Friday, May 23, 2008

Blue Riddim Band - America's First Reggae Band

A few weeks ago I called The Untouchables America's first ska band. In that same vein the Blue Riddim Band were America's first reggae band. I picked up their only LP "Restless Spirit" at the famous Princeton Record Exchange in the mid-80's on a whim and it became a staple on my turntable. They had a minor underground hit with "Nancy Reagan" in the mid-80s and they also recorded a great and very hard-to-find 12" remix of the song featuring Ranking Roger called "Nancy Goes To Moscow."

Never heard of them you say? Well then you are in for a treat. This group of blue eyed, white dudes from Lawrence Kansas have the distinction of being the very first American reggae band to be invited to play at a Reggae Sunsplash concert. Their 1982 set as dawn was rising over the stage is legendary and they earned 2 encores from the crowd of 20,000 Jamaicans who were mesmerized by their "blue eyed reggae." They toured the US non-stop in the mid-80's. Their Sunsplash performace was nominated for a Grammy for best reggae album. Chances are if you were in college at that time and had a penchant for reggae you crossed paths with BRB.

Here is a great read on the band written by Mike Warren in The Pitch in 2002, a Kansas City entertainment newspaper. Unfortunately singer and trumpet player Scott Korchak passed away in September 2007.

Twenty-three years ago, Bob Marley played Hoch Auditorium at the University of Kansas. Local fans knew and loved Marley's music, but their regular exposure to roots-reggae came from the opening act, Pat's Blue Riddim Band, and that group's frequent visits to KC's Parody Hall and Lawrence's Off the Wall Hall. Kansas City's PBR, as it was, and frequently still is, affectionately known, held its own with the king of reggae that night.

Pat's Blue Riddim Band had a reg-gay old time in the 70's. "We were the first guys down the pike -- we had that opportunity," longtime Blue Riddim drummer Steve "Duck" McLane says, warm memories audible in his voice. "What was really cool [in our career] was having a chance to open for Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, and Black Uhuru. Every night we'd get clobbered by them, but we'd climb up another notch. It was a real chop-builder."

In its earliest incarnations, PBR consisted of friends who graduated from Shawnee Mission East in '67 and '68. "We were born out of that late-'60s Kansas City scene -- the Vanguard, the Aquarius -- places where people were hanging out," McLane says. "We'd all played jazz and R&B together, in all different kinds of aggregations." McLane, who started hearing reggae when he played in New York and south Florida in the early '70s, immediately knew it was something he wanted to do.

"I came back to KC and said, 'We really ought to try to play some reggae music,'" McLane explains. "It was big-time dance music, and we all love dance music, so we started experimenting. By '74, we had something that was workable, a band called Rhythm Funkshun. That band, basically a rhythm section version of what became PBR, broke up because it was a little bit ahead of its time.

"About a year and a half later, we started PBR," McLane continues. "We were playing 10 percent ska, 10 percent calypso, maybe 25 percent straight-up R&B, and the rest of it would be reggae. People were just everywhere, on top of each other, dancing."

During the early '80s, PBR toured nonstop, burning through two vans and 42 of 50 states. "We just had our nose to the grindstone and never stopped," McLane says. "We really should have taken more time out to record, but it was 'dollar a day, give us what you can' and keep moving. When it got to the point where we could actually play it good, we made a record [1981's Restless Spirit]."

PBR made several trips to Jamaica, where it learned from the genre's best practitioners. "Jamaican musicians are really approachable, and we'd hang out with them -- a cultural exchange," McLane explains. Equally accessible were Jamaican DJs. "When I flew down there in late '81, I brought a box of 25 records, and I thought, What the hell. I'll drive them up to [Kingston radio stations] RJR and JBC. While I was driving to JBC, I heard the song come over RJR -- and I just about drove off the road. I thought, I'm driving around Jamaica, and I'm hearing my own music on the radio!"

Six months later, Blue Riddim became the first American band to play Sunsplash in Jamaica. "We were voted co-'Best Band' of the entire festival," McLane says. "It blew me away that we blew them away. I was expecting pineapples and cantaloupes thrown at us. We're playing these old songs, and we're also from America, and we're also white. It's five o'clock in the morning, and they're going, 'What in the ... ?'

"The lyrics from the very first song, "Smile," are It's best to arrive with a smile on your face, and just at that moment, the sun was creaking up over the mountain and shining down onto the field," McLane recalls. "People are getting the sun in their eyes right as they hear these lyrics, and they started screaming and bawling and jumping up and down. All of a sudden you had 20,000 people jumping up and down." That performance, released in 1984 as Alive in Jamaica, earned the band a Grammy nomination.

Twenty years later, the Blue Riddim Band returns home for an encore. Longstanding veterans, including Scott Korchak (vocals, brass), Jack Lightfoot (trumpet), Jeff Porter (vocals, guitar), Jack Blackett (tenor sax), Joe Miquelon (keyboards) and Todd "Bebop" Byrd (bass) will be joined by folks such as Stephanie Cox (trombonist for the Loose Cannon Brass Band -- still another of PBR's permutations). Says McLane, "It's like any band that's been around for this long -- whoever's left standing who wants to show up can play.

"We lost Bob Zohn, a great singer and songwriter from Florida who died several years back, but basically the core of the band exists here in good ol' Kansas City," McLane explains. "It's great, because a lot of SDI [Strategic Dance Initiative] alums have come into the Blue Riddim fold, and we all play together. For this particular show, we'll have a taste of SDI, a taste of New Riddim [a more recent dancehall version of the band], older Blue Riddim, newer Blue Riddim -- whatever we're serving up at that particular time." For old fans -- and new -- it's a chance to get reacquainted with a band that made the Caribbean feel as if it were just next door.

The bands LPs and CDs are all out of print and hard to find. Here are You Tube versions of live performances:

Nancy Reagan Live at Reggae Sunsplash 1982

Live in San Francisco in 1982

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