Print this Page

Reggae Legends



By Chris Nickson
Published September 9, 2005

It’s quite possible that no band that existed for a mere 18 months has had as much influence as the Skatalites, a veritable dream team of Jamaican musicians.

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.

          Most had spent time playing jazz around the Caribbean, and all had been involved in session work and had been playing together, without a name, since 1963. Although nominally the house band for Clement “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).

          In 1965, 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.

          But history does sometimes allow for second acts, and in 1983, several of the original members were persuaded to reconvene. They toured Jamaica, then recorded their comeback album, The Return Of The Big Guns, before appearing in London. In 1989 they put themselves in gear and began performing again regularly, with seven of the original members on board, and McCook still firmly in charge.

          Until 1998 they continued to tour and record regularly, garnering Grammy nominations (but never the Grammy itself) in 1996

Recommended Recordings


Foundation Ska (Heartbeat)

Hi-Bop Ska (Shanachie)

From Paris With Love (World Village)