BOBBY AITKEN: Through the fire

Friday, March 09, 2012

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TO say Bobby Aitken has led a resilient life would be an understatement. The pioneer musician survived living on the streets and taking refuge in a home for the indigent to become an ordained minister.



A guitarist, Aitken now resides in Florida and is known as the Reverend Robert Simmonds. He was a top session musician during the ska era of the late 1960s. Some of his productions from that time are on the album, Bobby Aitken Presents Rock Steady Original & Red Hot, recently released by Next Step Records.



The younger brother of ska giant Laurel Aitken, Bobby Aitken founded and led the influential band, the Carib Beats, which recorded for producers J J Johnson, Bunny Lee, Joe Gibbs, Ewan McDermott and Clancy Eccles.



The Carib Beats played on several big hits including Baby I Love You, a breakthrough song in 1967 for Johnson and singer Carl Dawkins.
Gaining fame as a member of an in-demand band, Aitken said he never envisioned becoming a Christian. But then, he said he got a vision that the Lord wanted to use him when he was 40 years old.



"When I awoke I was speaking in tongues," he told Splash recently.


At age 38, Aitken moved to Grand Cayman doing everything to forget his divine dream. But there was no escaping the call as one night while playing to over 4,000 people he had another vision of the same man he saw in his dream years before.


"He came right up before me. I remember seeing him head and shoulder above the rest. I realised I couldn’t run from him," Aiken said.


He said that when the man turned his hand and showed him the number 40 he fell to the ground.


"I couldn’t move. I recall everyone asking, ‘what happen?’ and all I could do was bawl out, ‘why me Lord?’ Then I heard a voice saying ‘now or never’."


According to Aitken, since that night he has been a different man. When he got up, he walked away without even collecting his pay that night!


"I got baptised, was filled with the Holy Spirit and I have never looked back since," he said.


Now based in Fort Lauderdale, Aitken spends his time performing on the church circuit, giving music lessons and working on his autobiography which he hopes to release next year when he celebrates his 80th birthday.


Born in Cuba to Jamaican parents, Aitken came to Jamaica at age five. Losing his mother soon after, he and his younger brother were raised by his older sister.


The challenges of raising two young children were too demanding, so Aitken says he was turned over to the poor house in Kingston. "I was too old for the Maxfield Children’s Home," he recalled.


Ironically, his stint there proved to be the turning point in his life. After a Christmas concert organised by Alpha Cottage where boys sang carols, Aitken knew exactly what career he wanted.


"I said, God, I don’t know you, I don’t see you, but if you give me the chance to play music that I can entertain people to, I would be grateful’," he said.


"I made a sardine pan guitar with electric strings, and began to teach myself music," he continued.


Aitken continued to hone his musical skills until he caught the attention of a friend.


"He took me to (producer/singer) Prince Buster and told him I had a song and he told me to meet him at the studio," Aitken related. The Carib Beats disbanded in the mid-1960s, with Aitken becoming more involved in the church. He helped tutor drummer Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis, who would find fame as a member of the Soul Syndicate and Peter Tosh bands.


Aitken’s daughter, Debbi Verbz, is a gospel singer.

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