The Skatalites brought together the top musicians and styles of the time-fusing Boogie-Woogie Blues, R & B, Jazz, Mento, Calypso, and African rhythms -to create the first truly Jamaican music: Ska. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, experience in big bands solidified the prowess of most Jamaican musicians; yet, the genesis for many great Skatalites goes back to a boy’s school established for the wayward.
The Alpha Cottage School, run by Roman Catholic nuns, educated many of the future Skatalites. Founded in 1880 and having its own band since the 1890′s, Alpha was essentially a military style school that also developed top-notch musicians. Tommy McCook became a pupil there in 1938, playing his sax in the school’s best orchestra by 1942. Fellow Skatalites, including master penman and trombonist Don Drummond, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, and Lester Sterling also attended Alpha, same way for Cedric Brooks.
“It was a good school. If you had ambition you could learn a trade: printer, carpenter, bookbinder, tailor, shoemaker, electrician,” recalls Sterling. “You also could choose your instrument and tell the band leader… trumpet, sax, drum. Sometimes the bandleader would put you on the instrument he needed. Ruben Delgado was our teacher for band. A good teacher, he had studied in England and been in the military band.” Delgado’s band held Lester, Dizzy, Don Drummond, and Rico Rodriquez simultaneously. Dizzy Moore recalls wanting to play music from an early age. His parents didn’t approve of the image and nightlife associated with musicians. When Dizzy heard a friend playing music he asked where he learned. The boy said, “Alpha, but you have to be bad to go there.” Dizzy replied, “That’s easy, man.” Two years later, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore was a pupil at Alpha; his folks glad to be straightening him out, Dizzy just happy to play music. Alpha, the beginning.
The Alpha School produced more than their share of the musicians of prominence during the ’40′s and ’50′s dance band era. The best of these players were central to the emerging sounds of the ’60′s. As set musicians, the Skatalites backed the top singers of the day. Stranger Cole, Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, Toots and The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff are a few who benefited from tight rhythms cultivated by the new Ska collective.
As a studio recording force, the band was placed all on one track with the singer on another; ‘one take’ recording. These conditions forged a union among the musicians that had only one logical conclusion. Tommy McCook, Rolando Alphonso, Johnny Moore, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond, Lloyd Knibb, Lloyd Brevett, Jerome Hinds, and Jackie Mittoo began working together regularly in the early sixties and formed The Ska-talites in June of 1964. The name game went on for some time. Space themes like The Orbits and Ital-ites were being tossed around. When Knibb suggestion Satellites, Tommy McCook reportedly said, “We play ska… The Skatalites.”
Ernest Ranglin, Harold McKenzie, and others built on this foundation. Other great names traveling with the band included Reverend Billy Cooke and Percival Dillon, along with top-quality singers like Lord Tanamo, Doreen Schaeffer, and Jackie Opel.
The tradition of inspiring and playing on the front lines of musical frontiers has continued. In the 80′s and 90′s, English ska revival groups like Madness, The Specials, and Selector and their American counterparts The Slackers, HepCat, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt and The Rocksteady 7, all tribute the Skatalites as a primary influence. This new generation have collectively opened for and played with the Skatalites, raising awareness for and reviving the fan base for a new wave of ska.
From the start, The Skatalites changed Jamaican music forever. The creation of ska -the father of rocksteady, the grandfather of reggae -gave us eternal rhythms that now infiltrate the globe.