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Obituary: Roland Alphonso

AT A time when even the early career of Bob Marley is exhaustively catalogued, and when American bands like Rancid, No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones recycle ska rhythms for teenage consumption, the death of the tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso offers a chance to reflect on the lasting influence of Jamaican music.

A founding member of the Skatalites, whose infectious 1967 hit "Guns Of Navarone" remains a favourite, Alphonso was one of the originators of ska, a whole new musical genre. Combining swing, big-band jazz, calypso, mento and American rhythm'n'blues, the Skatalites backed everyone from Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe and Toots and the Maytals, to Lee Perry, Marcia Griffiths and Bob Marley and the Wailers.

"From before the music change, we were together. The music we played with the Wailers, around `Simmer Down' time, how the public responded to that music is what encouraged the Skatalites to form," Alphonso recalled.

Recorded at Studio One in 1964 by a trio comprising Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston alongside Bob Marley, "Simmer Down", the third Wailin' Wailers single sold a remarkable 80,000 copies in Jamaica alone over the next few months, testament in part to the magic of Alphonso and his associates.

Born in 1931, Alphonso became a jobbing musician in his late teens. By 1958, he was backing the Jamaican comedians Bim and Bam who toured the country in a canvas-covered truck sponsored by the McAulay liquor company. Alphonso's jazzed-up version of Louis Prima's "Robin Hood" regularly brought the house down and attracted the attention of Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Duke Reid, two shrewd operators who had begun producing their own records and were then assembling their own "house bands".

Alphonso soon established himself as one of Jamaica's leading session musicians, playing on classic shuffle- boogie tracks like "Oceans 11" (credited to the City Slickers) and becoming a core member of the Blues Blasters alongside such seminal figures as the trombonist Rico Rodriguez (now in Jools Holland's big band), the pianist Monty Alexander and the guitarist Ernest Ranglin (both recent visitors to Britain).

In 1963, Alphonso and the trombonist Don Drummond played on the saxophonist Tommy McCook's album Jazz Jamaica from the Workshop. Hearing the result, "Coxsone" Dodd decided to put those three together with Lloyd Knibbs (drums), Johnny "Dizzy" Moore (trumpet) and Jackie Mittoo (piano) from the Sheiks, Lester "Ska" Sterling (alto saxophone) from the Upsetters, and added Lloyd Brevett (bass) and Jerome "Jah Jerry" Hines (guitar). After McCook overheard someone suggest "Satellites" as a name for the nine-piece strong stellar ensemble, he incorporated ska, the outfit's new musical style, into the word and they became the Skatalites.

Given the volatile temperament of some of the members, and the rivalry between McCook and Alphonso, it is not entirely surprising that the band only lasted 15 months. They toured all over Jamaica with featured vocalists like Delroy Wilson and Doreen Schaefer (with whom they cut "You're Wondering Now" and "Can't You See").

The Skatalites recorded hundreds of instrumental tracks, mostly penned by Drummond and often released under his or other members' names (the glorious fanfare of "Phoenix City" - an Alphonso song - was thus attributed to Rolando Al and the Soul Brothers). The band echoed the issues of the day (in "Christine Keeler", "Fidel Castro", and "Malcolm X") when they weren't adapting Beatles compositions ("I Should Have Known Better", "This Boy"), James Bond theme songs ("From Russia With Love") or blowing up a mighty version of "Guantanamera".

Unfortunately, the orchestra's career was stopped in its prime on New Year's Day 1965 when Don Drummond stabbed his girlfriend Margarita Mahfood to death. The trombonist was committed to a mental asylum and died four years later.

The Skatalites broke up and Tommy McCook went on to lead the Supersonics while Alphonso formed the Soul Vendors, returning to the busy session schedule which had been his original breeding ground (The Best of Roland Alphonso and King Of Sax include many of Alphonso's later releases).

However, the British ska revival of the late Seventies (Madness, The Selecter, The Beat) saw a renewed interest in their unique brand of music. The Specials even covered "Guns Of Navarone" on their 1980 No 1 EP "Too Much Too Young".

This eventually prompted the Skatalites to reunite in 1983 for a performance at Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay. The following year they appeared in London and subsequently based themselves in America. Jackie Mittoo died from cancer in 1991 but McCook, Alphonso, Knibbs and Brevett soldiered on, recording Skavoovee (1993) and Hi-Bop Ska (1995) for the Shanachie label. Featuring past cohorts such as Toots Hibbert and Prince Buster alongside American jazzmen like trumpeter Lester Bowie, the latter album earned a Grammy nomination in 1996.

After Greetings From Skamania, also nominated in the Best Reggae Album category the following year, Tommy McCook retired because of ill-health (he died earlier this year).

By 1997 the Skatalites line-up was busier than ever with the Ball Of Fire and Ska Island projects on Island Jazz Jamaica and a couple of storming shows at the Jazz Cafe in London. By then, the Skatalites' crucial contribution to Jamaican music had been recognised in the Tougher Than Tough four-CD box set (1993) and in the comprehensive reissue programmes of labels such as Blood And Fire and Westside, who currently have eight volumes of the Top Sounds From Top Deck series documenting the many sessions Alphonso and assorted Skatalites took part in.

Gaylene Martin, a longtime associate of the Skatalites, said of Alphonso: "He was one of the original innovators. He had a stroke and could only just about move around but he livened up when he played the saxophone." His final Skatalites show was at the Key Club, in Hollywood, when a blood vessel burst in his neck just after he had completed a solo. He died later in hospital.

Roland Alphonso, saxophonist, composer and arranger: born 12 January 1931; married; died Los Angeles, California 20 November 1998.