Observer: Last of a Legacy
SAXOPHONIST Lester Sterling, the lone surviving original member of the Skatalites and Doreen Shaffer, long-time vocalist with the pioneer band, have added their voices to the list of persons paying tribute to bass player Lloyd Brevett.
Brevett, the band’s original bass player, died last Thursday in Kingston at age 80.
When Splash caught up with Sterling and Shaffer, who both call New York City home, sadness tinged their voices.
“It’s really sad, just sad, very sad,” said Sterling.
“I knew he was ailing and how much the death of his son took a toll on him both mentally and physically. I have since spoken to his wife Ruth, but it’s really sad,” said Shaffer.
Sterling, who still tours with the Skatalites, recalled the musical circle that brought himself and Brevett together over a half a century ago.
“I knew Brevett from before we started playing music together — from the 1950s. As a teenager I used to watch him playing his music at Coney Island. You see I was always following the music from I was a youngster — I was trained at the Alpha Boys’ School,” he reflects.
“We would meet again through a circle of music that would be completed when we both became studio musicians at Studio One and lead to the formation of the Skatalites back in 1964.”
Shaffer says she was still in school when her path crossed with a set of studio musicians at producer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s famed Studio One.
“I had gone to the studio for an audition and it was there I met (drummer) Lloyd Knibb. He explained that they were thinking of forming a band and asked if I was interested in joining. I was still young and living at home so I told them I have to ask my mother,” says Shaffer.
After getting the go-ahead, she would meet the other members of the band including keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and Brevett.
Her first recording with the band would be Adorable You, a catchy ditty with melody drawn from Dinah Washington’s What a Difference a Day Makes.
Both were generous in their complements for Brevett.
“He was an extremely talented musician, a great player,” says Sterling. Shaffer encouraged his family to take heart in the fact that Brevett’s style is still being copied by bass players worldwide.
“That says something for the quality musician he was. All the members of the band were so talented, so advanced, they were ahead of their time, and Brevett was no different,” she notes.
Despite their success, there were differences which threatened the stability of the band.
“It was not always rosy,” states Shaffer, “we had our ups and down just like any other group or family.”
Sterling notes it was the rivalry among members that helped them to produce such excellent music.
“The competition fueled the talent. If Tommy (McCook) blow something on the tenor saxophone, Roland (Alphonso) wanted to better him, and I would strive to play better than the two of them. It made us better artistes,” Sterling says.
With an impressive cataloge of music, what is their favorite Skatalites track?
Shaffer is divided, drawing for Man in the Street and the hugely popular Guns of Navarone.
“They are just great tunes and really define the Skatalites sound,” she says.
Sterling claims Lee Harvey Oswald as his favorite. He recalls a gig in Montego Bay, when the moment he began to blow the opening lines everyone at the event rushed to the dance floor.
“That always happens when we play this tune. It has that effect on people,” Sterling says.
While Shaffer is planning on coming to Jamaica for Brevett’s funeral service, Sterling doubts he can attend. He is battling complications from diabetes.
The Skatalites still tours. The current band includes four Jamaicans — Trevor ‘Sparrow’ Thompson on drums, Val Douglas on bass, Sterling and Shaffer