Nearlin Taitt: death of a legend

Guitarist Nearlin Taitt invented rock steady, the forerunner of reggae. David Katz pays tribute to this versatile pioneer

Lyn Taitt (with cap) at the Legends of Ska concert, Toronto, 2002. Photograph by Greg Lawson, with thanks to Brad Klein

The celebrated Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt, who died of cancer at 75 in January, after a long illness, played a pivotal role in the establishment of rock steady, the slow dance music that took Jamaica by storm in the mid-1960s.

Taitt was also an important figure in the ska scene that emerged in the early days of Jamaican independence, and helped usher in the new reggae beat.

Although he will forever be associated with Jamaican music, as noted in Kim Johnson’s in-depth profile in Caribbean Beat 93, Taitt was a native of San Fernando who began his career on pan. That makes his tale all the more fascinating.

The second of three sons born to a shipwright, Taitt had a natural aptitude for music, first noted by Teddy Clarke, the leader of a neighbourhood steelband called Bataan, who heard Taitt beating rhythms on the rim of a water barrel at the local standpipe. By the age of ten, Taitt was playing in a steelband called Seabees, and was so skilled as a teenage soloist that he came first in the Music Festival of 1956.

Taitt taught himself to play the cuatro to perform traditional parang tunes at Christmas time, so it was easy to transfer his skills to guitar when, at 15, he acquired an instrument that a drunken sailor had abandoned. He soon joined the Dutchy Brothers, a Latin jazz band formed by the sons of a Surinamese immigrant, and then fronted his own seven-piece band, the Nearlin Taitt Orchestra.

In August 1962, the band travelled to Jamaica to back calypsonians Lord Melody and Lord Blakie, sharing bills with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires for Jamaica’s independence celebrations. But the band was left stranded and unpaid in Jamaica at the end of the two-week tour, so he remained there to work with club acts like the Sheikhs, later drifting into the rival group the Cavaliers. His first recording session yielded Baba Brooks’ hugely successful “Shank I Sheck”, and he soon became a mainstay of Duke Reid’s studio ensemble, occasionally moonlighting at the rival Studio One, where he played rhythm guitar on Skatalites material.

After forming the short-lived Comets, and, later, the more popular Jets, Taitt truly made his mark in rock steady, his lead guitar lines, interspersed with off-beat chord patterns, being the defining elements of countless hits, including Hopeton Lewis’ “Take It Easy”, Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them”, and Desmond Dekker’s “007”. He also released three solo albums, toured with Prince Buster in Europe, and arranged numerous early reggae hits, including Johnny Nash’s landmark “Hold Me Tight”.

In 1968, Taitt travelled to Toronto to put together a house band for the West Indies Federated Club. He decided to stay, settling in the Montreal area, where he collaborated with local artists such as Jason Wilson, Mossman, and the band La Gioventu. That he was feted at the Montreal Jazz Festival in both 2002 and 2006 is testament to the enduring respect he commanded as an exceptionally talented and versatile musician.