Obituary: Rico Rodriquez, trombonist

Accomplished trombonist from the reggae tradition who contributed to The Specials' unique sound. Picture: Ray Stevenson/REX Shutterstock

Accomplished trombonist from the reggae tradition who contributed to The Specials' unique sound. Picture: Ray Stevenson/REX Shutterstock

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Born: 17 October, 1934, in Havana, Cuba. Died: 4 September, 2015, in London, aged 80.

RICO Rodriguez was a trombone player whose close affiliation with the sound of Jamaican reggae music and its UK-created descendant 2-Tone would put him at the forefront of the genre for half a century and more. Until the end of his 20s he was a Kingston-based session player for seminal reggae artists including Prince Buster, but arguably his greatest period of popular recognition was when he joined famed Coventry 2-Tone icons The Specials, first as a session player on their 1979 debut album, then as a full member on the 1980 follow-up More Specials.

During his time with the group Rodriguez played on some of the defining songs of the era, including The Specials’ hits A Message to You Rudy, Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town, the latter pair of which were number one hits in the UK, and he continued to play with the Specials’ offshoot The Special AKA in the early 1980s, following an internal split.

The last three decades of his life, with Rodriguez already into his fifties, saw him grow in demand as a session trombonist; he contributed to music by Ian Dury, Madness’ Suggs, Spiritualized, Ocean Colour Scene, Super Furry Animals and Ray Davies, and was a recording and touring member of Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra from 1996 until three years ago. Also a prolific solo artist throughout his career, Rodriguez’ 1976 solo album Man From Wareika on Island/Blue Note is acknowledged as a classic by lovers of the reggae genre.

Born in Cuba in 1934 to a Cuban father and a Jamaican mother, Emmanuel Rodriguez – known variously throughout his life to friends and fans alike as “Rico”, “Reco” and “El Reco” – was raised on the west side of Kingston, Jamaica, having lost touch with his absent father when he was young. He also had a sister, who settled in America and died some time before he passed on. That Rodriguez grew up in a family without a father was, in one crucial regard, to be the making of him.

Kingston’s Alpha Boys’ School had been set up in the 1880s by Catholic nuns as a source of education for wayward boys, particularly those without a paternal influence at home. Although the range of trade education the school offered was wide, music tuition was the particular speciality for which it would become famed. Many of the musicians who became part of the internationally-recognised ska scene of the early 1960s passed through the school, and one of them – Don Drummond, later trombonist with the world-renowned Skatalites – was Rodriguez’ mentor and music tutor.

Rodriguez left school at 15 to pursue an apprenticeship as a mechanic, but two years later he returned to education at Stoney Hill Music School, and over the few years which followed would make a name for himself among the musicians of Kingston; those he didn’t already know from school. He replaced Drummond in the Eric Deans Band, played with artists like Buster, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd and Vincent Chin, and joined the Wareika Hill Rastafarian commune of Count Ossie, the celebrated Jamaican drummer whose style bore Congolese origins.

In 1961 Rodriguez moved to London, and he spent the best part of the next two decades playing music while working manual jobs to pay the bills. Although his name wasn’t widely familiar at this time, he moved in the orbit of well-known musicians, particularly those playing as part of London’s post-Windrush era immigrant community. Not long after he arrived in the city, Rodriguez earned himself six months’ work as a member of Georgie Fame’s live band, and went on to play and recorded extensively with fellow Jamaican emigres like Buster, Siggy Jackson and Dandy Livingston (whose 1969 Rudy A Message to You – the song which the Specials covered – he also appeared on).

In 1969 Rodriguez issued three albums, Reco in Reggaeland, Blow Your Horn and Brixton Cat; in 1973 he was a member of the highly-regarded, Decca-signed reggae group The Undivided, who brought their album Listen to the World out that year; and in 1975 Man From Wareika was released, having been recorded in Jamaica and drawing on his time in the Wareika Hill commune. Commentators and Rodriguez himself have described it as his most complete work.

At the height of his Specials-abetted fame, and with Man From Wareika still fresh in reggae enthusiasts’ minds, Rodriguez supported Bob Marley and played onstage with The Police, before taking an extended sabbatical back in Jamaica upon the Special AKA’s demise. When he returned to the UK music scene, it was as an elder statesman whose warm, exciting playing was much in demand by a new generation of musicians.

Rico Rodriguez was awarded an MBE for services to music at Buckingham Palace in 2007 and highly-regarded Jamaican arts prize the Musgrave Medal in 2012, in recognition of his contribution to the country’s musical heritage. He passed away in London after a short illness.

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