Around the world with the Skatalites

They may have slowed down a little, but this seminal band is still playing its zany, high-energy music. David Katz was drawn into their orbit

Karl Bryan, Lester Sterling, Kevin Batchelor and Vin Gordon, the horn section at Belly Up. Photograph courtesy Judith AndersonLester Sterling, Devon James, Val Douglas, Lloyd Knibb, Ken Stewart, Kevin Batchelor; Karl Bryan, Doreen Shaffer, Vin Gordon

Regarded as a national treasure in their native Jamaica and revered by international audiences at their overseas performances, the Skatalites are rightly renowned as the creators of ska, the innovative style at the root of all reggae and dancehall.

Intricately connected with the independence movement of the early 1960s, ska’s popularity in Jamaica was brief, but the form directly influenced the British “Two Tone” movement of the early 1980s and the Skatalites have since spawned successive waves of ska revival in the USA, Japan and elsewhere.

Although the group was only officially together for 14 months during the mid-1960s, the Skatalites have been constantly present on the international stage since reforming in the early 1980s, with several of Jamaican music’s most highly rated veterans currently in their ranks.

The original group included tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso, alto saxophonist Lester Sterling, trombonist Don Drummond, trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, drummer Lloyd Knibb, bassist Lloyd Brevett, rhythm guitarist “Jah” Jerry Haines and pianist Jackie Mittoo. And though initially opposed to the idea, and wary of ska in general, gifted tenor saxophonist and arranger Tommy McCook was eventually persuaded to lead the band by producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd.

Shortly before his death in 1998, Alphonso revealed that group members first performed together during the late 1940s at an informal gambling venue on the Kingston Pier.

“We meet each other as teenagers and were playing Coney Island six nights a week,” he explained.

Sterling, the group’s youngest member, began recording for Dodd a few years later, along with Moore, while Knibb says he drew much inspiration from the wild jazz jams held at Count Ossie’s Rasta camp in the Wareika Hills overlooking east Kingston; he was later revered as the first kit drummer to adapt the African Burru rhythms that were the chief component of Rastafari devotional music, as well as being one of the first drummers to give ska its snare-driven rhythmic demarcation, along with Jah Jerry’s choppy guitar chords.

“I change the beat in 1964,” Knibb insists, “so that’s definitely my style.”Brevett says he learned to play a bouncing bass accompaniment from his father, a jazz bassist who fashioned his own instruments and founded the Count Brevett Band in 1950; like Alphonso, Sterling and other players, Brevett was also a member of a leading hotel act, the Eric Deans Orchestra.

Like Alphonso, McCook was deeply steeped in jazz, and the rich saxophone solos that the two musicians traded were one of the biggest melodic draws of the Skatalites. McCook’s skills as an arranger and composer made him a natural choice as bandleader, though another major creative force was Drummond, a visionary crowned “King of the Trombone” while in the Skatalites. Drummond had a way with minor-key melodies, many of which veered wildly to connote joy or sadness. Clement Dodd discovered Drummond, who had recently been discharged from a mental hospital, in 1959, thrilling a nightclub audience with his unique delivery. Dodd signed Drummond to an exclusive contract and christened him “Don Cosmic” because of the musician’s otherworldliness.

From their debut performance at Kingston’s Hi Hat club in June 1964, the Skatalites were soon in demand all over town. Their subsequent residence at the Bournemouth Club, where Lee Perry often joined them on percussion, is legendary for its electrifying performances. This intensity was captured on their studio recordings, most of which were cut for Clement Dodd at Studio One, and many of which encapsulate the best of ska’s musical possibilities.

Ska was a reflection of the independence movement, as Jamaicans sought a form they could claim as their own, unlike the American rhythm and blues that most singers tried to emulate, the mento style that was too often confused with Trinidadian calypso, or the big-band jazz that was copied from overseas acts. Upbeat Skatalites numbers, such as “Tear Up”, with Alphonso’s fast solo flourishes, seemed to reflect the optimism of the newly independent island; others, like the raucous “Ball of Fire”, simply glow with unbridled musical heat.

McCook’s compositions, such as “Cow and Gate”, tended towards the spacious, as did his understated solos, which often favoured the lower notes of the scale. When McCook and Alphonso traded solos on numbers like “Black Sunday”, “Trotting In” and “Hot Cargo” the contrast was always invigorating. Moore and Sterling, though more in the background, also contribute enthralling solos on songs such as “Beardman Ska” and “Killer Diller”.

 

As with ska itself, the Skatalites’ music was created from a pool of disparate influences. Group members explained that some of their biggest hits were based on Latin records Dodd asked them to adapt.

“‘El Pussy Cat’ come from Cuba,’ Roland noted. “Coxsone give it to me and say, ‘Rolie, write this tune now,”’and I wrote it.”

“Coxsone used to use a lot of Cuban tunes and we would write the tune in ska form,” Knibb details. “We would generally get those tunes, because a staccato thing was happening in ska.”

“Mongo Santamaria did have an LP that time,” adds Brevett, “and all those tunes like ‘Prince Duke’, ‘Pussy Cat’ and ‘Christine Keeler’ came from it.”

“We play the songs as it had been played,” Roland explained, “but we arrange it and play the ska thing our style. We don’t copy the solos.”

Jazz was always the biggest source of inspiration for the Skatalites, and members duly covered songs that moved them, such as Alphonso’s take on Horace Silver’s “Forest Flowers”, or his adaptation of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” as “Skaravan”. Alphonso spoke of his joy in sharing the stage with Count Basie’s band in Nassau, and gave John Coltrane his utmost admiration, while Lester Sterling named Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt as musicians he was thrilled to see performing.

Although the bulk of their Jamaican work was recorded at Studio One, the Skatalites also cut material for the other leading producers of the ska years.

“We work with Duke Reid, King Edwards and Prince Buster,” Alphonso recalled, “but Coxsone get the most, ‘cause I sign contract with him.”
Dodd once explained that he was powerless to stop Duke Reid poaching his musicians.

“Whatever it costs, Duke would find the money. Even if I had a contracted artist, Duke would still insist and use them, like Don Drummond and Roland was contracted to me. But after a while you realise the man is a musician and that’s the only way he could really earn, so you let him play.”

Don Drummond’s vision gave his compositions a thrilling difference, but his idiosyncratic behaviour had a volatile side; he took psychotropic medication, but suffered from drastic mood swings. On New Year’s Day, 1965, Jamaica was rocked by the news that Drummond had murdered his common-law wife, the noted dancer Anita Mahfood (better known by her stage name, Marguerita). He was sent to Bellevue, Kingston’s mental hospital, where he remained until his death in 1969. The murder was a tragic moment in Jamaica’s musical history that directly contributed to the demise of the Skatalites, ultimately signalling the end of ska.

The keen musicianship of the Skatalites meant the group was really overloaded with talent; they were, in some ways, the first Jamaican super-group. It is thus not surprising that the group had difficulties sustaining itself as a unified entity after Drummond’s death, especially as there had been threatened bust-ups from the band’s very inception. Internal rivalries, exacerbated by external pressures brought on by competing producers, saw the band split into two groups after a final performance in August 1965. Alphonso stayed at Studio One with Brevett and Mittoo in the Soul Brothers band, while McCook fronted the Supersonics with Johnny Moore and Knibb, becoming the house band at Duke Reid’s newly constructed Treasure Isle studio. Alphonso admitted there was “something near to” animosity between him and McCook after the rupture, “but not on an all-out basis.”

Although several members subsequently migrated to New York, the Skatalites re-formed in 1983 to perform at Reggae Sunsplash, recording The Return of the Big Guns for Island Records the following year. They have remained together in one form or another since then, despite the eventual passing of McCook, Alphonso, Jah Jerry and Johnny Moore. The present incarnation includes Lloyd Knibb, Lester Sterling, trombonist Vin “Don D Junior” Gordon and celebrated saxophonist Cedric “Im” Brooks.

Seeing the current line-up in action, it is clear that the Skatalites are not a museum piece, nor are they Jamaica’s answer to the Buena Vista Social Club. With a dynamic energy that belies their age, it is easy to understand why a journalist in Russia recently described them as “a living embodiment of music”, as the Skatalites continue to preserve the legacy of ska, Jamaica’s first electric form of indigenous popular music.