted approach to an instrument that is not especially known for its versatility, which resulted in uncommon sounds that were often striking. As his career progressed, he yielded impressive hybrids that melded ska, jazz, reggae and the niyabinghi music of Rastafari, which affected a wide and diverse audience around the world. He remained a very humble and grounded man despite his many achievements, and his death at the age of 80, following a brief illness, has brought an end to the life of one of Jamaica’s most cherished musicians.
Rico was born Emmanuel Rodriguez in Kingston in 1934 and raised in slum housing on Mark Lane, one of the many narrow, overcrowded streets that run northwards from Kingston Harbour. Rico’s mother hailed from the rural parish of St Ann, and like many young women of her generation she travelled to Kingston to work as a domestic; his father was a merchant seaman from Cuba, who probably was not in Jamaica for long.
With money in perpetually short supply, Rico’s mother struggled to keep food on the table. Thus, in 1940, Rico was enrolled in the Alpha Boys School, the famed Catholic charitable institution at South Camp Road at which several of Jamaica’s most noteworthy horn players learned their craft. Rico told me that although the discipline was unduly harsh there and the conditions beyond basic, the end result was definitely positive:
“The upbringing was very hard, and not really happy. All the juniors want to be as good as the seniors, and we didn’t have much joy cause we didn’t have an instrument; to get an instrument, you got to be very excellent, and those who cannot play so good don’t have no instrument. So the competition was so high, and a lot of development come through that. If you have 10 trombone players, maybe you have four trombones, so to get a trombone, you have to be better than two or three people. And we could only get a half-day practice, for we don’t go to school all day like the average person; we go to school half-day, music half-day. So the little chance you get, you did as much as you could, and that have a lot to do with our style.”
The intensive musical curriculum also exposed him to the work of many American jazz greats. “When we were coming up, it was the swing era, so we listen to a lot of Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton. Later, listening to people like Clifford Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Charlie Parker, those were our chief musicians. Listening to those musicians at that early stage was like magic, and we learned that to achieve this magic was one of the world’s very hard things.”
At Alpha, the junior musicians were tutored by the senior musicians, and Rico got his greatest tutelage from Don Drummond, the legendary musician who would later be ranked one of the world’s top trombonists. But Rico said that he was more than just a mentor: the enigmatic and mentally-unstable musician was also one of his closest friends. “The most that I know on trombone is what he taught me. He was the only musician that I could sit and practice with every day. More than any other musician from Jamaica, he was my friend, and I was one of the closest musician friends he had. I got a lot from Don Drummond.”
When Rico left Alpha, he worked as an apprentice mechanic for a couple of years, then continued to study music at Stony Hill Industrial School. He joined the Eric Deans Orchestra and began recording in 1957, playing on many of the earliest Jamaican recordings ever made. His late 50s output is simply incredible, including heavily influential songs such as Theophilus Beckford’s ‘Easy Snappin,’ the Folkes Brothers’ ‘Oh Carolina,’ Lloyd Clarke’s ‘Parapinto Boogie,’ and hundreds more. He also issued solo work like ‘Stew Peas And Cornflakes’ for Duke Reid and songs like ‘Lightning Street’ for Randy’s.
“I really never studied the trombone technique … I don’t play with that amount of technique — it’s more soul feeling.”
In 1958, Rico moved to the Rastafari community established by Count Ossie at Wareika Hill, on the eastern outskirts of Kingston. His playing style became more unfettered, and the Rastafari lifestyle greatly affected his outlook on life. His close friendship with Count Ossie yielded great work for Harry Mudie and Studio One, and he and Ossie became firm friends.
Rico left Jamaica in December 1961 to travel to London by boat. In the UK, he worked for Chris Blackwell and Laurel Aitken and helped ska take hold by backing Prince Buster’s UK tours and by playing in Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames. A link with Dandy Livingston helped reggae to gain acceptability through the 1967 single, ‘Rudy A Message To You’ [later covered by The Specials as ‘A Message To You, Rudy’] Albums like Blow Your Horn and Rico In Reggaeland maintained his solo profile, and his membership of the Undivided band yielded an album for Decca in the early 70s. Despite this, Rico had to endure manual work to survive in Britain, and was sometimes pining for Jamaica so badly that he would search for friends from home that might be arriving at incoming ships at the docks.
There was considerable relief in the mid-70s once Rico began working on sessions for Island Records, which brought him onto Toots and the Maytals’ Reggae Got Soul and some Jim Capaldi material. The Island link finally allowed him to return to Jamaica for Man From Wareika (issued by Island in Britain and Blue Note in the States), a marvellous reggae-jazz hybrid album that revealed him as a major talent. Rico then became the support act on Bob Marley and the Wailers’ European tour, and subsequently became part of the Specials, adding another dimension to their first two albums and the defining solo on the ‘Ghost Town’ hit.
“Playing with the Specials was a good atmosphere,” Rico emphasized. “It was very good to be with a band that was so successful. But after they broke up, I went to Jamaica and I did a lot of research into music.” The result was the impressive Two-Tone albums That Man Is Forward and Jama Rico. Afterwards, he retreated from the limelight in Jamaica for a while, but was brought back from retirement by the Heartbeat Band from Switzerland, and he worked with Fizze, Jazz Jamaica and Linton Kwesi Johnson in this era too. Then came his long residency with Jools Holland and his subsequent MBE, awarded in 2007.
Since he played on so many influential recordings, Rico’s legacy is weightier than most. Ultimately, it is the uncommon and instinctive nature of his playing which sets his work apart, and which has made his output so lasting. As he explained, “I don’t play trombone like a trombonist, I play trombone like saxophone. I really never studied the trombone technique, and maybe if I studied the trombone technique, I wouldn’t be so popular; I would have been sounding like one of the other technicians. Because I don’t play with that amount of technique—it’s more soul feeling.”