Obituary: Tommy McCook

MUSICAL trends and fashions go round in circles and classic sounds are never far away from the mainstream charts. Tommy McCook, the Jamaican tenor saxophone player, was one of the founder members of the Skatalites. With Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the band created a style that has influenced generations of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Though the original line-up of the Skatalites barely lasted a year, the seeds planted by the joyous fanfare of "Guns of Navarone", their only British Top 40 entry, as well as their work on early recordings by Bob Marley & the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and Toots & the Maytals eventually grew into a world-wide phenomenon.

Fifteen years later, the Skatalites' seminal tracks sparked off the 2-Tone sound of the Specials, Madness, the Beat and the Selecter as well as the more populist approach of UB40 and Simply Red. Subsequently, some of these British bands inspired American acts like the Untouchables, Rancid, No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who recently scored a major hit with the infectious "The Impression That I Get".

With the future Skatalites Don Drummond (trombone), Johnny "Dizzy" Moore (trumpet) and Lester "Ska" Sterling (alto saxophone), Tommy McCook was a product of the Alpha School, an establishment run by Catholic nuns in Kingston. This local equivalent of a reform school had its own Alpha Boys Band, who accompanied functions and funeral processions. McCook would later recall "playing tenor right away. It was the teacher's sax. It came about because his time was up. I was given the school sax to use as my first."

By the mid-Fifties, McCook, a huge admirer of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, had become proficient enough to play on radio jingles and land a lucrative gig at the Zanzibar club in Nassau, in the Bahamas.

On his return to Jamaica in 1963, McCook cut the Jazz Jamaica from the Workshop album with the help of Don Drummond and the saxophonist Roland Alphonso, who had already been working with the producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. The leading sound system operator of the day, Dodd was merging jazz, American rhythm 'n' blues, boogie-woogie, calypso and mento and pioneering a new syncopated, shuffling sound called ska on his Studio One label.

The producer was very keen on pulling together the best session musicians he already employed but McCook took a while to come round to the idea. Eventually, in June 1964, he relented and joined forces with Drummond, Moore and Sterling, along with Jackie Mittoo (piano), Lloyd Brevett (bass), Lloyd Knibbs (drums) and Jerome "Jah Jerry" Hines (guitar). Still, the nine-piece strong orchestra needed a name.

"Someone suggested the Satellites," McCook would tell journalists. "I said no. Skatalites was better since we were playing ska." McCook would also explain what made ska so special:

It's the drop, the second and fourth beat where the drum dropped was the key to it. In rhythm 'n' blues, it was the same drop but ska was a little faster, with the guitar playing a different thing and the piano keeping the music lively. It was a good vibe and the singers used to show their appreciation of the beat, so we used to fire hard on that beat. When the horns weren't riffing, we would come in on the ska and add more weight to it.

Always a volatile outfit with so many talents involved, the Skatalites toured all over Jamaica with featured vocalists like Jackie Opel, Delroy Wilson, Doreen Schaefer and Lee Perry. The band cut hundreds of instrumental sides, often composed by Don Drummond, who favoured Eastern motifs ("Confucius", "Chinatown"); they adapted Beatles songs, Duke Ellington tunes, the James Bond theme, "From Russia With Love" etc.

However, tragedy struck on New Year's Day 1965 when the mentally unstable Drummond didn't take the right medication and subsequently stabbed his girlfriend Margarita Mahfood to death. The trombonist was committed to an institution and died four years later.

The Skatalites never recovered from that blow and broke up. Tommy McCook formed the Supersonics and carried on a busy session schedule with the legendary guitarist Ernest Ranglin. They backed up Alton Ellis, the Paragons (whose "Tide is High" was later revived by Blondie) and released many instrumental versions of the tracks they appeared on.

By the late Seventies, ska, rock steady and reggae had moved on from being cult listening for Jamaican exiles, mods, skinheads and rude boys. It now fused with punk to create the 2-Tone Sound of Madness and the Specials who revived "Guns of Navarone" on their 1980 No 1 EP "Too Much Too Young".

With overseas interest in the ska revival from as far away as Japan and Australia, new markets opened for veterans like the Skatalites. The band eventually reformed at the end of the Eighties and based itself in the United States. The burgeoning skacore scene welcomed them with open arms. Ska-Mania and Hi-Bop Ska both received Grammy nominations. The latter featured veterans of the Jamaican scene like Toots Hibbert and Prince Buster alongside American jazzmen such as the trumpeter Lester Bowie, thus bringing the music full circle.

However, health problems curtailed Tommy McCook's involvement and the saxophonist retired to Georgia. He didn't take part in the "Ball of Fire" project released to great critical acclaim on Island Records last year by a Skatalites line-up which still boasted the original members Alphonso, Sterling, Brevett and Knibbs and played a couple of excellent gigs at the Jazz Cafe in London. But McCook did live to see his huge contribution to Jamaican music eulogised in the Tougher Than Tough four-CD box set and the exhaustive programme of reissues undertaken by the Blood and Fire label under the auspices of Steve Barrow and Simply Red's Mick Hucknall.

Indeed with the BBC2 Windrush series acknowledging the impact Jamaican culture has had on the UK and Madstock IV, the Nutty Boys event, taking place in Finsbury Park this weekend, McCook's legacy and importance are undeniable. Topping the bill today are Madness but in support Finley Quaye, Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Jazz Jamaica should prove a fitting tribute to Tommy McCook's lasting influence.

The reformed Skatalites often offered fans T-shirts with the slogan: "Ska, reggae, rocksteady, it all began with the Skatalites". As Tommy McCook was fond of saying: "I am your musical servant."

Pierre Perrone

Thomas McCook, tenor saxophonist, flautist, composer and arranger; born Kingston, Jamaica 1927; died Atlanta, Georgia 5 May 1998.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?