Bass player Eric Morton, co-founder of the influential Laguna Beach-based Rebel Rockers reggae band, died Thursday, June 6, after a long battle with liver disease. He was close to 60, though he declined to discuss his age.
Morton, known as Redz, performed with and married lead singer Deborah Sullivan, known as Princess. Together with keyboard player and vocalist Jelani Jones, the trio created what became known as the California reggae sound that would go on to influence recording artists including World Anthem, No Doubt, Sublime and Common Sense, according to Sullivan and Anthem’s Ron Pringle.
Fittingly, the public is invited to a memorial concert jam session on Wednesday, June 19, at Laguna’s Sandpiper Lounge, location of Rebel Rockers’ standing midweek gig of the last five years. Many of the band’s 30 or so former members are expected to perform.
A memorial paddle out from Bluebird Beach is also planned for Morton on the morning of June 29.
Morton, a native of Philadelphia who grew up in Laguna Beach, studied music privately but found a muse in Aston Barrett, the bassist in Bob Marley’s Wailers band known as Family Man, Sullivan said. Barrett originated a distinctive style within the genre, playing with deliberate space between the notes, Pringle said.
“As much as reggae was popularized by the Wailers, in Jamaica and Miami and Laguna the Rebel Rockers were the jumping off point,” he said.
After playing top 40 hits in nightclubs early in his career, by 1979 Morton was disillusioned, burnt out and ready to quit music, Sullivan said. That changed when the couple visited Jamaica to record “Night Train to Kingston” for producer Jack Miller and became inspired by reggae music and its message of unity.
“That was the beginning of a deeper journey,” said Sullivan, who married Morton in Jamaica. They stayed several months before returning home and establishing Rebel Rockers.
“We wanted our time on the planet to be about something that was uplifting,” she said. “People loved it from the very beginning; on any coastline and in any country,” said Sullivan, who remained the band’s lead singer but divorced Morton in 1984.
For the next three decades, the band toured the U.S. and Europe, and made appearances as the top foreign band in Jamaica’s Reggae Sunsplash music festival in 1987 and 1989. Rebel Rockers also recorded the single, “Come Dance With Me,” at the famed Tuff Gong Studio in Kingston where Marley recorded.
“Record companies pursued us,” said Sullivan, but she and Morton refused contracts with demands for changes in approach that they viewed as compromises. The band recorded their music but released little, said Sullivan, who now intends to compile a music catalog of Rebel Rocker recordings and establish a foundation to keep Morton’s vibe alive.
Morton is featured performing in the 1981 Richard Dreyfuss film and soundtrack of “Whose Life is It Anyway?” as well as Miller’s 2008 “Dreadlock Rock” documentary about California reggae.
Morton, a student of martial arts and natural healing, married Tiffany Casler in 1990. Morton also was an avid ocean swimmer, kayaker and body boarder.
He is survived by his mother, Riva Morton, and stepfather, Mark Diamond, of Laguna Woods; and siblings Rachel Morton Daniels and Bruce Morton, both of Laguna Beach. He was predeceased by his father, Walter, and brother, Peter.
Pringle suggested Morton coined his own pitch-perfect epitaph: “Ponder this: it is what it is and there are no mistakes.”