In the Beginning, Ska was Created:
Alpha Boys School, Rastas, Military Bands, Studio 1
—The Origins of the Skatalites
The Skatalites brought together the top musicians and styles of the time—fusing boogie-woogie blues, R&B, jazz, mento, calypso, and African rhythms—to create the first truly Jamaican music: ska. Throughout the mid-20th century, experience in big bands solidified the prowess of most Jamaican musicians; yet, the genesis for many of the great Skatalites goes back to a boys’ school established for the wayward.
The Alpha Boys School, run by the Sisters of Mercy and led (for most of last century) by Sister Ignatius, educated many of the future Skatalites. Founded in 1880 and having its own band since the 1890s, Alpha was essentially a military-style school that also developed top-notch musicians. Tommy McCook became a pupil there in 1938, playing his sax in the school’s best orchestra by 1942. Fellow Skatalites, including master penman and trombonist Don Drummond, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, and Lester Sterling also attended Alpha, same way for Cedric Brooks, Vin Gordon, Rico Rodriquez, Ernest Ranglin, Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton, Bobby Ellis, ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace and JoJo Bennett, all of whom have played with, or were members of The Skatalites.
“It was a good school. If you had ambition you could learn a trade: printer, carpenter, bookbinder, tailor, shoemaker, electrician,” recalls Lester Sterling. “You also could choose your instrument and tell the band leader… trumpet, sax, drum. Sometimes the bandleader would put you on the instrument he needed. Ruben Delgado was our teacher for band. A good teacher, he had studied in England and been in the military band.” Lester, Dizzy, Don Drummond and Rico Rodriquez all played together in Delgado’s band.
Dizzy Moore recalls wanting to play music from an early age. His parents didn’t approve of the image and nightlife associated with musicians. When Dizzy heard a friend playing music, he asked where he learned to play. The boy said, “Alpha, but you have to be bad to go there.” Dizzy replied, “That’s easy, man.” Two years later, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore was a pupil at Alpha; his folks glad to be straightening him out, Dizzy just happy to play music. Alpha—the beginning.
They put me to work in the garden where they grow the vegetables and it was hard, because you don’t have no hosepipe and jet, you have to keep fetch pans of water! You could join the band when you were six or seven and everybody want to join it. But that was hard work too. We do theory in the morning and the bandmaster test you without your instrument, so you had to have total understanding of what you were doing. Then if the bandmaster realized you were a bright student he would give you the staff to conduct the band and you have to do that from the sheet with all the players’ music on it. No one can fool you, but you had to know what you were doing. It’s why that generation of musicians in Jamaica was so good, because they have that training and understanding of what they were doing and they inspire the other musicians they play with. - Rico Rodriquez, on Alpha Boys School
The Alpha School produced more than its share of the prominent musicians of the 1940s and ’50s dance-band era. The best of these players were central to the emerging sounds of the ’60’s. The Skatalites and other alumni still play benefit shows for Alpha.
Big Bands led by the likes of Eric Dean and Roy Coburn would recruit future Skatalites and their classmates at Alpha to play the nightclubs. Ernie Ranglin would talk the school into allowing this to happen. Don Drummond and Tan Tan Thornton took full advantage of that opportunity. Tan Tan recalls, “We used to get paid for it, but we never tell the Sisters that! Many of the Alpha band would leave and go into one of Jamaica’s big three bands: the military band, the regimental band or the constabulary’s band. Sometimes the leaders of those bands would come to the school and pick the boys to join them. They could make a good living in those bands, but you had to be good to get in.”
In fact, when the Jamaican Military Band traveled to Newfoundland in 1961, three years prior to the formation of The Skatalites, Lester Sterling was a member of the band. He was surprised to find the audience requesting Island music. In spite of this eye-opening experience, for years, even the best Kingston producers primarily targeted their sounds to Jamaican dancehalls, with little thought paid to an international audience.
By 1964, that all began to change. Jamaica’s world famous Studio One was in its infancy as was the newly independent nation of Jamaica itself. Spirits were high. The vibe was strong. Jamaica was forging its own foundation and so were The Skatalites.
The strict music theory of Alpha was mixed with emerging themes of jazz and Rasta freedom. Socially, spiritually and musically, the Skatalites found their equivalent of the Beatles’ Maharashi in Count Ossie and his drum troupe. Ossie and the future Skatalites spent time in the Wareika Hills at a freedom affirming Rasta camp.
Myself, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Tommy [McCook], Cluett Johnson, Roland [Alphonso], Ernest Ranglin and a lot of the other musicians that come from Alpha found that to come to Ossie was the best thing. Up there you had a lot of time and space, because in the hills you not bothering anybody. And when you play with Count Ossie you have only drum sounds to play off so you’re playing from feelings, pure feelings. It’s not so much technical, like you learn at Alpha, up there you learn a lot of feeling from the drums, playing just off the drums. Many of the guys who came up there became Rasta and when they form the backbone of The Skatalites, they brought to it what they learned up there. They have all that formal Alpha training but they think about their music much more freely because they’ve developed under Ossie. When you want to develop yourself musically you have to make moves, you have to maneuver. Myself and [Lester] Sterling, we used to travel all over Jamaica experiencing hard life, playing from the heart, just for people to give you encouragement. You suffer, and it urges you to create things. - Rico Rodriquez, remembering the Wareika Hills
Officially formed in 1964, the musicians who made up the original Skatalites had been playing together as a studio band for the greatest producers around: Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, Vincent Chin and Justin Yap—in various combinations since the 50’s.
Early Studio One recordings were the first ‘Skatalites’ songs, including “Simmer Down” for Bob Marley (his first #1 Jamaican hit). Most releases were first-takes; essentially live. The ‘house band’ was, by demand, impeccable.
As set musicians, The Skatalites backed the top singers of the day. Stranger Cole, Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, Toots and The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, Bob Marley and The Wailers, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff are but a few who benefited from the tight rhythms cultivated by the new ska collective.
As a studio force, the band recorded all on one track with the singer on another, ‘one-take’ recording. These conditions forged a union among the musicians that could result in only one logical conclusion, to form their own band. Roland Alphonso, Johnny Moore, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond, Lloyd Knibb, Lloyd Brevett, Jerome Hinds, and Jackie Mittoo began working together regularly in the early sixties and formed The Skatalites in Spring of 1964. The earliest mention of The Skatalites in JA press is in The Gleaner, May 1964. The first rehearsal actually turned into a show. The band got together at the Hi-Hat club (a New Orleans style burlesque club/brothel) to practice. So many people crowded in to listen that the owner started charging admission.
They recruited Tommy McCook from his stint as a bandleader in the Bahamas, giving the group that ‘big band’ feel so popular at the time among the hotel circuit and dancehalls. The name game went on for some time. Space themes like The Orbits and Ital-ites were being tossed around. When Knibb suggested “Satellites,” Tommy McCook reportedly said: “We play ska—The Skatalites.”
Ernest Ranglin, Harold McKenzie, and others built on this foundation. Other great names traveling with the band included Reverend Billy Cooke and Percival Dillon, along with top-quality singers like Lord Tanamo, Doreen Schaeffer, Tony DeCosta and Jackie Opel.
Don Drummond and the end of The Skatalites’ first run marks a tragic chapter in Skatalites history. Don was the mad genius. Lauded by jazz greats Sarah Vaughn, J.J. Johnson and George Shearing, Drummond was also good friends with Dave Brubeck ever since playing on stage with him in Kingston. Don played and created great trombone, jazz and ska riffs. His songwriting was impeccable and even sardonic at times-see “Eastern Standard Time,” “Freedom Song” or “Man in the Street” for the minor key sadness that was part of his trademark. Unhappy with imitating popular music of the time, Don was always pushing the envelope. His professional and personal searching was wrought with strife. He often admitted himself to the sanatorium and performed erratically on and off stage. Even while in need of money, he would often rush off without pay after gigs. Unfortunately, his instability and missed medication led to the stabbing and killing of his common-law wife, Marguerita Mahfood in an apparent fit of jealousy. Marguerita was from a wealthy family, partied hard and danced in nightclub floorshows. All this along with still being legally married to boxer Rudolph Bent, fueled Drummond’s jealousy and paranoia. Eddie Thornton laments, “After being [in Alpha] until you’re 16 and you don’t see a woman until then, it’s easy to fall for the wrong one, quickly, because you just don’t have no experience.” Knibb recalls the tragic stabbing was on New Year’s Eve of 1965 and The Skatalites didn’t last past August of that same year. After the stabbing, Drummond entered Belle Vue Mental Hospital until his death about a year later. Drummond’s funeral caused Kingston to shut down as fans gave him a hero’s farewell for putting Jamaica on the map with so many original jazz and ska arrangements.
PJ Patterson, Prime Minister of Jamaica as recently as 2006, once helped with The Skatalites career. He helped with speeding tickets, “domestics” and even worked on Don Drummond’s defense team. Prime Minister Patterson speaks highly of The Skatalites as “the most formidable aggregation of talent Jamaica has ever seen, and is ever likely to see in the future.”
The tradition of inspiring and playing on the front lines of musical frontiers has continued. The Skatalites still have original members in the band and the new additions are put through the traditionally demanding paces, maintaining the Jamaican all-star band. PJ Patterson recalls a musical dueling audition between the applicant Ernest Ranglin and the stalwart Don Drummond, “Ernie sent for his instrument and as the band played a tune called “Indian Summer,” they dueled for nearly an hour, Don on trombone and Ernie on guitar as each matched the other’s portion. Everybody stopped dancing and retreated to the side to applaud this battle royal as neither would give up.”
In the late 70’s, English two-tone revival groups like The Specials, Madness, The English Beat, and Selector kept the beat alive and well. Then, in the 80’s (and ever since), their American counterparts spawned a ‘third wave’ and beyond… Groups like The Slackers, HepCat, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, David Hillyard and The Rocksteady 7, The Toasters and King Django, all pay tribute to The Skatalites as a primary influence. This new generation have collectively opened for and played with The Skatalites, raising awareness and maintaining the fan base for a never-ending wave of ska.
From the start, The Skatalites changed Jamaican music forever. The creation of ska—the father of rocksteady, the grandfather of reggae—gave us eternal rhythms that now infiltrate the globe.
Brief History of the Skatalites
Liner Notes From “Foundation Ska” (Heartbeat, 1997)
The Skatalites story, and the story of Jamaican music, is still being written. But, to paraphrase a Jamaican proverb, the heights these great men reached were certainly not attained by sudden flight, they, while their companions slept, were toiling through many nights, and still do.
As Tommy McCook would say, ‘I am your musical servant’, and through teachers, musicians, producers, and collectors, will endeavor to relay a little of the story of the Skatalites.
Too much of what passes for informed commentary on Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae is fraught with error. There are at least three sides to every story, and with the Skatalites there are nine sides. So of course, there are conflicting accounts, for instance the spelling of Jah Jerry’s last name. However, their resolution depends only upon further research.
The Skatalites were formed in June of 1964 and played their first gig on June 27 at the Hi Hat club, on Water Lane in Rae Town, which was owned and operated by Orville ‘Billy’ Farnum. The Skatalites were led by Thomas ‘Tommy’ McCook, on tenor and flute. The brass section included Don Drummond on trombone, Rolando Alphonso on tenor, Lester ‘Ska’ Sterling on alto, and Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore on trumpet. The rhythm section was led by Lloyd Knibb on drums, and included Lloyd Brevett on bass, Jerome ‘Jah Jerry’ Haines on guitar and Donat Roy ‘Jackie’ Mittoo on piano and organ. These nine musicians are the original Skatalites.
The Skatalites featured four vocalists in their live performances. Initially, it was Tony DaCosta, Doreen Schaefer and the calypso singer, Lord Tanamo. They were joined by a man who sang like Jackie Wilson and danced like James Brown. Barbadian Jackie Opel was a dynamo on stage who could really drop legs (dance), and reportedly possessed six octave range!
Clement Seymour ‘Coxson’ Dodd helped out initially. Dodd explains, “At the formation of the band, I supplied the PA system, microphones and what ever it is. Also the guitar amplifier and other amplifier. I helped with transportation and I supplied storage for equipment and instruments. I was a part of promoting the first gigs and other gigs to get it off the ground, because I figured more or less, if I am recording the Skatalites, its good to get them popular out in the streets, yunno?”
Ken Lack [aka B Calnek] also assisted as road manager, once Tommy McCook had everything going. Dodd recalls Ken Lack as “very helpful to them”, and also claims that, “the honorable PJ Patterson did some management of the band”. (Patterson is the Prime Minister of Jamaica)
The bond between the musicians was forged in the nascent recording studios of Kingston from 1955 through ’63. The studios were Federal, which opened in 1954, and the facilities at RJR and later JBC which opened in 1959. Ironically, Tommy McCook, a senior figure to the rest of the future Skatalites, did not participate in any of the boogie blues and shuffle sessions which the other eight members cut their studio teeth on. In fact, McCook had left Jamaica in 1954 for a Jazz gig at the Zanzibar Club in Nassau, Bahamas. But before McCook left Jamaica, he did become the first future Skatalite to record, though not for commercial release. It was with Don Hitchman’s Group in 1953. Hitchman had been asked by Archie Lindo to cut a few tunes at Jamaica’s pioneer radio station, ‘ZQI, on their new equipment. He obliged and his group played a few tunes live to the machine, which used soft wax to cut what was basically an acetate. That might’ve been the very start of Jamaican musical recordings. Soon after that, sound system pioneer Stanley Motta began to operate his studio, where he recorded calypso and mento that were released on 78′s. Rolando Alphonso was one of the first to record with him, probably in 1954.
McCook returned to Jamaica in June of 1962, and began playing regular Jazz sessions around Kingston. He had heard some Ska and about the record industry in Jamaica while living in Nassau, but he was a committed Jazzman. Satisfied with live gigs, he initially resisted offers to record and to lead a studio group which were made by Coxson Dodd. Dodd scoured the Jazz spots around Kingston for talent to record, and since McCook had returned to the scene, he was intrigued and impressed with his playing. Unlike most observers, Dodd was Jamaica’s busiest producer, and at the end of 1962, his operation was picking up steam. He was looking to expand and was searching for a building to buy in which he could build his own recording studio. In 1961, after three years of producing and releasing 7″ 45 singles, Dodd had compiled and released his first LP, All Star Top Hits. In 1962, Dodd recorded and released I Cover The Waterfront. Two of the players are Don Drummond and Rolando Alphonso, who comprise the brass section and are featured soloists. In 1963 came Jazz Jamaica From the Workshop, which were Tommy McCook’s first recordings since returning to Jamaica. McCook explains, “It was done in ’63, but before I was with the Skatalites. Ernest is on that, Cecil Lloyd, Don Drummond, Roland, Lloyd Mason, myself, the Reverend Billy Cooke on trumpet and Carl McLeod on drums, whom I had been playing with in my Jazz combo.”
Don Drummond has two tunes on Jazz Jamaica and McCook’s composition, “The Answer”, is included. “I wrote that just after I got back to Jamaica, in ’62, but it wasn’t the first. ‘Roadblock’ was the first tune I wrote when I got back,” McCook recalls.
McCook also recalls hearing the Dodd produced tune, “Schooling the Duke”, after returning to Jamaica. “It was tearing down the airwaves, and I listened in. Johnny Moore was on that tune, young Gaynair was on that tune and Don Drummonds. Well, I listened and I liked what I heard, yunno. Dizzy was blowing some nice jazzy solo on that tune, Don as his usual self, as a Jazzman too. That’s well, where I became involved.”
Lloyd Knibb also made a habit of checking McCook’s Jazz gigs and of asking him to lead a band. McCook initially declined Knibb’s offer, as he had Dodd’s. Eventually he warmed to the idea, and by late 1963, told Knibb to form the band and he would lead it when his engagement with pianist Aubrey Adams at the Courtleigh Manor Hotel was up. Knibb laughs, recalling his answer that the band was already formed, and all that they needed to do was to have a meeting together and then get some gigs.
The meeting came to bump at the Odeon Cinema Theatre, (Johnny Moore dissents on this point, insisting it was the Regal) which was owned by the family of Dada Tawari (possibly Baba Tuari). Tawari and family also owned the Regal Theater and the Caribbean Records plant on Torrington Road. Tawari had agreed to book the band at his theaters and to provide microphones and equipment. But, Moore relays that, “As it worked out, it didn’t happen the way Tawari thought it would and he kind of backed out”.
Tawari had been introduced to the band by his friend Joseph Gordon, better known as Lord Tanamo. Before the group could book gigs, they needed a name and that was the matter at hand. Lord Tanamo recounts the meeting, “several names were proposed and criticized, such as the All Stars, before I suggested the Orbits, and someone say Itallites, then Lloyd Knibb said no, Satellites, and Tommy said no, we play Ska, Ska-talites. And that was it.”
After the initial gig at the Hi Hat, there were conflicts within the group, and according to Jackie Mittoo, the Skatalites almost broke up. Mittoo described the situation, “there were too many stars in the group and not everybody could get along”. According to Lloyd Knibb, Jah Jerry had been very upset with the gig and stopped playing shows thereafter. However, the band persevered and landed a regular engagement at the Bournemouth Beach Club in Eastern Kingston, playing Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The Skatalites also picked up a regular gig at the Orange Bowl on Orange Street on Sundays. Of course they took spot dates too, which according to a Studio One 45 sleeve, included Monday, July 27 when they played the Jamaica Success Club at 63 Wildman Street. There was “Dancing to Tommy McCook and the Ska-talites with Jackie Opel, Delroy Wilson, Doreen Schaefer, Lee Perry, The Blue Beats and many more artists. Cover 3/6″. I’m told that means three shillings and six pence.
The Skatalites played all around the island. Notable shows were played at the Club Calypso on Good Hope Road in Falmouth. Including one at which a nurse who worked at Falmouth Hospital reportedly danced herself to death. They played the Embassy Club, the Wooden Spoon and the Cellar Club in Mobay.
The Skatalites proved a solid draw; the nine musicians had their followings, the band featured guest soloists and singers, and audience participation was encouraged by ‘launching’ the band to start each show. Lord Tanamo started the countdown, and then Jackie Opel made it a tradition. At certain venues such as the Odeon Theatre, during the show a satellite moving through space was projected onto the wall behind the band! Antics included Johnny Moore twirling his trumpet and Brevett spinning his bass during breaks in tunes. Dancers such as Pam Pam Gifford, Glory, Jabba, Persian the Cat and a rhumba queen named Madame Pussycat, gained fame by dropping legs during Skatalites shows. PJ Patterson, current Prime Minister of Jamaica, was an up and coming barrister in the early sixties who became a big fan of the Skatalites. Patterson later represented Don Drummond in court, and much later had the Skatalites play Independence Day festivities in the National Stadium 1992 as PM.
The Skatalites played around Kingston at the Yacht Club, Wicky Wacky, the Silver Slipper, Club Havana and the Blinking Beacon, according to Sister Ignatius. A nun with the Sisters of Mercy, and an instructor at the Alpha School for Boys, Sister Ignatius met Don Drummond, Lester Sterling and Johnny Moore in the first and second form, when she was their teacher.
“I didn’t have Tommy as a student, as he was older. I knew Don Drummond, I knew Lester Sterling and I knew Johnny Moore”, Sister explains. “Music is a big part of the curriculum here at the school. Back when Tommy, Don, Lester and Johnny were students, we would have all day classes in music. Nowadays, the music classes are a half day.”
Known as ‘Jamaica’s Nursery For Brass Band Music’, the Alpha Boys School band has earned an international reputation for excellence through ‘Music in Education’. The school is on South Camp Road in Kingston, and inside its spacious Lennie Hibbert Music Hall, the walls are adorned with photos and memorabilia honoring the achievements of Alpha School graduates. Don Drummond has his own corner amid fellow Alpha ‘old boys’ such as Joe Harriot, Bertie King, Dizzy Reece, Dudley Farrier, Harold ‘Little G’ Gaynair, Joe Bennett, Wilton Gaynair, Headley Bennett, Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton, Raymond Harper, Ron Wilson, Manuel ‘Rico’ Rodriguez, and Bobby Ellis. Johnny Moore recalls his days at Alpha fondly, “They[the nuns] were serious people and don’t take to joking, but I enjoyed it at the Alpha School. I was there with Don and Lester and I remember Don always study music by reading piano books. He played trombone but he would sit under the dibby-dibby tree studying his piano book for hours.” Moore also recalled being close to Sterling while at Alpha, “Sterling was kind of a teacher of mine. We were close in age, he was in the next form, and he played trumpet in the Alpha band.”
Moore left Alpha in 1955, and “a couple of months later I joined the military band.”
Tommy McCook also warmly recalls his days at the Alpha School, “My brother was already at Alpha when I first went there with my Mom to visit. Frank was a little older than me and he was a good singer. Alpha helped bring that out and later Frank was a singer with Roy Coburn’s Blue Flames Orchestra. When I started at Alpha in the band, I played tenor right away, and it was my teachers sax. It came about because his time was up. I was given the school sax to use as my first.”
McCook recalls his start at Alpha, “The nuns took good care of us. Sister Marie Therese, who was the caretaker and superintendent of the school when I started there in ’39, was a very stern person. We called her Sister Martarez. She was kind of cool, saintly. Sister Alphonso was her helper, and she was big and robust, like a man. Sister Ignatius came next.”
As for Don Drummond, according to school records, he entered Alpha at age nine, “because his mother could no longer tolerate his truancy”. It also states that he spent three years in third form, and completed level five before he left on September 12, 1950 to join the Colony Club Orchestra, which was led by Eric Deans. Eric Deans was a popular bandleader who recruited heavily from Alpha. His bands played American swing and Latin rhythms which emanated from Cuba and points south.
“Eric Deans had a way of grooming young kids into playing the music”, states Tommy McCook. “Us kids kept going in the band, whenever we see a member left the band, he would come to Alpha and audition a young chap to fill in”. During the forties and fifties, most of the Skatalites spent time working in his bands after they first left school. Including Skatalites who did not attend the Alpha School.
Before Rolando Alphonso joined Deans band, he attended the Stony Hill Industrial School, whose curriculum included musical instruction. “I started on side drum when I was 10, in 1941. When I was thirteen my mum asked my schoolmaster, ‘please to put my son on saxophone’. They did, but eventually because first they put me on trumpet! (Much laughter!) We played overtures, strolls, waltzes and dead marches.”
Dead marches? Why did they teach school kids to play dead marches?
“We needed to know them man. Because people were dying all the time and no one could afford a professional band for a funeral, so they had the school band play. Also, we played at the funerals for school kids. I remember one kid died from climbing an electric post near the schoolyard.” Roland hilariously, yet solemnly, stands up and acts out the dead march…
Roland recalls his first sax at age 15. “My mother bought me an alto sax at Montague’s Music on Tower Street. It cost 25 pounds and Sonny Bradshaw wrapped it up for us. Mr. Montague said that I better appreciate how kind my mother is to me, to buy such a saxophone for me, and that I better make sure I take good care of it. I think Montague’s was the only place in Kingston selling Jazz sheet music then.”['46]
Lloyd Brevett was taught everything by his father David, who played and built his own basses. It was a difficult process, according to Brevett. “We start by salvaging fine wire to make the A, D and G strings. Then you would wax the wire and then you must wrap it by hand with twine, a kind of tough hemp. That take a long time and you must be careful to do it tight. One time I had wrapped the strings and while my old man was playing it, the string start to unravel, and oh man, that mean troubles for poor me.”
Jah Jerry, who is retired from performing, has been living in the Jones Town section of Kingston for at least 40 years. Haines started in music late in life compared to his mates. “My old man used to have a little guitar yunno? When I was a big young man of 22 I decide say, well I’m gonna try a little of this thing. Well, there’s a guitar player named Ernest Ranglin. We get Ernest Ranglin and he set me on yunno, assist me on to what I really know.” According to Ranglin, he was asked to teach Jerry’s father, who was blind. At the same time he also instructed Jerry. “I taught Jerry for seven years”, Ranglin recalled. They also played together frequently before the formation of the Skatalites in Prince Buster’s All Stars where Ranglin was the house bassist.
Lester Sterling played trumpet and cornet at the Alpha School from 1949 to ’55. It wasn’t until his early twenties, after stints in Stanley Headlam’s band, as second trumpet, and with Rolando Alphonso’s Upsetters band, also on trumpet, that he decided he wanted to play alto saxophone.
“I told my friend Bushie Pitt that I didn’t want to play trumpet no more. Him say him have a sax and that I can trade my trumpet to him for it. I say no, but how much for the sax? Him say 20 pounds. So, I did leave my trumpet with him but I told him that I’d pay him in a couple of months, and that’s what happened. I sold the trumpet to someone else who wanted to learn music. Cannonball [Karl Bryan] helped me out a lot when I just got that saxophone man. I didn’t know anything about reeds and such. Cannonball helped me to get the right mouthpiece. We were good friends, we used to get gigs from when I was on trumpet. We got gigs with Rico too, mostly little shows in country at parties.”
“Rico introduced me to Coxson, and carry me to Federal for a session, my first, in 1958. It was a Coxson session at Federal that I started to blow Ska, Ska, Ska and they start call me Ska Sterling. It was a guy named Blackie was the first to call me Ska. He was one of the hep guys who say Skavoovee and ting. He was also a tailor.” Blackie was indeed a tailor and made clothes for Rolando Alphonso. Blackie can be seen dancing on the cover of the LP, All Star Top Hits, and underneath the second CD in this package, he’s got a hankerchief, or something tied to his left arm.
Lloyd Knibb started out playing two condensed milk tins between his feet, while seated in the back of his yard. While in his teens, he worked with his Aunt Sylvia making patties and pudding and selling them to businesses downtown. They lived for a while in Trenchtown, where he was fascinated by the drummers playing goat skin fundes and repeaters on the streetcorners. Rastafari was growing in Jamaica, and Trenchtown in the early forties was a hotbed of the movement. Knibbs’ first experience with a real drum was when he played a repeater at a Rasta meeting.
“Before I start to play I followed Donald Jarrett, drummer for Sonny Bradshaw’s band,” Knibb explains. “In ’45 or ’46, as a little boy, I used to follow him and sit down behind him and listen and watch him. So, eventually I got my inspiration from Jarrett.”
I didn’t ever have a teacher teaching me so I just watch man and listen to radio, anything. I was 18 before I really start to go from band to band. It was Lester Williams, a trumpeter who was in Deans band, he taught me how to properly count bars.”
Jackie Mittoo was the baby of the Skatalites. A child prodigy on the piano, Mittoo was reportedly playing under his grandmother’s tutelage on her piano at the age of three. He was playing professionally by 12 with bands such as the Vagabonds and the Vikings. Soon after, he was playing with the Rivals band and hanging out at Federal Studios. Mittoo made a name for himself with the public while in the Sheiks and Cavaliers in 1962 and ’63 respectively, and was 16 when the Skatalites formed in June 1964.
“From before the music change, we were together”, says Rolando Alphonso, describing the link between the future Skatalites. In fact, seven of the nine, Drummond, Alphonso, Sterling, Moore, Haines, Brevett and Knibb, had recorded Jazz, boogie blues and shuffle as work for hire musicians during the late fifties at Federal. They also were instrumental in the change in music Alphonso alluded to. (McCook was in Nassau during those years and Mittoo was too young for those sessions, though he did play on one or three for Coxson at Federal in ’61-2.) The change was rhythmic, and it was a gradual process which began around 1958, with experiments conducted by Ernest Ranglin and bassist Cluett Johnson, under the guidance of Coxson Dodd. Dodd encouraged Ranglin to emphasize the upbeat of the then popular shuffle rhythm, to pick it up a bit. The shuffle became a Jamaican boogie, and often featured a wailing sax.
The next rhythmic experiment involved Lloyd Knibb, again at the direction of Coxson Dodd. Dodd was seeking a faster and more exciting beat, which would be able to really push the horn players. He knew Knibb as “a much busier drummer” than predecessors Arkland ‘Drumbago’ Parks, Aston ‘Wackie’ Henry or Pearson of the Blues Blasters.
Knibb spent years developing a crack rimshot which allows him to refrain from ever using the open snare. He’s also the only drummer to appropriate the African buru style on a trap set, and check out his figures on the hi hat, say at the beginning of “Simmer Down” or “Addis Ababa”. When he started playing Ska, he took over the beat for his own, and his inimitable style reigned through the Rock Steady era into 1967. According to Keith Scott, who was employed at Federal Studios in the fifties and sixties, “Between 1962 and 1966 Lloyd Knibbs was the dominant drummer-he played on over 90 percent of the records.”
He also has a large callus, or “corn” as he calls it, on his hand from delivering powerful rimshots. “Anyone seriously playing the Ska for a long time must have a corn like this”, Knibb declares.
Knibb played burra over the years in the Warieka Hills at the encampment of Count Ossie. Outside of the studio, Count Ossie’s place was where most of the future Skatalites played together before the band formed. “Count Ossie had a big ranch kind of house with several bedrooms, where musicians would stay”, according to Knibb. Rico Rodriguez, Drummond and Moore all lived there at times and Coxson Dodd recalls first meeting them there. “I think that I really first met a lot of the guys up at Count Ossie’s camp. In the earlies, before I started to do recording, I used to go up there to just listen to the musicians. There were regular jam sessions up there. Johnny was up there, Roland, Don, Rico, Knibbs…I kind of creamed the whole early scene from up there, yunno?”
By the early sixties, Knibb, Moore and Mittoo were playing together in the Sheiks. The band underwent a name change in ’63 when they got a new manager, Bill Gentles, and emerged as the Cavaliers Orchestra. It was at that time that Knibb, Moore and Mittoo started talking to others about starting a new band. Drummond and Alphonso were involved from the start, as was Brevett. Brevett and Knibb had been hustling gigs together since the forties at the Coney Island Amusement Centre, and had an understanding that one would always try to get work with the other. Ernest Ranglin was too busy to commit to the new group but recommended his pupil, Haines. Sterling had been in the military band with Moore, was the leading altoist of the era, and a studio stalwart. This nucleus was together at sessions all day and at night would play their varied live gigs. They knew they needed a leader, but no one was up to the task. So, as Moore tells it, “It was Jackie and I that handpicked the group. That was while we were in the Cavaliers Orchestra. I told Knibb to go after Tommy McCook.” Knibb corroborates Moore’s account and notes that before they decided to go after McCook, Lyn Taitt, guitarist with the Cavaliers, had declined the bandleaders chair. Taitt says, “I just turned it down. Mainly because I’m not a born Jamaican and if those guys were going to go on the road promoting Jamaican music, I thought they must be led by a Jamaican.”
Taitt set them back for a while, and then McCook too, declined the invitation from Knibb. “It was a headache to get Tommy”, Knibb has stated. “I used to check him regular and ask him to lead the band all the time”. Another impetus to forming the Skatalites is offered by Coxson Dodd.
When asked if the groups formation was rebellious to an industry run by the producers, Dodd replied, “Well this was very true, because when the interest in the Ska first started escalating, because of that, Eddie heard that the Ska was moving big now. Eddie Seaga urged Byron Lee to go to New York and to make a presentation of the Ska. [At the August 1964 World's Fair] At the same time, I heard of it and went down to Khouri’s studio where they were rehearsing. It didn’t make sense, because what these guys are doing is not Ska. It was something more like they took it off of an American band. As it was, I had to carry a guy by the name of Castro, who was one of our roots guys who come to dance when we formulate our Ska. So it went that they had was to carry Castro. Castro got with them and work out some movements yunno, how to do the Ska. After this now, we were aware that other people would be coming in to cash in on the stuff that we had worked so hard on. So, we got in the studio, and so before a session now, I call a meeting and show them what was happening. So I show them say, that away from just what we were calling the stuff, they had to get on the road with a band, and ah, show authority, they had to name the band projecting the word Ska.”
During the heyday of the Ska, it was only producers such as Dodd, Duke Reid and Justin Yap who were able to land the entire Skatalites for a session. Even so, those three at times required fill ins. The main producers whom the Skatalites worked for are Coxson Dodd, Arthur S. ‘Duke’ Reid, Cecil B. ‘Prince Buster’ Campbell, Justin ‘Phillip’ Yap, Victor ‘Randy’ Chin, Vincent ‘King’ Edwards, Lyndon O. Pottinger, and Leslie Kong.
The Skatalites recorded with literally everyone of the era who was making records. Groups ranged from the Aces to the Zodiacs, with a few dozen in between, while individual artists span Bobby and Laurel Aitken to Joe White and Delroy Wilson.
The Skatalites first anniversary gig was at the Glass Bucket Club on June 27, 1965 according to Johnny Moore. Moore’s account is supported by a decorative pint glass painted, “Tommy McCook And The Skatalites, 1st Anniversary, June 27, 1965. That artifact [Knibb's] is proof that the band lasted at least one year. Its importance grows amidst conflicting tales of the Skatalites ‘last show’. McCook recalls it as a police dance at the Runaway Bay Hotel in August 1965, while Moore and Sterling feel that the last gig was the first anniversary show. That difference in opinions is magnified by the fact that the band was torn apart violently at its demise. Whether by vigorous personality clashes, or sabotage by the producers, the Skatalites break up was precipitated by an event that captivated the whole of Jamaica.
It’s clear from all accounts that the band was never the same after Don Drummond stabbed his girlfriend Marguerita Mahfood to death in the early hours of New Years Day 1965, and was incarcerated. Drummond had been absent from the scene and from shows before, but everyone always knew he would return. However, he never returned after the early morning hours of January 1st.
Drummond had awoken and grown enraged because he had overslept and missed the Skatalites New Years Eve show at La Parisienne club in Harbour View. Reportedly, he missed the gig due to a misunderstanding with Mahfood over when she should give him his medication. The medication was to treat recurrent bouts of mental illness which had already caused Drummond to voluntarily commit himself twice to the Bellevue Sanitarium. Mahfood was a professional dancer known as ‘Marguerita the Rhumba Queen’, and she gave two performances on New Years Eve, one at the Baby Grand and one at Club Havana. Shortly after she arrived home that night, Mahfood’s and Drummond’s careers ended in tragedy.
Drummond died four years later, in 1969 in Bellevue. The exact date and cause of Drummond’s death, and where he is buried, are matters of some contention, reportedly because his funeral was announced and then cancelled. The wake was supposed to be at Madden’s Funeral Home but it was halted by Mr. Madden because of a ruckus created by the mourners who weren’t going to let Don go quietly. According to Jamaican radio broadcaster Vaughn ‘Bunny’ Goodison, Drummond was likely buried in an unmarked grave in the vast Maypen cemetary by soldiers as he died in the asylum a convicted murderer.
Don Drummond epitomized the Ska, caught as he was between genius and madness. Above all others, it was his artistic sense and supreme dedication to his instrument which transcended the derogatory ‘uptown’ dismissal of Ska as ‘bufbuf’ music, to create a thriving legacy. Despite the music’s worldwide popularity, and the fact that he wrote his last song over thirty years ago, Drummond remains Ska’s leading composer with several hundred tunes to his credit.
Part of that legacy is shouldered by the continuing effort of the Skatalites, part of it can be heard through new bands playing Drummond’s music, and part of it can be seen at the Alpha School. Especially now since, according to Sister Ignatius, a trombone belonging to Drummond which was given to the school by Bellevue, is on display in the Music Hall.
The Skatalites play on. Anchored by Lloyd Knibb, Lloyd Brevett, Rolando Alphonso and Lester Sterling, the group also boasts Doreen Schaeffer and three fresh faces. Devon James is on guitar, Will Clark is on trombone and on trumpet is Nathan Breedlove.
- Brian Keyo