Venerable guitarist Ernest Ranglin, the godfather of ska and an architect in reggae’s creation, will celebrate his 90th birthday on June 13. Prior to reaching that milestone, the self-taught patriarch of popular Jamaican music (and one of the finest jazz guitarists in the world) will release a new album, Two Colors (May 27, Tad’s Record), a collaboration with another Jamaican luminary, saxophonist and Two Colors producer Dean Fraser, 64.
Ranglin and Fraser have impeccably woven ska, reggae, jazz and other styles into their instrumental compositions for the album. “I wrote new songs because I am playing with young men, so I don’t want to put too much old something on there,” laughed Mr. Ranglin during an interview with Billboard at his home in the hills above Ocho Rios, Jamaica, in late March. The friendly, silver-haired guitar maestro exudes the warmth of a beloved uncle or grandfather. Turning to Fraser seated next to him, Ranglin added, “I have admired this man from when I first met him. He is the tops in this business and it’s an honor to be associated with him on this recording.”
The admiration is reciprocal, notes Fraser, whose prodigious talents are heard on innumerable Jamaican artists’ albums as a musician, arranger, producer, even back-up vocalist. “When I listened to what Mr. Ranglin wrote, it sounded everlasting. I treaded waters that I’m not used to, hoping to reach a level that blends with this rock star; I thank him again for even considering me and making this album possible.”
Tad’s Record founder Tad A. Dawkins, Snr. had long wanted to make an album with Ranglin; the 2020 pandemic lockdowns provided that opportunity. “We knew Ernie was here in Jamaica, so Dean contacted him for us, and it worked out,” explained Tad A. Dawkins Jr., inside Tad’s International Recording Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, where he produced Two Colors with Fraser. “For me, growing up, Ernest Ranglin was a god and in his signature stamp, he gives you ska, reggae, jazz, a little bit of everything.”
Protecting a near nonagenarian from a virus that has disproportionally impacted the elderly meant stringent precautions had to be taken in Ernie’s recording sessions. “We recorded at two different studios,” explained Fraser. “Mr. Ranglin scored his songs, and I took them to Kingston, recorded them with the other musicians (at Tad’s Studio). With the help of bass player Dale Haslam, who coordinated everything so well for this project, we took those tracks back to the studio in Ocho Rios and Mr. Ranglin played his part. For the songs I wrote, I returned to Ocho Rios then taught Ernie his part. That’s how Two Colors was made.”
Time hasn’t diminished Ranglin’s nimble, genre-spanning approach. He delivers awe-inspiring staccato riffs on “Lightning From De East.” His buttery chords and fluttering embellishments color the cool jazz meets reggae track “Papa R” and the album’s first single, “De Ranglin,” (featuring a spoken intro by veteran toaster Big Youth). “Rangos” evokes the landmark ska instrumentals of the early 1960s but played at a less frenetic pace. Highlighted by the stylish interplay between Fraser’s syncopated sax work and Ranglin’s fluid fingerboard stylings, “Rangos” premieres here.
Hailing from a family of gifted guitarists, Ranglin showed a precocious interest in the instrument; by age four, he was playing a ukulele given to him by his uncles. Born in 1932 in the inland parish of Manchester, Ranglin moved to Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, and at fourteen he dropped out of school to further his guitar playing, studying instructional books and watching as many musicians as possible. In 1948 he joined Val Bennett’s Orchestra, performing a repertoire of jazz, swing, Broadway show tunes and Caribbean standards. As he gained greater renown, popular Jamaican bandleader Eric Deans recruited Ranglin; following a performance with Deans in Nassau, Bahamas, the father of modern guitar, Les Paul, was so impressed by Ranglin’s abilities that he gave him a guitar and remained a lifelong fan.
Ranglin admits to having been a jazz purist for a time, but due to the negligible financial returns, he ventured into Jamaica’s recording industry in the late 1950s and became one of the most in-demand musicians within Kingston’s studio circuit. As an A&R at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, considered Jamaica’s Motown because so many reggae artists started out there, Ranglin created the off-beat skat guitar strum that defines ska and, likely, gave the genre its name. “Back then, we listened to Bill Doggett, Louis Jordan, people who played that rhythm and blues shuffle,” Ranglin recalled. “One night, I sat down with Coxsone, I was playing that same shuffle, but putting more jazz influence into it, trying to make something different and from that, we created that off-beat guitar stroke; the next morning, we went in the studio and recorded the first ska songs.” Ska was the progenitor of Jamaica’s rock steady and reggae; the latter, says Ranglin, resulted from his increasing rock steady’s tempo but making it slower than ska.
Ranglin led the 1963 Studio One session that yielded The Wailers’ first hit “Simmer Down” and he played guitar on the single’s B-side, “It Hurts to Be Alone,” both written by Bob Marley. Marley was so enamored with Ranglin’s talents he later offered him a job for life as his guitar teacher. “Bob really wanted me to travel with him, not as his guitar player, but teaching him how to do arrangements, so he could arrange for his band,” Ranglin stated. “I was touring with Jimmy Cliff at the time, so I had to turn down the job.”
Chris Blackwell featured Ranglin’s playing on one side of the debut album released by his then fledgling Island Records in 1959, Lance Haywood Live at the Half Moon Hotel, Montego Bay. Ranglin was Island’s first A&R; following Blackwell’s suggestion, he moved to London in 1964, where he arranged and played guitar on Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” produced by Blackwell, which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and introduced ska internationally. That same year he began a nine-month residency at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, where his fans included Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton; he was named best jazz guitarist in Melody Makers magazine readers’ poll. Blackwell calls Ranglin “the most important musician to have emerged from Jamaica.”
For an astonishing eight decades Ernest Ranglin has brought his incomparable musicianship to countless recordings and the world’s most prestigious stages. He continues to seek new ways to elevate his music and the music of his country. “You aren’t going to cook the same meal every day, you’ll want to do something different to make it more exciting so we can’t keep playing our music the same way,” he says. “I still listen and try to hear something in the playing or the composition that catches me right away, and if I do, I am going to use it.”