For British singer Matthew Murphy, honoring his musical influences and honoring his late father are one and the same.
Murphy, 37, who performs as Ranking Jnr and Mini-Murphy, hails from Birmingham, England, the birthplace not only of legendary Two-Tone ska band the English Beat, but of his father, Roger Charlery, a co-founder of The Beat who performed as Ranking Roger.
Jnr released a single, fittingly called “Legacy,” earlier this year, with the help of U.K. pop band the Ordinary Boys on United Sound Records. His song is a tribute to his “poppa,” who died in March 2019. Jnr is donating all of the proceeds from the single to cancer research; his father died of lung cancer and a brain tumor.
"'Legacy' was written literally a week or two after my dad had passed away," Jnr says. "It's one of the most special songs I have ever written; the lyrics came quickly and naturally because of the state of mind I was in and how I was feeling. For me, this is where the magic works; when you are going through tough times in life. The best things [in writing music] come to the surface when your back's against the wall.”
The tune jams with delight as Jnr sings with the same Caribbean-tinged patois inflections he grew up learning in Birmingham. It’s a perfect melding of pop, punk, and reggae/ska, and he lyrics and accompaniment mesh together with an undeniable dance beat: “Some people said that I have my father’s eyes / pass down him talent, now it’s my time to rise. / Nobada ramp with the Rankin bloodline / bring love and unity fe skank in the sunshine.
“I’m everyone I met along the way / they’re holding up the man I am today. / Got my father’s eyes and my mother’s smile / making all of me, that’s my legacy.”
Fellow legendary Two-Tone vocalist Pauline Black of The Selecter, and friend Ranking Roger, called the single “a fitting tribute to RR.”
The single is the second of now three Murphy has released, with “Carry the Flag” and early May release “Oi, You,” both dance-inducing ska pop that rivals his father's signature syncopated ska verse/chants. Both cuts were produced by Jnr, who also played keyboards, with sax by Chiko Hamilton and guitar by Gitz.
In his own words, Jnr “was birthed” in the music of Two-Tone ska (a genre that blends traditional Jamaican ska with elements of New Wave and punk) through his father’s legendary ska band, which recorded three solid albums, I Just Can’t Stop It, Wha’ppen?, and Special Beat Service, the first two each reaching No. 3 on the U.K. charts.
Beat songs like “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Ranking Full-Stop,” and “Stand Down Margaret" were part of his musical upbringing during a time when The Beat, The Selecter, and The Specials anchored the Two-Tone multicultural movement and gave a sound and platform uniting Black people and white people.
The Beat broke up in 1983; afterward, Ranking Roger and co-singer and original Beat founder Dave Wakeling then formed General Public. Over the next 30 years, band iterations included International Beat, Special Beat (combining members of The Beat and The Specials), and Beat drummer Everett Morton’s Beat Go.
Following an ill-fated Beat reunion with original members Dave Steele on bass and guitarist Andy Cox in 2003, The Beat split. Wakeling created a U.S. version, and Ranking Roger made his own in the U.K.
But before all that, Jnr learned music at his father's knee.
“I first started working with him properly at 6 or 7. He bought me a Casio keyboard and we started from there, really,” Jnr recalls.
One of Murphy’s first gigs was born out of Roger’s passion for rollerblading and speed-skating; he helped his father write a song dedicated to the local roller hockey team, which Jnr got to perform.
From the beginning, the younger Ranking proved to be a carbon-copy of his father's vocal style and rapid rapping reggae-ska verse delivery.
“I think it had to do with genetics, with the father-and-son vocal cords, why we were able to sound so good together," Jnr says.
Jnr’s first big shot of exposure to the world came during one of the last times Roger and Wakeling shared the stage, in 2003 at a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
On Roger’s 2014 Pop Off the Head Top solo release, Jnr co-wrote many cuts. And to make it a family affair, Roger, Jnr, and Roger’s daughter Saffren Murphy sang Italian producer AleXannA's version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons.”
Ranking Jnr was not only on the first Beat album in 30 years, 2016's Bounce, but his dad’s last studio effort, The Beat's Public Confidential, released on indie DMF in Sheffield, U.K. Bounce has all the earmarks of the original Beat, with an overtone of political messaging about rights and race relations.
After a fall 2018 Australian and U.K. tour with The Selecter, Roger experienced a mini stroke following the completion of Public Confidential and the writing of his autobiography, I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat. By February 2019, Roger had gone through treatment for lung cancer and surgery to remove two brain tumors. He died the next month, and grieving has been a long process for Jnr.
"Two years has been a blur," he says. "It was a big loss because he was my father, and my best mate and my mentor, everything to me. It was like losing 10 people in one.
“And, not only that, but he was also a spiritual guy, and such a great role model for people. And for all the years he was in the music business, a lot of people looked up to him.”
The enduring success of The Beat, even through its many reformations, has never been lost on Jnr. Now, the task of carrying on the family's musical tradition falls on him.
And now, with three singles under his belt, his goal is to have a full album ready by the fall. He hopes to begin touring Europe again, finally get to the U.S., and mix his new songs with the classic early Beat hits, creating a musical legacy of his own while honoring the accomplishments of his father.
“You can listen to songs like 'Mirror in the Bathroom' and 'Ranking Full Stop' today, and they could have been written yesterday, and not 30 years ago,” he notes proudly. “My main key is to make sure I make timeless music. So, it’s important that you’re honest about what you are saying, and you are always reflecting on what you have been through in your life.”
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