Legendary Trombonist, Rico Passes Away

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A brief overview of Rico’s musical follows, although of course it merely touches upon his talents and many achievements over a career spanning more than half a century..

From the Duke Reid Group to the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, from ghetto studios to the stage of ‘Top Of The Pops’, from the heat of Kingston to the less inspiring climate of suburban London, it had been a long musical and geographical journey for Emmanuel ‘Rico’ Rodriguez. During his 50 plus year musical odyssey, one thing has remained constant: Rico’s trombone sound – rugged, eloquent, uncompromising and rarely more than two steps from the blues.

Rico was born in Kingston on October 17th 1934 and was educated at the famed Alpha Boys’ School, a remarkable institution in which Catholic nuns took in wayward youths and transformed them into accomplished musicians. Though he wanted to learn the saxophone, he ended up mastering the trombone. In the 1950s, after leaving school, he began playing on stage, entering and often winning amateur talent contests. During this time, he also embraced the Rastafarian faith, a religion that was still to gain widespread acceptance throughout the island. He was in his mid-twenties before he made his recording debut, simply because there was no recording industry to speak of in Jamaica until about 1958; when he did, it was a memorable first session, as he played on Theophilus Beckford‘s classic New Orleans-derived shuffle ‘Easy Snapping’, recorded for sound system owner and up-and-coming producer, Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd.

Joining Dodd’s session band, Clue J & The Blues Blasters, alongside bassist Cluett Johnson, drummer Arkland ‘Drumbago’ Parks, saxman Rolando Alphonso and pianist, Theophilus Beckford, Rico added trombone to many pre-ska sides by early Jamaican stars like the Jiving Juniors and Cornel Campbell, as well as to fiery instrumentals such as ‘Silky’. He was obviously in demand, as by the early sixties he was stepping into the studio for other producers, such as Prince Buster, Lloyd ‘Matador’ Daley and Dodd’s great rival, Duke Reid. The driving R&B shuffles that he laid down with Duke Reid’s Group reflected the American discs by Joe Houston, Harold Land, Willis Jackson and many more hornmen who were popular at sound system dances of the era. However, ‘Duck Soup’, one of two completely different ska instrumentals named after the 1933 Marx Brothers film (Baba Brooks made the other one four years later) is one of the earliest Jamaican recordings to have a Rastafarian flavour, thanks to the burru drumming. The same theme is reflected in the title of his ‘Blues From The Hills’, probably a reference to the Wareika Hills that were home to many rastas.

In 1962, Rico emigrated to England, where he lost little time in hooking up with a record shop owner called Sonny Roberts. Jamaican-born Roberts was in the process of setting up Planetone, Britain’s first West Indian-owned record label. At Planetone’s rudimentary studio at 108, Cambridge Road, London NW6, our man cut a series of earthy instrumentals as well as backing other UK-based West Indian acts, such as the Marvels. Indeed, his appropriately titled ‘London Here I Come’ was the label’s first official release (the B-side ‘Midnight In Ethiopia’ was a further avowal of his Rastafarian faith). Other Planetone sides include ‘Hitch & Scramble’ and ‘Youths Boogie’, although the leader’s trombone only actually stepped in for the last couple of choruses.

In the mid-Sixties, Rico was in demand for session work, playing with British R&B man Georgie Fame, UK-based American soul singer, J.J. Jackson and the mighty Prince Buster amongst others. Others to benefit from his talent included Robert ‘Dandy’ Thompson, backing the singer-producer on a series of fine singles for R&B Records, most notably the original version of the 1967 classic, ‘Rudy, A Message To You’, while he also made a series of exemplary rock steady singles for South London producer, Sir Clancy Collins, on which he was reunited with trumpeter Satch Dixon who had also played on some of the Prince Buster tracks. After cutting ‘Orange Street’, named after the Tin Pan Alley of Kingston, for the obscure Charles Reid, he moved on to work with another South London producer, Joe Mansano. Mansano, proprietor of Brixton’s ‘Joe’s Record Shack’, would later have his own Joe and Arrow labels, but Rico’s sides were leased to Trojan’s Blue Cat subsidiary in 1968. ‘The Bullet’ in particular, with its rasping and aggressive tune over a heavy beat somewhere between rocks teady and reggae, found favour amongst the emerging skinhead movement. He followed it with ‘Return Of The Bullet’, as you would, and the earthy, backyard sound of ‘Friendly Persuasion’.

For the next couple of years, Rico must have been hyperactive. He cut numerous singles and several LPs as leader, and probably even more as a sideman. His first port of call in 1969 was Philligree Productions, run by Australian sound engineer, Graeme Goodall. Goodall had been instrumental in the early development of the Jamaican recording industry, having helped Ken Khouri open his Federal studio in Kingston where he subsequently engineered countless sessions. The best-known of his works for’Mr. Goody’ was ‘The Lion Speaks’, which found its way into thousands of skinheads’ homes as the B-side of Symarip‘s ‘Skinhead Moonstomp’.

Also in 1969, Mr. Rodriguez cut his first LP for Trojan Records, who assigned him to former colleague and now company staff producer, Dandy – a case of prolific sessioneer meeting prolific producer. With the Rudies providing the clean, well-organised rhythms that were always the hallmark of the Dandy style, our man cut the Blow Your Horn’ album, the highlights of which included ‘Caribbean Serenade’, with duetting trombone and trumpet imparting a carnival feel, the chugging, skinhead-friendly ‘Proud One’, and a version of the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’, on which the band managed to breathe some life into this usually dirge-like tune. Also from Rico’s short-lived sojourn with Dandy came ‘Blues’, originally the B-side of Tony Tribe‘s hit ‘Red Red Wine’, and a rework of a tune that Rico cut in a ska style for Randy’s in 1962.

The release of ‘Blow Your Horn’ coincided with another Trojan LP highlighting the trombinist’s considerable talents: ‘Brixton Cat’, which despite simply crditing joe’s All Stars, in fact comprised his work to date with the Rudies for Joe Mansano. That year, 1969, saw the sad death of Jamaica’s other great trombonist of the decade, Don Drummond. So, as if he wasn’t busy enough already, Rico beetled off to Trojan’s main rival Pama Records to cut the Rico In Reggae Land’ LP, subtitled ‘Paying Tribute To Don Drummond’. This was evidently a carefully planned release, for up-and-coming producer Bunny Lee recorded the rhythm tracks in Jamaica and sent them to London for Rico to add his trombone leads.

As the 1970s dawned, Rico teamed up with producers Shrowder, Bryan and Sinclair, then billing themselves as Bush Productions. Backed by the Des All Stars, he recorded some right corkers such as the R&B-based ‘Rock Back’, the more militant ‘Going West’ with its stabbing unison horns, a rock steady revamp of Justin Hinds’ ‘Once A Man’ and the retro ska of ‘One Eyed Giant’. Also from this time came ‘Waterloo Rock’, a Big Shot single cut for part-time producer Lloyd Campbell, who apparently worked at an afro wig shop during the week.

Over the four decades that followed, he  toured as a member of Undivided and Jazz Jamaica, released acclaimed albums like Man From Warreika’ andJama Rico’. He also became an unofficial member of the Specials/the Special AKA, with whom he cut a series of UK chart hits from 1979 to 1984 (including of course a revival of ‘Rudy, A Messaage To You’, while also playing on at least one other Top Ten hit from this time (some may remember him smiling shyly on the stage of ‘Top Of The Pops’ after blowing the solo on Paul Young‘s ‘Love Of The Common People’). His credits as a sideman are both numerous and varied: try Jim Capaldi, Toots & the Maytals, John Martyn, Burning Spear and Kirsty MacColl for starters. After a spell back in Jamaica staying with his rasta brethren, he’s back and has been for some years an integral part of Jools Holland‘s famed and excellent Rhythm & Blues Orchestra.

On 12th July 2007, his services to music in the UK and beyond were recognised when was awarded an MBE, while five years later, the Institute of Jamaica bestowed upon him the Silver Musgrave Medal for his significant contribution to the development and international success of the island’s music industry.

Sadly, in recent years, ill health increasingly affected his work, eventually resulting in a complete rest from music. His passing today has made the world a much sadder place. His quiet, unassuming demeanour concealed a passionate man with a profound talent, and he never seemed happier or more expressive than when he was doing what he loved most: playing music. He will be greatly missed by all those who knew him, either in person or through his wonderful music.