The Skatalites, Live at The Brudenell

Mon Jul 01 2024 at 07:30 pm UTC+01:00

Brudenell Social Club | Leeds

Brudenell Social Club
Publisher/HostBrudenell Social Club
The Skatalites, Live at The Brudenell
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Brudenell Presents...
The Skatalites
60th Anniversary
01.07.2024 | £22.00 ADVANCE (stbf) | Doors 19:30
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With the exception of Bob Marley & the Wailers, no Jamaican musical group has been as important and influential as the Skatalites, and it's fair to say Marley's career would have been impossible without the groundwork laid by that group. More than a band, the Skatalites are an institution, an aggregation of top-notch musicians who didn't merely define the sound of Jamaica, but were the sound of Jamaica in the 1950s and '60s. Frequently credited as the originators of ska -- the musical mash-up of calypso, Caribbean mento, R&B, and rock & roll that pre-dated both reggae and rocksteady -- the Skatalites' various members came up through the nation's hotel bar scene of the late '50s, banding together as both an original group and the often uncredited backing band for artists and producers such as Prince Buster and Duke Reid. Although the group officially existed in its original incarnation for less than 18 months between 1964 and 1965, its members brought their signature styles to hundreds of the island's releases. Following a handful of reunions in the '70s and early '80s, the Skatalites re-formed for good in 1986 and, over subsequent decades, have had a rotating lineup of both original members and newcomers responsible for late-period highlights like 1994's Hi-Bop Ska and 2007's On the Right Track. A version of the band continues to tour and record, even though its founding members have passed away. Known for classic songs like "Guns of Navarone" and "Phoenix City," their influence can be heard in following generations of musicians from the Clash and the Police to Sublime and No Doubt.
The Skatalites' official lineup included guitarist Jerome "Jah Jerry" Hines, bassist Lloyd Brevett, pianist Donat Roy "Jackie" Mittoo, drummer Lloyd Knibbs, trumpeter Johnnie "Dizzie" Moore, tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, alto saxophonists Lester Sterling and Roland Alphonso, and trombonist Don Drummond. Moore, McCook, Sterling, and Drummond were all alumni of the Alpha Cottage School for Boys, an educational institution for troubled and troublesome boys in Kingston, run by the Catholic diocese. Though infamous for its harsh treatment of students, the school was renowned for its music program, and over the years they turned hundreds of wayward boys into performers of note. Moore, McCook, Sterling, and Drummond all ended up playing the hotel circuit, churning out R&B and jazz covers for the tourists; before the late '50s, this was Jamaica's only real music industry outside the mento scene, and with no local record labels, resorts were the only way for musicians to ply their trade. The hotel bands were an ever-shifting conglomerate of players, and over time they would crisscross each other's paths so often that they became familiar with each other's style. Knibbs and Drummond, for example, had both played with Eric Dean's band. When Knibbs departed for the Sheiks, he joined a lineup that included Mittoo and Moore.
New career opportunities presented themselves when local businessmen Duke Reid and Clement "Coxsone" Dodd both launched record labels and the era of the session band arrived in Jamaica. Although both McCook and Alphonso had previously cut acetates, this was the first time any of the future Skatalites would appear on vinyl. Between 1959, when Reid released his first vinyl single, and 1962, most of the band's future members worked regularly at Reid's Treasure Isle studio, playing on a number of R&B, boogie, and ballad releases. (The 1995 collection Ska After Ska After Ska bundles up an album's worth of this early material.) In 1962, Dodd opened his own Studio One recording studio, and the future Skatalites now quickly gravitated in his direction. Joining them was McCook, who'd missed the previous activity, having left Jamaica in 1954 to join the house band at the Zanzibar Club in Nassau. The studio was inaugurated with the release of the album Jazz Jamaica from the Workshop, which featured McCook, Alphonso, Drummond, and guitarist Ernest Ranglin, among others.
The Skatalites came to fruition in June 1964, according to the members' own reckoning, although they have given conflicting stories about just how it happened. Ranglin credits Moore, Knibbs credits himself, but there's no doubt McCook came up with the name. Drafting in vocalists Jackie Opel, Tony DaCosta, Doreen Schaeffer, and calypso star Joseph "Lord Tanamo" Gordon, the group debuted live on June 27, 1964, at the Hi-Hat club in Rae Town. It didn't take long for the Skatalites to grab a residency at the Bournemouth Beach Club in Eastern Kingston, where they performed three nights a week, as well as a standing Sunday booking at the Orange Bowl on Orange Street.
With the growth of Dodd's Studio One label, the group members soon found themselves with almost more gigs than they could handle, touring the island as the backing band for most of the label's artists while also performing on-stage themselves. The schedule was grueling, constantly driving to and from venues and playing at least two sets a night, but in truth, the Skatalites were having a whale of a time. Besides working for Dodd and Reid, the group also played on a multitude of records for Prince Buster and Duke and Justin Yap. The actual number of recordings they performed on is anyone's guess, since the musicians normally went uncredited on the singles. To add to the confusion, the Skatalites gathered in the studio could be any of a number of musicians; guitarist Ranglin, pianist Gladstone Anderson, trombonist Rico Rodriguez, and trumpeter Baba Brooks are just a few of the many musicians who took part in the Skatalites' recording sessions.
With many of the band's recordings released only under the vocalists' name, it has been historically difficult to discern the full scope of their catalog. Even among the group's own repertoire, the records were usually credited to the composer, not the band; the seminal "Guns of Navarone" was originally credited to Roland Alphonso, not the Skatalites. Thankfully, the members' styles are so unique that they're often recognizable within a few notes, and modern archivists have attempted to address these injustices with compilations featuring the band, regardless of original accreditation. The West Side label's Ska Ra Van: Top Sounds from Top Deck, for example, has issued numerous Skatalites compilations, all taken from their sessions for the Yap brothers, while Heartbeat's Foundation Ska bundles up a batch of Studio One cuts. The band's bouncy swing tempo, the jazzy brass, and the steady, skanking beat all shout the Skatalites louder than any written credit, as easily heard on the vocal releases as on their own instrumentals.
The instrumentals were the group's glory. Songs like "Guns of Navarone," "Phoenix City," "Addis Ababa," "Silver Dollar," "Corner Stone," and "Blackberry Brandy," to name just a small handful of their seminal cuts, not only defined the island's sound, but created a whole new genre of music: ska. The group members have often been quoted as saying their invention of ska was merely the byproduct of their flawed attempts at American R&B, but this self-deprecating explanation neglects the jazz and big-band swing sound that was also crucial to ska in its original form (and anyone good enough to play in those styles would have little problem mastering R&B). The Skatalites rolled these older styles into the contemporary scene, merged it with modern R&B, and propelled it into the mainstream using a faster syncopated island beat. The group's musical legacy spread around the world as Jamaica eagerly promoted the new sound to an international audience.
The Skatalites' story took an awful turn at the very end of 1964. They were booked to appear at the La Parisienne club in Harbour View for New Year's Eve, but Don Drummond, who had a history of mental illness, flew into a fit of rage and stabbed Anita "Margarita" Mahfood, his common-law wife and the band's vocalist, to death. Drummond was arrested and sent to Bellevue Sanitarium; he died there in 1969. The Skatalites continued playing for six more months after this tragedy, but the spark was dying, and finally, in July 1965, the members called it quits. Several of them did continue playing together. Alphonso, Moore, Mittoo, and Brevett formed the Soul Brothers, which later became the Soul Vendors. McCook formed the Supersonics, which was virtually Reid's house band at Treasure Isle Studio, and Sterling went to work with producer "Sir" Clancy Collins. As their session work continued apace, many of the former members found themselves working together again. In 1975, McCook, Alphonso, Sterling, Ranglin, Mittoo, and Knibbs reunited to record Brevett's solo album, African Roots. Two years later, the Hot Lava album appeared, credited to Tommy McCook & the Skatalites, but in contrast to Brevett's "solo" album, this really was one. Released in 1978, Jackie Mittoo featured a clutch of former Skatalites. That same year, Island head Chris Blackwell convinced the members to reconvene and record the Big Guns album; due to discord between Blackwell and McCook, the record sat on the shelf until 1984, when it was finally released as Return of the Big Guns. The previous year, the group had again reunited under the aegis of producer Bunny Lee for The Skatalites with Sly & Robbie & Taxi Gang.
In 1986, the Skatalites made the reunion official and began gigging regularly. In 1989, they toured the world as Bunny Wailer's backing band, and the next year performed the same service for Prince Buster. In 1993, an album of new material, Ska Voovee, finally appeared. Now boasting a core lineup of McCook, Brevett, Sterling, and Knibbs, the album was highly acclaimed. It appeared as ska was experiencing a massive revival in the United States, and the band's constant touring abroad had cemented a worldwide following. Over the intervening years, the Skatalites returned to their jazz roots with a vengeance, but ska fans didn't mind one bit. Alphonso permanently rejoined the Skatalites for 1994's Hi-Bop Ska: The 30th Anniversary Recording, which also featured such illustrious guests as former vocalist Doreen Schaeffer, Prince Buster, Toots Hibbert, and an all-star gathering of jazz musicians. The album deservedly earned the band its first Grammy nomination. Tommy McCook suffered a heart attack in 1995, and the Skatalites continued their hectic touring schedule without him. The tenor saxophonist rejoined them early the next year, but only a few weeks later, he was forced to give up touring for good due to health problems.
Thankfully, McCook was still able to record, and 1996's excellent Greetings from Skamania remains a tribute to his determination and earned the group a second Grammy nomination. On May 5, 1998, the legendary saxophonist passed away; he was 71. Later that year, the Skatalites released Balls of Fire, on which they re-created many of their old ska hits in their newer jazz style. That autumn, Alphonso collapsed on-stage at Hollywood's Key Club. He slipped into a coma soon after and died on November 20, but the Skatalites were always greater than the sum of their parts, and the band carried on. In 2000, they released Bashaka and their touring schedule continued unabated. While playing Europe in late 2001, they recorded yet again, resulting in the 2003 release of From Paris with Love, which featured reworked versions of some of their classics along with a handful of new songs. Recorded in Byron Bay, Australia, 2006's jazzy On the Right Track featured all-new material cut in a classic one-take live approach. In May of 2011, founding Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibbs passed away, followed one year later by bassist Lloyd Brevett. As the passage of time took its toll, an updated version of the band led by singer Doreen Shaffer and saxophonist Lester Sterling continued to tour and record, releasing albums like 2012's Walk with Me and 2016's Platinum Ska, even as myriad Skatalites' compilations appeared from labels around the world celebrating their timeless music. One of the last links to the original Skatalites disappeared on May 16, 2023, with the death of Lester Sterling at the age of 87.
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Brudenell Social Club, 33 Queens Road,Leeds, United Kingdom

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