Obituary: Tommy McCook

Pierre Perrone
Friday 05 June 1998 23:02

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments