As a young teenager growing up in Toronto in the early 80s one couldn’t help but be lured by the infectious music that became known as “two-tone ska”. UK band The Specials embodied the multi-racial sound and look for which the style was named. This was Great Britain’s response to the massive impact that Jamaican music had on its youth culture.
Beginning in the 1950s, a wave of Jamaicans immigrated to the UK to fill the fledgling labour market. As Jamaican migrant communities grew so too did the music scene. By the mid 1960s, the music from the Caribbean island had infiltrated London’s pop culture. In 1964 Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” would reach number two on the UK charts. Cultural lines blurred as black music began to inform British culture, and second generation British Jamaicans began to find common ground with their working class neighbours. With the evolution from ska through rocksteady to reggae music would come a multicultural revolution against racism in the British Isles. Bands such as The Specials and The Selecter busted onto the scene in the late 70s, whose black and white members resembled the modern society from which they were created. “The English Beat” by their very name would embody the movement sweeping the nation, followed closely by Madness and Bad Manners, right on through to the advent of international superstars UB40.
The so-called “British Invasion” described the massive influence that bands such as the Beatles and the Stones had on the North American musical landscape throughout the 1960s and beyond. While the tide of rock ‘n’ roll was surging back across the Atlantic, the music of Jamaica was changing the sound of Britain itself. Bob Marley recorded his triumphant Exodus album in London in 1977 and The Clash were covering Jamaican hits such as Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” and Willi Williams' "Armagideon Time". By the time Marley died from cancer in 1981, reggae had permeated popular music. From Clapton’s version of “I Shot The Sherriff” to 10CC’s “Dreadlock Holiday” to Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”, reggae’s infectious groove was here to stay.
Back in Canada, Toronto’s Jamaican population had surged to almost a quarter million, and where there are Jamaicans there is reggae music. The Ishan People were one of the first reggae bands in Canada, a conglomerate of Jamaican migrant musicians, including renowned singer Johnny Osbourne. Numerous Jamaican Studio One alumni made Toronto their home, including The Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles, his mentor Brian “Bassie” Atkinson, and keyboard legend Jackie Mittoo.
I was fifteen when someone alerted me to a concert being held at Toronto’s Palais Royale in 1983. Rastafarians of Guyanese and Trinidadian decent had formed a band called Truths and Rights, which had a significant impact on Toronto’s reggae burgeoning reggae scene. I was hypnotized by their repertoire, including the memorable anthem “Time For Us To Unite”, from their powerful song "Black Plight". I returned to the venue shortly thereafter to take in their Jamaican counterpart The 20th Century Rebels, whose song “Running From The FBI” made a similar lasting impression on me. The Rebels’ drummer “Raffa”, who became widely known as the best reggae drummer in Canada, would become my mentor and champion.
As a youth growing up in Jamaica in the early 70s, Tony “Raffa Dean” White spent significant hours studying reggae powerhouse The Fabulous Five band, paying particular attention to drummer, vocalist and bandleader Asley “Grub” Cooper. Raffa moved to Toronto in 1975 and quickly became the backbone of the Toronto reggae scene, backing virtually every reggae superstar that passed through the city.
Toronto’s legendary Bamboo Club opened their doors in 1983, hosting the who’s who of reggae music in Canada. Legendary Jamaican artists including Leroy Sibbles, Frankie Paul and The Mighty Diamonds played there on several occasions, and a gig at the club became a coveted spot for aspiring Torontonian reggae acts. Canada’s most successful reggae groups, Messenjah and The Sattalites played there, as well as a host of young bands which included Sunforce, Revelation, Fujahtive, Culture Shock, Leejahn, Bongcongonistas (one of several groups that Raffa played with), and my first successful reggae group, Rockstone.
I had somehow been managing admission to the Bamboo since the age of 15. Even though I was four years away from legal entry, my face became familiar to the staff, so I was rarely questioned. I became a fixture at the ‘Boo, dancing amongst the throngs of patrons from every culture and walk of life. I had developed a penchant for reggae percussion and eventually I began to accumulate a collection of shakers and knockers I would tote around with me. It was a Mecca for reggae fans and bands alike, and as my musical ability began to catch up with my profound love of the genre, Raffa started encouraging me to sit in and play by his side. I was under ‘heavy manners’ and as such there was no room to stray from his timing. In turn it taught me discipline, and Raffa taught me groove. When he felt I was ready, we backed up iconic Jamaican singer Gregory Isaacs together.
I played for a spell with legendary Jamaican guitarist Ronnie “Bop” Williams, who invited me to come and hear him play with one of the heaviest reggae bands to emerge from the city’s Rastafarian community called Awanjah. The charismatic front man was named Prince, backed by Carlton Dinnall on bass. I caught one of their mesmerizing shows at PWD’s in Toronto’s historic Yorkville neighbourhood. The band played with such spiritual depth that I felt compelled to approach the bass player about working together. This bold move culminated in a brazen young band we named “Rockstone”. Following a recent falling out with the bass player from a Jamaican group I had been working with called Solid Foundation, I recruited the band’s drummer Mikey Flemmings and guitarist Derrick “Jah D” Lambert to join Rockstone. A fellow musician from Toronto’s Malton subdivision, Jah D had been an original member alongside Carlton in Awanjah. We coined the phrase “Four Tuff” as Rockstone earned a reputation for sounding like a full reggae band with only four players. When Mikey became unavailable to perform a string of gigs we called upon Raffa, who embraced the band as one of his favourites. The group played countless gigs in and around Toronto, culminating on a float in the annual Caribana parade in 1991.
Rockstone played an equal number of original songs and cover tunes. “Always On My Mind” was written by my friend and co-conspirator Carlton Dinnall in the early 90s, a song that I always believed deserved a good recording. This version is hereby livicated to our friends and band mates Jah D, who suffered a massive asthma attack in 2008, and Raffa Dean, who was consumed by cancer in 2014. I will be forever grateful for your lovingkindness and you will forever be always on my mind.