Ernest Ranglin was born June 19, 1932 and grew up in the small town of Robin's Hall in the Parish of Manchester, a rural community in the middle of Jamaica. Music has always claimed a special place in the island’s culture, and Ranglin's destiny was set from an early age when two of his uncles showed him the rudiments of playing the guitar. When they discovered just how good the young boy was, they bought him a ukulele.
Ranglin learned how to play by imitating his uncles, but he was soon to be influenced by the recordings of the great American jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. Living in rural Jamaica, however, inhibited the boy's ambitions which, even at the age of fourteen, were focused on music. He then moved to Kingston—the country's capital—ostensibly to finish his studies at Bodmin College. Very high on Ranglin's agenda was to seriously study the guitar; something not on the school's priorities.
His lessons came from guitar books and late-night sessions watching the Jamaican dance bands of the time: he was particularly influenced by Cecil Houdini, an unrecorded local musician. By the time he was sixteen years old, Ranglin was acknowledged as the rising young talent in the city. In 1948 he joined his first group, the Val Bennett Orchestra, playing in the local hotels. Such was Ranglin's burgeoning reputation that he soon came to the attention of rival dance bands and, by the early-Fifties, he was a member of Jamaica's best-known group, the Eric Deans Orchestra, touring around the Caribbean and as far north as the Bahamas.
The big bands gave Ranglin the hugely beneficial experience of learning how to orchestrate and arrange. The typical repertoire of the day included tunes by Les Brown, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, together with Cuban music and the hot Broadway show songs. The constant tours also gave Ranglin a wider vision, meeting musicians from other traditions. Once, for instance, when he was working in Nassau his performance was heard by Les Paul, who gave Ranglin a guitar in admiration of his talents.
It was, however, back in Jamaica that his career was to be transformed by a chance meeting. In 1958 Ranglin was leading his own quintet, playing the leading hotels in Kingston and the resorts on the north of the island. One engagement was at the Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay, a show caught by a young would-be record producer called Chris Blackwell.
Immediately impressed by Ranglin's extraordinary talents, Blackwell offered him the chance to make a record. The album featured a pianist called Lance Heywood on one side with Ernest Ranglin on the other: it was the very first release by Island Records and the start of a long association between Ranglin and Blackwell.
By the following year, 1959, Ranglin had joined the bassist Cluett Johnson in a studio group called Clue J & His Blues Blasters. This was a very different kind of style to the big bands. Jamaican music was in a state of flux, the traditional mento superseded by a tough urban stance influenced by the pervading sounds of American R&B. Johnson and Ranglin recorded several instrumentals for producer Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd at Federal, the only real studio facility on the island. The first of these tunes, Shuffling Bug, is widely regarded as the first example of ska, the shuffle rhythm which exaggerated the 'jump beat' heard on New Orleans' R&B records of the Fifties. Ska became the bedrock of Jamaican popular music, leading to rock steady, reggae, ragga and all the innovations the island has brought into the global mainstream.
Ranglin's fluent and versatile guitar style, coupled with his arrangement skills, meant he was in constant demand right through the ska era. In addition to his work with Prince Buster and Baba Brooks, Ranglin was also remembered by Chris Blackwell who, in 1962, had launched Island Records in Britain. Blackwell had a song he thought could be a pop smash. He also had a young Jamaican singer called Millie, who'd previously recorded some sides for Coxsone Dodd. In 1964 Blackwell brought both Millie and Ranglin to London; they recorded My Boy Lollipop which, in the Spring of that year, reached number two in the UK chart. It went on to become a worldwide hit, the first time ska had infiltrated into the vocabulary of pop music.
Like his countryman (and current labelmate) Monty Alexander, Ranglin has always kept a close ear on developments in the West Indies, even during those periods in the late ‘70s when he was based mainly in the United States, and he has kept alive his interest in both jazz and Jamaican traditional musics.
Ranglin joined the Telarc label with the 2000 release of Modern Answers to Old Problems, an exotic mix of jazz sophistication and Afro-pop syncopation that featured a world-beat backup unit: drummer Tony Allen (formerly of Fela Kuti) and a crew of London-based musicians with Nigerian connections. He followed with GOTCHA!, a 2001 release that builds on the jazz-tinged reggae sound of his classic Below the Bassline album (1996), smoothly integrating traditional reggae and jazz with breathtaking precision. GOTCHA! also featured saxophonist Antonio Hart, percussionist Errol "Crusher” Bennett, bassist Anthony Jackson, pianist Warren Bernhardt, keyboardist Gary Mayone and drummer Steve Jordan.
Ranglin was the prominently billed special guest on pianist Monty Alexander’s Rocksteady, a 2004 release that paid tribute to the early days of Jamaica’s Studio One, where Ranglin and Alexander were young session players for some of the most legendary names in the burgeoning Jamaican music scene of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Ranglin’s latest Telarc effort is Surfin’, released in June 2005. Recorded at the legendary Tuff Gong studios in Kingston, Jamaica, Surfin’ unites Ranglin with a handful of premier players of Jamaican jazz, including Bo Pee on rhythm guitar and Robbie Lyn on keyboards. From the big brass arrangemrents to the wide open jazz solos to the wicked island rhythms, Surfin’ is an energetic musical montage, and quintessential Ranglin—reminiscent of the old school, yet fresh and innovative at the same time.
Winner of 2 Awards at the 13th Annual Reggaesoca Music Awards: the Lifetime Achievement Award and Reggae Instrumental Album of the Year for Surfin'