Ranking Roger obituary

Ranking Roger, who has died aged 56 after suffering from cancer, was a singer and frontman for the Beat, one of the four big British ska revival bands – along with the Specials, Madness and the Selecter – to emerge after punk in the late 1970s. The Beat’s flowering was a brief one, but Roger was at the heart of the group’s successes in the early 80s, when they had five Top 10 singles and two Top 5 albums in the UK before splitting in 1984. He had songwriting credits on many of their most popular compositions, and alongside duties as joint vocalist with Dave Wakeling was also the band’s “toaster”, talking in stylised fashion over various song sections in a mode popularised by reggae deejays of the late 60s and early 70s.

Later he pursued solo projects and collaborations with various well-known bands and artists, including Big Audio Dynamite and Sting, before touring and recording with a reincarnation of the Beat, with whom he worked until his death.

Related: The Beat singer Ranking Roger dies aged 56

Born Roger Charlery in Birmingham to Jean-Baptiste, a toolsetter, and his wife, Anne Marie, both of whom had emigrated to Britain from the Caribbean, he grew up in the Small Heath area of the city, next to Birmingham City football ground. As a 15-year-old at Archbishop Williams school, Roger was deejaying with reggae sound systems when he was sucked into the local punk scene, becoming a drummer in an outfit called the Dum Dum Boys in 1978. Early in their existence they were supported by another fledgling band, the Beat, and Roger was so impressed by their music that he jumped ship to join them. Within a year the Beat were sitting at No 6 in the UK charts with their debut single, a version of Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown that epitomised what Roger characterised as the band’s “happy music with sad lyrics”.

The Beat performing Too Nice to Talk To on Top of the Pops in 1980

Drawing heavily on Jamaican musical themes from the 60s but with a distinctly British feel and punk sensibility, the Beat, along with Madness, the Specials and the Selecter, swiftly became part of the 2-Tone movement, which took its name from the independent label to which each of the bands initially signed. Four of the Beat’s first five singles made it into the Top 10, including their third release, Mirror in the Bathroom, which peaked at No 4, and Too Nice to Talk To, at No 7. Their debut LP, I Just Can’t Stop It, was released in 1980 on their own Go Feet label and featured their most talked-about composition, Stand Down Margaret, which was banned by the BBC and had Roger’s toasting to the fore as it called for the resignation of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The album reached No 3 in the charts, as did its follow up, Wha’ppen? in 1981.

Major tours followed with the Clash, the Police, the Pretenders, David Bowie and Talking Heads, all of whom were fans. But within a couple of years internal disagreements had emerged and the band’s star had begun to wane. Their third album, Special Beat Service (1982), was significantly less popular than its predecessors, and despite registering their highest singles chart position (No 3) with a winsome cover of Andy Williams’s Can’t Get Used to Losing You in 1983, they broke up shortly afterwards.

Ranking Roger performing at BT London Live in Hyde Park, London, 2012.
Ranking Roger performing at BT London Live in Hyde Park, London, 2012.

Ranking Roger performing at BT London Live in Hyde Park, London, 2012.Photograph: Christie Goodwin/Redferns via Getty Images

Roger and Wakeling quickly formed a new band, General Public, initially with former members of Dexys Midnight Runners (Mickey Billingham and Andy Growcott), the Specials (Horace Panter) and the Clash (Mick Jones). With Roger as the main vocalist they signed to Virgin Records and had a Top 40 hit in the US with Tenderness (1984). But otherwise their poppy, dancy style, with reggae undertones, rarely impinged on the public consciousness. Two albums, All the Rage (1984) and Hand to Mouth (1986), made little impact and they disbanded in 1987.

In 1988 Roger released a solo album, Radical Departure, which despite its title did not deviate much from the template established by General Public. In the early 90s he put together Special Beat with various personnel from the Beat and the Specials, touring in the UK and Japan. In 1994 he and Wakeling revived and reconfigured General Public, basing themselves in the US, where they scored a Top 40 hit with a cover of the Staple Singers’ I’ll Take You There. But they got nowhere with a poor-selling album, Rub It Better, and closed down again in 1995.

Related: The Beat's Ranking Roger – a life in pictures

Back home in Britain that year Roger teamed up with a fellow Brummie, Pato Banton, to record a bouncy reggae single, Bubbling Hot, which reached No 15 in the UK, and in 1996 he was singing and toasting on a version of The Bed’s Too Big Without You, released by Sting as a single. Continuing his long association with Jones, he then became a member of Big Audio Dynamite for their final studio album, Entering a New Ride (1997), before releasing his second solo collection, Inside My Head, in 2001.

Ranking Roger, centre, and Dave Wakeling of the Beat being interviewed in Gateshead by Jools Holland for the TV show The Tube in 1982.
Ranking Roger, centre, and Dave Wakeling of the Beat being interviewed in Gateshead by Jools Holland for the TV show The Tube in 1982.

Ranking Roger, centre, and Dave Wakeling of the Beat being interviewed in Gateshead by Jools Holland for the TV show The Tube in 1982.Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Latterly his musical life had centred around a Beat revival band featuring his daughter Saffren on vocals and son Matthew as toaster: in a deal with Wakeling, who had a rival Beat group in the US, Roger’s troupe concentrated on touring the UK and Europe, while Wakeling’s musicians (known as the English Beat in America) focused on the US. Roger’s band released albums in 2016 (Bounce) and 2019 (Public Confidential), and he relished the chance to add new material to the old. “Even if we’re not as big as the first time, the respect and the credibility are still there,” he said. “For me, they are great things to have.”

Early this year, Roger announced that following a stroke and the discovery of two brain tumours he had also been diagnosed with lung cancer.

He is survived by five children.

• Ranking Roger (Roger Charlery), musician, born 21 February 1963; died 26 March 2019

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