Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach is stuffy—even worse than outside, where historic summer rains are turning Orange County into one giant sauna. But the dancers crowding the floor at the iconic tiki bar don't give a shit. In fact, they're writhing and grooving as if trying to will a storm into the place so it can soak them all and take them to Zion.
Or something like that. What's moving everyone is Reggae Sunday. Younger couples skank, high-step and spin one another around, ballroom style. Groups of beach cougars, gray-haired couples and kids smile and loosen up their limbs to the songs of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Gregory Isaacs—the faces carved onto the metaphoric Mount Rushmore of Reggae. Off to the side, a father teaches his doe-eyed daughter, her head full of braids, to dance to the band's stoned, one-two shuffle.
It's just 5:30 in the afternoon, yet the Beachcomber is already packed. From 3 to 7 p.m. every Sunday, George "Fully" Fullwood plunks down bass lines from his fingers as if transmitting straight from Trenchtown. To his right, drummer Rock Deadrick, guitarist and singer Bruno Coon, keyboardist John McKnight, and guitarist Tony Chin help him tear it up. And while most people who come to eat expensive seafood and dance to a cover band probably couldn't name any of the players, Fullwood and his crew get shoutouts of appreciation from the crowd throughout the evening. Because when Fullwood and his band perform songs such as "Jim Screechie," "Taxi Riddim" or their favorite Wailers songs, they're playing more than just covers; listen to the originals, and there's a decent chance it's one of Fullwood's bass lines you're hearing.
See, Fullwood and Chin were part of Lee "Scratch" Perry's anonymous stable of session players dubbed the Upsetters, the backing band for nearly every classic ska, rocksteady, rude boy and reggae record ever. Though the two are legends, they'll never be recognized or compensated enough for their work. It's a tough break, but they're fine with it. Besides, Fullwood is more than happy for his other pioneering task—he's one of the people responsible for bringing Jamaican music to Orange County and making it one of our integral beats, the inspiration for No Doubt, Sublime, Save Ferris, the '90s ska scene and so many more iconic groups.
"I came here thirtysomething years ago, and there was one local reggae band," Fullwood says, sporting his trademark Melton sailor cap, trimmed goatee and tangled assortment of silver chains tucked under his shirt collar. "And now you're talking about a million bands, and everything is reggae, reggae, reggae!"
For him, moving to OC was also a means to survival. For every Bob Marley descendant and well-known reggae icon, there are plenty of key artists in Jamaica who never left and are starving. "Where I come from in Jamaica, musicians were super-poor," he says. "A church mouse is richer than a musician in Jamaica."
Ironically, reggae—the sound created in the shanty towns of Jamaica by the poorest of the poor—is most popular in affluent Orange County cities such as Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, Costa Mesa and anywhere else with a 949 area code. The dance clubs and bars that feature it go off almost every night of the week; they have done so for decades and aren't slowing down at all. And it keeps a galaxy of reggae players not just employed, but also thriving.
"There's definitely a reason for it, mon," Fullwood says in his thick Kingston accent. "As soon as we start playing Bob Marley, everybody goes, 'Yeeaaaah!' Because it's someting different and of substance. It has . . . dat ting."
Fullwood's career started at the source: Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1960s. His block was a collection of rundown houses with tin roofs, dirt alleys and large trees. He originally wanted to become a singer, influenced by the swirl of music already bubbling around the island, ready to conquer America.
A local drunk taught Fullwood his first guitar chords, and the 10-year-old took to performing right away. It was his father who first pushed him as a child to practice and get serious about music. "He taught me that to be the best, I had to practice, practice, practice. No girls! Practice," he says with a laugh.
Despite his mother's disapproval, Fullwood's father bought instruments for his teenage son and his friends to start a band. Fullwood started the Rhythm Raiders with Chin and other pals in the mid-'60s; they morphed into Soul Syndicate in the early '70s. They played relentlessly around town and eventually earned a buzz that helped them become one of the most popular reggae acts in Kingston. As a studio band, they had No. 1 records in Jamaica for about five years. In the 1980 documentary Word Sound and Power, we see the young band joking around and jamming in Fullwood's front yard and talking about their rise to popularity on the tough streets of Kingston.
Their success attracted the attention of Perry, the mad genius behind Black Ark Studios that produced Bob Marley and the Wailers, Junior Murvin, the Congos, and many others. Soul Syndicate were invited to be part of Perry's homogenous stable of studio musicians, the Upsetters. Their job was to record compositions, most of them original, that served as the foundation on tracks Perry recorded for other artists. But musicians were only contracted on a pay-to-play basis; they were only paid for the sessions they played on, with no right to any royalties after records were released. Years later, Fullwood and dozens of other reggae musicians in his position still bemoan agreeing to those terms.
"That becomes one of the most hurtful tings for us as players," Fullwood says. "Because he didn't tell any of us what to play. We created the music. But later on, [Perry] would collect royalties that we were supposed to get for creating the bass lines or certain tings." Though the band were never paid what they were worth, the experience and connections from working for well-known artists afforded Soul Syndicate the opportunity to tour outside Jamaica and meet musicians around the world. One such person was Jack Miller, a reggae enthusiast and member of the Rebel Rockers, a Laguna Beach-based band he started with fellow Laguna native Eric "Redz" Morton in the late '70s.
At the time, Fullwood had never met Miller or even heard of Orange County. Miller approached him to do a record with the Rebel Rockers while Soul Syndicate recorded in San Francisco. A tour with Peter Tosh awaited the group in Jamaica. But instead of returning home, Fullwood trusted his gut, bought a Buick LeSabre, and drove his group nine hours from San Francisco to OC in 1981.
Once they reached Miller in Laguna, Fullwood also met Morton, one of the other founding fathers of OC reggae. During his heyday, the redheaded bassist was best-known for growing monstrous vines of clumpy dreadlocks in the wake of Marley's growing popularity (hence the nickname "Redz" or "Redlocks"). He stood taller than 6 feet, with a beak nose and piercing eyes. "He was a special person," says Ron Pringle, a mentee of Morton's better known as Ron I and a longtime presence in reggae acts such as 714 Band and World Anthem, who perform Thursdays at the Sandpiper in Laguna Beach. "He was a very wise man, almost like a mystic. You never heard a disparaging word pass his lips."
Morton, who died of liver failure in 2013 at 60, grew up in Laguna Beach. His father, an engineer, bought a house on Summit Drive and BlueBird, a nice, giant piece of property known simply as "The House" by all the people who visited. Only the garage was visible from the street, which Morton transformed into a recording studio after his parents divorced and his mother kept the place. Down the steps, past a wood gate was a bohemian estate where Morton hosted late-night parties after his gigs, with his mom taking care of the revelers. "It was almost like a commune," says Pringle. "She'd go buy a 15-pound bag of potatoes for $3 and feed the whole posse. So a lot of music spawned out of that."
Prior to the Rebel Rockers, Morton was in a band called La Luz. But then he met a gorgeous black woman from Cal Poly Pomona, a student named Deborah Lee Sullivan, who everyone called Princess. At his insistence, she became the singer for the Rebel Rockers. The band became a hit, making a cameo in the 1981 Richard Dreyfuss film, Whose Life Is It Anyway? They made it to the motherland for the Reggae Sunsplash festivals in 1987 and 1989. In Jamaica, they connected with Tabby Diamond, Sly and Robbie, and the Wailers, recording three singles at Marley's Tuff Gong Studio.
Morton's fame made Orange County a stopover for reggae acts traveling through Southern California. And it convinced Fullwood to stay and start a new band, the International Reggae All-Stars, featuring Chin on guitar, Larry Fulcher on bass, saxophonist Chili Charles and drummer Larry Dent (followed by Rock Deadrick). The first order of business was to find a gig, so the group went to petition the owners of the White House in Laguna Beach. "Jack [Miller] says to the owner, 'Give us the worst night of the week,'" Fullwood recalls. They played to almost no one on Monday nights for months until word gradually spread; their talent and the novelty of being one of the only roots reggae bands in town made them a hit.
The All-Stars spread reggae's gospel in clubs such as Crazy Burrow in Huntington Beach (now a Slater's 50/50) and the Sandpiper, the initial stomping grounds for the Rebel Rockers as well. Gradually, a style of music seen as a novelty by well-to-do beach-town locals was becoming a full-fledged scene—and more musicians came to get a piece of the iris.
Errol Bonnick recently received a phone call, just hours before he was supposed to head out from LA. It was Jelani Jones on the other line. "He called and said, 'Errol, what ya doin' tonight? We need you down at the Wayfarer,'" Bonnick recalls in his thick, Jamaican accent. "Inside, I'm like, 'Jesus Christ, Jelani, I'm on my way out!'" he continues. He's standing in the backstage parking lot of the Costa Mesa club. "But these are the kind of people I don't say no to. These musicians here, they're my family. So I shifted some things around, and now, I'm here."
That night, the Wayfarer (formerly Detroit Bar) celebrated one year of Reggae Tuesdays. Local producer/guitarist David Elecciri Jr., who now tours with Steel Pulse, went to club manager Jeff Chon and talent buyer Eric Keilman with the idea for a rotating band of full-time, professional reggae musicians from OC and the world. The Wayfarer duo thought it sure to guarantee a crowd.
Since the 1980s, reggae musicians have increasingly immigrated to the OC scene launched by Fullwood and the Rebel Rockers. Jones was among the first in the late '80s, coming from the East Coast by way of Trinidad, and was already touring with Black Sheep before joining the Rebel Rockers. Following him were bassist Stokely Molineaux (also from Trinidad), South American drummer Gerald Couchman and vocalist Kitaka from the Virgin Islands. They were all seasoned pros, frequently on tour with big names such as Pato Banton, Big Mountain, Judy Mowatt and Burning Spear. Bonnick, who grew up poor in Jamaica, toured with Gregory Isaacs for three and a half years, just before the Cool Ruler's death in 2010. He now plays at the Wayfarer and other local spots on a semiweekly basis.
"These are the people that I can vouch for," Bonnick says backstage, as he sweeps aside his curtain of long, skinny dreads. "As a Jamaican, I am very particular about the people I work with outside of Jamaican-born musicians. It's very important for me to maintain the authenticity of the music."
Roots reggae musicians in OC have formed something of a fraternity, a permanent, accessible pool of people who can hop in on jam sessions, swap with band members and fill last-minute slots on busy residency nights without missing a beat. It's common to see a lot of the same musicians at several different gigs around town in the same week, even on the same night. Call it the session player's fate: hustling and promoting his or her own gigs when not on the road with a larger act.
"This is all we do," Molineaux says. "It's music or bust. Tours or no tours, this is where we live, this is where we work, so we have to keep it moving and keep it progressing." Not that any of them hates his life. On a recent Thursday night, the tiny Sandpiper in Laguna Beach upheld its decades-old tradition of hosting one of the craziest dance floors in South OC—and it's almost always reggae that brings the people in. By 11 p.m., sounds from the tiny club flowed out to PCH, where cars whizzed by. Inside, Jones and the seven-piece band ran on a Jah-powered set of reggae classics and pop covers (Lenny Kravitz? Sure!) fused with Jamaican riddims.
Onstage, a single bulb flooded emerald light onto singer Ron I and his band (which also includes Couchman on drums, Kevin Smith on bass, Marcus Damian and Phil Gough on guitar, Harold Todd on sax, and Jones on keys). Waitresses bobbed and weaved through drunk bar patrons who piled atop one another to get closer to the music. Clusters of well-kept MILFs in skirts and short shorts demanded almost as much attention as the band, as they drunkenly bumped and grinded, much to the delight of most of the ogling guys in the crowd. Heaven in Zion, indeed.
"Laguna is a haven; it's the closest thing to living in Negril," says reggae expert and former radio DJ Roberto Angotti, referring to the infamous Jamaican resort town. "And so these musicians come over here on a work visa from Jamaica, and then they end up marrying some beach-blond girl from South Orange County and living here. I can't blame 'em because they're getting the best of both worlds."
As an obsessed reggae fan in the late '70s and early '80s, Angotti got into the radio business at 17, broadcasting via a station for the Claremont Colleges before rising to KNAC (1982-86) and KROQ (1986-92). He was one of the first full-time DJs in Southern California spinning new wave, early reggae and such U.K.-inspired artists as Steel Pulse and Banton (whom Angotti later managed). Angotti regularly hosted an event called Reggae Revolution at Fender's Ballroom in Long Beach, which paired punk acts such as TSOL and Bad Brains in the main room with acts such as Eek-a-Mouse and the Wailing Souls in the backroom. "Anyone who bought a ticket to a punk show could walk over to the reggae side and vice versa for free," he says. "Miguel Happoldt [of Skunk Records] and Brad Nowell [of Sublime] would come to my gigs all the time, and they'd go in and out of the punk side and into the reggae side—it was like a punky reggae party."
Nowell often studied Angotti's radio shows, learning the rhythms to transform them into what became Sublime's signature sound. Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal used to come during No Doubt's early days, when their band was one of the regular warm-up acts on the bill. Groups such as Common Sense and national headliners Rebelution, Iration and the Dirty Heads still exhibit the influence of those early reggae free-for-alls.
And the cross-pollination continues. Last month, Green Day drummer Tre Cool showed up at the Wayfarer during a reggae night for a friend's birthday. "Hey, do you guys do this every Tuesday?" he asked Chon at the bar. "Reggae's my jam—reggae and punk. Do you think they'd let me come up and play? I don't think they know me, man."
"I'm pretty sure they know you," ?Chon replied.
"Well, I guess I am in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," Cool said with a laugh, as he went for his sticks.
"But he was so nervous and didn't want to impose on them," Chon later recalls. "So on set break, I snuck onstage and said, 'Hey, Jelani, Tre Cool is at the bar, and he wants to sit in on one song and play drums.' And they were all shitting bricks, like, 'Okay, let's get ready! Let's get ready!'"
After the break, Cool jumped onstage, played some Bob Marley with the band, then jumped off with a huge smile on his face. "What's really fun is that half of that crowd at the show who were all into reggae didn't recognize who he was," Chon says. "They just thought he was a special guest playing drums."
Standing by the back doorway of Don the Beachcomber as the rain comes down in sheets, Elizabeth Bushell takes a moment to breathe. She has been dancing for the past couple of hours; her hair is tousled from the humidity, and a light sheen of sweat coats her cheeks. There is also a huge smile on her face.
"I love supporting this group," the Sunset Beach salon owner says. Since Fullwood started performing here in 2011, Bushell has missed just one Sunday—and only because she had to attend a hair show in Vegas. "You know, on Sundays, most people go to church. This is my church. I look forward to it all week."
Fullwood made a life in Orange County for himself with fans such as Bushell. But he has never forgotten his roots. Those Sunday Beachcomber reggae sessions also double as a fundraiser for his nonprofit organization, Reggae for a Reason, with concertgoers frequently bringing food and clothing for underprivileged youth.
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But their history and commitment to charity, though admirable, isn't why most people come to see Fullwood and other guys who've given their lives to praise Jah with their instruments and their energy. It's those grooves, forcing fans to forget about the clouds outside the doors of the club and instead be in the moment, sharing it with others, regardless of age, race or class.
"Bob [Marley] might not be the greatest singer, but his words speak to you," Fullwood says. "It's not hard—even a little baby can sing it. That's when you know you have something."