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World Music Legends

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The Skatalites
By Chris Nickson

Published October 9, 2005
Style: Ska

It’s quite possible that no band that existed for a mere 18 months has had as much influence as the Skatalites. But the first phase of the Skatalites, which lasted from 1964 to the middle of the following year, was truly inspirational. A veritable dream team of Jamaican musicians, it was led by saxophonist Tommy McCook, and included such now-familiar musicians as Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond, Lester Sterling, Jah Jerry, Lloyd Brevette and the young Jackie Mittoo. They were all veterans of the fledgling Jamaican music scene, where ska had been born at the beginning of the decade, but their pedigrees ran much deeper.

            Most had spent time playing jazz around the Caribbean, and many of them had grown up with music, graduates of Kingston’s Alpha School for Boys, which had been a hothouse of Jamaican musical talent. All had been involved in session work for the new sound, and had been playing together, without a name, since 1963. Although nominally the house band for Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One, they worked with all the top producers on the island, including Duke Reid and Sonia Pottinger.

            With their well-honed jazz chops, they were the leaders in ska instrumentals, virtually ruling the Jamaican airwaves during their brief existence. However, their records also found release in Britain, where Drummond’s “Man In The Street” hit the charts in 1965 (although it was a minor hit compared to the classic “Guns Of Navarone” in 1967).

            The writing on the wall for the Skatalites Mk.1 appeared right at the beginning of 1965, when Drummond, one of ska’s most prolific composers in addition to being a supremely talented trombonist, was jailed for the murder of his girlfriend. He was declared insane and institutionalized, committing suicide in a hospital four years later.

            In August ’65, the Skatalites played their final show, splitting into two bands, with McCook leading the Supersonics and Alphonso heading up the Soul Vendors. Good as they were, they couldn’t recapture the magic of the Skatalites.

            And that might well have been the end of the story, just another piece of history, and a group that influenced every reggae band and ska revival group that appeared in its broad wake.

            But history does sometimes allow for second acts, and in the case of the<

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