Friday, March 17, 2017


The great sound of Jamaican ska was developed by studio musicians and producers, notably Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and the ace players he recorded for his sound system records used at dances in the late 50s and early 60s. Over the course of a couple of years, the beat of jazz and rhythm and blues was changed to emphasize the upbeat, everybody chopping away at that, along with a bit of swing left over from jazz, and lots of sizzling horns taking solos.

The players had all learned their chops in the jazz bands of the Island's scene in the 40s and 50s, so they were all strong players. With this new sound in place, the best of them decided to team up in 1964 to create the greatest of all bands, the legendary Skatalites. It was full of stars, including leader Tommy McCook on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone, Roland Alphonso on tenor, "Ska" Sterling on alto, Lloyd Knibb on drums and Jackie Mittoo on keyboards. Players shuffled in and out, vocalists such as Jackie Opel were added for the stage shows, and in the studio they would either record their own singles or back upcoming artists. Included here is the early hit Simmer Down by The Wailers, in those days a singing group featuring Bob Marley.

The stars were those soloing horn players though, and the sides they cut featured that incessant rhythm and almost constant horn lines. Songs came and went quickly in those sound system days, and they needed a novelty to get the dancer's attention. The name was a big deal, and songs were titled after everything from TV shows ("Dr. Kildare") to people in the news ("Fidel Castro", "Christine Keeler") to historical figures ("Cleopatra", "King Solomon"). There were covers too, ska takes on The Beatles even, with "I Should Have Known Better" and "This Boy".

For all their fame, it's still surprising that The Skatalites only lasted a year, broken up by infighting among all the stars, and the loss of Drummond. Mentality unstable, he flew into a rage after missing his medication, and stabbed his girlfriend to death. But the sound of ska, especially that copied by British musicians in the late 70s like The Specials and English Beat, will always be epitomized by The Skatalites. This double-CD collection originally appeared in 1997, and has now been upgraded and enhanced with an extra six cuts, and is a must for any ska/reggae fan.

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