It is no exaggeration to say that the Jamaican band the Skatalites changed the course of popular music. Though they were only together for 15 months in the mid-Sixties, they helped originate the style of music known as ska. Forty-five years on, with its infectious syncopation, it still inspires the likes of Lily Allen, Ava Leigh and Amy Winehouse.
Their trumpeter and founder member Johnny "Dizzy" Moore, who has died of cancer, played on records like the joyous "Guns Of Navarone", their 1967 British Top 40 hit, and appeared on a myriad of other ska, rocksteady and reggae releases. But he liked to downplay their importance. "I wouldn't say that the Skatalites invented ska. The Skatalites made an enormous contribution to its development. Ska appeared with Cluett Johnson and the Blues Blasters," he said in 2004, praising the shuffle-boogie group who recorded for the producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd in the late Fifties.
The Skatalites replaced the Blues Blasters as Dodd's house band at Studio One but they graduated to issuing singles under their own name. Their enduring repertoire also inspired two ska revivals: the 2-Tone era of the late Seventies and early Eighties, with the Specials, who covered "Guns Of Navarone" on their chart-topping The Special AKA Live! EP in 1980, Madness, The Selecter and The Beat; and the ska-core movement of the Nineties with American groups such as No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
Born in Kingston in 1938, Moore grew up in a home with a piano but was not allowed near it – or any other instrument – because his parents associated music with a dissolute lifestyle. "I used to use the leaf of the pumpkin and make, like, flutes, papaya stalks, combs, sardine cans with elastics, anything that would make a sound," he recalled. "One day, one of my friends was rattling away on the drums and I asked him where he learned that. He told me: 'At Alpha!' I said: 'Well, that's where I have to go then!"
Run by the formidable Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, the Alpha Cottage School only took in wayward boys. So Moore began making a nuisance of himself, conning his parents into thinking that Alpha was the only option. "It was all planned by me to get into Alpha – and like I say: 'No regrets!'" he relished telling interviewers. "After that, it was just me and music, so I can't complain."
Moore's hunch that going to Alpha would be the perfect way to fulfil his aspirations proved correct. The trombonist Don Drummond and saxophonists Tommy McCook (tenor) and Lester Sterling (alto) all studied at the school in the Forties and Fifties. Under the tutelage of the nuns and the bandmaster Ruben Delgado, and with Sterling's help, Moore picked up the trumpet. He took in everything from classical theory and composition to mento (a style of Jamaican folk music), calypso, cha-cha-cha, big band jazz, rhythm 'n' blues – all genres that influenced ska – and never looked back, even if his stint with the Jamaican Military Band, straight after Alpha, ended ingloriously after three years. "I got kicked out because of not being amenable to military discipline, though a good musician. That's what they said," he admitted.
In 1958, Moore joined Eric Dean's dance band, but was fired when he began growing his dreadlocks because of his Rastafarian beliefs. Moore then attempted to convince Dodd that Jamaicans should create their own music rather than slavishly copy the Americans, especially with the country being granted independence in 1962. "Well, they laughed at me. Figured I was a nut, you know. That's where this 'Dizzy' t'ing came from," he told Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton in Reggae – The Rough Guide. Moore's fondness for the jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie might also have played a part in his nickname.
By 1963, Dodd and others were coming round to Moore's way of thinking. In June 1964, the drummer Lloyd Knibb, bassist Lloyd Brevett, keyboard player Jackie Mittoo and Moore, who had been members of the Sheiks and the Cavaliers, joined forces with the guitarist Jerome "Jah Jerry" Hines, the tenor saxophonist Roland Alphonso, plus Drummond, Sterling and McCook. McCook came up with the group's name after rejecting Knibb's suggestion, the Satellites. "No, we play ska – The Skatalites," he said.
Over the next 15 months, the Skatalites played all over Jamaica and recorded hundreds of tracks, most notably for Dodd. They backed Lord Creator, Lord Tanamo, Alton Ellis, the Maytals, Jackie Opel, Lee Perry, Doreen Schaefer, Delroy Wilson and the early incarnation of the Wailers featuring Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Neville Livingston aka Bunny Wailer.
However their own instrumentals – "Confucius", "Chinatown", "Eastern Standard Time", "Man In The Street", "Yogi Man" – and their liberal adaptations of movie and TV themes or the hits of the day – Cleopatra, Dr Kildare, From Russia With Love, "Third Man Theme", The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better" – have proved the most influential of their extensive catalogue.
As Moore explained, "most of the arrangements were more or less spontaneous. Like a melody would be submitted and everyone got to have their own line. Because no one dictated anything to anyone. You've got to stand on your own two feet, be spontaneous. But because of the love of the music and affection for each other, it was easy. We could feel one another."
This golden period didn't last. In January 1965, Drummond was imprisoned for the murder of his girlfriend. The Skatalites soldiered on for six months but eventually splintered into Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, and Rolando Alphonso and the Soul Vendors, who Moore joined. He also recorded a solo album with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare before moving to the US in the Seventies.
The Skatalites reunited for the Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1983, and appeared at the London Sunsplash the following year, playing their own set and backing Prince Buster. Moore left in 2002, preferring to perform with the Jamaica All Stars, and he admitted that relations with the remaining Skatalites were not always easy.
His fondest memories remained those of the Alpha School. "We played for the princess who is now Queen Elizabeth II. And she came over and shook my hand. I still remember that moment," he said. "I put music in general before anything else. That's my favourite subject. It's my woman, my companion and my soother when I have problems. Music is my life."
John Arlington Moore, trumpeter, composer and arranger: born Kingston, Jamaica 5 October 1938; (four children); died Kingston 16 August 2008.Reuse content