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Trojan Records, Legendary Reggae Label, Resurrects A Long Out-Of-Print Trove

Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, performing in London in 1980.
David Redfern
Toots Hibbert, of Toots and the Maytals, performing in London in 1980.

Updated June 18, 2021 at 9:47 AM ET

Growing up in Southern England, Bob Bell fell in love with Jamaican music as soon as he bought his first recording, in 1963. As far as he was concerned, the explosion of musical creativity in that country, fueled by thousands of Jamaican immigrants in the late 1950s and early 60s, was being ignored. Clearly, the U.K.'s musical gatekeepers didn't share his enthusiasm.

"Most of the establishment media denigrated reggae," Bell says. "The establishment just called it monotonous. And it annoyed me, because I had come up listening to blues and R&B and to me, the Jamaican music scene was quite similar to the post-war record scene in the U.S., where you had a plethora of independent labels."

In 1965, Bell went to work for the fast-rising Island Records, which would later sign Bob Marley, as well as Toots and the Maytals. When Trojan Records was launched in 1968, Bell became its production manager. At first the label's records sold mostly via word of mouth after people heard them at clubs and on pirate radio.

"It didn't see any national exposure at all until some of these records started to make a little bit of noise. By 1969, 1970, we had several records on the hit parade in Britain."

Bell came up with the idea of putting out a triple-LP anthology, titled The Trojan Story, in 1971 and was in charge of selecting its 50 tracks, which range from mento – the Jamaican cousin of calypso – to ska, rock steady and reggae. But Bell made a conscious decision not to include any hits on the compilation. Instead, he emphasized the music's breadth.

The 1969 song "Pressure Drop" by Toots and the Maytals didn't make it onto the U.K. charts, but it's one of two songs from The Trojan Story that made it into The Harder They Come, the 1972 film credited with greatly expanding reggae's popularity. The Trojan anthology had been out for a year before the film was completed.

"I didn't want to make it all reverential, necessarily, and scholarly but I wanted to give it some respect. I wanted people to be able to listen to the music and say, 'Oh, I see, that sort of influenced that and that influenced that and, ah, here we are: Now we're at reggae.' "

The Trojan Story anthology accomplished just that, says Kwame Dawes, a scholar of reggae music, professor at the University of Nebraska and native of Jamaica.

"This compilation is really covering about 10 years of important musical evolution in Jamaica," says Dawes, who grew up on the island. "Establishing that narrative of the evolution of the music to say that these are all in conversation with each other, that concept of a music that is evolving, was one of the achievements of that compilation."

Dawes says The Trojan Story is also valuable because it includes lesser-known recordings by reggae superstars like Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff. And, says Dawes, the anthology contains examples of what he refers to as the "reggaefication" of songs that aren't part of the canon of indigenous Jamaican music.

"Let's take the Maytones' 'Black and White' –

" – that tune is a ditty done by Pete Seeger in the 1950s. Then it becomes this reggae hit [through] this compilation, and then it's picked up in the reggae style by Three Dog Night later on."

One of the tunes on The Trojan Story that might be recognizable to even those unfamiliar with Jamaican music is "Message to You, Rudy,"which was covered by The Specials and rose to No. 10 on the U.K. singles chart in 1979. The original version was recorded in 1967, a time when there were several dozen songs about rudeboys – the titular Rudy, sort-of equivalent to a greaser – committed to vinyl.

"The summer of 1967 the rudeboy thing was happening big in Jamaica," says Dandy Livingstone, who wrote and performed the original. "Everybody was on to a rudeboy song, so I said to myself, 'Why not come up with something?' Which I did and... say no more. 'Message to Rudy.' "

"Trojan lasted, what, only seven years. Only that. But it seemed like 70. It was only seven years from '68 to '75. But within those seven years, man, Trojan Records influenced the world."

According to Bob Bell, at one point the label put out as many as 16 new singles a week – a saturating strategy that was ultimately blamed for the company's demise. Bell, now 74 and living in Oakland, Calif., has no regrets.

"We had enthusiasm, enthusiasm and love for the music, and you can't beat that. That becomes contagious."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jon Kalish
[Copyright 2024 NPR]