Ernest Ranglin is a man of firsts. After being instrumental in the development of ska, he supervised Bob Marley & the Wailers‘ first release and soon after arranged the first Jamaican hit to break internationally. But that’s only half the story.
Ernest was born on 19th June 1932 in the rural parish of Robins Hall, Manchester, Jamaica. Two of his uncles were keen guitar and ukulele players and during his childhood he would often take their instruments and try to imitate their playing . Throughout this time and beyond,he greatly admired the works of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt as well as Cecil Hawkins, an unrecorded local guitarist. While still a teenager he joined his first group, the Val Bennett band before teaming up with artists such as Eric Deans, George Moxy, Joe Harriott and Count Boysie.
By the fifties, the budding maestro had developed into a proficient jazz guitarist, while also proving adept at the Hawaiian guitar – legend has it that he played the latter on at least one recording, cut on wax cylinders prior to the arrival of Stanley Motta‘s 78s.
Around 1959, he joined bass player Cluett Johnson as part of celebrated instrumental group, Clue J & His Blues Blasters with whom he recorded several tracks for producer, Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd at the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation studios. His work at JBC led to a poisition of musical director for Ken Khouri‘s Federal Records, which led to further sessions with Coxson and Prince Buster. His first solo recording, ‘Shuffling Jug’, is widely regarded as one of the first ska records, although such claims are always contentious.
Ernest’s beautiful, versatile guitar playing ensured that he was in demand as a session musician throughout the ska era and, as mentioned earlier, it was during this period that he arranged the Wailers‘ first hit, ‘It Hurts To Be Alone’. This led to his other famous first when, while in the UK at the behest of Island Records boss, Chris Blackwell, his services were enlisted as the musical director for Millie Small‘s international hit, ‘My Boy Lollipop’ and rarely for the time, was credited as such. Around this time, Island also had him record a series of highly acclaimed jazz albums namely, ‘Wranglin’, ‘Guitar In Ernest’ and ‘Reflections’ and once back in Jamaica, he was employed by the legendary Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid to oversee and arrange many of the recordings cut at the producer’s famed Treasure Isle recording studio in Bond Street.
From the late sixties and all through the seventies he was in demand as a studio musician and arranger for many of the island’s leading producers, including rising stars such as Lee Perry and Clancy Eccles. By 1973, his work finally caught the attention of the Jamaican government and he was awarded the Order Of Distinction for his contribution to music. Throughout this time and over the years that followed, he continued to record numerous solo albums and won critical acclaim for the releases of ‘Ranglin Roots’ and ‘From Kingston JA To Miami USA’, while also demonstrating mis musical prowess on the international live circuit.
The kudos kept coming and in 1992 he was recognised with a Musgrave medal, while four years later, his album, ‘Below The Bassline’ for Island’s Jazz jamaica imprint was critically acclaimed around the world. The collection featured sublime versions of such reggae standards as ‘King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown’, ‘Congo Man’ and ‘Satta Massa Gana’, each recorded in his own inimitable style. The success of the album led to the follow-up, ‘In Search Of The Lost Riddim’, which teamed the guitarist with Sly & Robbie, a union that continued with the equally superb, ‘Memories Of Barber Mack’ – a stylish and hugely effective combination of jazz, mento, reggae and blues. ‘E.B. @ Noon’, later issued by Trojan as ‘Ska Wey Dat’, while ‘Modern Answers to Old Problems’ saw release in 2000.
His next collections, ‘Gotcha’ and ‘Grooving’ issued the following year maintained his standing as Jamaica’s greatest ever guitarist, while in 2002, he received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University of the West Indies for his outstanding contribution to the development of music in Jamaica.
Since then, Ernest has cut futher acclaimed albums, ‘Rock Steady’ (with Monty Alexander), ‘Alextown’, ‘Surfin”, ‘We Want To Party’ and most recently, ‘Earthtown’, which also featured the talents of fellow guitarists, Charlie Hunter and Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith. He has also been the subject of a documentary (‘Roots Of Reggae: The Ernest Ranglin Story’) and been inducted into the Jamaican Music Hall of Fame by the Jamaica Association of Vintage Artistes and Affiliates.
Today, he continues to record and tour with great vigour, regularly demonstrating he has lost none of the dexterity that was first illustrated over eight decades ago.