An annual highlight of the London International Ska Festival is an afternoon cruise on the River Thames aboard the Dixie Queen, a replica of a 19th Century Mississippi paddle steamer. This year, the entertainment is provided by veterans of the Ska and Rocksteady scene, and this year we have AJ Franklin and Derrick Harriott.
The sold out cruise sets off from the Millennium Pier in Tower Hill and plenty of people gather on the top deck to watch as we sail underneath Tower Bridge, as they need to raise the bridge to allow us to pass. Below deck, there’s a large ornate dance floor, almost like a ballroom, with a stage at one end and DJs playing classic Ska tunes at the other end.
First up on stage is AJ Franklin, a Jamaican vocalist active since the Sixties who used to be in Soul/Reggae band The Chosen Few. His up tempo set backed by a tight band made up of UK Reggae session men gets the crowd moving, a rousing support slot to start the afternoon off.
Next up is Derrick Harriott, a Jamaican singer and producer who is now in his mid-Seventies and still performing. Throughout his set he showed the packed floor that he still has a good voice and a sense of humour, thanking the promoters for the gig and saying that now he’ll be able to pay his rent back home.
In the early Sixties he had a number one in Jamaica with “Lollipop Girl”, and this song prompts a huge cheer of recognition as he sings. He acknowledges his age by saying most of us probably weren’t even born when he recorded most of these songs as he launches into “Close To Me”, but it’s interesting to note that most of the songs he performs are enthusiastically sung along to, so people are obviously familiar with his work.
Another of his huge hits was a song called “The Loser”, and this also gets a loud cheer and prompts a sing along, as does the classic “Stop That Train”, that he produced for Keith and Tex, two true veterans of the Rocksteady scene. He finishes his set by inviting AJ Franklin back onto the stage and they perform a short but boisterous version of “18 With A Bullet”. With that, we’re left to enjoy the rest of the cruise as the ship turns around and heads back to the Millennium Pier.
A gig with a difference, if you were to attend one event during the Ska Festival then this would be a good one not to miss.