Friday, August 28, 2009

American Reggae of the 1970's & 80's: The Shakers - American Reggae Pioneers & The First Reggae Band Signed To A Major Label

The release in the U.S. in early 1973 of 'The Harder They Come', (a movie that required subtitles so that American audiences could follow the dialogue) had an impact far beyond its modest take at the box office. While the film had a cultural impact and developed a strong cult following in the years following its release, it was the movie soundtrack which captured the hearts and minds of like minded people across the country introducing reggae to a wider American audience.

In fact, the movie can be credited with giving rise to the first American reggae band -- The Shakers -- who were musical pioneers playing reggae when it was an odd, foreign sound to most Americans born and raised on rock and roll. The band's legacy, which is sadly unknown to most, includes being the first American reggae band ever signed to a major label (Elektra Asylum) and fielding a legitimate offer from Bob Marley to produce one of their albums. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning of the story.

The soundtrack of 'The Harder They Come' captured reggae at the moment it entered its own golden age at the start of the 1970's -- with a variety of styles, rhythms and exotic lyrics. It included songs by Jimmy Cliff, The Maytals, The Slickers and others -- soulful ballads, upbeat rockers and even songs that quoted scripture and preached peace. The film became a primer for Americans about reggae music and the Jamaican experience. According to an essay in The Criterion Collection, a film publication, 'The soundtrack of 'The Harder They Come' is something like the Sgt, Pepper’s of reggae—one of the hippest and most memorable collections of Jamaican music ever recorded."

Berkeley, California was the perfect birthplace for the first American reggae band. The city was open minded about music and its role as the center of the 60's counter culture meant that the songs of protest, rebellion and redemption that featured in much of early 70's reggae were embraced with open ears. The album electrified the music scene and musicians in Berkeley, (the physical and spiritual home of The Grateful Dead). One in particular was Ron Rhoades, a drummer living in the Bay Area who became a reggae convert after seeing the movie dozens of times and later haunting record stores for Trojan Record releases from the U.K.

Rhoades was a local musician who had played with a few rock bands but was quickly bitten by the reggae bug. He tried to get his band mates to play reggae, but the beat and feel of the music confounded most American musicians who could not get used to the odd offbeat rhythm. Undaunted, Rhoades persevered and soon had a group of musicians (including Josh Harris on keyboards who later joined American ska band The Untouchables) listening to and playing along with reggae and rocksteady songs they bought at the local Tower Records and taped off a popular Berkeley reggae show.

After a period of rehearsing and playing out as The Titans, the band became The Shakers and they were ready to play out and soon became mainstays at a popular club in Berkeley called The Longbranch performing a regular Sunday night residency for more than a year. Like the O.N. Klub in Los Angeles which helped to popularize ska in the early 80's, The Longbranch was responsible for the growing popularity of reggae in Berkeley and it booked reggae bands from Jamaica on a regular basis (Toots & The Maytals, Third World and other made their U.S. debuts at the club) which also made the music more popular with the locals. The Shakers became so popular that they garnered press in New York City in the mid-70's. The Village Voice wrote a long article about Berkeley and The Longbranch as the epicenter of Reggae in the U.S.

After their year long residency, The Shakers became so popular that they were eventually signed by David Geffen to Elektra/Asylum records in 1975 and went on to record an album produced by Chuck Plotkin called 'Yankee Reggae' (a moniker given to them by Toots Hibbert after the two performed and played together but also an omen for the sounds contained inside the LP). The band spent much of 1976 touring the United States turning people on to reggae music and what they knew of the history. They worked with, and learned from, many of the first "wave" of Jamaican acts to come to the U.S. including, Toots and The Maytals, Dennis Brown, Inner Circle, Eric Donaldson, The Soul Syndicate, Third World and many others. The Shakers further exposed reggae to American audiences when they opened huge stadium concerts for The Pointer Sisters, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Booker T and The MG's among others. Much of the band's first tour was spent opening for reggae groups on tour in the U.S. like Third World, Toots And The Maytals, Inner Circle, Dennis Brown, and Eric Donaldson .

Of course, Elektra-Asylum Records and their producer didn't understand reggae or how to promote the band properly. The label and producer Chuck Plotkin had the band record covers and watered down the reggae sound of the band. According to an interview that Rhoades did with Bob Marley Magazine in 2000, "Hollywood just wasn't ready for us although they (Elektra/Asylum) did sign us in 1975 and tried to make us sound like bright happy shiny kids with a new beat. They changed our sound so much that we weren't even the same act that drove down there. I got so pissed off at Plotkin for making me sing these tunes that I didn't want to sing that I went crazy and threw a lot of stuff from my hotel room in to the swimming pool. He would say..."you gotta sing this one...I promise you it will be a hit" and he was a big producer and so I trusted him I guess and did what he wanted and for years I hated that record because it wasn't us. It wasn't what we sounded like and they wouldn't let us get a Jamaican producer and they did take the fun out of our chance to be something."

Elektra/Asylum released the band's first single which was a cover of 'Some Guys Have All The Luck' (the follow-up was 'Baby Come Back' by The Equals). Rhoades and the band were disappointed in the choice and the final result. According to the Bob Marley Magazine interview, "I wanted to do one of my originals instead and Chuck and I fought long hard on this one but of course he won. I remember doing the vocal for that and I was so pissed off that i just sorta blazed thru it...and did a harmony track...and then another harmony track and on and on all while reading the lyrics off a piece a paper!!" The band fought valiantly but were unable to convince their producer or the label to let them be a real roots reggae band. Rhoades remembered one studio battle they did win, "I'll never forget the night we slipped a valium into Plotkin's coffee and an hour later he was asleep on the floor of the control room and we got the engineer to let us do a dub of one the tracks...Plotkin wanted nothing to do with dubs which to us were a huge part of our sound...we admired guys like King Tubby as much as guys like Bob Marley and it was all a part of who we were. We mixed up all that Jamaican stuff to create a sound of our own...and Hollywood took that away from us and basically took the soul right out of our music."

Amazingly, while the band was on tour during 1975-76 to support their album, they were able to connect with Bob Marley, who agreed to produce their next album if they would cover a couple of his songs. It was the break they were waiting for as it would have helped them get the reggae sound they longed for as well as much needed credibility in reggae circles. When the band relayed Marley's interest and availability to Elektra/Asylum, the label turned down the request believing that he lacked the requisite 'hits' to serve as a producer. Shortly after this rejection, David Geffen left the company and Joe Smith from Warner Bros. took over the label and dropped the band while they were still on the road. Rhoades sold the label the rights to his original songs on the album so the band could finish the tour.

The band continued to tour after being dropped, with a variety of old and new members. In 1980, The Shakers became The Fabulous Titans, returning to the sounds of Rock Steady and Ska, adding a horn section and Jamaican drummer Lloyd "Legs" Adams, whom Rhoades had met in the early 70's when he was Inner Circle's drummer. The band released an E.P and received a lot of airplay on college radio stations throughout the country. The record landed in the hands of a Cuban DJ in Havana, and became a hit with Cuban kids and the Fabulous Titans were invited to be the first American band to tour the island. It was a massive success, with the band playing sold out concerts night after night for 3 weeks.

I recently connected with Ron Rhoades who now lives in Hawaii and continues to perform reggae and surf music. He took time to share a very detailed history with me about the origins of the band, his introduction to reggae and the very early days of the band.

Can you tell me your introduction to music and ska/reggae music in particular?
I was raised in a small dairy community in Humbolt County in Northern California. The little town is called Ferndale and is much the same today as it was back in the 50's. I lived there with my parents and four brothers. I used to love to listen to the radio back then and started to fancy myself as a singer and drummer. I used to drag our rubbish cans up to the top of a small hill behind our house and bang on them with sticks i found under trees and sing as best i could the songs i would hear on the radio. Fats Domino, The Fiestas, Elvis and all that early rock and roll stuff. The neighbors could also hear me and would tell mom that maybe i had some talent. Mom taught me how to sing properly while i dried the dishes she washed and taught me how to sing harmony and stay on my note while hearing someone (her) sing a different note on the same melody. I fell in love with music....all kinds of music. I wanted to be a singer. Mom was very encouraging and bought a cheap guitar from the Sears catalogue which we boys banged around until it was destroyed!! Remember we were just kids. She bought me a little "toy" drum set with a picture of Spike Jones and His City Slickers on the bass drum head which was destroyed in about a month or so and she bought this little wheezing keyboard thing that plugged into the wall that had keyboard notes as well as push buttons to make chords. You could push the buttons to make chords with your left hand while playing along on single notes with your right hand. I don't think we destroyed that one because it was mom's and not ours to destroy. The memory of these instruments and the time i spent trying to figure them out stayed with me my entire life. Even though we destroyed most of them, i realized that i wanted to be a musician and singer.

My father died when i was 11 years old and we moved away from Ferndale and wound up in Felton a small town in the Santa Cruz mountains. Then on to a small beach town in Central California named Shell Beach which was a mile or so North of Pismo Beach. That's where mom bought me my first real set of drums. I played music with a few local guys and my first paying gig was for a grand opening of a furniture store in Grover City. I was maybe 14/15 years old and we got $3 each and a hamburger sandwich at the little restaurant across the street from the gig.

Mom passed away when i was teen and some high school friends that were going to college in Oakland came down to Shell Beach to ask me to come up to Oakland and play guitar in their band the Motley Crew (no, it was a different Motley Crew!) and it was a hard decision for me to give up surfing, a sport i really loved, and do music full time. Of course I decided to go with them and become a professional musician. That was in '65/'66 and i lived and worked in the Bay Area for more than 20 years. I was in teen bands that couldn't play in clubs cause we weren't old enough so we performed in rod and gun clubs, teen centers and high schools all over Northern California for screaming girls seeking our autographs.

I got an audition with a group called The Crabs who were a bunch of older guys looking for a drummer and i got the gig!! Those guys taught me how to act, what to say, what not to say, they snuck me into clubs to play before i was 21!! When i would enquire as to where my money was, I would get....."you gotta pay your dues" which meant you didn't get paid until they decided to pay you!! That "pay your dues" thing still haunts me to this day!! But i learned so much about the music business from them and I'm still very grateful for the lessons even though I went hungry most days and nights.

When i turned 21 in 1969, i got a check from the Social Security office for $1,200. It was my share of our fathers account. I was so happy. It was a complete surprise to me. I went down to Leo's music store on 17th and Clay in Oakland and bought my first set of drums. It was a brand new set of Rogers. I bought the Rogers beacause that's what Dave Clark used (The Dave Clark Five was my favorite group at the time). I also payed off a small tab the Crabs had there for strings and cables and stuff. I still have, and still use those drums to this day. It's really the only thing i have from my father. The drums still sound really good and I'll have them until i retire. They've been on many, many recordings and i used to rent them to Santa Davis from The Soul Syndicate when they were in town...oops I'm jumping ahead, but that's how I got started in the music business.

I remember a little 45 record in 1967 called "Hold Me Tight" by an artist named Johnny Nash that had such a differnt and unusual drum beat. I didn't know it was Jamaican. I thought it was a 50's rock and roll sound that I'd never heard. I didn't think much about it except that i liked the drum beat because it was so different. The very next year, 1968, there was a tune by an artist named Desmond Dekkar and The Aces..."The Israelites"...that had a very similar beat as the Johnny Nash song and it got my attention and I began to look for any info on this new sound.

I came across an article in the Rolling Stone magazine about Jamaican "rude boys" and a new sound that was being created called reggae. The article mentioned Desmond Dekker and Toots and The Maytals and Jimmy Cliff and a whole bunch of Jamaican artists that were at the forefront of this new sound coming from a tiny Island in the West Indies. The band i was playing with at the time, Knee Deep, was doing classic R&B stuff from New Orleans, Memphis and anything with soul that we could find!! I was discovering black music and singers and players and realizing that this is where all music comes from. I didn't want to hear Pat Boone's version of these great tunes and so i went on a mission to find as much black music as i could which led me to the Johnny Nash and Desmond Dekker stuff. Knee Deep tried to do a few of these reggae tunes but we just didn't have the feel or the soul of it yet.

What is the genesis of The Shakers? How did you find other musicians who wanted to play reggae?
When Knee Deep broke up I tried to find musicians that wanted to play reggae. Actually, it was called Rock Steady, a more uptempo version of what it would become. While trying to find players i was also looking for any information i could about Jamaican music. I was in Tower Records in Berkeley one day when i came across a "West Indian" import section which had some Trojan releases from Jamaica in there. We found out later that Trojan Records was an English label that kinda "sweetened" the original Jamaican recordings to make them more appealing to the white British kids. I would buy these compilations on Trojan that had white kids on the cover and would think to, there are white kids into this Jamaican opened a lot of doors for me as an artist. It made me think that it was OK for white guys to play reggae. Of course it didn't turn out that way, but it seemed alright at the time. From the very was NOT ok for white guys to play reggae music. Period. But I didn't know any better and set out to educate myself in Jamaican music. The records that i bought at Tower i read every thing that was printed on them! I wanted to know who the artists were, who the producers were and especially who the musicians were. The few names that you could get from a record then led me to guys like King Tubby, Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe, The Pioneers, The Ethiopians and just tons of new artists making wonderful records on shoe string budgets and cheap recording equipment and instruments. I just fell in love with it all. I don't know why really...but I did.

The first rock steady/reggae band i started was The Titans. It was 1973 and Knee Deep was breaking up so i wanted to try and find musicians to play reggae with. Of course there weren't any!!! Haha! I put ads in the local papers, bulletin boards and spread the word as best i could. I got calls from a few guys who were just looking to play music with someone but didn't know anything about reggae music and when they heard the few records that i had, they didn't like it anyway. Heck, i couldn't blame them. The records were "ruff enough" as they say! The instruments were out of tune, the records were all scratchy sounding, you could barely understand the singers not to mention guys like U.Roy and Big Youth and I Roy and Scotty and all the toasters as they were called then. It was a crazy sound for Americans to pick up on. My black friends called it "jungle music" and didn't want anything to do with it. They were embarrased by reggae music. It didn't discourage me though and i kept looking for players. I finally got a few of the guys from Knee Deep to try the new sound. Bass player Tom Dannenburg, roommate and sax player Carroll "Rico" Knapp and rhythm guitarist Hank Huenink with me on drums.

I had been buying as many Trojan imports as I could find and afford and was practicing reggae drumming in my bedroom with blankets on the drum heads so as not to bother the neighbors too much. It took a long time to just drop the kik on the two and the four. I mean it took a really long time to teach myself how to do that and keep the meter going and have dynamics and all that stuff for 3 or 4 minutes at a time. It was very difficult. I could drop the kick on the 2 and 4 but i couldn't capture the loose feeling of the Jamaican style. My drumming sounded very mechanical compared to the Jamaican drummers....but i was playing reggae!! I worked for hours every day untill i felt comfortable enough to play it with other musicians. To jump ahead a took me many years to realize that the soul of reggae was more of an oval than a circle. Once i got that oval thing down i actually became a pretty good reggae drummer...for a white guy!!

So Tom and Rico and Hank and I started looking for other players and came upon Josh Harris, a keyboard player/vocalist from Marin County and Joel Shankar a guitarist/vocalist from a nearby community. They wanted to learn how to play reggae. We all wanted to learn together and we became The Titans. I got the name from a t'shirt i bought at a thrift store. A black shirt with the words 'The Titans' in yellow felt on the front. We started to learn as many songs as we could from the Trojan records i had and we also began taping a reggae radio show from Berkeley station KPFA with DJ Tony Wright aka Tony Moses. He seemed to have all the latest singles from Jamaica and we recorded his shows to find material to do which was at that time mostly reggae covers of American R&B songs that we already loved and new. All we had to do was learn the Jamaican way of playing them. Josh was very enthusiastic about reggae and showed up almost everyday to play and hang out with the rest of us. He had the Jamaican keyboard "bubble" down pretty quickly and could sing while playing it which was no easy task in those days without any help from any Jamaicans. Bassicaly we learned how to play reggae from all of those records and tapes we collected. Joel was a 17 year old kid with a lot of desire and was a neat guy to hang out with and was a pretty good guitarist too. He also sang and wrote his own songs which was pretty cool. Hank was a good rhythm guitarist and sang as well. He was a really cool guy that was a little older than us and we looked up to him. He collected an amazing amount of Tony's radio shows on reel to reel tape and we would let those run and sit around and go "let's do that one" "hey, let's do that Delroy Wilson cover of Tom Paxton's tune" and just pick and choose which ones we wanted to try and do. Tom on the other hand was never comfortable with the monotonous bass patterns which were the foundation of the music we were trying to learn. I didn't blame him. It really was a foreign music and he just didn't get into it like the rest of us but he did the best he could for as long as he could and dropped out after a few months.

We actually booked a few shows while we were together but we were unknown and playing a kind of music that no one knew of and could care less about. That was also the beginning of hearing.."why don't you guys play some rock and roll so we can dance"!! I had people yelling that at me for years!! We also had an opportunity to record while we were together. An engineer named Paul Stubblebine offered to record us for free in his studio (The Church in San Anselmo) so he could learn to be an engineer. We did a bunch of tunes that i sang mostly but Joel had one of his originals in there too. The recordings are all lost except Joel's tune. What a shame because they were the first American reggae recordings i believe. Remember this was before 'The Harder They Come' which came out later that same year. We didn't know of any other reggae bands back then of any color!! I've since learned that there may have been another group called Blue Riddim from Kansas that was together around the same time. I found a record by an English band called G.T. Moore and The Reggae Guitars and they had some white guys and i wanted to move to England right then and be in that band. I tried to figure a way to make it over there but couldn't. I regret not moving to England in 1973 and joining a reggae band. Reggae as it turned out was accepted by the white kids over there but we didn't find that out for years. I tried as hard as i could to get American kids from our area to just listen to the music and give it a chance. I would say it's no different than American just has a different beat. I think people started to realize that when the movie 'The Harder They Come' was released in the U.S. It was a very popular underground movie about a reggae singer played by Jimmy Cliff. We loved it even though we could barely understand the thick Jamaican patois. That movie opened a lot of doors for us. We would say "that's what we're trying to do".

I hope to share more of Rhoades' memories of playing in the band, recording the album and touring the U.S. in the mid-70's as one of the first American reggae bands at a later date. The 'Yankee Reggae' LP is long out-of-print and is very hard to find, though copies are sometimes available for sale on Ebay. In the meantime you can also listen to several songs from the album on the band's MySpace page.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant story here. I knew Blue Riddim's music but had never heard of the Shakers.
Growing up in an area where no one was into JA music at first was pretty similar to that experience.
Very nice blog, just like BT's music. A long time aficionado.
Skalutations from France

Nicolas Martin said...

I don't know what The Shakers wanted to sound like, but the Yankee Reggae LP still sounds fresh and fun today. I digitized and depopped my LP long ago and it sounds pristine.

Unknown said...


Nice to find something on The Shakers. Too bad you never got around to telling the rest of the story. My father was the bass player on the Yankee Reggae LP. He's in the picture at the top, second from the right. If you ever wanted to talk to him, I'm sure he'd be up for it. Contact me if you're interested.