EL Readers -
I am currently in the midst of producing the latest edition of my own zine, The People's Ska Annual, so I have submitted to Lovely Miss Megan a curiosity from my archive for your bemusement. The following piece was the 1st (& only) draft for a proposed liner note to the new Skatalites album, Ball of Fire. I never got around to interviewing the band for this note (though I have interviewed several members in the past), so I consider this a work in progress to be finished off at a later point, perhaps for their next album! Anybody at Island reading this? Heheheh. Island's loss, your gain! Hope ya dig it!
Reggae music today is as healthy as it ever was, never looking back, constantly evolving, changing and moving forward. While this may be healthy for the music, it can be a double-edged sword: some of the greatest contributors and innovators of the music may be lost in the search for the latest trend.
Before there was Reggae, there was Rock Steady, and before there was Rock Steady, there was Ska. Unlike some other genres of music where the individual contributors to the sound can be indeterminate and lost to the sands of time, the Ska-Reggae progression can be greatly attributed to one group of master musicians who went under one moniker: the Skatalites.
The Skatalites officially formed in 1963, but the roots of the musical journey go back to the 40s. Key founders Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Don Drummond and Lester Sterling all attended the Alpha Boys' Catholic School in Kingston, Jamaica. If a student were to volunteer for the school band, there would be less menial chores for them to do, so it was music for these four. This formal music training in theory, playing classical music and the like would have life-long percussions for these students.
Before World War II, the popular native music of Jamaica had been mento and calypso. During the 40s and 50s, American music gained popularity. The blues, jazz, country, the earliest of rock and most importantly Rhythm & Blues filtered in through the transistor radio and the mobile sound systems. The sound systems of the 50s were mobile PA's with huge bass speakers run by men like Clement 'Sir Coxonne' Dodd and Duke 'The Trojan' Reid (who would become the founders of the modern Jamaican music industry and the prime producers of ska and rock steady in the years to come on the 'Studio One' and the 'Treasure Isle' labels respectively.) The competition for the latest sounds from America was fierce - the sound systems would scratch off the labels of their records just so the spies from the other systems wouldn't know what they were playing.
The next step to get over on a competing sound system operator was logically to have a record that the other can not get - by making it yourself. As the tastes of American music shifted in the late 50s towards softer sounds, the Jamaica public still demanded the kind of jumpy R&B you could dance to. Sir Coxsonne looked to get himself an exclusive. And so in the late 50's the Jamaican music industry was born. Men like Laurel Aitken found success in gut-bucket boogie sounds and under-appreciated talents like Rosco Gordon, one of the greatest blues players of Jamaica. Different live scenes of Jamaica (in Jazz and mento) and the music business in Jamaica helped each other. Things were set to go to the next level.
Coxsonne's thriving Studio One needed a stable of musicians to back up the singers he brought in. The first house band, credited with supplying the roots to ska was....Clue J & His Blues Blasters. Still derivative of Blues and Boogie, Clue J's crew included the likes of sax man Roland Alphonso, who played sax with the band when backing Thelonious Beckford's song, "Easy Snappin'" credited by historians as one of the first ska tracks. The back-to-front piano style of artists like Rosco Gordon had stressed the second and fourth beats of each bar, a kind a rhythm that can be heard buried in blues and R&B. It wasn't called ska quite yet - it was Jamaican Blues- but the music was certainly moving forward and evolving.
Men like Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso were bouncing between sessions, playing live when a vocalist needed a pick-up band. One fateful day around 1963, producer Coxsonne Dodd and Tommy McCook decided that having a stable band of the top session men with their own group identity would not only be a financial bargaining chip on the live circuit, but could be a virtual petri dish for musical experimentation. The Skatalites got it together, got in, and ripped the roof off the house. Then and now, the ska beat has been synonymous with the Skatalites.
From when they formed in 1963 to when they disbanded amongst in-fighting and personality clashes. During this period the Skatalites backing literally all of the stars of the period (including Bob Marley's vocal trio the Wailers, the Maytals, Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster, Lord Tanamo, Ken Boothe, and loads more.) Classic hit singles from this time - Phoenix City, Bridge View, Freedom Sound, Latin Goes Ska, Eastern Standard Time, El Pussy Cat, Confucious, and so many more were all inspired work outs of instrumental prowess, jazz experimentation and hooky melodicism - all with an infectious bass heavy beat that doesn't ask you to dance - it demands it.
When they splintered into Tommy McCook's Supersonics (for Treasure Isle) and Roland Alphonso's Soul Vendors (for Studio One), the music would never be the same again. Perhaps it was the long, hot summer, perhaps people wanted to dance closer to their honeys, perhaps it was because the Skatalites disbanded - the sound of the Skatalites evolved into the slower rock steady, which soon became reggae.
The Skatalites have been getting together and disbanding for the past 30-odd years. There was a brief reunion in the 70's to record bass-man Lloyd Brevett's solo album "African Roots" and an album called "the Big Guns" for Island that was never released. They joined forces in the early eighties for a Sunsplash concert and recorded it for the classic live document "Stretching Out" and released the "Scattered Lights" album around this time. And finally, in the early nineties, they reunited once again under the Skatalites name and have released, including this one, four sterling albums of original ska music. It was no aberration that the Specials covered the Skatalites standard "Guns of Navarone" in their hey-day when they founded the 2Tone ska movement in England in the late 1970s. When the young musicians looked to bring the sounds of reggae and the energy of punk together, it was only logical that the Skatalites sound of ska be used as the half-way point. Bands like the Specials, Madness, the Beat and the Selecter would regularly pay tribute by covering tunes of the original ska period, almost all played and shaped originally by the Skatalites.
And it was through 2Tone that the seeds of ska were planted that now has blossomed in the 80s and 90s into the inter-national ska scene we have today. Just as the original ska musicians bastardized the blues to make ska, the music keeps flowing today in a new crop of young ska musicians.
When a music fan today is first introduced to what is called ska music today, they may start with a band like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, whose sound is very much modern rock with some off-beat elements, or Hepcat, whose sound is very much a tribute to the original Skatalites style. If the music fan is dedicated and seeks the roots of the music, they may work there way back to earlier "3rd Wave" bands like the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim, and eventually the 2Tone "2nd Wave" bands like the Specials and the Beat. Finally, the ska traveler will arrive at the original point of inspiration, the "1st Wave", which can only be the Skatalites.