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The Skatalites embodied the ska era

Published:Sunday | February 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Don Drummond - File
The Skatalites - File

The Jamaican ska band of the 1960s - The Skatalites, once managed by former Prime Minister Percival James Patterson, was undoubtedly, the most celebrated musical aggregation ever assembled in Jamaica's music history.

Talent abounded within their ranks, with each member rated a master of his particular instrument.

They were, in fact, the cream of Jamaica's musicians.

Utilising a variety of instruments: saxophones (Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, and Lester Sterling); trumpet (Johnny Moore); trombone (Don Drummond); piano (Jackie Mittoo); drums (Lloyd Knibbs); standing bass (Lloyd Brivett); guitar (Jerry Hines), they created a conglomeration of musical sounds, mainly in the ska genre, that was and still is unparalleled in Jamaica's music history.

Instrumental ska recordings, mainly reconstructed from original jazz pieces, were their speciality.

Others were their own compositions, with trombone genius Don Drummond, doing the bulk of the writing.

Apart from making great instrumentals, the band, as a group or as individuals, backed almost every vocal ska recording that became a hit.

The Skatalites story may very well have begun at the famed Alpha Boys' School situated along South Camp Road, which produced many of Jamaica's great musicians, and which still exist to this very day.

Somewhat of a repository for wayward boys, music was and still is an integral part of the school's curriculum.

The meticulous attention and exaggerated care administered over the years by Alpha bandmasters - George Nelson, Vincent Tulloch, Ruben Delgado and Sparrow Martin, have produced some of Jamaica's greatest musicians, including almost the entire horn section of the band - Tommy McCook, Lester Sterling, Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore who finagled his way into the institution because of his love for music, and Don Drummond, rated at one time among the top three trombonist in the world. The notable exception was Roland Alphonso.

Drummond, in fact was critical, not only to his work with the Skatalites, but also to the emergence and development of Jamaica's popular music.

Most popular composition

Eastern Standard Time, was arguably, his most popular composition. Outside of that, Drummond recorded more than 150 compositions, some of which are still being imitated today. Drummond was admitted to Alpha Boys' School on December 10, 1943, taken there by his mother when she could no longer control his truancy.

His admission record, a copy of which I obtained from principal Sister Mary Ignatius Davies before her passing, indicate that he was nine years old at the time of his admission.

By simple mathematics, he would be born in 1934, which contradicts many other sources.

Two years after his admission, he was placed in the school band and taught the most awkward of instruments - the trombone, given its push-and-pull manoeuvres and its queer seven-position note scale. His precocious talent, however, enabled him to quickly master the instrument and he began entertaining many with his crisp, sharp and short multiple notes. He graduated in 1950 and earned a place in the popular Eric Deans Band.

Don, however, showed signs of mental instability from an early age, and was in fact hospitalised a number of times for the condition.

On New Year's Day 1965, he murdered his girlfriend Anita 'Margarita' Mahfood. Declared a criminal lunatic, he was remanded to the Bellevue Asylum where he died on May 6, 1969 at age 35.

The Skatalites really came together as a group sometime in 1963 and consisted of the nine musicians that were mentioned earlier.

In addition Lord Tanamo, Jackie Opel, and Doreen Schaeffer provided vocals whenever necessary.

How the group acquired its name still remains a mystery.

Some say the name was coined from the 'ska sound' made by the guitar when playing the after beat. Others claim that it was only a 'pun' on the Soviet space satellite of 1963. The Russians had just launched the Telstar Satellite into space, and one member jokingly remarked that they should name themselves Satellites, to which the leader Tommy McCook readjusted to form Skatalites. It all seemed a spontaneous happening. But whatever it was, the group did take off like a rocket, electrifying dancehalls with their mellifluous sounds, which included elements of American boogie, swing, jazz, and to a lesser extent, mento.

Some of their earliest recordings included Tear Up, Man In The Street, Eastern Standard Time, Music Is My Occupation and Addis Ababa, all recorded for producer Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd.

During their heyday, the Skatalites formed the nucleus of most of Jamaica's recorded music. No other group was more central to the ska age than the Skatalites.

Backing band

Apart from their outstanding instrumental pieces, they backed most of the biggest-singing stars of the day, including Toots and the Maytals with Sixth And Seventh Books and Never You Change The Old For The New; The Wailers with Simmer Down and One Love; Delroy Wilson with I Shall Not Remove and The Lion Of Judah; Stranger Cole with Ruff And Tough and When I Call Your Name; The Trinidad-born Kenrick Patrick better known as Lord Creator with Don't Stay Out Late and Man To Man; The Barbados-born Dalton Bishop, better known as Jackie Opel with You're No Good and Cry Me A River and Justin Hines and the Dominos with Carry Go Bring Come, just to name a few.

In addition to providing musical accompaniment for the fast uptempo beat ska recordings, the Skatalites demonstrated their versatility when backing slow classics such as Jackie Opel's Cry Me A River and The Wailers' I'm Still Waiting.

The trio of saxophonists Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, and Lester Sterling were the best in the Caribbean at the time. McCook, another product of the Alpha Boys' School, was the bandleader of the Skatalites and was rated the top jazz saxophonist of his era. Spending three years at Alpha (1939-1944), he honed his musical talents, which he outpoured on the Sonny Bradshaw and Eric Deans band after his graduation.

He then increased his experience through some overseas gigs before helping to put the Skatalites together in 1963.

McCook died in 1998.

Alphonso was, arguably, the favourite hornsman of most Jamaicans because of the 'sweet sound' of his sax.

He was probably the earliest to record, having been involved with a few mento pieces and some early Jamaican rhythm and blues. An unforgettable instrumental R&B piece that will always be indelibly etched in the memory of the musically conscious, may be found on the Higgs and Wilson recording How Can I Be Sure.

When the Skatalites broke up in 1965, Alphonso had the privilege of leading one fragment which became known as Roland Alphonso and the Soul Brother. They stayed with Dodd and recorded some classic instrumental pieces, in addition to providing backing for a number of big hits out of Studio One. The other faction crossed the floor to Duke Reid's Treasure Isle records and was headed by Tommy McCook.

The Third saxophonist, Lester Sterling, was probably the second youngest in the group, only outdone in this respect by the keyboard maestro Jackie Mittoo.

He is now the only active surviving member from the original ensemble, and one of two members who are still alive.

Alphonso died in 1998, Mittoo in 1990, drummer Knibbs on May 12, 2011, trumpeter Moore in 2008 and guitarist Jerry Hines in 2007. The Skatalites continue to perform, albeit with new members with Sterling as the only remaining member striving to perpetuate the name Skatalites.

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