Jamaica’s Backup Stars

Where would Jamaican music be without the genius of its backup musicians? Garry Steckles pays tribute to these stage and studio veterans

Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook of the Skatalites. Photograph by David Corio

It’s hardly surprising that Jamaica has produced more brilliant players of musical instruments — on a per capita basis, that is — than any nation on earth. The sheer volume of music coming out of the island, be it recorded or live, is simply staggering, and has been since the late 1950s, the era that gave birth to the industry as we know it today.

Jamaica has given the world a raft of internationally renowned singers — among them Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Buju Banton, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown. Somewhat less celebrated have been the men whose genius has made all of this possible: the players of instruments. (I say men, by the way, because this is an almost exclusively male-dominated sphere of the Jamaican music business.) And it struck me the other day that a column paying tribute to at least some of these great studio and stage veterans is long overdue.

So let’s start at the beginning, with unquestionably the most influential of all the great Jamaican backing bands and — under the collective name of the Skatalites — a group of international stature for almost half a century.

The foundation members of the Skatalites were Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond, Jerome “Jah Jerry” Haynes, Jackie Mittoo, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Nibb, and Johnny “Dizzy” Moore. The first incarnation of the Skatalites lasted just over a year, coming together in early 1964 and quickly becoming the pre-eminent band playing ska, the wildly popular music of the day. They were also in huge demand as backing musicians in the top studios of the era. Among the hundreds of hit records they played on, perhaps the most significant was “Simmer Down”, one of the tracks recorded in Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s legendary Studio One at the first recording session of an up-and-coming young group called the Wailers, with Bob Marley on lead vocals. It quickly became the Wailers’ first number-one single on the Jamaican charts.

The Skatalites have gone through innumerable breakups and reunions since those heady days, and it’s a pleasure to report that the current lineup (with saxophonist Lester Sterling the only survivor from the original group) is touring virtually non-stop, and is in huge demand all over the world.

It would be impossible, given space limitations, for me to pay tribute here to all of the wonderful studio musicians I’ve admired over the decades, so — with sincere apologies to those whose names aren’t included — here are a few personal favourites.

First, Word, Sound, and Power. I’ve got a particular soft spot for the late Peter Tosh’s legendary band, partly because they backed some of the finest reggae ever recorded, and partly because I promoted many of their live appearances in Canada in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Starting with Tosh’s Legalise It tour of 1976, a couple of years after his departure from the Wailers, Word, Sound, and Power’s various lineups included the great drum and bass duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare (replaced by Santa Davis and George “Fully” Fullwood, respectively, after 1981), the superb guitarists Donald Kinsey, Al Anderson, Mikey Chung, and Darryl Thompson, and keyboard magicians Earl “Way” Lindo, Tarzan, Keith Sterling, and Robbie Lyn.

How good were they? Don’t take my word for it — check out a live rendition of “Rastafari Is” on YouTube, featuring an incendiary guitar solo by the American Donald Kinsey.

Splendid, I hope you enjoyed that. (And, no, that wasn’t tobacco Tosh was smoking.)

I’m often struck by how many fine reggae bands are led by a bass player. The best-known, of course, have to be the Wailers, whose bassman Aston “Family Man” Barrett was not only front and centre as an instrumentalist, but was the acknowledged leader of the band that backed Marley on his rise to international superstardom.

Other great bands led by great bass players include Lloyd Parkes and We the People, who have backed just about every Jamaican singer of note over the decades; the Roots Radics, anchored by the thundering bass of Errol “Flabba” Holt; the Sagittarius band, driven by bassman exraordinary Derrick Barnett; and, out of the UK, Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band, led by the man widely regarded as the “godfather” of British reggae.

Finally, a tip of the Steckles hat goes to all the great horn players, almost all of whom learned their trade at the legendary Alpha Boys School, a Jamaican institution that has produced some of the island’s finest musicians, and is particularly renowned for its saxophonists, trumpeters, and trombonists. Among the scores of outstanding reggae horn players over the years have been Bobby Ellis, Nambo Robinson, “Deadly” Headley Bennett, Chico Chin, David Madden, Glen DaCosta, Dean Fraser, Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Rico Rodriguez, Jo Jo Bennett, Vin Gordon, Tony Greene, Herman Marquis, Sonny Bradshaw, Val Bennett, Everol Wray, and Cedrick “Im” Brooks. And, of course, the aforementioned Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond, and Lester Sterling.

I can’t sign off on this column — despite that “finally” above — without paying tribute to the greatest Jamaican guitarist of them all: the incomparable Ernest Ranglin. Ranglin’s storied career dates back to the Jamaican big band era that preceded ska (which he played a pivotal role in creating, but that’s another story). He was instrumental, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the recording of much of the music in the early days of Studio One, and is as well known and accomplished in the world of jazz as he is with ska and reggae.

So I make no apologies for winding up — for real, this time — with an Ernest Ranglin anecdote. I was in a Virgin megastore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago about ten years ago when the music being played on the sound system suddenly grabbed my full attention. It was jazzy, reggaeish, and featured some guitar playing that was beyond spectacular. “That has to be Ernest Ranglin,” I said to myself, as I made a beeline to the staff counter to request more information. I got there only to find myself in what was almost a mob scene: about twenty other customers were ahead of me, demanding to know who was playing, and putting in their orders for the CD. They know their music in Chicago.

So thank you, Ernest, and all your fellow players of instruments, for all the wonderful music you’ve blessed us with over the years. You may not always receive the credit you deserve, but — trust me — your accomplishments are appreciated by reggae fans all over the world.