David Rodigan: happy returns

At last, the DJ tells Dan Carrier, there’s light at the end of a very dark tunnel. As lockdown eases even more in June, he’s planning for a life-affirming gig at Kenwood House

Thursday, 22nd April 2021 — By Dan Carrier

David Rodigan

David Rodigan

THE opening bars of Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved? are as well known around the world as any piece of music composed in the past 40 years.

And the story of when it first wafted out over the airwaves features the DJ David Rodigan, an iconic figure in the genre, who is set to appear at a gig in the grounds of Kenwood House this June.

He spoke to Review about a lifetime of bass lines and revealed how, in 1980, the biggest reggae artist ever gave him an exclusive he’d never forget.

At the time, Rodigan was hosting a reggae show on Capital Radio. He had popped to the headquarters of Island Records in west London to pick up some releases for his Saturday session, when a familiar face came strolling down the stairs.

It was Bob – a musician at the very height of his fame, and for Rodigan and anyone else with even the slightest interest in the music scene, the number one performer out there.

“I am shivering thinking about it now,” he remembers.

“Island Records was in an old house in St Peter’s Square. I was going up the stairs and he was walking down. I was spellbound.”

The chance to meet someone who, more than any other artist, had helped make reggae the worldwide movement it was – and still is – couldn’t be missed.

“I jumped protocol and said ‘Excuse me, I have a reggae show on the radio, I’d love it if you could come on’,” recalls David.

“He looked at me and turned to those with him – Aston “Family Man” Barratt, the Wailers’ bass player, and a couple of others.

There were nods of approval and he said yes. I stood there with my mouth open.”

And then it got better.

“He said ‘Actually, I have just recorded a new song, would you like to hear it?’ Would I like to hear a new song? No, sorry Bob, I’m off to the bookies to put a bet on a horse.

“We went back upstairs to a listening room, and we sat on a sofa. Bob’s to my left, Aston is to my right, I’m in the middle. Bob pulls out a tape cassette, puts it in the stereo and presses play.”

Out of the speakers came the opening bars of the now classic Could You Be Loved?

“I’m sitting there listening, and when the song finishes – and this shows how meticulous Bob was – he turned to me and said ‘What do you think of that mix? Do you think it is suitable for American FM or AM radio?’

“I said well, Bob, I think that’s pretty good for FM – he replied ‘OK, I’ll bring that tape to tomorrow to your studio at and you can have it as a world exclusive’.”

It meant David, a white, sergeant major’s son from a small Oxfordshire village-turned-reggae DJ, was the first person in the world to play out a tune that has become such a landmark.

It was to be one of the last radio appearances Bob ever did – he died of cancer just months later.

“When he arrived at Capital Radio, I went downstairs and he was in the foyer, and I will never forget thinking how thin he was. I commented on it – he said it was because he’d been on the road , but now we know why.”

David has become a by-word for reggae music in a career spanning decades, and this summer he has teamed up the Outlook Orchestra to help put together a concert that takes key reggae songs, riffs and refrains and gives them a symphonic twist.

“What we have done is take elements of the essence of the music – from ska, rocksteady, reggae, dub drum ’n’ bass and dance hall and created a programme that gives it a new lease of life,” he explains.

And he says the outdoor setting and vibe created will be the perfect antidote to some of the troubles we’ve faced these past months.

“The gig is a few days after the country has re-opened and it will be, in many ways, a celebration of life, what we have had to endure and the new life we have ahead of us.

“Reggae lends itself rhythmically and lyrically to love, joy and happiness. It will be a wonderful celebration of music and happiness, and a chance for people to come out and dance.”

For David – who is joined by other DJs including Don Letts, Norman Jay and the Channel One Sound System, as well as singers Freddie MacGregor and Horace Andy – it is an eagerly awaited moment, having been unable to DJ to live crowds since early last year.

“I have missed the joy of playing out,” he says.

“Playing out is a two-way street. You come with a bunch of songs and you are in a place where people want to hear them.

“The joy is watching people feel the beat. When I was a boy, in my bedroom, I would be playing records and I’d look out of my window into the yards to see if the kids in other houses were taking any notice of what I had coming out the speakers.

“As DJs, that is what we do – we choose songs we think will make people happy. I have missed the joy of making myself happy and by doing so, making everyone else happy, too.”

  • David Rodigan and The Outlook Orchestra – featuring special guests Freddie MacGregor, Horace Andy and Bitty McLean, with support from Yolanda Brown, Norman Jay, Don Letts and Channel One Sound System – play at Kenwood House on Sunday, June 27.

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