R.I.P: Annette Funicello, Pioneer of American Ska

Words by Jesse Serwer—

Annette Funicello Surfboard

Getting her start as one of the original “Mouseketeers” on Walt Disney’s long-running TV show The Mickey Mouse Club, Annette Funicello was one of the 1960s’ top teen idols, helping to popularize the “Beach Party” movie genre through her campy films with actor Frankie Avalon. Lesser known is that Funicello, who died Monday at 70 from complications of multiple sclerosis, also was a key ambassador for Jamaican music in the U.S., introducing a generation of American teens to ska with her 1964 version of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires’ “Jamaica Ska.” It’s a fact recently pointed out to me by none other than Norwood Fisher, bassist for the great Fishbone.

When Funicello revisited the beach party genre with Avalon in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, she also revisited “Jamaica Ska” in a scene that paired her with a very young Fishbone. It was a fitting bit of exposure for the band, who were one of the first and most prominent (and certainly one of the best) American acts to incorporate ska into their sound following the “second-wave” ska bands out of England like the Specials and English Beat. I asked Fisher about the Back to the Beach cameo in a 2011 interview, and here’s what he said:

What people don’t understand is that Annette Funicello introduced America to ska music by and large. You know, Harry Belafonte brought us Caribbean music, the whole region. Annette Funicello actually covered Jamaican ska and that is why ska music to this day is intertwined with surf culture and why reggae music is intertwined with surf culture, because of Annette Funicello. So it makes sense in that realm because we were pioneering the new generation of ska in America, the West Coast sound or whatever, however you want to slice it. Somebody saw [that] and put it together.

Watch the “Jamaica Ska” sequence from Back to the Beach, and track the tune’s history in reverse chronological order with Annette’s version from 1964’s Annette At Bikini Beach; her performance of the tune on The Bob Hope Show; and footage of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires’ original version with vocalists Keith and Ken.

R.I.P, Annette.