The original mid-1960s incarnation of the Skatalites only lasted 15 months, yet their irresistible blend of jazz, boogie-woogie, blues, mento and African rhythms helped create a new and enduring genre, the first truly Jamaican sound, ska.
The hundreds of infectious instrumental tracks they cut under their own name and as the island's top session group backing Laurel Aitken, Ken Boothe, Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals, Lee Perry and the Wailers triumvirate of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Neville Livingston, aka Bunny Wailer – most famously on the "Simmer Down" single – became mod and skinhead favourites in Britain in the late 1960s and early '70s and have influenced several generations of performers since.
A self-taught musician who started out playing two condensed milk tins between his feet, their drummer Lloyd Knibb was credited with inventing the shuffling, syncopated "ska beat" when recording with the legendary Studio One producer Coxsone Dodd, who encouraged him to really push the horn section. "I go in the studio and I start with the burru style [of Rasta drumming] until I get on the second and fourth beat, everything down, and putting the rest of the stuff in there," Knibb recalled. "The second and fourth beat was the direct beat, and Coxsone say 'Yeah' and that was it."
His trademark rimshots, Latin-inspired rolls and hi-hat figures propelled the Skatalites' sole UK hit, their joyous adaptation of the film theme to The Guns Of Navarone, later revived by The Special AKA on their 1980 chart-topping Live EP. Indeed, the Skatalites often drew on the cinema for their repertoire, and recorded versions of the Exodus, The Third Man and the James Bond themes, and covers of the Beatles – "I Should Have Known Better", "This Boy" – alongside their own exotically-named compositions, "Addis Ababa", "China Town", "Confucius" and "Eastern Standard Time".
Knibb also helped name the group after his space-age suggestion, Satellites, was trumped by the tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook who stated: "No, we play ska – the Skatalites."
Between 1962 and 1966, Knibb was said to have played on 90 per centof the records coming out of Jamaica, slowing the tempo down from skato rock steady and again into the reggae era. "Same kind of beat, second and fourth. The three stages of the music," he said. Knibb hit the drums so hard that he developed a large callus, or "corn" as he called it, on his hand. "Anyone seriously playing the ska for a long time must have a corn like this," he remarked.
Born in Kingston in 1931, he spent much of his teens working with his aunt making and selling patties and puddings. Living in the Trenchtown area he became fascinated by the Rastafarians playing goat skin drums on street corners. He also followed Donald Jarrett, drummer with the jazz band led by the trumpeter Sonny Bradshaw. In the late 1940s he began playing professionally, with the Val Bennett Orchestra and then with Eric Deans, another dance band leader mixing big-band jazz, calypso, rumba, Cha-cha-cha and bolero to entertain foreign visitors.
This versatility would stand Knibb in good stead. "I put everything in the ska music," he said. "From rock'n'roll and rhythm and blues, we just change to ska. And everybody just catch on to the beat and like the beat. And everybody record, everybody from Bob Marley – 'One Cup of Coffee' – I remember that. All them, Owen Gray, Delroy Wilson, Alton Ellis, you name them all, they pass through our hands."
By the time the Skatalites made their live debut, at the Hi-Hat Club in June 1964, they were effectively a supergroup of the session musicians used by the sound system operators-turned- producers Dodd and Duke Reid, as well as by many of their competitors, Prince Buster, Leslie Kong, Lyndon Pottinger and Justin Yap.
Led by McCook, who had been the most reluctant to join, they comprised Don Drummond (trombone), Johnny "Dizzy" Moore (trumpet) and Lester "Ska" Sterling (alto saxophone) – all four had attended the Alpha Boys School run by Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, the "nun who nurtured reggae" – as well as Roland Alphonso (tenor saxophone), Lloyd Brevett (double bass), "Jah Jerry" Haynes (guitar), Jackie Mittoo (keyboards) and Knibb. In between recording sessions,the Skatalites played all over theisland, often with the featured vocalists Jackie Opel, Doreen Schaefer and Lord Tanamo.
Sadly, their progress was interrupted when the mentally unstable Drummond stabbed his girlfriend Marguerita Mahfood to death on New Year's Day 1965 (he died in an institution four years later). The Skatalites soldiered on until August that year but splintered into two groups, Rolando Alphonso and the Soul Vendors, and Tommy McCook & the Supersonics, the one Knibb chose. However, he then spent nigh on two decades drumming on Caribbean cruise ships and in the holiday resorts of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios.
The ska revival of the late 1970s and early '80s saw the British 2-Tone acts – the Specials, Madness, The Selecter – cover tunes originated by the Skatalites, and introduced the group to a new generation of fans, including the US ska-core acts that followed, Fishbone, No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The Skatalites duly reformed to play the Reggae Sunsplash concert in Montego Bay in July 1983, appeared in London the following year, and began recording again.
Knibb was one of the prime movers behind their Grammy-nominated albums Hi-Bop Ska and Greetings From Skamania in the 1990s and their on-going popularity as a worldwide touring act. He played his last concert with them last month, leaving Sterling as the only founder member still in the group. Brevett, the other surviving Skatalite, quit in 2005.
In recent years, Knibb lived in Massachusetts. After being told by doctors in Boston that he had three days to live, he travelled back to Jamaica to be among family and friends and succumbed to cancer of the liver there. His son leads the Boston-based ska band Dion Knibb & The Agitators.
Lloyd Knibb, drummer: born Kingston, Jamaica 8 March 1931; married (five children); died Kingston 12 May 2011.
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