The Skatalites, a name synonymous with the vibrant rhythms of ska music, embarked on their musical journey between 1963 and 1965. During this period, they etched their names into the annals of Jamaican music history, crafting some of the genre’s most iconic songs, including the beloved “Guns of Navarone.”

Before Ska’s Heyday: The Skatalites (1954ā€“1964)

The story of The Skatalites begins in the mid-1950s, a time when Jamaican recording studios were taking their first steps towards development. The founding members of the band included notable musicians such as Doreen Shaffer, Tommy McCook, Rolando Alphonso, Lester Sterling, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, Don Drummond, Jah Jerry Haynes, Jackie Mittoo, and Johnny Moore. These talented individuals began playing together as early as 1955, marking the genesis of a musical revolution.

Tommy McCook: A Jazz Journey

Tommy McCook, a renowned musician and saxophonist, was one of the band’s earliest members. His musical journey started in 1953 when he played with Don Hitchman’s Group. However, his initial recordings were not intended for commercial release. Instead, he performed for Archie Lindo’s pioneer radio station, “ZQI,” showcasing his musical prowess. Shortly after, sound system pioneer Stanley Motta launched his studio, recording calypso and mento tracks released on 78s. Rolando Alphonso was among the first musicians to record with Motta, likely in 1954.

While McCook was the first band member to record, he did not participate in the initial recording sessions with the other nine musicians. He departed Jamaica in 1954, heading for a jazz gig at the Zanzibar Club in Nassau, Bahamas. McCook would not return to Jamaica until June 1962, where he immersed himself in playing jazz sessions around Kingston.

The Influence of Coxsone Dodd

Record producer Coxsone Dodd played a pivotal role in the formation of The Skatalites. He scoured Kingston for talented jazz players and was deeply impressed by Tommy McCook’s exceptional skills. Although McCook had some reservations about transitioning from jazz to the burgeoning ska scene, he eventually joined the studio group.

In 1962, Coxsone Dodd released “I Cover The Waterfront,” a track that featured Roland Alphonso and Don Drummond. This recording marked the first collaboration between McCook and the band after his return to Jamaica.

Early Years of The Skatalites (1964-1965)

The turning point for The Skatalites came in early 1964, when a meeting was convened at The Odeon Theatre, owned by the Tawari family. These theatre owners, impressed by Lord Tanamo, encouraged him to unite the musicians responsible for many hit records. The anonymity of session musicians was a common practise during this era, as few producers credited them on the records.

At that time, DJs often scratched off the titles and labels of records to protect their song choices. The musicians, working tirelessly for little recognition and financial gain, were eager to establish their identity. The Skatalites emerged from this shared desire to be acknowledged for their contributions to the music scene.

Their Impact and Influence

The Skatalites embarked on their musical journey with a performance at the Hi-Hat club in May 1964. Originally intended as a rehearsal, the event attracted such a massive crowd that they decided to charge admission, marking the birth of the band’s public presence. Word spread rapidly that the musicians behind countless hit records had come together as The Skatalites.

Coxsone Dodd played a significant role in promoting the band, providing equipment, instruments, and even amplifiers. The group’s popularity soared, and their influence extended to collaborations with renowned artists such as Delroy Wilson, Desmond Dekker, The Wailers, and Lee Perry.

The Tragic Story of Don Drummond

Don Drummond, the band’s talented trombonist, had an impressive catalogue of over 200 tunes by 1965. However, on January 1, 1965, Drummond’s life took a tragic turn when he was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Anita “Marguerita” Mahfood. Drummond was later convicted and remanded to the Bellevue Asylum.

The Skatalites’ Legacy

In August 1965, The Skatalites played their final show. The band split into two supergroups, with Rolando Alphonso forming the Soul Vendors and Tommy McCook leading the Supersonics. Despite this division, their music continued to resonate with audiences worldwide.

In April 1967, The Skatalites made an unexpected mark on the UK Singles Chart with their ska adaptation of the theme from the film “The Guns of Navarone.” The band’s legacy endures, even though they were met with challenges and personal tragedies. Don Drummond passed away on May 6, 1969, in the Bellevue Asylum.

The Skatalites remain a symbol of innovation and influence in the world of ska music, and their story is a testament to the enduring power of music to shape culture and captivate the hearts of generations.