Jackie Mittoo
In London





Jamaican songwriter Jackie Mittoo (1948–1990) was the founding member of The Skatalites and a skilled keyboardist. Each and every song he has ever written features friendliness, catchy organ melodies, sunny percussion and a Reggae-driven Rocksteady approach in the organ-laden veins of The Three Suns – indeed, this is no Exotica album, but Mittoo's music shares many attributes, instruments and stylistic hooks with our favorite genre; in fact the similarities are great enough to justify the inclusion of In London in the Exotica section, even though the Reggae genre is its true home. For one, Mittoo's primary instruments are various Rock and Hammond organs which paint sunny landscapes when they're coupled with surf guitars and their bass brethren. The omission of vocals and lyrics is also good for this release's Exotica factor, as typical Reggae topics are spared and are only referenced in the track titles. The biggest coup, however, consists of the album's title.


In London suggests a live recording – though the term live is cleverly avoided – but Mittoo recorded all of its songs in Jamaica, and to this day fans ponder about the deeper meaning of this title. If I may throw in my interpretation: maybe the title refers to the inclusion of a few interpretations of songs by British groups? After all the faux-Polynesian albums I have yet to review, it is all the more refreshing to present a faux-London studio album that evokes the expectation of a live album by a Jamaican keyboardist. I particularly like the sparkling melodies, instrumentations and renditions, among them The Bee Gees' Massachusetts. Mittoo's Rocksteady style doesn't hurt anyone and displays the welcoming warmth of his Hammond organ. In London has a similarly infamous release history as Milt Raskin's Kapu, ranging from a misspelling of Mittoo's name on the back of the LP cover (Mitto) over the falsely named first track on some versions (Something Special instead of he correct title Something Stupid) to different amounts of tracks (12 tracks versus 14). If you are willed to embrace a release that partially crosses the perceived Exotica realms, you are invited to coninue reading.

While Carson Parks' and Gaile Foote's world-famous 1966 smash hit Something Stupid introduces the listener to the warm organ riffs and the sleazy honky-tonk backings, the version of Whiter Shade Of Pale, a number 1 hit from 1967 by the British group Procol Harum whose lyrics are considered highly eclectic, similarly to The Eagles' Hotel California, features Mittoo in his most playful mood. The original made heavy use of an organ, and Mittoo takes up the thread twofoldly by playing each the main melody and the quavering sustained backings, while staccato guitars and a vestigial drum kit form the remaining ingredients. The use of the organ is quite heavy on this song which can only cause two reactions, joy or denial.


The Bee Gees' Massachusetts is next, and if you don't listen carefully, you might think that Whiter Shade Of Pale is still running, for the tempo and the percussion are the same. However, the organ melodies are more euphonious, they just sound more vibrant and joyful. And depending on your definition of the Exotica genre, this is a mighty exotic rendition of the classic, as it is morphed into a Reggae-rocksteady classic that substitutes the Gibbs's brothers voices with organs. Ain't That Loving You written by Allan Jones and Homer Banks gets the same treatment, but it is a strong result due to added trumpet backings, a brand-new Moog synthesizer and Kingston-evoking guitar chords. The addition of more instruments causes an enhancement in playfulness. The song is hooking, and the trumpet is shimmering, creating warm and intense sounds that fit perfectly. 

Kicksie is a Mittoo original with and a panopticon of cascading organs, I count at least 3 presets and tonalities. The 5-note refrain is euphorious and the setup leaves room for every organ to shine. The funfair factor is low and makes this one of the better tunes. Coming up next is the signature song of Jackie Mittoo to my ears: Darker Shade Of Black is a gorgeously melodious song with the usual drumkit, but the glaring use of bongos keeps it above the competition; a cheeky main melody with a one-note (!) refrain plus bursting beach guitar chords are the remaining standout elements. Tremendously catchy! There's even an interwoven section that features the bongos more prominently.


If there's one song you should check out, it's Darker Shade Of Black. If you know this original piece, you are capable of pinpointing Mittoo's style efficiently. One of my all-time favorite songs and even though it's probably faaaarfetched, the bongos transport an exotic feeling to this song which is already sunny and satirated on its own. The next song is called Winchester Cathedral and is written by Geoff Stephens of The New Vaudeville Group who specialized in the supposedly British sounds of the music hall era from 1850 till 1960. Already a huge hit in 1966, Mittoo took the version and applied synergetic vibes to the mix: the pluckings of the Rock guitar are surprisingly punchy, but the true star is the organ that is very colorful, vibrant and tremoling; it reminds me of the one featured in Enoch Light's version of The Girl From Ipanema. A version of How Soon by fellow Rocksteady star Alton Ellis is also worth mentioning for the prominent inclusion of an incisive saxophone and Mittoo's melancholic organ that stays in the background all the time and is only featured in the foreground when the refrain is played.

Counting Jackie Mittoo's original tunes and his Rocksteady interpretations of various classics to the Exotica genre is as plausible as sending Scottie Pippen to the tennis court, asking him to win the match and telling him not to worry, for Tennis is also a ball game after all, so he will surely cope with the situation. That's the reason why I avoid doing just that. But the magic of Mittoo's music lies in its limits: on all tracks, you hear the same drum kit almost incessantly and the inclusion of a trumpet or surf guitar is almost a shocking relevation. And yet, this early album inherits a tremendously positive vibe. It is all about the organ and the various presets and modulations that alter its sound. It is neither Polynesian, nor Hawaiian. It doesn't feature bird cries. There's no jungle atmosphere, no gurgling water and no paradisical flute. But there is warmth. And glints of a carefree life. There are shedloads of organ sounds that deliver an alternative take on Bachelor Pad music. And yes, there are bongos on one track. With this attitude, I could review billions of songs and put them into this section. But it is due to Mittoo's focus, his Jamaican origin, the blurred, muffled sound, the album's vintage status and the fact that it features instrumentals only that it could be worth your while.


This is no Reggae music that blames the existence of Babylon in everyone's heart, nor a utopian look forward to better days, but an album that is embedded in the here and now of the late 60's. It shares a few attributes with Exotica music as mentioned above. If you are willed to link sunny days, Jamaica, Hammond organs, adaptations of evergreens and positive vibes to the Exotica genre, you may find an album in the form of In London that was underneath your radar due to its Reggae heritage. But its lo-fi and admittedly repetitive character with minor surprises and changes of formula could please you in the end. To my mind, Jackie Mittoo's music and renditions encapsulate many of the themes and spirits that are perceptible in Exotica music. Does this make him an Exotica artist? No. But his tunes are much closer to the genre's positive sparkles than the works of many other 60's artists, and fans of Don Tiki's organ-focused The Forbidden Sounds Of Don Tiki will probably like the analogue warmth and Mittoo's skilled use of this instrument. With these things in mind, the album is recommended and readily available on CD.


Exotica Review 047: Jackie Mittoo – In London (1967). Originally published on Mar. 17, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.