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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Reggae Loves Electronic Keyboards

I’ve been meaning to do an episode about electronic keyboards and reggae music. Even though I’ve always loved this music, reggae hasn’t been something I’ve focused on over the years. I just enjoyed it. So, in this episode, I attempt to represent, in recordings, the various electronic keyboards used in reggae leading toward the introduction of the synthesizer in the early seventies.

And while this episode features music in the reggae style, I’ve collected a separate set of tracks covering the interesting developments with keyboards and electronics in Dub music. This episode will focus on the song-based reggae music in the rocksteady style, a future episode with explore tracks in the dub style, which is a kind of remixers playground.

We begin with some early recordings from the foundational years of reggae on which the Hammond organ, combo organs, electric Clavinet, and Fender Rhodes pianos were often used. These formative years established the role of the keyboard in a bass-guitar-drums dominated style of play. The keyboard does a number of things. It could be played rhythmically with the rhythm guitar, playing and releasing each chord quickly in a manner that is synchronized with the guitar. A related technique is to quickly play chords on the keyboard in between those laid down by the rhythm guitar. This has been called the bubbling style of keyboard playing as well, wherein the reggae keyboard plays on all four beats of a musical bar and also between each beat. Reggae keyboard is also used to accent the rocksteady beat with fill and tiny riffs that are often repeated. A few of the keyboardists featured in this episode play a heavily keyboard-oriented style in which the keyboard, especially the Hammond organ, is the featured instrument, sometimes without any guitars at all. If you’ve got a Hammond organ, why not flaunt it?

I want to give a shout-out to Semaj Surreal who wrote an interesting blog about reggae keyboards that you might want to read.

In this collection of tracks I also feature certain specific reggae artists who either led their own bands, were producers of other bands, or simply studio musicians who were in great demand. You will hear tracks featuring Ansel Collins (producer and studio musician who sometimes recorded with the Hammond as the lead of his own group), Glen Adams (who was mostly a producer but sometimes led his own keyboard-fronted reggae group), Keith Stirling (who often played with Lee Perry and the Upsetters and Jimmy Cliff), Robbie Lynn (who played on over 900 records including many with Robbie Shakespear and Sly Dunbar), Winston Wright (Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff), and Tyrone Downie, keyboard player with Bob Marley and the Wailers from the mid-1970s on. He might have been playing a rare Wurlitzer Omni 6500 synthesizer on a track we’ll hear, which had two manuals and a string section.

The use of keyboard in reggae music diversified with the introduction of the portable synthesizer in 1971. The Minimoog and the ARP Odyssey were the first to be used and you can hear some examples in these tracks. Of particular interest to me was the group Vulcans. They released the album Star Trek in 1972 on the Jamaican label Trojan. Ken Elliot, British keyboard player for the group, is credited with using a “Moog synthesizer” on this album but I think it sounds more like an ARP Odyssey at times, so maybe he used both. This album was recorded in London but retained that familiar rocksteady reggae rhythms associated with Trojan. In 1973, Elliot released a second album called Interstellar Reggae Drive under the name Colonel Elliott and The Lunatics. I’ve included several tracks from these units for you to listen to.

There is a ton of music in this episode! The tracks are organized in roughly chronological order. I invite you to examine the detailed playlist found on the website for this podcast for information regarding each track.


1. The Wailers, “Lonsome Feelings” (sp) from The Wailers, The Mighty Vikings ‎– Lonsome Feelings/There She Goes (1964 Wincox). 45 RPM. Combo organ.

2. Glen Adams, “Warming Up The Scene” from Roy Shirley/Glen Adams ‎– Warming Up The Scene/Lonely Girl (1968 Giant) 45 RPM. Combo organ.

3. The Mellotones, “Uncle Desmond” from Sir Lord Comic & The Upsetters/The Mellotones ‎– Bronco (Django Shoots First)/Uncle Desmond (1968 Upsetter). 45 RPM. Combo organ.

4. Lester Sterling, “Reggie In The Wind” from Lester Sterling/The Soul Set (3) ‎– Reggie In The Wind/Try Me One More Time (1968 Gas). 45 RPM. Combo organ riffs. A reggae version of Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” by Jamaican saxophonist Sterling.

5. The Upsetters, “Soul Juice” from Dave Barker/The Upsetters ‎– Prisoner Of Love/Soul Juice (1968 Upsetter) 45 RPM. Piano and combo organ.

6. Eric Barnet, “The Horse” from Eric Barnet ‎– The Horse/Action Line (1968 Gas). 45 RPM. Combo organ, chords and riffs.

7. Winston Wright and King Stitt, “Fire Corner” from The Dynamites ‎– Fire Corner (1969 Trojan). LP featuring keyboardist Wright. Likely a Hammond organ.

8. The Upsetters, “Medical Operation” from The Upsetters ‎– Night Doctor/Medical Operation (1969 Upsetter). 45 RPM. Produced by Lee Perry. Probably a Hammond organ.

9. Reggaeites, “Harris Wheel” from Derrick Morgan/Reggaeites ‎– Moon Hop/Harris Wheel (1969 Crab). 45 RPM. Combo organ.

10.Upsetters, “Drugs And Poison” from Upsetters ‎– Stranger On The Shore/Drugs And Poison (1969 Upsetter). Probably a Hammond Organ. Winston Wright? Produced by Lee Perry.

11.Ansel Collins, “Night Of Love” from Derrick Morgan/Ansel Collins ‎– Copy Cat/Night Of Love (1969 Beverley’s Records). 45 RPM. Hammond organ.

12.Ansel Collins, “Staccatto” from Pam Brooks/Ansell Collins ‎– Oh Me Oh My/Staccatto (1970 Big). 45 RPM. Hammond organ.

13.Joe Gibbs, “Common People Reggae” from Nicky Thomas/Joe Gibbs ‎– Don't Touch Me/Common People Reggae (1970 Jogibs). 45 RPM. Produced by Joe Gibbs. The B side is a Hammond organ instrumental of “Love Of The Common People” by Nicky Thomas.

14.Lord Comic, “Rhythm Rebellion” from Lord Comic/Roy Richards ‎– Rhythm Rebellion/Reggae Reggae Children (1970 Coxsone). 45 RPM. Hammond organ. I love the rap-like rhymes in the vocal.

15.Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Soul Rebel” from Soul Rebels (1970 Trojan). LP. Produced by Lee Perry. Maybe Glen Adams on combo organ.

16.Zorro Five, “Reggae Meadowlands”from Zorro Five ‎– Reggae Shhh!/Reggae Meadowlands (1970 Decca). 45 RPM. Combo organ.

17.Lee Perry & The Upsetters, “Son Of Thunder” from Bob Marley & The Wailers/Lee Perry & The Upsetters ‎– My Cup/Son Of Thunder (1970 Upsetter). 45 RPM. Produced by Lee Perry, with lots of reverb for the voice and a bubbling organ part.

18.The Maytals, “Peeping Tom” from The Maytals/Beverley's All-Stars* ‎– Peeping Tom (1970 Beverley’s Records). 45 RPM. Combo organ. This piece plays twice but is part of an original single—the second part is instrumental and the organ is prominent.

19.Robert Lynn & Sound Dimension, “Zip Code” from Robert Lynn & Sound Dimension/Carl Bryan & Sound Dimension ‎– Zip Code/Cover Charge (1971 Banana). Hammond organ, around the time that the reggae synthesizer appeared.

20.Vulcans, “Joe Kidd” from Star Trek (1972 Trojan). LP. Guitar, Trevor Starr; keyboards, Joe Sinclair; Minimoog and ARP synthesizers, Ken Elliot.

21.Vulcans, “Journey into Space” from Star Trek (1972 Trojan). LP. Guitar, Trevor Starr; keyboards, Joe Sinclair; Minimoog and ARP synthesizers, Ken Elliot.

22.Vulcans, “Star Trek” from Star Trek (1972 Trojan). LP. Guitar, Trevor Starr; keyboards, Joe Sinclair; Minimoog and ARP synthesizers, Ken Elliot.

23.Colonel Elliott & The Lunatics, “Guns Of The Martian Giants (Guns Of Navarone)” from Interstellar Reggae Drive (1973 Rhino). LP. Synthesizers, Ken Elliot.

24.Jimmy Cliff, “World of Peace” from Unlimited (1973 EMI). LP. Hammond organ, Winston Wright; Mellotron, Flute, Strings, Cello, Synthesizer, Leslie Butler; Bass, Jackie Jackson; Drums, Winston Grennan; Piano; Gladstone Anderson; Lead Guitar, Hux Brown ; Percussion, Bingi Bunny, Bongo Herman, Denzil Laing, Sticky; Rhythm Guitar; Hux Brown; Tenor Saxophone, Flute, Tommy McCook Trombone, Alto Saxophone, Ron Wilson; Trumpet, Bobby Ellis; Backing Vocals, Bob Taylor, Glenton Taylor, Jean Watt, Judy Mowatt, Nora Dean, Ralston Webb, Rita Marley, Tesfa McDonald, The Heptones, Zoot Simms.

25.Jimmy Cliff, “I've Been Dead 400 Years” from House Of Exile (1974 EMI). LP. Bass, Jackie Jackson; Hammond organ, Synthesizer, Clavinet, Winston Wright; Guitar, Hux Brown, Dad (Duggy) Bryan; Piano, Gladstone Anderson; Saxophone, Flute, Tommy McCook; Trumpet, Bobby Ellis.

26.Ansel Collins, ‎”Far East Special” from The Admirals/Ansel Collins ‎– Natty Should Be Free/Far East Special (1975 Angen). This sounds like a synth and a Clavinet using a Wah Wah and echo. Very cool, Ansel.

27.Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Positive Vibration” from Rastaman Vibration (1976 Island). LP. Backing Vocals, I Threes; Bass, Guitar, Percussion, Aston "Family Man" Barrett; Drums, Percussion, Carlton Barrett; Engineer, Alex Sadkin, Errol Thompson, Jack Nuber; Keyboards, possibly a Wurlitzer Omni 6500 dual keyboard synthesizer, Bass, Percussion, Backing Vocals, Tyrone Downie; Lead Guitar, Donald Kinsey; Lead Guitar, Rhythm Guitar, Percussion, Earl Smith*; Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Percussion, Bob Marley; Mixed By, Aston Barrett*, Chris Blackwell; Percussion, Alvin "Seeco" Patterson; Producer, Bob Marley & The Wailers.

28.Third World, “Sun Won’t Shine” from Third World (1976 Island). Bass, Richie; Drums, Cornel; Keyboards and synthesizers, Ibo; Lead Guitar, Cat; Lead Vocals, Prilly; Percussion, Carrot.

29.Culture, “Two Sevens Clash” from Two Sevens Clash (1977 Joe Gibbs Record Globe). Alto Saxophone; Herman Marquis; Arranged by Errol T., Joe Gibbs; Bass, Lloyd Parks; Drums, Noel Dunbar (Sly); Guitar, Eric Lamout, Lennox Gordon, Robert Shakespear; Keyboards, Errol Nelson, Franklyn Waul, Harold Butler; Percussion, Sticky; Producer, Errol T., Joe Gibbs; Tenor Saxophone, Tommy McCook; Trombone, Vin Gordon; Trumpet, Bobby Ellis.

30.Babatunde Tony Ellis, “Ire” from Babatunde Tony Ellis ‎– Disco Baby/Ire (1980 MNW). Backing Vocals, Monica Bring; Bass, Backing Vocals, Virimuje "Willie" Mbuende; Drums, Performer [Siren], Backing Vocals, Bosse Skoglund; Guitar, Minimoog, Hammond Organ, Clavinet, Piano, Percussion, Vocals; Tony Ellis; Percussion; Per Cussion; Trombone; Anders Nordkvist, Renzo Spinetti; Trumpet, Tomas Sjögren.

31.Delroy Wilson, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” from Reggae Classics (1984 top Rank). ; Synthesizer, Robert Lyn; Backing Vocals, Dean Fraser, Dessie Roots, Junior Chin, Rudy Thomas; Bass, Derrick Barnett, Lloyd Parkes; Drums, Sly Dunbar; Horn, Dean Fraser, Junior Chin; Lead Guitar, Willie Lindo; Lead Vocals, Delroy Wilson; Organ, Robert Lyn, Winston Wright; Piano, Robert Lyn; Rhythm Guitar, Willie Lindo.

32.Burning Spear, “Resistance” from Resistance (1985 Wea International). LP. Synthesizer; Richard Johnson, Robby Lyn; Written-By, Co-producer, Vocals, Drums [Akete]; Winston Rodney; Bass; Anthony Bradshaw; Lead Guitar; Lenford Richards*; Percussion; Alvin Haughton; Piano, Organ, Keyboards [Casio Mt40 & Fender Rhodes]; Richard Johnson (2); Rhythm Guitar; Devon Bradshaw; Saxophone; Dean Frazer*; Trombone; Nambo Robinson*; Trumpet; Bobby Ellis, David Madden.

33.Keith Sterling & The Turbos, “Computer Broom” from Computer (1985 Sunset Records). LP. Synthesizers, Keith Stirling. Collection of cover versions using the “Sleng Teng Riddim,” originally a Rock preset on the 1985 Casiotone MT-40 keyboard. It helped bring reggae into the digital era. This is an entire album of variations using the preset.

Background music:

  • The Dynamites, “John Public (Tom Hark)” from Trojan Records Instrumental Reggae Volume 1 (2015 Trojan). Originally released as a single in 1969.

  • The Beverley's All Stars, “The Monster” from Trojan Records Instrumental Reggae Volume 1 (2015 Trojan). Originally released as a single in 1970.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

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