Laguna Beach should be celebrated as a music colony — especially for world-class reggae — as much as an art colony.
It started back in the late ‘70s, when Laguna native Eric “Redz” Morton was 21 and gigging as the bassist in a L.A. Latin jazz band called La Luce.
Unfortunately, this was the horrendous period of pop culture known as the disco era, and fabulously textured Latin jazz wasn’t the music to eat ‘ludes and snort coke to. Disco was decidedly not a path Redz was willing to follow (anyone who knows the rootsy Redz can’t picture him in sequins and platform shoes).
Despairing over his prospects to make a living playing music, his bandmate Jack Miller one day asked, “Have you heard about reggae?”
FOR THE RECORD:
At the end of this column, the author suggests the city have a separate committee for music. In fact, the Arts Commission has a performing arts subcommittee, which puts on 19 concerts annually.
The only thing Redz remembered was that Paul McCartney said it was the sound of the future. So he checked it out. And from that first melodic, thick bassline with the big spaces in between that make listeners close their eyes and undulate, a lifelong love affair with reggae music began. It has drawn tens of thousands of reggae lovers to Laguna, and hundreds of players.
Bass is the foundation of reggae, and Redz wasn’t initially in the pocket, that place where musicians don’t think, but just feel. He knew that to truly master the gestalt of reggae, he needed to go to the source: Kingston, Jamaica. So this skinny Jewish kid from Laguna with fair skin and a shock of red hair packed up his band (then called Roots) and went to Jamaica for the Sun Splash music festival.
After two weeks the band went home. But Redz stayed, along with his wife, Debra Sullivan, the lead singer known as “Princess.” They lived for three more months in the mountains behind Ocho Rios, in Arawak huts, cooking food in tire pits and sleeping in hammocks to protect themselves from scorpions. Redz was the only white man in the jungle, yet the locals respected — and were perhaps baffled by — this alien from California with the red dreads and beautiful black wife living like a Rastaman. He was the Red Mon.
Princess and Redz eventually recorded in Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studio and did session work for other reggae artists as they honed their chops. They returned home with the reggae “riddim,” and formed their own band, The Rebel Rockers. The ska and punk scenes were nascent, but the Rebels brought that solid, heavy reggae sound that was so fresh.
“We took music based in the foundation of loving the Earth and true liberation for mankind, and adapted it to the surf and rock elements of Southern California,” Redz said. “Our connection to the ocean here brought that music into our hearts, and we recreated a real version of that music.”
The Rebels were California’s first reggae band — and a sensation. They toured the world, with their unique hybrid sound of California and Jamaica. The Rebels spawned an eco-system of world-class reggae players, and they’re still here and playing nightly. Back in the day, high schoolers like Nick Hernandez and Ron Pringle lined up — well, snuck into the bars — to soak them up. They went on to found Common Sense and World Anthem.
Trinidadian Jelani Jones is a balladeer extraordinaire and a keyboard fixture in many bands, singing the most luscious backing harmonies, along with Rock Dietrich, an in-demand studio and touring drummer and multi-percussionist. They could both front bands with their vocals, but choose instead to sing the sweetest backup harmonies in service of the band.
Belizean singer Massive McGregor is fluent in reggae, reggaeton and dance hall, and he ratchets up the energy of the band any time he shows up. Local guitarists Bob Hawkins, Ed Krebs and Billy Sherman are all versatile players, with the sweetest of licks.
Athletes get lauded for playing a decade. These guys have been doing it for three, with no off-season. They play some of the fattest reggae on the planet, with rich four-part harmonies, awesome lead vocals and driving rhythm sections. And they play often. Nick Hernandez is constantly performing in one of his bands, World Anthem’s played Thursday nights at the Sandpiper for 18 years (that’s nearing 1,000 shows, folks).
Plus, we also have the equally durable Missiles of October, Latin guitar virtuoso Kenny Garcia, and the incomparable singer/songwriter Jason Feddy, who deserves to be famous — and rich. There are many more too numerous to list. We should support them as the treasures they are to this community.
We have an Arts Commission administering city funds to support our artists, but most of the funding goes to the fine arts. How about a budget for a Music Committee that puts on public festivals so we can see more of our gifted players? It would be every bit the tourist draw as our art festivals, and these guys deserve our recognition and support.
BILLY FRIED is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna.