Tools of the Trade for Charley Organaire

Charley Organaire, whose real name is Charles Cameron, performed on April 14th in Chicago alongside Lester Sterling, the last living instrumentalist in the Skatalites, and Sultan Ali, son of Prince Buster. It was a fantastic show, billed as Two Legends and a Son and it was organized by Organaire and Chuck Wren whose dedication to ska music across the generations has been unwavering.

Here are a few photos I took at the show, including Charley Organaire’s beautiful coat that he wore during the show, his harmonicas in their cases, and of course, plenty of Charley!




charlie and lester

The following is a post I wrote in 2014 about Charley called “Charley Organaire–Master of the Harmonica:”

You may know Charley Organaire best from his harmonica solo in Stranger Cole’s classic “Rough and Tough,” (listen to it here: Rough and Tough), or over 1,000 other Jamaican recordings over the years, but did you know that Charley is still going strong, singing and harmonizing all over the world? His song, “I Never Stop Loving You” was featured in the classic movie “Love Jones.” And Charley Organaire is performing tonight in his hometown since the mid-1970s, Chicago, to kick off his European tour with the Prize Fighters, a stellar band from Minneapolis. Charley Organaire, along with Roy Richards, was responsible for pretty much all of the harmonica in ska and rocksteady, even reggae, during the 1960s and 1970s in Jamaica (unless you count Lee Jaffe on Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues,” because we all know, he sure likes to count himself!). The harmonica is an important but overlooked instrument in Jamaican music. But the harmonica not only provides lyrical musical harmonies—it also gives Jamaican music its spine, the essential rhythm that makes ska ska, rocksteady rocksteady, and reggae reggae.

charley organaire

Charley Organaire

Charley not only performed the harmonica back in Jamaica, but he also sang. In fact, in 1967, at a New Year’s Day show, a three-hour show at the Ward Theatre, Organaire was touted for his vocal performance. The Daily Gleaner article on January 3, 1967 stated, “One of the featured singers, Charlie Organaire, brought down the house with such popular hits as ‘Goodnight My Love,’ and ‘Stand’ By Me’ and was called back to give another performance.” As Rico Rodriguez would say, “Nice!”



Smoooooth moooooves! Charley Organaire

According to the Jump Up! Records website, which is the label founded and operated by Chicago ska, rocksteady, and reggae authority Chuck Wren, Charley Organaire has a rich history as a musician and entertainer. The Jump Up! website states, “Charles Cameron was born in Kingston, Jamaica on March 20, 1942. He was inspired by the singing of his mother Louise, and his neighbor Mr. Randolph, a mean harmonica player. From the early age of 5, Charles started performing in neighborhood concerts, churches, and lodge halls – reciting poems, singing and playing his plastic harmonica. At the age of 9, a talent scout named Vere Johns had Charles performing on the “Opportunity Knocks” radio program and at various theatres in Kingston, such as the Palace, Ambassador, Gaity, and Majestic. He performed with all the big singers like Jimmy Tucker, Winston Samuels, and Laurel Aitken, plus was a side-kick to Bim and Bam, Jamaica’s leading comedians at the time. In his teens, Charley “Organaire” Cameron performed with big bands lead by Carlos Malcolm and Sonny Bradshaw. Then Charles teamed up with Bobby Aitken and formed a band called the Carribeats, recording the hit track “Never Never” with Bobby on vocals, Charley on harmonica. Charley “Organaire” was now unstoppable, becoming a well known studio musician performing on sessions with Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Tenors, Derrick Morgan, Millie Small, Toots and the Maytals, Phyllis Dillon, Stranger Cole, and Lord Creator. The “Organaire” worked for the biggest labels in Jamaica: Prince Buster, Studio 1, Beverly’s, Duke Reed, Treasure Island, Highlights and King Edwards. Charley also started producing hits for his Organaire label, most notibly “Little Village/Little Holiday”, “London Town”, Illusive Baby”, “Sweet Jamaica”, “Your Sweet Love”, and “Let me Go”. Being one of the most popular entertainers in Jamaica, he moved to the north coast and worked in the tourist industry. Playboy, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Yellow Bird, you name it, he played there. Charles moved to Chicago in the late 70’s, eventually forming his own band called “The Charles Cameron & Sunshine Festival”. The “Organaire” band played in various night clubs, for major corporations, and political functions throughout Chicago including events for former Mayors Harold Washington and Jane Burn. Charles also played at Chicago Fest, Festival of Life, Taste of Chicago, and the African Fest. Charley “Organaire” Cameron continues to write and record to this day, the title track from his “Never Stop Loving You” CD appeared in the movie “Love Jones” starring Nia Long and Lorenzo Tate, and his newly released “Friends” CD features collaborations with Charlie Hunt and Steve Bradley. In 2012/2013 Charlie Organaire became a regular fixture at Chicago’s Jamaican Oldies productions at Mayne Stage, performing with Stranger Cole, Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison, Eric Monty Morris, Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott and Dennis Alcapone.”


Charley Organaire, center

My friend Aaron Cohen wrote a fantastic article on Charley Organaire in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune. Here is the text from that article:

“Charley “Organaire” Cameron is a harmonica player and singer, but sitting in the Good To Go Jamaican restaurant in Rogers Park, he is regarded somewhere between a celebrity and favorite uncle. He deserves both roles.
More than 50 years ago, Organaire performed in the instrumental section on a plethora of pivotal early Jamaican ska and rocksteady recordings. Since 1976 he has lived in Chicago, where he’s worked in different musical idioms; until relatively recently only a few fans knew about his historical role. But his upcoming first European tour will focus on the music that he helped originate.
“Charley was the harmonica sound of ska music, as well as an important arranger,” said Chuck Wren of Chicago’s Jump Up Records, which released three new Organaire ska singles this month. “He was on so many sessions; that Wailers tune you hold closest to your heart could have been 90 percent arranged by him.”
All of which began simply enough. Organaire listened to his mother sing and a neighbor play harmonica while he was growing up in 1950s Kingston. He heard different music through Radio Jamaica and from signals farther away.
“That one radio station in Jamaica would play country, blues, jazz and classical music,” Organaire said over glasses of Caribbean ginger beer. “A Cuban station would play Latin music. But where all music came from is basically the R&B from New Orleans.”
When Organaire was a teenager, he picked up a chromatic harmonica, which could play all 12 notes on a scale, as opposed to the more typical diatonic model that covers eight. His colorful tone and dexterity throughout shifting tempos made him valuable on pioneering ska and rocksteady recordings by the Wailers, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff. He owned his own record label, also called Organaire, which released his locally popular “Elusive Baby.”
“Back then we’d start every day at 9 in the morning and do no less than eight songs for each session,” Organaire said. “I had a great time working with (saxophonists) Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso. Since they were jazz guys, I learned so much from them.”
Those lessons proved helpful when Organaire got fed up with the Kingston record industry’s often desultory (at best) payment system, and he left to work in hotels and resorts on the country’s north coast. He’s still amazed that tourists preferred hearing him sing jazz standards instead of Jamaica’s own music.
After Organaire accepted an invitation to play in a Greek venue in Chicago in 1976, he stayed here. That gig turned into engagements at the Latin clubs that thrived here decades ago, including El Mirador and Las Vegas in Humboldt Park.
“I would play salsa and a little jazz,” Organaire said. “I’d also sing ‘My Way.’ It didn’t matter if you were from China; everybody knew ‘My Way.’”
A show at the reggae club the Wild Hare led to Organaire’s appearance singing his ballad “I Will Never Stop Loving You” in the 1997 film “Love Jones.” But for the past 27 years, his contributions have not just been musical. He has also worked on behalf of Chicago Concerned Jamaicans, a foundation that raises money to provide scholarships to needy students on the island.
“One student’s mother had six children and couldn’t afford a home,” Organaire said. “We helped her through a scholarship, and now she’s an engineer.”
Organaire’s generosity also emerged two years ago when he began participating in the Jamaican Oldies concerts that Wren has organized at Mayne Stage. Along with performing, Organaire helps the veteran artists feel more at ease working with much younger American backing ensembles. The musicians in one such group, the Minneapolis-based Prizefighters, have been fans of Organaire’s early ’60s sessions and perform on his new recordings. He does not expect this to be the last generation to rediscover his legacy.
“When the right time comes, all you have to do is be ready,” Organaire said. “If you stop, it’s over, and I will keep going on until I drop.”

Read even more about Charley Organaire here: World of Harmonica article

Read an interview with Charley here: Reggae Vibes interview

And visit Charley’s website: Charley’s website

And see Charley with the Prize Fighters on tour: Tour

Here’s a great blog post on the harmonica in Jamaican music: Harmonica


I Spy for the F.B.I.: Spy Imagery, Themes, and Style in Cold War Ska


The following is a presentation I delivered at the Pop Culture Association conference last month in Indianapolis:

“Like a cultural barometer, the rise of ska indicates when and where social, political, and economic institutions disappoint their people and push them to reinvent the process for making meaning out of life. When a group embarks on this process, it becomes even more necessary to embrace expressive, liberating forms of art for help during the struggle. In its history as a music of freedom, ska has flowed freely to wherever people are celebrating the rhythms and sounds of hope,” wrote Editor Scott Calhoun in the foreword to my book, Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation. Perhaps no social, political, and economic condition better prepared America for their rise of ska in the 1980s and 1990s more than the Cold War.

The Cold War began on August 6, 1945 — the day that nuclear terror was introduced to the world when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, according to Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert, editors of the book, Rethinking Cold War Culture. Though the fear of nuclear annihilation was present in the decades that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that fear reached a new height in 1980 with election of Ronald Reagan who declared the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and took the Cold War to space with Star Wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Kuznick and Gilbert suggest that the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union but state, “What is usually thought of as Cold War culture outlasted the Cold War itself and likely will be with us for a long time.” The effect was a culture of vulnerability, suspicion, and subversion.

This was the culture that welcomed the upbeat tempo, lively horns, and energy of dance and entertainment that was ska. It was the same respite from struggle and tension that had produced ska in Jamaica in the early 1960s, in England in the late 1970s, and now in America in the 1980s and ’90s. Though each country reinvented the genre of ska through their own lenses, blending it with other familiar musical forms and elements of the culture, threads remained the same. The ska beat, with the stress on the upbeat, the beat on the two and the four, instead of the one and the three in a quarter note measure, remained the same. The horns — trumpet, saxophone, trombone — remained the same. The fast tempo remained the same. In addition to the music itself, ska culture from Jamaica to England to America also shared commonalities, such as dance, dress, and attitude. These commonalities bound together fans of ska into a subculture with a shared identity. Central to this ska identity was the rude boy with origins in Jamaica, and the spy, with origins in America.

The Cold War spy character that emerged in American ska and culture was, in part, an evolution of the rude boy character of Jamaican ska and culture that appeared decades earlier. Jamaican Ethnomusicologist Clinton Hutton situated the rude boy as a manifestation of Kingston gangs and lumpenproletariat. The rude boy was a scofflaw, a criminal, one who defied authority. They were aligned with gangs and identified themselves as part of this subculture through their dress — sharp suits, sunglasses, porkpie hats, and pants hemmed high on the ankle. They carried German ratchet knives and were known to break up the dances where ska music played, since gangs aligned themselves with the soundsystem operators who ran the dances. It was a competition of soundsystem against soundsystem, and the one who drew the largest crowd was crowned the king. Rude boys were the henchmen who ensured their soundsystem operator would win that title, by mashing up the competitor’s dance — breaking needles from the turntable, starting fights in the audience, or worse.

The prowess of the rude boy or “rudie” was glorified by some vocalists, as well as used as a warning for others. Songs like, ”007 (Shanty Town)” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “Tougher Than Tough (Rudies Don’t Fear)” by Derrick Morgan, “Rude Boy” by the Wailing Wailers, and “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers, among dozens of others, chronicled rude boy badness. “Symbols of his culture are appearing everywhere,” wrote Jamaican music historian Garth White in 1967. White identified that, “Rudie culture items such as shoes, hats, music . . .” were means of identification for this subculture, a “lower class youth” that is “totally disenchanted with the ruling system.”

The image of the rude boy and rudeboy style carried over the ocean to England as West Indian immigrants populated neighborhoods of Coventry and London. The rude boy appeared in the lyrics of British artists like The Specials, Madness, and even The Clash. But the style of the rude boy became iconic when Jerry Dammers, leader of The Specials, drew a stylized version of Peter Tosh’s rude boy portrayal on the cover of the Wailing Wailers album. The result was Walt Jabsco, a character used to represent the 2Tone label that recorded most British ska during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This character, wearing sunglasses, porkpie hat, sharp suit, and cropped pants became, quite literally, a cartoon, an animation. The character/logo appeared on more than just record labels — it was a way to identify the subculture of ska fans, the self-proclaimed rude boys and rude girls, who belonged to this group. And it is this character, both the rude boy and Walt Jabsco, who influenced the character of the spy in American ska — a character wearing sunglasses, porkpie hat, suit, and possessing the same amount of mystery, intrigue, and badness.

Spies had been part of American culture for decades, as Michael Kackman observes in the introduction to his book, Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture. He writes, “Spies were everywhere in 1950s American media culture. Books, magazines, film, radio, and television were filled with the exploits of secret agent, real and imagined.” And I want to be careful to point out here that the spy in American ska was more an offshoot of the rude boy character, as well as a response to the Cold War itself, which I will discuss in a minute, rather than a continuation of the spies that exist in early Jamaican ska. To explain, a number of Jamaican ska songs covered spy movie themes or identified them in their song titles. This is because Jamaican culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and even beyond, shared an affinity for American film and culture. Musicians adapted some spies and other men of mystery into their ska and subsequent musical forms as a sign of that adulation. So Desmond Dekker’s “007,” and Roland Alphonso’s “James Bond Theme,” were more a link to American film — as much so as the Skatalites “Guns of Navarone,” Carlos Malcolm’s “Bonanza Ska,” or King Stitt’s “Lee Van Cleef.”

In American ska in the 1980s and 1990s, the link to bad guys and spies was something different. It was not as much tied to American film and TV, although there was that link, but it was also because spies were very much part of worldwide culture due to the intensity of the Cold War. And American ska treated these characters very differently than British ska because the cultures of these two countries were very different. Whereas British ska popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s treated social and political issues with a somber tone, American ska popular in the 1980s and 1990s addressed these issues with humor, camp, and novelty. Historian William M. Knoblauch writes of the difference between British and American music during periods of political discord. He says there is a “key difference: Whereas American artists remained upbeat during a tense Cold War period, British groups seemed more serious.” The Cold War terror of nuclear annihilation and fear of global destruction were alleviated in American ska through the theatre of the absurd. Martin Esslin, theater critic who coined the term, “Theatre of the Absurd” in 1962 states, “Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” Songs like Fishbone’s “Party At Ground Zero,” recorded in 1985, demonstrate well this absurdity in the face of despair. The music video, the stage in this theatre, is set in a club called the Atomic Underground and partygoers hold up martini glasses against backdrops of Soviet MIGs, newspapers with headlines proclaiming, “Russia has A-Bomb,” and footage of missile tests. The lyrics proclaim, “Time to sing a new war song . . . Just have a good time the stop sign is far away.”

It should be noted that there is a clear distinction between the absurd, and a theater of the absurd and define how American ska used the later. Ska music evolved in Jamaica in the late 1950s, early 1960s as a blend of indigenous mento, American R&B, and jazz. Because Jamaican ska began before the recording industry on the island was largely underway, it had originated as a live form of entertainment, and as such, the entertainment aspect of ska was a key component. So humor and levity as a means of entertainment became intertwined with some artists’ presentation of the music, in Jamaica, but more so in British ska as well as American ska. But the theater of the absurd was different. It was, as Esslin indicates, to liberate in times of despair, so this specific sort of ridiculousness, found largely in American ska in the 1980s and 1990s, was in response to the threats and fears of the Cold War. American ska used the theater of the absurd differently than the playwrights of this original movement whose commentary was more on a meaningless existence. Instead, this concept in American ska was used as a way to critique imperialism and mock the key players in the Cold War in order to bring relief to audiences and demean the power of the authority. The spy in American ska was a key character in this theatre of the absurd.

The spy became central in American ska whose fans were more akin to followers as this particular genre strongly aligned with identity. It was a subculture. Dress, dance, and style were crucial to ska culture as a way to define the self. Philip Gentry in the introduction to his book, What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity, poses the question, “What is the relationship between these waves of new postwar political movements and the musical revolutions that seem to dovetail so neatly? The cultural transformation at work here is more fundamentally the project of self-making called ‘identity.’ It is a project that is at once both psychological and sociological, a process by which an individual knows him or herself in relation to others in a specific historic moment. . .. Music — performing, composing, organizing, listening, and so on — became a space, and perhaps the most important one, for collective articulations of self. . .. In using it we lay contemporary claim to age-old philosophical speculation: Who am I? We similarly invoke the question of social allegiance: With whom do I share my lot?” For the youth who lived in fear of nuclear war during the later Cold War era, that identity was ska.

Michael Kackman writes that the spy in American culture was satirized and parodied by some television and film writers as a way to subvert “norms, narratives, and authoritative truth claims.” He states, “After the 1962 release of the first Bond film, Dr. No,” which incidentally was filmed in Jamaica and featured the ska band Byron Lee & the Dragonaires in a key scene at Pussfeller’s Club, as well as on the entire soundtrack, “many espionage programs quickly incorporated elements of self-referentiality, parody, and humor. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a self-conscious send-up of both the Bond films and earlier espionage dramas, while Get Smart was a spoof created by Mel Brooks.” Kackman continues that the spy in these instance “becomes the principal source of humor and critique.”

It is no wonder then that this is the character who appears in American ska during the Reagan and post-Reagan Cold War years. The Untouchables were perhaps the first to bring together ska and the spy in their recording of “I Spy For the FBI,” whose lyrics use the spy as a device for stalking and a paramour’s infidelity. This song was first recorded in 1966 by American soul artist Luther Ingram, then called Luther Ingram & His G-Men. Ingram later went on to record the classic hit, “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right).” The song had greater success the same year when Jamo Thomas recorded it with more spy style, both in publicity photos, on the record sleeve, and in television appearances. Thomas’s style was also similar to rude boy style as he appeared on dance shows in cropped pants, skinny tie, pork pie hat, and sharp suit. This song was then recorded in 1985 by The Untouchables, a ska band from Los Angeles. The group was named after the television show about Special Agent Eliot Ness, his battles with the Chicago Mob, and the takedown of Al Capone. The Untouchables, who appeared in the movie Repo Man because one of the band’s fans was Emilio Estevez, continued with the spy theme, including the 1988 album “Agent Double O Soul,” and the song “Bond.”

Other American ska bands in the 1980s and 1990s found intrigue with the spy; including Let’s Go Bowling’s song “Spy Market” in 1996; LA’s Goldfinger payed homage to the spy with their name; Save Ferris of Orange County recorded “Superspy” in 1997; Agent 99 formed in 1994, named after Maxwell Smart’s partner in the TV program Get Smart; and Undercover S.K.A. Band of San Francisco recorded the song “Our Man Flint” from a movie of the same name which was a parody of James Bond staring James Coburn, as well as the songs “Conspiracy” and “Agent 13.”

The Toasters of New York City, whose founder Rob Hingley established Moon Ska Records, the most prominent American ska label of the 80s and 90s, recorded “Matt Davis Special Agent,” “Maxwell Smart,” and they covered the Bar-Kay’s song “Soulfinger” as “Skafinger” in 2001. The song “Soulfinger” is perhaps best known for its inclusion in the movie the Blues Brothers, and perhaps less known for its appearance in the 1985 movie, “Spies Like Us,” as it featured prominently in the scene between the U.S. and Russian spies in a missile standoff. In 1990 the Toasters released their album, This Gun For Hire with a large illustration of a spy in a porkpie hat and trench coat on the cover. New Jersey’s Catch 22 recorded the album Keasbey Nights in 1998 which featured a spy scene on the cover and the song “9mm and a Three-Piece Suit.” The album was re-recorded in 2006 by ska band Streetlight Manifesto.

The Interrupters, a ska punk band formed in LA in 2011, continues the Cold War spy theme in their song, “Can’t Be Trusted,” set in the post-Bush/Cheney era of America. The lyrics state, “I don’t trust no one, under my pillow there’s a loaded gun. The CIA, they wanna put me away, the FBI just sent another spy. The FBI, get your hands off me. There’s no judge, no jury — Patriot Act took our liberty.”

American ska bands appropriated the spy in ska music through their lyrics, imagery and style on their albums and in their videos and live shows, and in zines. One zine called Rude Tales in 1997 portrayed the comic book narrative of a spy who doubled as a ska musician. His gun case featured the tools of his trade — six types of guns, swords and knives, and a trombone, saxophone, and trumpet. Another zine, Rude International, published in 1998, featured an order form for t-shirts depicting a rude boy/spy character holding a briefcase.


Now that Cold War culture has subsided, we are at another flashpoint again in our global political climate in many ways with many of the same conditions — growing threats of nuclear war, racism and hate, divisiveness. The Cold War ended when we tore down walls and now we build them back up, so will we see a new interpretation of ska to relieve our suffering spirits? There certainly have still been spies in recent ska bands, like the group Spies Like Us who formed in 2014 in San Antonio, and the Ska Vengers of New Delhi, India formed in 2009 and tour the world, singing their song, “Frank Brazil,” about an assassin. And we have certainly seen spy activities still make global news, as just this month a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent, and intelligence in the U.S. and Russia have been embroiled in investigations over meddling in our most recent election. Perhaps we will we see another character representing badness, like the rude boy or the spy, morph its way into ska — perhaps a superhero or a hacker, who knows? Only time will tell.

Birth Record for Sister Ignatius

birth record


I’ve been doing a little research on Sister Ignatius and found her birth record! Her birth name is Agnes Marjorie Reeves Davies and she was born on November 18, 1921. Her father was named John Davies and he was a planter of Innswood, St. Catherine, and her mother was named Ethel Davies, nee Starego.

I am desperately looking for any known relatives of Sister Ignatius–siblings, nieces, nephews–anyone, so please contact me at if you know of any leads. I will pursue like a bloodhound and report my findings here!

And you can read all about Sister Mary Ignatius Davies in Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music which was just published in November. Order at

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