During the 1980’s in the U.S., alternative music continued to be a strong voice of protest against President Ronald Reagan and his policies. Perhaps the catchiest song to poke fun of the Reagan’s came from the Blue Riddim Band, an American reggae band, who wrote and recorded the satirical track “Nancy Reagan” about the President’s wife. With brilliant lyrics including, “All my clothes are from the best designers/All my china is a perfect match,” the song is a fantastic piece of Studio One inspired bass, drums and brass that may be one of the most overlooked reggae rhythms ever recorded. It used humor to make a cutting political statement about where the First Lady’s (and our country’s) misguided priorities lay during the 1980’s.
More significantly, this all-white band hailing from Kansas City, Missouri have the distinction of being the very first American reggae band to be invited to play at Reggae Sunsplash. Their blazing set of ska and reggae covers and originals as dawn was rising over Jarrett Park on August 15, 1982 is legendary. They earned two encores from the crowd of 20,000 Jamaicans who were mesmerized by their ‘blue eyed reggae.’ Their Sunsplash performance was recorded for the LP Alive In Jamaica released in 1984 which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Reggae Album in 1985. The record’s highlight is a blistering live version of “Nancy Reagan” (see video below).
According to noted Reggae music author, historian, DJ and commentator Carter Van Pelt, few groups have played reggae outside Jamaica as convincingly as the Blue Riddim Band. The group coalesced as Rhythm Function in the mid-70s under the guidance of multi-instrumentalist and composer Bob Zohn and percussionist Steve “Duck” McLane. The group earned a reputation skillfully playing soul and R&B at clubs in the South and Northeast of the U.S. The original line-up included McLane (drums, bass, percussion & vocals), Zohn (guitar, drums & lead vocals), Andy Myers (bass & trombone), Scott Korchak (trumpet & lead vocals), Pat Pearce (keyboards, percussion & vocals), Jack Blackett (saxophone), and Howard Yukon (guitar, percussion & vocals.
The “Nancy Reagan” track soon became the band’s calling card and it inspired a young fan of the band living in California to showcase the track and Blue Riddim Band further. Roberto was known to Southern California reggae fans as host of a weekly reggae radio program. He envisioned creating a protest song that would be critical of the ongoing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and his view that it was being perpetuated by Reagan. Calling in a few favors, he was able to land the help of reggae enthusiast David Lindley, who mixed the “Nancy Reagan Re-Election Remix” side, and of Ranking Roger, who featured on “America & Russia/Selective Service System” and a free-style toast over the basic “Nancy Reagan” track. According to an interview he conducted with the Los Angeles Times when the record was released in early 1985, Roberto explained that the record’s packaging was designed to reflect his anti-Reagan message: the record sleeve features a newspaper-style layout with the headline ‘Special $18 Million Inaugural Edition’ over a striking Paul Bedard painting of Nancy Reagan holding a bowl of jelly beans while five starving black children stand at her feet. The $18-million figure, Roberto said, represented the amount spent on the 1985 inaugural celebration. “I can’t see how they can spend $18 million on a four-day gala when there are people dying of starvation in this world,” he said. “There is a time and a place to party, but that is just too much.”
According to the Los Angeles Times story, Roberto first met Ranking Roger in 1981, when Roger and fellow General Public founder Dave Wakeling were still members of The Beat. “Roger did not have to do this (record),” Roberto said, “but he was sympathetic with my concerns and my concept that came from being fed up with the current administration.” While recording one of the songs in New York, Roberto tracked down veteran Jamaican producer-engineer “Maxi” McKenzie, who mixed the two tracks with Ranking Roger.
Operating as a one-man record label and basing himself in Orange County, California, one of the most pro-Reagan parts of the U.S., Roberto set out to get his message and record out. According to the interview with the Los Angeles Times, Roberto said, “It might be an impossible task,” he admitted, “but you’ve got to start somewhere. Those who are offended will be offended anyway. But if I can open some eyes, raise some people’s consciousness, then I’ll be satisfied.”
So what did the band think of the final product? I had always assumed that the band had collaborated directly with Ranking Roger. Apparently that was not the case. I recently connected with Todd ” Bebop” Burd who joined Blue Riddim on bass in 1983, about the collaboration with Ranking Roger on the remix of “Nancy Reagan.” According to Burd, “Nancy Reagan was originally recorded at Channel One in Jamaica in 1982 while the band was on the island to perform at Reggae Sunsplash and was released on our label as an EP along with five other songs.”
“The remix of Nancy Reagan was produced in 1985 by this guy named Roberto in California. He knew Ranking Roger; he knew us; he borrows the master tape; flies to LA; records Roger; flies back to Kansas City; flew in Maxie from Channel One in Jamaica to mix the whole thing in New York. We never saw each other during the recording process. Ranking Roger joined us briefly on stage on Catalina Island a few years later.”
What was Blue Riddim Band’s reaction to the finished tracks? According to Burd they weren’t completely happy. “So one day, we show up at the band house to discover several boxes of the new remix. The response to the cover varied from shock to hysteria. The song “Nancy Reagan” was never really a political statement, it was more of a well natured poke. Roberto never checked with us on the art work, and next thing we know is we’ve got this LP with Nancy Reagan handing out jelly beans to starving Ethiopians. To say he took liberties is an understatement. According to Burd, the remix played well in California on college radio, but it didn’t help that the “Alive at Sunsplash” record came out at the same time and was receiving more press because of the Grammy Nomination.”
I interviewed Carter Van Pelt to get his take on Blue Riddim Band and their legacy in Reggae history and why they never seemed to get the credit they deserved as one of the greatest Reggae bands of all time.
Put Blue Riddim Band into context for me. In particular around the song “Nancy Reagan”. Was “Nancy Reagan” a protest song or a good natured poke?
It was a strange diversion for the band to record a novelty song considering how serious they were about their music overall. I can’t imagine anyone in the group was really good natured about the Reagan’s, but humor is the greatest way to lampoon the powerful.
Probably not, but I’m not sure. They had a big ally in Ken Williams here in New York, who played their music. They were respected by all who heard them, especially the Jamaican musicians. Tommy McCook was one of their biggest advocates.
Why did the band record so little during their years together? I’m only aware of ‘Alive In Jamaica’ and ‘Restless Spirit’.
Duck has said their biggest mistake was being the ‘ultimate road warriors,’ because they didn’t leave enough of a recorded legacy. They have an unreleased album recorded at Channel One in Kingston in 1982. Chris Blackwell had Jack Nuber (engineer for Bob Marley, et al) record a session in Kansas City circa 1980. Blackwell opted not to do anything with them because he said he’d have to spend too much money to market them while eager Jamaican acts were a dime a dozen.
Their legacy is hampered by the fact that the recorded work has never been officially released on CD and there isn’t much of it to begin with. It really hurt them when Bob Zohn died, because he was the main songwriter. Anyone who ever saw them live will attest that they were one of the greatest live reggae groups, and they couldn’t have impressed the Jamaicans at Sunsplash if that weren’t the case. Ask Sly Dunbar about them, and he’ll remember Duck as a wicked drummer. Also check out the youtube videos from San Francisco, and how they would switch instruments — Bob Zohn playing drums and singing, Drew switching between bass and trombone, etc. They did have a strange way of going through keyboardists, faster than Spinal Tap went through drummers, but I digress. I think another strength of the group was the way they arranged the Jamaican originals. Check out the way they play the “Full Up” rhythm on the the cover of Michigan and Smiley’s “Thank You Jah” (see below). The rhythm section, esp. Bob Zohn’s guitar, is just absolutely perfect. Jack Blackett murders the opening tenor solo, and they were off to the races. The combination singing between Zohn and Scott Korchak is great too.
Steffens was definitely a big fan and advocate … I also have a copy of one of Roger’s shows from the night after Blue Riddim was in LA, and Johnny Osbourne jumped onstage and took the mic for several songs, and he (JO) couldn’t stop talking about how good they were. Again, you can’t beat that kind of validation.
Ranking Roger & Blue Riddim Band Collaborate On ‘Nancy Reagan’ – The Story Behind An Overlooked Protest Song Of The 80’s was originally published on December 18, 2009, at MarcoOnTheBass.blogspot.com. We are grateful to Marc Wasserman for his permission to re-post this article in its entirety.
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