By R.J. Villa
For close to four decades now, the Blue Riddim Bandâ€™s music has been rooted in the beloved traditions of Jamaica and the 1960s and 1970s. Their latest release â€œTributeâ€ has been a long time in the making. It stands a true homage to their origins, fallen friends and band mates. Playing music out of Kansas City, Missouri, the founding members of the Blue Riddim Band were accomplished musicians with jazz and rhythm & blues backgrounds. First and foremost, they were enthusiastic students of the broad and deep history of reggae. The music that brought all these musiciansâ€™ paths together has gone by a few names over the years. It started as Rhythm Funkshun in the 70s and continued on as the Strategic Dance Initiative in the 80s. Today, they are reunited under the bandâ€™s true name as the Blue Riddim Band.
The Jamaican musicians who originated and developed the music in the 60s and 70s have always considered themselves among the Blue Riddim Bandâ€™s biggest fans. Their primary influences were built on the foundations of Coxson Doddâ€™s â€˜Studio Oneâ€™ label and Duke Reidâ€™s â€˜Treasure Isleâ€™ label, the rocksteady compositions that became the basis for all subsequent Jamaican music. While other non-Jamaican reggae bands in America were falling in line to mimic the popular styles of Bob Marley or Peter Tosh, the Blue Riddim Band took their understanding of the jazz and R&B roots of Jamaican music to create their own polished sound. This was a key to unlocking a much diversified sound rooted in ska, rocksteady, and rockers reggae with regional switches to the latest soukous or highlife from Africa, or soca and Zouk from the Caribbean.
In the mid 1970s, the band began as Rhythm Funkshun in South Florida under the lead of multi-instrumentalist and composer Bob Zohn and percussionist Steve â€œDuckâ€ McLane. McLane and Zohnâ€™s early passion for Jamaican music was fueled by the Jamaican community in New York and their regular trips to Jamaica in the early 1970s. The Blue Riddim Band was born as the horn players Scott Korchak and Bob Blackett joined in 1977. As the bandâ€™s star rose, they found themselves touring and headlining their own shows with openings for major touring acts, including Dennis Brown, Big Youth, Culture, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley.
Tragedy and the brutal meat grinder that is the music industry put a quick halt to the acclaims the Blue Riddim Band was receiving. Bob Zohn passed away in the mid 1980s, robbing us of the ska vocal styling he had mastered and taking what unwritten music he had left burning inside with him. A â€œfarcical managerial arrangementâ€ in the 1980s robbed the band of their name, so they moved forward as the band Strategic Dance Initiative. In 2008, singer and horn player Scott Korchak passed away, but their music continued on. The groupâ€™s determination to redefine itself had been encouraged by a younger generation of Kansas City musicians who were well aware of the Blue Riddim Band legend, taking the groupâ€™s accomplishments as a point of pride for the cityâ€™s scene and rich history.
Today, the Blue Riddim Band is comprised of charter members Steve â€œDuckâ€ McLane on drums, Jack â€œBlackieâ€ Blackett on tenor saxophone, Todd â€œBebopâ€ Bird on bass, Jack Lightfoot on trumpet, Jimmy Becker on harmonica, and Joe Miquelon on keyboards. New blood in the lineup includes Chris Bartak on trombone, Dan Bergner on keyboards, Jimmy Dykes on guitar/vocals, and Edward Turner on vocals.
It had been 14 years since they last hit the studio to record an album. That hiatus ended when the group pulled together in the studio in 2009 to record â€œTribute.â€Â It is homage to their fallen friends and the roots rocksteady music that created the Blue Riddim Band. Tribute is an album rooted in the beloved traditions of Jamaica in the 60s and 70s, yet adding a more contemporary production context to their recording. It was released in 2010 through the label Rougher Records. From their humble origins as pioneers of Jamaican music in America to the new blood that continues to fly its flag today, finally the Blue Riddim Band was back as true ambassadors of roots ska, rocksteady, and rockers reggae.
Q and A with Steve â€œDuckâ€ McLane – Blue Riddim Band drummer:
The album â€œTributeâ€ stands as a true memorial to your fallen brethren, band mates and their influences. How does it feel to once again bring people rocksteady roots music under the name Blue Riddim Band for the first time in 25 years?
I guess Iâ€™d say it feels as natural as getting up in the morning or riding a bike. The timing feels right. For a while, we needed to give it a rest. But now, it is time to â€œmake movementsâ€ as they say.
With â€œTributeâ€ being homage to the timeless past influences of the band, do you have any memories of the bandâ€™s history you would like to share?
There are a lot of good memories, but probably the three that stand out the most are when the band opened for Bob Marley and the Wailers on their Survival Tour on Dec 6, 1979 in Lawrence, Kansas at the University of Kansas Hoch Auditorium; playing Sunsplash in 1982 in Jamaica and getting a Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album in 1986.
Even though we havenâ€™t taken to the road yet, we have nothing but fond memories of playing for people, especially away from home because it is just a great way to meet people. When the band was on the road before, it was of course a very different time.
When Bob Zohn and I were living in Long Island in 1972, we were playing in what was mostly an R&B band. We had already been hearing reggae music for 2 or 3 years and, back then, the people we were playing with wanted to have bands that people would dance to, but we kept trying to tell them that we needed to incorporate some reggae into the lineup. The very first time we worked up a couple of reggae tunes, we were in Stoney Brook, NY playing a club. It was like a bet with the guys in the band to see what would happen. We pulled the two reggae tunes out, back to back, and instantly the dance floor was crammed, which ultimately gave us the motivation we needed to start a band that just played reggae. Shortly after that, we went to Jamaica for the first time in 1973.
You have close to 40 years of music under your belt, what was one of your favorite moments on tour?
Short of performing at SunSplash and opening for Bob Marley, our manager at the time, Neil Leff, had gone to his father who owned a band in Topeka, KS and said, â€œDad, let me borrow $10,000, so I can bring this guy (Bob Marley) to Lawrence.â€ Theyâ€™d already sent their opening act home and needed an opener. Neil sent him the 10k deposit and a copy of the advertisement. Upon receiving the ad, Don Taylor (the Wailers Manager) said, â€œThere must be some mistake; we donâ€™t have local bands open for us. If anyone opens for us, we select them. Theyâ€™d better be good.â€
Neil confidently replied, â€œYouâ€™ll be surprised.â€ So the show went on. When it was time to do the show, Neil was worried that â€œSimmer Downâ€ was on our song list and said, â€œWe better ask permission.â€ I said, â€œNah man, they havenâ€™t played that for years.â€ Neil insisted, â€œWell, Iâ€™m gonna ask them anyway.â€ They said, â€œGo ahead, fine.â€
When we were on stage, about half of The Wailers were in the wing. As soon as we kicked up â€œSimmer Down,â€ they started dancing to it and the show went on without a hitch. They stayed a few extra days and came to our show at The Uptown Theatre in Kansas City. They sat in with us and played current top 40 hits from Jamaica. Thereâ€™s actually footage of this.
How did you get the nickname â€œDuck?â€
Iâ€™m flat footed, and when I came out of the swimming pool as a kid, the footprints looked like duck footprints. Animal nicknames seem to stick with musicians; Iâ€™ve known a dog, mouse, bird, and all kinds of things.
What is the marijuana culture like where you are based out of in Kansas City, MO?
Unfortunately for us, with the possible exception of Mississippi and Louisiana, we are in the most backward part of the United States. At this point, because law enforcement is so aggressive, what goes on here is pretty much behind closed doors and under the table. This isnâ€™t California.
What strains of cannabis do you usually come across out there?
This is where the â€œOld Daysâ€ really shine because back in the day, it was the Thai Weed and good Jamaican. In the early, early days, Red, Gold, Black Bud and ColombianÂ bring back the fondest memories. Modern dayâ€¦Typically, we see the better Mexican, Blueberry Kush, White Rhino, Silver Hazeâ€¦Thereâ€™s so many of these names, but who is to say what someone is bringing to you.
What methods do you guys prefer to consume your cannabis?
For us, spliffs have always been standard fair. We also love to smoke from the Chalice of course.
There is a lot of talk about old timers comparing the potency of weed from back in the day to what is around now. Care to comment on that, being as you have toured the reggae scene for decades now?
Not only do the Thai, Jamaican, and African hold a place in our heart, it holds the number one spot in our brains. Weâ€™ve heard and understand there are strains that compete with and surpass these; we donâ€™t have the personal experience to verify that.
Do you guys have any favorite strains you prefer to consume?
Hands down our favorite herb that any of us have ever had are the different African strains. The Durban Poison, Kenyan, and a Yoruba Nigerian strain â€“ the ones that are more mentalâ€¦as much mental if not more than anything else. What we prefer is the more sativa side of things.
Any upcoming shows, highlights or tour dates in the future you want us to call attention to?
We are hopefully going to be working on some dates with Bob Andy and Big Youth. We will also be playing the Prairie Vibrations Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska in May and the Midwest Reggae Fest in Cleveland, Ohio in August.
What are the Blue Riddim Bandâ€™s plans for moving forward? More recording sessions, albums, tours, etc?
Weâ€™re working on something with Bob Andy and also with Big Youth. Weâ€™ve got the Nancy Reagan remix with Big Youth on limited release vinyl on Rougher Records coming out soon. Weâ€™ll be touring with both of them.