Nearlin Taitt: the secret Trinidadian hero of Jamaican music

Nearlin Taitt, a Trinidadian, started in steelband, then invented rocksteady in Jamaica. Kim Johnson turns the spotlight on one of the mysteries of Ca

–Nearlin Taitt in the 1950s. Photograph courtesy Patrick Raymond

Nearlin Taitt enjoys the distinction of being famous for being not famous enough. Having created the sound of modern Jamaican music, Taitt is well known to cognoscenti as the musician who deserves more credit than he’s been given.

He has been the subject of a prize-winning documentary, Lynn Taitt: Rocksteady; and Lloyd Bradley, in his book This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica Music, points out: “Lynn Taitt is given the most credit as the man who consolidated the various musical advances and solidified the rocksteady style.”

Yet reggae historian and author of The Rough Guide to Reggae Steve Barrow describes him as “one of the great unsung heroes of Jamaican music.” And Wikipedia states: “Taitt’s contribution to Jamaican popular music includes his often-overlooked role as arranger and session leader for many, if not most of the recordings that he appeared on.”

Perhaps this is because Taitt is Trinidadian—born in 1934 in San Fernando—and cut his musical teeth as a panman (he was honoured by Pan Trinbago, the national steelband organisation, last year).
In the late 1940s Nearlin and his brother Cedric Taitt and the other boys of the neighbourhood hung around Bataan, a nearby steelband, until its leader Herman “Teddy” Clarke gave them a few old pans.

But Mrs Taitt threw the pans in the ravine, because in those days steelband was considered a form of delinquency. The boys recovered the pans and took them to the house of their friends Stephen, Angus and Kenrick Lalsingh. Mr Lalsingh threw them in the ravine, so the gang returned them to the Taitt home. And thus the band, now named Seabees after the John Wayne movie The Fighting Seabees, moved back and forth while fighting for acceptance.

At Christmas time the boys put aside their pans to go paranging—performing the traditional Christmas tunes sung in Spanish. Kenrick, Angus and Cedric had harmonicas, while Nearlin played a cuatro.

Small gigs at school fairs gave Seabees enough respectability for Mrs Taitt to tolerate them, although she never approved until Nearlin won the 1956 Music Festival prize for ping-pong solo. By then he was a committed musician.

“My mother couldn’t stop Nearlin, though. She coulda stop me but she woulda have to kill Nearlin,” says Cedric Taitt. “He decided from small that music have to mind [support] him.”

He was also playing guitar with another group of neighbourhood friends, the Dutchy Brothers—five sons of the Surinamese immigrant Leonard “Dutchy” DeVlugt, three of whom played pan in Seabees.

One night another neighbour stole a guitar from a drunk sailor and gave it to Taitt to hide. He immediately began to teach himself to play.

“When they came back for the guitar I was playing it,” Taitt told music writer Jim Dooley, “so they sell it to me.” Taitt played electric guitar with the Dutchy Brothers for two years in the late 1950s, until he formed his own Nearlin Taitt Orchestra.
In 1962 they were hired by some calypsonians for a Caribbean tour culminating in Jamaica. Alas, after the tour the calypsonians absconded back to Trinidad without paying the musicians. The stranded Taitt, whose solid-body electric guitar was new to Jamaica, was snapped up by the astute businessman and bandleader Byron Lee, who had to lend him clothes to perform in. But although he helped Taitt in this difficult period, Lee sought to keep him on a short leash, having him reapply every year for a work permit.

Nonetheless Taitt took to ska like a hog to mud. He swung the music away from acoustic to electric guitar and soon established his own band, The Comets.

Striving for the sound of a tenor pan, Taitt developed a percussive, “bubbling” style of guitar-picking, which is now standard repertoire for Jamaican guitarists. He was much in demand as a session musician, working with all the important producers to provide music for every important musician at the time: Derrick Morgan, Desmond Dekker, Lee Perry, Ken Boothe, Bob Marley, Joe Higgs, Alton Ellis, Phyllis Dillon, Delroy Wilson and the Skatalites.

Over the next five years he would arrange and record over 1,500 songs as session leader. Such phenomenal output was only possible because Taitt possessed a single-minded focus on music that bordered on the obsessive, practically sleeping in the studios and, when he wasn’t playing music, composing it. Asked if during those years he played dominoes, the Jamaican national pastime, he replies: “I don’t play any games, it doesn’t teach me anything in music.”

Once offered leadership of the Skatalites, Taitt refused, because he thought the band should be led by a Jamaican. Yet it was precisely his Trinidadian background which gave him such prominence (in addition to his considerable appetite for work), and in 1966 it put him in leadership of the whole music scene.

It happened one day when Hopeton Lewis came to record in Ken Khouri’s studio, where Taitt and his band the Jets were working. Lewis’s song was Take it Easy, a message perfectly in keeping with the times, when the urban unemployed “rude boys” affected a cool, laid-back menace. But the song wasn’t right at ska’s fast pace.

“I tell Gladdy Anderson, I say: ‘Gladdy, slow down that pace, let’s hear how it would sound,’ says Taitt. “But as you do that, the song get longer and slower, so there is a lot of spaces because it’s not fast any more.”

Take It Easy sold 10,000 copies in a single weekend. This was not simply a slower version of ska but a completely different, new sound, whose influence we hear in today’s reggae. For instance, the electric bass plays clusters of notes, like a dance rather than an even stride. The same notes are played by the electric guitar, which brings them from the background to the fore.

Other songs are also said to have launched rocksteady: Alton Ellis’ Girl I’ve Got a Date and Derek Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough. It doesn’t matter—Taitt arranged and played on them all.

“Everybody loved what Lynn Taitt was doing. It caught on like wildfire,” guitarist Ernest Ranglin told Lloyd Bradley.

The entire music industry fell in line behind Taitt, whose band backed almost every important rocksteady hit, including Desmond Dekker’s first, 007. In countless sessions Taitt would first lay out his slow, cool guitar chords, giving room for the other musicians—organ, saxophone, trumpet and especially the vocalist—to produce the sweetest melodies.

Ernest Ranglin explains, “Lynn Taitt was keen to try new things. Everybody wanted something new—the musicians, the crowds, the producer—but it hadn’t come together as such until he start to organise the sound.”
Taitt’s innovativeness was also deeply ingrained in his personality. Focused exclusively on music, he was and still is continually trying something new, attempting to take things higher. As a boy, after he learnt pan he taught himself to read music. After he learnt guitar he taught himself piano.

“Nearlin was always trying to improve,” recalls his brother Cedric. “If he do one thing today, by tomorrow it’s better. Once he tried to retune a music box; he opened it up and was pulling the wires because he didn’t like the key it played in.”

Prince Buster, singer, producer and maestro of ska, says, “He was an excellent player and was never a man who was satisfied with how things were if they stayed the same for too long. Even though he was the person who really bring in rocksteady as we know it today, he was always looking for ways to move it on as soon as it was established.”

Then in 1969 rocksteady was abruptly supplanted by reggae.

There were several reasons, such as the rise of new producers Lee “Scratch” Perry and Bunny Lee, engineer Osborne “King Tubby” Ruddock; the new artistes they had to groom; and the new sound they discovered. Scratch Perry signed a group of rebels, the Wailers. King Tubby moved in another direction by omitting vocal tracks and having a DJ, U-Roy, chant in their space.

But central to the demise of rocksteady was the sudden abdication of its king, the restless Lynn Taitt. At the peak of his fame Taitt was invited to set up a band in Toronto for the West Indian Federated Club. It was meant, like his 1962 trip to Jamaica, to last a fortnight. Instead he stayed a year and then decided he liked the place.

Today, the 74-year-old Taitt lives in Montreal, still writing and arranging and creating new songs. Another documentary is being made on his life and times. He is unwell, but until recently jammed with La Gioventu, a group which plays music that ranges from Motown hits to Jewish traditional music at parties and weddings. In 2002 he performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, where the sets were mainly ska; but Taitt dazzled audiences on the tenor pan. It was as if he had never left home.