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Taken from the album. Please turn up the bass when listening.
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In 1983, encouraged by the huge ska revival taking place in the UK, the Skatalites reformed in time to appear at Jamaica’s Sunsplash festival where they supported Peter Tosh. While they were preparing for the show, they recorded ten brand new compositions at Music Mountain Studio under the guidance of producer/promoter Toney Owens, but the band fell out and the sessions went unreleased.
Some time later the master tapes were found to be damaged, but after more than eighteen months of painstaking audio restoration work the material has been reclaimed and can now be heard in all its glory.
On Rolling Steady the Skatalites concoct an enthralling blend of ska and reggae allowing the musical virtuosity of some of Jamaica’s most accomplished musicians to be fully expressed.
By David Katz
Undoubtedly one of the greatest groups of all time, the Skatalites have a heavy legacy. Both individually and collectively, the Skatalites changed the shape of Jamaican music several times over, starting right from the very foundation days; indeed, without such highly talented, innovative musicians, it seems unlikely that Jamaica’s music industry would ever really have gotten off the ground, or even if it had, the music would clearly not have made such a strong impact among overseas listeners that are otherwise unconnected to its place of origin. Though the group was only officially together as a fully-contained unit for an initial period of fourteen months from June 1964, most of its members had regularly played together since the late 1940s, sowing the very first seeds of the style that would eventually result in ska, rock steady and reggae.
After playing together informally at various nightclubs and outdoor venues during the buoyant post-war years of the 1950s, the players that would eventually form the Skatalites held pride of place as the most in-demand session musicians in ska, the distinctly Jamaican music that was fashioned out of disparate influences as the island’s independence beckoned. Back in those heady early days, the nucleus of this ever-shifting 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, although initially opposed to the idea and wary of the ska form in general, the gifted tenor saxophonist and arranger Tommy McCook was eventually persuaded to lead the band by Studio One proprietor Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, after McCook returned from an eight-year stint leading a jazz group in the Bahamas.
Before his untimely death from a brain aneurysm in 1998, Roland Alphonso indicated that several core members first played together at what was referred to in Jamaica as ‘Coney Island,’ a place near the Kingston pier where gambling was a feature as well as live music, plus other popular night spots like the Orange Bowl. ‘We meet each other as teenagers,’ he explained. ‘Knibb was living at West Street, Brevett was living with his dad and I was living in Jones Town. We were playing Coney Island six nights a week.’ Like Tommy McCook and their trombonist friend, Rico Rodriguez, Alphonso was born in Cuba of mixed parentage. ‘I was born in Havana in 1931; my mother is Jamaican and my father is Cuban. My mother took me to Clarendon where most of my family lives in 1933, and afterwards she took me to Kingston. I went to Saint Aloysius School and then I went to Stony Hill School at the age of ten; my mother was poor, that’s why she sent me there. My father came to Jamaica, but through he speak Spanish, nobody couldn’t understand him. They lock him up in a soldier’s camp and send him back to Cuba, but he didn’t correspond with my mother. The year 1941, that’s when I start to play music. I was too young to blow an instrument, so they put me on marching drums.’
Alphonso progressed to trumpet at Stony Hill and learned saxophone at age thirteen; by the start of the 1950s, he was one of Jamaica’s leading jazz saxophonists. ‘I was playing alto first of all. They rated Joe Harriott number-one alto sax, and I was a young player in my early twenties; they rated me number two. I was playing with Redver Cook for a start, and Eric Deans, up at Bournemouth Club; he claims that he’s going to pay me £2 for six nights a week, but everything him get, he tell me, “Boy, wait!”’
Alphonso said his first recording session came towards the end of the boogie period during the mid-1950s, while he was a member of the Cecil Lloyd Quintet, a jazz band led by Jamaica’s top pianist, who was a graduate of the noted Juilliard School of Music. ‘I was working at a hotel, Cecil Lloyd lead the band. The band came in to do a session and Coxsone said, “Rolie, cut a tune for me now, man!” So I said to them boy, “Let’s do a blues in C,” and them call it “Four Corners Of The World.”’
Lester Sterling, the group’s youngest member, recorded for Coxsone from the late 1950s with Rico, Johnny Moore and fellow saxophonist ‘Deadley’ Headley Bennett. ‘Playing for Coxsone, it was Rico carry me there,’ says Sterling of his debut session. ‘Rico was going to look for Coxsone with this song, he told me to come along, so I meet Coxsone and he had a session the following day. It was a vocal, I think [featuring] Lloyd Clarke.’
Lloyd Knibb was born in Portland in 1931, attended school in Kingston and gained much experience drumming at north coast hotels in Eric Deans’ Orchestra and other groups, as well as by attending the Rasta camp established by Count Ossie in Wareika Hills on the outskirts of east Kingston; he started recording after hearing the creations of local players on the radio. ‘I was living in Montego Bay, playing in different hotels, and I hear a tune over the radio and go back in Kingston and present myself. Everything was cool, playing rhythm and blues.’ It was Knibb’s individual rim-shots and drum rolls, along with Arkland ‘Drumbago’ Parks’ rhythmic flourishes, that gave the ska beat particular demarcation. ‘I changes the beat in 1964,’ Knibb insists, ‘so that’s definitely my style.’ Knibb was also later noted as the first musician to try to adapt the African-derived Burru rhythm that features in Rasta music on a full drum kit, after receiving inspiration to do so from Don Drummond.
Lloyd Brevett says he learned his style of bouncing bass accompaniment from his father, a jazz bassist who fashioned his own instruments and founded the Count Brevett Band in 1950; Lloyd also started professionally as a member of Eric Deans’ Orchestra. ‘My dad taught me to play bass, he play in a lot of groups. At this time, I play stand-up bass.’
From their debut performance as the Skatalites at the Hi Hat club in Rae Town, then a fishing village adjoining downtown Kingston, the group was soon in demand all over the capital city and beyond. Their subsequent residence out of town at a rough and ready beachside venue called the Bournemouth Club, where Lee Perry often joined them on percussion and occasional vocals, is legendary for electrifying performances. This intensity was captured on their earliest studio recordings, most of which were cut for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One and many of which encapsulate the best of ska’s musical possibilities.
Upbeat Skatalites numbers featuring Alphonso’s fast solo sax flourishes, seemed to reflect the optimism of the newly independent island, while raucous hits like ‘Ball Of Fire’ and ‘Guns Of Navarone,’ simply hold unbridled musical heat. McCook’s compositions often tended to be more spacious, as did his understated solos, which typically favoured the lower notes of the scale. When McCook and Alphonso traded solos, the contrast was always invigorating, to say the least; Moore and Sterling, though more in the background, also contribute captivating solos from time to time. Behind it all was Brevett, Knibb, Jah Jerry and the young Jackie Mittoo, keeping the rhythm in line for the neo be-bop musings of the horn section.
As with ska itself, the Skatalites’ music was created from a pool of disparate influences. Group members explained that some of their biggest hits at Studio One were based on Latin tunes Coxsone asked them to adapt. ‘Coxsone used to use a lot of Cuban tunes and we would write the tune in ska form,’ Lloyd Knibb explains. ‘We would generally get those tunes, because a staccato thing was happening in ska.’
‘Mongo Santamaria did have an LP that time,’ adds Lloyd Brevett, ‘and all those tunes like “Prince Duke,” “Pussy Cat” and “Christine Keeler” [came from the LP].’
‘We play the songs as it had been played,’ explained Roland, ‘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 Roland’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. Similarly, 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 work was recorded at Studio One, the Skatalites also cut material for the other leading producers of the ska years. ‘We didn’t sign any contracts with anyone, so we were free,’ Roland Alphonso clarified. ‘We work with Duke Reid and King Edwards also; we did some for Prince Buster too, but Coxsone get the most, cos I sign [a] contract with him.’
Coxsone once said he was powerless to stop Duke Reid offering better money to the Skatalites, even though the group members were not supposed to record outside Studio One, according to his understanding of their contractual agreements. ‘Whatever it costs, Duke would find the money,’ Dodd grumbled. ‘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, which is different from vocalists.’ Despite this protestation, Dodd says he and Reid exchanged Skatalites songs during a period of difficulty: Dodd recorded Drummond’s ‘Green Island’ but gave it to Reid to release, while Reid allowed Dodd to handle his recording of Drummond’s ‘Eastern Standard Time.’ Singer Chenley Duffus also revealed that Dodd gave Reid a helping hand when the former policeman was down on his luck: ‘When Duke Reid wasn’t making any hit, Coxsone sent about a dozen of his artists, including me, on a session for Duke Reid. I did a song called “Bitter Rose,” which is on the flipside of “Reload” with the Skatalites, a wicked instrumental for Duke Reid.’
‘Duke like to hear a certain kind of tune and Coxsone like to hear certain tunes,’ Lloyd Knibb continues. ‘Duke would hear us sing a “banton” by Coxsone, then he would do a repeat “banton,” that kind of throw word, cursing record. We also did a lot of instrumentals for [Top Deck records proprietor] Justin Yap, the “Chiney Dread” down Barbican—a lot of tunes he get from Don Drummond.’
Drummond was a major creative force within the group. According to official school records, Drummond left Alpha six weeks early to join Eric Deans’ band; he also played with Headley Bennett in tenor saxophonist Tony Brown’s Orchestra, a band entirely composed of Alpha graduates. Drummond’s typically chilling compositions often employed uncommon minor-key arrangements, perhaps reflecting the personal anguish of a man who voluntarily checked himself into Bellevue psychiatric hospital on several occasions.
Don Drummond’s vision gave his music a thrilling difference, but his idiosyncratic behaviour had a volatile side, with heavy psychoactive medication probably exacerbating his drastic mood swings. On New Year’s Day, 1965, Jamaica was rocked by the news that Drummond had murdered his common-law wife, a noted rumba dancer called Marguerita Mahfood. He was sent again to Bellevue, where he remained until his death in 1969. The murder was a tragic moment in Jamaica’s musical history, and Drummond’s detention had other repercussions: it 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, and as the Jamaican music scene often undergoes drastic changes very rapidly. Internal rivalries, exacerbated by external pressures brought on by competing producers, saw the band split into two groups after a final performance given in August 1965. Roland Alphonso stayed at Studio One, first with a new version of his Orchestra that included Lloyd Brevett; later, with Jackie Mittoo, he led the Soul Brothers band with drummer Joe Isaacs and bassist Brian Atkinson. Tommy McCook initially took over the horn arrangements of uptown club act Kes Chin and the Souvenirs, but later fronted the Supersonics with Johnny Moore and Lloyd Knibb, eventually becoming the house band at Duke Reid’s newly constructed Treasure Isle studio with bassist Jackie Jackson, organist Winston Wright and drummer Hugh Malcolm. Alphonso admitted there was ‘something near to’ animosity between he and McCook after the rupture, ‘but not on an all out basis.’
‘Duke Reid started with Tommy, and Roland was with Coxsone,’ Lloyd Brevett explains, ‘Roland was Coxsone’s fancy and Tommy was Duke Reid’s fancy,’ leading to their respective roles once the Skatalites split. The break-up of the band meant the ska era was over in Jamaica, though group members remained highly active during rock steady and early reggae; McCook was also a mainstay of the roots reggae scene, regularly recording and arranging for a range of younger producers, such as Lee Perry, Bunny Lee and Glen Brown.
In 1975, the Skatalites enjoyed a mini-reunion for an excellent album project initiated by Lloyd Brevett, who had recently ventured into self-production. Brevett was trying to get something off the ground in a niyabinghi style with Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, recording at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio under Clive Hunt’s direction. The project ended up mutating into the thrilling album The Legendary Skatalites and it’s dub companion Herb Dub/Collie Dub. It was clear that the Skatalites had lost none of their magic with the passing of time. The sessions were later released in a slightly different form by United Artists as African Roots and King Tubby’s dub versions from the sessions, some originally used as single B sides, were comprehensively re-issued by Motion as The Legendary Skatalites In Dub. Then, as Jamaica entered into a thoroughly violent phase because of the divisive political factionalism that marred the 1976 general elections, most of the Skatalites drifted overseas, settling on the east coasts of America and Canada, splintering off as solo acts in exile. Roland remained active on the live scene in New York, continuing to record for Coxsone once Mr. Dodd also shifted his HQ to the USA, and Jackie Mittoo recorded extensively in Canada, but the Skatalites as an entity was mothballed.
At the end of the 1970s, a group of black and white musicians in the UK revived the music of the Skatalites and Prince Buster for the Two-Tone movement; all manner of interest in reggae’s originators was sparked, culminating in an official Skatalites reunion in 1983, with the band requested to take the spotlight at Reggae Sunsplash, the renowned live event held annually in Jamaica since the late 1970s. A major force behind the reunion was Tony Owens, a Jamaican based in Birmingham, UK, that is godfather to Jackie Mittoo’s children; in addition to their enthralling concert, a portion of which is featured in Cool Runnings: The Reggae Movie, Owens arranged for original members Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Knibb, Lloyd Brevett, Jah Jerry and trombonist Calvin Cameron to go into the newly constructed Music Mountain studio, to record a new studio album. Music Mountain was a state of the art facility opened by singer/producer, Chris Stanley, who would later collaborate closely with Grace Jones; it was located in the tranquil confines of Stony Hill, away from the hustle and bustle of Kingston. Before the Sunsplash performances and Music Mountain sessions, Tommy McCook’s horn apparently had a hole in it, so a new Selmer Super 80 sax was dispatched to Jamaica; likewise, a Speed King drum pedal was shipped down, along with various other essential implements. The result was typically marvellous: ‘We Nah Sleep’ has a compelling minor-key arrangement and driving rhythm that is pure, classic Skatalites, the interplay between Roland and Tommy being particularly fine; ‘Idler’s Rest’ is a bright blast of brass; ‘The Master’s Call’ and ‘Contention’ are eerie, ghostly swing tracks fed by driving piano lines and choral horns; ‘Rolling Steady’ is a beautifully atmospheric number recalling their halcyon days; ‘Away From Home’ is another emotive minor-key skank, while ‘Big Trombone’, Tanamo’s tribute to Don Drummond, is a touching reverie, featuring a fitting trombone solo by Cameron.
For reasons that have been lost to the mists of time, somewhere along the way, this project was put on hold after several group members returned to the USA; Jackie Mittoo, who had been musical arranger on the disc, placed the master tapes in the care of producer and legendary sound system operator Jack Ruby for a number of years, always hoping to conduct further sessions; eventually, Mittoo retrieved the tapes from Ruby and deposited them in the care of Tony Owens, who has now decided that the time was right to let this material be heard.
In 1984, after an extended break from the Music Mountain sessions, the Skatalites also cut an album for Island at Dynamic Sounds called Return Of The Big Guns, which featured Don Drummond compositions not yet recorded. There followed some years of silence once more, but successive ‘waves’ of overseas ska interest brought them back together for a Japanese tour with Prince Buster and Lord Tanamo in 1989. They have remained on the road in some form or another since the mid-1990s, and have since collaborated with various American players for studio recordings, continuing to enthral audiences all over the world, despite the unfortunate passing of several original members, including Alphonso, McCook and Jackie Mittoo.
In the history of Jamaican popular music, there has never been another band as important as the Skatalites and there will probably never be another band to make a similar impact. We are thus proud to present these missing pieces of their particularly wonderful jigsaw, a missing link that is in keeping with the incredibly high standard of musicianship that has marked their most notable work. This is the sound of the legendary Skatalites, reuniting in Jamaica mid-way through their illustrious career; listen and savour their uniqueness of their musical vision.
David Katz is author of People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae