The Music Diaries | Skully created history in J'can popular music
The name Noel Simms may mean little to many persons, but once the name Skully is mentioned, most people, especially those in the vintage music circles, would know exactly who is being referred to.
Skully created history in Jamaican popular music when he and his partner, Bunny (Arthur Robinson), recorded the first tunes made by Jamaicans in popular music, other than mento.Mento music, or what some called Jamaican calypso, was the music of choice for most Jamaicans between 1950 and 1956. Also popular on the Jamaican music scene at the time were The American Swing, American Classics, Rhythm and Blues, and the Jitterbug Boogies. Ska, rocksteady and reggae had not yet been born.
Bunny and Skully broke the musical dominance of these American styles and the Jamaican mento when they released Give Me Another Chance, in 1954. An uptempo boogie-influenced recording, the opening lyrics ran in part:
"Well, my baby has left me and gone away
Yes, my baby has left me and gone astray
Come back, baby, Don't let me cry every day.
Come back, baby and give me another chance."
According to Skully,:"When King Stitt play it, it block the whole a Darling Street and Salt Lane. Every Jukebox have it. Inna dancehall, the deejay just play it and the dance full".
The duo, which was known then as Simms and Robinson, followed up with the equally impressive Till The End Of Time, both songs written by the duo. Skully lists the
musicians that played on these early songs as "Val Bennett - saxophone; Luther Williams - piano; Rico Rodriguez - trombone; Lloyd Brivett's father on standing bass; Scarlof on guitar; and Percy on drums".
Speaking to Skully on October 23, 2004, from his regular hang-out spot at Sonic Sounds Recording Company, along Retirement Road in Kingston 5, he gave me a rundown on his early life.
"I was born at 6 Greenwich Street in Smith's Village, now known as Denham Town on January 26, 1935. I started singing in the Seventh-Day Adventist church choir at 20 Langston Road in Rollington Pen, after my grandmother take me there, along with my brother Kid Banga - a lightweight champion of Jamaica. I was about 10 years old".
According to Skully, his earliest influence came while attending Ebenezer School, which was close to the Coronation Market on Spanish Town Road in west Kingston.
"I could stand at my school gate and look straight along Spanish Town Road to Oxford Street, where the first street singers - Slim and Sam did songs like, Man Piaba Woman Piaba and The Boys Them From America. My biggest influence, however, came from the calypsonian, Lord Flea, who lived next door to me," Skully reminisced.
A graduate of Alpha Boys' School and The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Talent Shows, Skully remembered how he got into the recording studios for the first time.
"Lord Tanamo heard me and Bunny rehearsing and took us to a rich Indian named Baba Tewari, who, in turn, take us to the Stanley Mottas Studios at the corner of Laws and Hanover Streets the only one in the island at the time, and there we did our first two songs".
Skully, however, was much more than just singing in duet or recording solo hits, of which he had quite a few.
He was a master percussionist, rated among the best the island has produced. He played percussion and kettle drums on the majority of hits by Sly and Robbie, Beres Hammond, Bunny Lee productions, and others. Skully has been to places like France, India, Japan, Africa, and almost all of Europe, doing percussion work or backing vocals for Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Big Youth, Jimmy Cliff, Alton Ellis, Justin Hines, Mutabaruka, and I Jaman Levi.
In later years, Skully boasts about travelling with three passports as two were already filled. The Aggravators, Upsetters, Revolutionaires, and Roots Radics are some of the bands that Skully has served with as a resident percussionist. He said that he has played on over 200 albums between 1971 and 1985.
Singing under the name Zoot Simms and Mr Foundation, Skully had the hits Small Garden, Take It Cool, See Them A Come, Never In My Life , and the Rastafarian-influenced Rock A Man Soul, in duet with Lascelles Perkins for Studio 1.
According to Earl Heptones, it was Skully, Enid Cumberland and he,that did the backing vocals on Alton Ellis's Studio 1 classics, I'm Just A Guy, Sunday Coming, and Willow Tree. Skully further credits himself for bringing the Blue Busters from Montego Bay to Kingston.
Visually impaired since 2002, and being totally blind by 2010, Skully died on February 4, 2017, at age 82.
His daughter, Andrea, confirmed that the cause of death was lung cancer. His caregiver, Sophia Brown, described him as "a man who gave me inspiration, faith, and courage".
The icon will be eulogised and laid to rest at the Meadowrest Memorial Gardens on March 26 at 1:30 p.m.