A Conversation with Original Skatalites’s Tommy McCook
by Lee O’Neill
It would not be an exaggeration to call the Skatalites the first superstars of Jamaican music. Not only the house band for Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label and Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label (along with dozens of others), they were also Jamaica’s hottest live act at the peak of the Ska era. As individuals, they played on nearly every song of significance in the early ’60s, defined the Ska style, and became the core of the bands that would create Rock Steady. It would be no exaggeration to say that the roots of Reggae begin with the Skatalites.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Tommy McCook, leader and tenor sax player for the Skatalites and founder of Rock Steady’s Supersonics, shortly before the release of the Skatalites newest album, Hi-Bop Ska. The album features Prince Buster and Toots Hibbert on vocals, along with guest artists from the contemporary Jazz world–well-known names like Monty Alexander, Lester Bowie, David Murray and Steve Turre. It brings the music full circle to reconnect the sound of Jazz with the original Ska sound. That should come as no surprise to those familiar with McCook, because, as he told me, “Jazz is my first love.”
McCook learned to love the sax by listening to some of the great musicians of the Bop and Blue Note eras of American Jazz. “I listened to Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins (I loved his ballads), Lester Young, Arnette Cobb, Ben Webster, Charlie Ventura (‘Dark Eyes’ was a special favorite of ours), James Moody. . .”
McCook left for Nassau in the Bahamas in 1954 where he played in a dance band that performed “regular music–Swing music, Latin, Mambos, Cha-Cha-Chas, Bossa Nova.” In the Bahamas, he developed his skills and his knowledge about the business of music, but returned to Jamaica in 1962 because he was tired of playing dance music.
McCook started out with a Jazz quartet in Kingston, and it was there that the legendary Coxsone Dodd heard and recruited him. After the breakup of the Jazz group and gigs with other dance bands, McCook became an integral part of Dodd’s studio ensemble, while continuing to play live.
It was at these gigs, and on the street, that people asked McCook where they could hear in person the music they loved on records. These requests led to the idea of forming a group. McCook recalls that drummer Lloyd Knibbs told him that if McCook would lead the group, he would form it. “I couldn’t form it at that time because of my contract with Aubrey Adams. This went on for several weeks. After my tenure with Aubrey Admas was up, I went back to being a studio musician. Then, after we decided to form a group, we had a meeting at the Globe Theater near Crossroads. We were looking at the name Satellites–satellites being the thing those days because of the Americans and Russians. I decided to call it Skatalites and everyone agreed it was better.”
The original Skatalites included McCook and Roland Alphonso on tenor sax, Don Drummond on trombone, Lester Stirling on alto sax, Dizzy Moore and Rupert Dillon on trumpet; and a rhythm section that consisted of a youthful Jackie Mittoo on piano, Jah Jerry on guitar, Lloyd Brevet on string bass and Lloyd Knibbs on drums. The group also included three singers: Tony DaCosta and Doreen Shaffer “who did a lot of the boy/girl stuff” and Lord Tanamo “who sang all Ska.”
The Skatalites quickly became the hottest group in Jamaica for stage shows and recordings, and their talent and creativity changed the face of Jamaican music. Some of the more famous tunes (as a group or under the composers’ names) include “Eastern Standard Time,” “Independent Anniversary Ska,” “Confucius,” “Guns of Navarone,” and McCook’s personal favorites, “Ska Ba” (a Ska-Bossa Nova combination), “Road Block” and “Latin Goes Ska.”
The Skatalites were a prolific group, recording dozens of tracks as a group and as individuals. “Whoever brought the composition to the studio was recognized as the composer and arranger and got credit for the recording,” McCook said. “The arranger got £5 for the song and we got £1.1 to £2 for performing. At that time, £1 was about $4. That was good money at that time. You could buy a lot of things.
“We survived by playing for more than one promoter,” McCook continued. “There was Studio One [Coxsone Dodd] which was the main man, Top Deck [Philip Yap], Treasure Isle [Duke Reid] and King Edwards. These were the regular session guys who had record shops and sound systems to play dances. Then there were other little guys who’d call you in to do one thing. Everybody played live. With the stage work, we made a pretty good living.
“Recording sessions were fairly primitive,” McCook explained. “Everybody was recording at Federal Studios. They had a two track machine. You’d have the singer on one track and have everybody else on the next track. On instrumentals, we’d have both tracks for ourselves, so you’d have the rhythm section on one track and the horns on the other. Sometimes the composer wrote the song at home and arranged it on the spot. Then you’d run it down for the group and tell them what you need and what you want. They’d rehearse it a couple of times and then record it and present it to the producer. The producer hears it and accepts it or tells you what he wants, which was usually to make it shorter or cut out the solos. There was a time limit of 2 1/2 minutes because of radio play. They had to have the time to get their commercials in because that’s how they make money. Every promoter had a different approach in the studio. They all tried to sound different. Each one was in competition with his sound system and would have his music done a different way.”
The Skatalites reigned supreme through 1964, recording their biggest hit, “Guns of Navarone,” at the close of the year. That was also the last recording for the brilliant trombone player Don Drummond, who was convicted for murdering his girlfriend Marguerite on New Year’s Day. The Skatalites continued through the summer of 1965 but “we never used a substitute for Don–we left his space open. There was nobody around who could fit his space.
“The Skatalites broke up because Dodd and Roland [Alphonso], who were very close, decided to form the Soul Brothers using members of the band,” McCook explained. “Jackie Mittoo, Dizzy Moore and Roland told me they were leaving the group to form the Soul Brothers. I decided I wasn’t going to continue with the group. I wanted to leave the scene being popular rather than play to empty houses. Don was locked away and wasn’t going to come out for a long time, and with the guys leaving for the Soul Brothers, it didn’t make sense to continue.”
Almost immediately after the Skatalites broke up, however, McCook found himself at the head of the Supersonics, the top band of the Rock Steady era. “Duke Reid came to me about playing for him. I said I needed a rest because with the Skatalites I did every damn thing. I was the manager, I did the advertising, rehearsed the group. Reid told me, ‘You don’t have to do anything but deal with the music.’ Then he said, ‘Name your salary.’ All I had to do was play. This was late September, early October of 1965.”
The Supersonics recorded for Treasure Isle throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, dissolving in the face of the violence that plagued Jamaica at the time. McCook continued as a freelance tenorman, playing on most of the biggest Channel One productions of the Rockers era, including many of the Mighty Diamonds hits.
For the 1993 Reggae Sunsplash festival, he was approached by Synergy to reform the Skatalites. From that time forward, they have continued to tour, recorded a live set for ROIR, and have recently completed their second studio album for Shanachie.
This edition of the Skatalites includes some members of the original group, along with some younger players, and has a more eclectic approach. “I like variety,” McCook said. “I like changing the music. I like to do Ska (which is the main bag), Rock Steady, another Ska, some Reggae . . . . We don’t play Jazz because people don’t accept the Jazz scene. A lot of my guys don’t play Jazz.”
McCook closed by saying: “The new album is the best I’ve done so far since joining Shanachie. We’ve got great guest artists and they’re mingled with the older heads. Young and old coming together.” Playing Ska.