Ska’s First Lady Pauline Black Selects a Soul-Infused Soundtrack

The British ska singer, whose band recently released their new studio album, "Subculture," gives us a playlist for a party with a little music in the air.

Photo Credit: Dean Chalkley

Pauline Black is the front-woman of the storied U.K. ska band, The Selecter. Back in the ’80s, they and groups like The Specials revived the genre with socially conscious lyrics and punk energy. The Selecter’s new album, “Subculture,” is out now. Pauline prepares a playlist with some legendary soul singers for a legendary night.


Pauline Black: Hi, there. This is Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter, and this is my dinner party soundtrack.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air”

My first track is by somebody who I had no idea about until a couple of years ago. I was asked to narrate a program about this lovely lady. Her name is Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the song I’ve chosen is “Up Above My Head, I Hear Music in the Air.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe– she fabulously played guitar. I mean, as well as any man of the time in the ’50s, I reckon. And she was big news here at one time. I think this is fairly often that this has happened that a black artist will come over from America, will mean nothing in America at all, but will come over here [in the U.K.] and suddenly become super-famous.

People say, “Oh, well, how do you write hits? How do you do this? How do you do that?” You know, she says it all in the line, “Up above my head, I hear music in the air.” That’s where it is. All you have to do is just let it flow through you, and that is one woman who let it flow through her. That would get anybody in a good mood if they were sitting down to eat food.

Jackie Wilson – “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”

Second on my playlist is a soul singer, Jackie Wilson. And, before I tell you what the actual song is, I did some shows with an artist called Eddie Floyd, who is famous for writing “Knock On Wood.” And every morning he would regale everybody on the tour with stories, you know, and the stories about Jackie Wilson were legion… none of which I can relate.

This kind of feeds into the whole Sister Rosetta Tharpe thing, so I’m on a theme here, you see. It was “Up above my head, [you] hear music in the air.” Well, I want to choose Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

I just love soul music. I mean, it was one of the very early ways that I was introduced to black American music. You know, when I went to school, everybody over here was listening to kind of surf sound or the Beach Boys. Being the only black kid in school, you needed a badge of honor, so [laughs] I was deeply into soul at that time.

Desmond Dekker – “Israelites”

To close out a party, this particular track was probably, at the time, one of the first reggae tracks that I ever heard on the radio. The artist is Desmond Dekker, and the track is “Israelites.”

I remember Desmond Dekker telling me that he actually wrote “Israelites” within 10 minutes. He was just sitting in a park one day — I think he’d gone for a job or something like that — and he wasn’t sure whether he’d got it or not, and the first kind of lyrics came into his… you know, “Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir.” And he said, “I just wrote these lyrics down. You know, I just tapped into something.” And that was what I meant about Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You just tap into it.

Among the subcultures that listen to our music — you know, skinheads, punks, mods, rude boys, all of that — Desmond Dekker remains king.

The Selecter – “Walk the Walk”

I think if I was going to play anything at a dinner party of The Selecter, I would play something off our new album, “Subculture.” It’s called “Walk the Walk.”

Anti-racist and anti-sexist themes run through all of our songs, and if it’s the last track of the night, then give them something to make them think on the journey home.