If you want to take it back to the beginning, you have to blame it on jazz. One of America's great contributions to musical culture, it swept around the world. Through radio broadcasts and records, Jamaica, then still and British colony, got the fever in the 1940s. Bands sprang up to entertain tourists, like Eric Dean's Orchestra and future giants like trombonist Don Drummond and sax man Tommy McCook learned the licks and honed their chops on the music.
With the advent of the 1950s, American popular music began to fragment. In jazz, be-bop became the new movement. Rhythm and blues, the black style formerly called race music, started coming on strong. The era of the jazz orchestra was slowly fading as music grew harder, stronger, more youthful. That spread to Jamaica, just as it did to other parts of the globe.
And Jamaica itself was beginning to change. It had been a mostly rural economy, but now people were flooding into the capital, Kingston, in search of their own piece of postwar prosperity. On the weekends Kingstonians old and new would gather for dances in the open spaces called ?lawns' all over the city, where sound systems (essentially loud, primitive mobile discos) would throb with the latest sounds from the States. If you didn't have a radio - and in the poor economy, many didn't - this was how you heard the new records.
R&B was the diet of the sound systems. Fast, raw, and with a thick beat, it played well to both young and old. Sound system owners would...