Born Joseph Gordon in Kingston on October 2nd 1934, by his own account, he first came into contact with local Mento music when at a very early age he heard 'Cecil Lawes' playing a rumba box, a marimba-like instrument central to the sound of Mento. Later, while still only in his teens, he sang with Lawes hustling the tourists during the day in the stereotypical straw hat and torn trousers, whilst at night he performed ballads. Then, in 1956 came his big break.
1956 was a troubled time for local performers, particularly recording artists, as in May that year the Bishop of Jamaica had attempted to introduce into the Legislative Council forms of state control over various forms of literature, including what he termed 'lewd Calypsos'. The prospect of censorship would frankly have struck at the heart of the Mento repertoire, which included such as 'Night Food' and 'Night Food Recipe', songs often singled out for attack. The debate on this matter took many forms, from the religious extremes to the complex anthropological defence of local culture as mounted by Edward Seaga. It was complex issue covering notions of respectability, which ranged from the religious to ideas of 'fitness to govern' and hence self-government. Growing commercial interests both in the tourist trade and the developing local recording companies were also involved, but amid the debate a practical attempt was made to highlight the virtues of local performers and their songs. Eric Coverly, husband of Louise Bennett, promoted a Calypso Band Contest as an 'effort to show the world that these songs, expressive of the West Indian soul, had their appeal and need not go over the borderline of decency, to be popular'.
Organised into elimination heats in Montego Bay, Savanna-la-Mer, St. Ann's Bay and Kingston, with the final taking place in the island's capital in June. Tanamo duly entered the Kingston heat. The contest was not without problems - many of the hotels were reluctant to let their performers appear for fear they would leave their employ and prizes were difficult to obtain although they were eventually put up by Jamaica Tobacco Co. (a 'Calypso Cigar Challenge Cup'), Jamaica Times Ltd. (individual cups for band members), and Stanley Motta (Kodak cameras). The entrants were, in the end, a roll call of Mento/Calypso artists and bands. In the Kingston heat Count Lasher, Lord Tanamo (reported as Lord Tallahwah!), Sir Horace and Chin's Radio Quintet appeared, with Lasher winning with his 'Calypso Cha Cha' and Tanamo coming second with his rendition of 'Mango Tree', which may be the same song recorded in London by Lord Kitchener. The final, on June 11th, was won by Monty Reynolds' Silver Seas Calypso Band, second was Count Berry's Band with vocalist Lord Lebby, and third Count Lasher. Tanamo received an honourable mention, this time as 'Lord Tanama', again for 'Mango Tree'.
As winners of the Kingston heat, both Lasher and Tanamo were in a position to capitalise on this exposure. Both acquired recording deals and headlined shows at Queens Theatre, in Kingston. Tanamo started his recording career late in 1956, as so many did, with Stanley Motta's MRS label, recording at least four titles accompanied by his Calypso Band. Released in 1957, they were featured on Radio Jamaica as part of the play-list for Motta's sponsored programme 'Sweet & Swing'. Tanamo went on to record for Ken Khouri for his Kalypso label in a session that included a duet with Count Lasher, with musical accompaniment by the Jamaica Calypsonians, while later in 1957 he recorded for Dadi Tuari's Caribou label. All of the songs cut at these sessions had been classic Mentos.
As well as his recording work, Tanamo had acquired a regular gig heading up the guest artists for the Queens Theatre's 'Queens Talent Review', which featured six contestants as well as the guest artists between a double bill of films.
The prominence of Tanamo at this time is best shown by him being, along with Count Lasher, part of the party that greeted Louis Armstrong on his arrival with his band in Jamaica on May 15th 1957. Due to play a number of dates at the Carib Theatre, Armstrong was met by the Mayor of Kingston, as well as other prominent citizens, including Ken Khouri, who was the local representative of Decca Records (Louis' record company at the time). Tanamo had written a special Calypso called 'The Things Satchmo Said', which he performed at Palisadoes (now Norman Manley) Airport, along with a number of other songs, before Armstrong and the band left in a motorcade for Kingston.
Tanamo maintained his regular gig at the talent show at Queens Theatre throughout the summer of 1957 and during this period, he not only came in contact with well-established acts, but also the aspiring talent of the time. He was also conscious of the changing trends that would fuel the Ska explosion and the following year he recorded the R&B/doo wop influenced 'Sweet Dreaming' and 'The Blues Have Got Me Down', both of which were a far cry from his previous Mento recordings. These, incidentally, were the first of his recordings to be issued in the United Kingdom on the Kalypso subsidiary of the crucially important Melodisc Records Company. He did not forsake Calypso entirely, however, and in the summer of that year appeared with his band at an all day event at Palm Beach that also featured Sir Coxson's (sic) 'New High-Fidelity Set', (Zoot) Simms and (Lloyd) Robinson, Roland Alphonso & Combo, amongst others.
Whilst making records no doubt helped pay the bills, it was the hotel circuit that provided the most regular and lucrative work for the bands, and in the 1959 season Tanamo had secured a regular gig at Arawak Hotel in Ocho Rios. Playing floor shows and beach parties for the tourists and prominent citizens brought the band many contacts - Stanley Motta, for example, regularly recorded the hotel bands and issued souvenir records for sale by the hotels. Hotel bands also met and serenaded prominent visitors, often from US businesses, at the airport.
By July 1960 Tanamo was back in Kingston appearing in a Stage show called 'Cop Goes A Rocking' at the Astor Theatre in Spanish Town. Presented by Eric Commock it was billed as a 'Sensational Record Smashing Stage Show' where you could 'See Murder', 'See Trial' 'See 20 Rock 'N' Roll Artistes'! No reviews of this show have been traced, but it has the appearance of an updated vaudeville show. Tanamo appeared along with Count Lasher, Cobra Man and Drumbago and his Harmonisers, a selection of acts that was never going to make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Later that month he appeared in another show called 'Amber 'N Rock', this time at the Queens Theatre with the Carlos Malcolm Combo providing the music. Meanwhile, 'Cop Goes A Rocking' was revived at the Queens Theatre in August.
A sponsored Calypso contest in 1961 gave Tanamo the chance to display his song-writing prowess - an opportunity of which he promptly took full advantage. Part of a promotion for Albany cigarettes, which included free cigarettes and a motorcade, the Albany Calypso Contest was held with the aim of finding the best song to praise the cigarette brand. After elimination heats around the Island, the final, which featured six bands, was held at the Palace Theatre in Kingston and broadcast live on Radio Jamaica. Tanamo, who was then working at the Marrakesh Hotel in Oracabessa, came first, with Count Owen taking second place. As well as the cash prizes, their winning efforts were recorded and issued as a promotional 45. Regular work meant that he could appear at a free public concert in St. Ann's Bay during the summer, while in the lead-up to Christmas, the band played for Pool Parties at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston.
As Independence approached, Tanamo and his Calypsonians were back at the Arawak Hotel in Ocho Rios. The explosion of recording activity in Jamaica after Independence is well documented and indeed Tanamo had a hit in 1963 with 'Come Down', which stayed in the top 10 of the Gleaner's Jamaican Hit Parade for nearly two months. Tanamo had firmly embraced Ska, while at the same time working as a Calypsonian.
1963 also saw the formation of the Skatalites, again a well-known story, with Tanamo along with Tony DaCosta (from the Sheiks vocal group) on vocals. Billed as Tommy McCook and the Ska-talites and featuring Don Drummond, Lester Sterling Lloyd Brevett, Roland Alphonso, Errol McKenzie among others, the band were the cream of Jamaica's session men providing the backing for the finest records of the time. Tanamo was present when the idea to form the band was discussed and suggested the name Satellites before Tommy McCook came up with Ska-talites.
Until the band broke up in 1965, the Skatalites were probably the most popular act in Jamaica, constantly performing and recording, both as a unit and as backing group, appearing on a catalogue of classic recordings. Tanamo also produced some of his finest recordings during this period, many of which are featured on this collection. Throughout this period, Tanamo was a constant feature at Ska-talites performances, while still regularly performing the traditional role of a Calypsonian, greeting tourists arriving at the island's main airport.
Tanamo continued to record after this period and probably returned to hotel work, but later in the sixties he moved to Canada - 1964 by his account, but most likely in 1969, when he appeared in the Jamaican Pavilion at the Montreal exhibition, 'Terres-des Hommes' (or 'Man And His World'), a successor to the hugely successful Expo. '67. Opening June of that year and running to September, Tanamo's group consisted of himself on vocals and guitar, Carlton Lewis, maracas and bongos, Cecil Laws, rhumba box, (his childhood friend), Cecil Largie, congo drum and Wilbert Stephenson, bamboo saxophone. As Tanamo tells it, he spotted a woman in the audience whom he later married, the couple settling down in Toronto. Soon after, he opened a record shop, specialising in imports to satisfy demand from Canada's growing Caribbean population, while also maintaining his live work. When keyboard legend, Jackie Mittoo also relocated in the city, the two Jamaican ex-patriots often accompanied each other on stage and in 1989, Tanamo was on the bill when Louise Bennett toured the country. Then of course came the aforementioned 'Legends of Ska' tour.
Tanamo, who still resides in Canada, has never forgotten his roots and throughout the seventies in particular, made frequent trips back to the land of his birth. In 1970 he had a sizable Jamaican hit with the Studio One-produced version of Tony Joe White's 'Rainy Night In Georgia', a song first made popular by Brook Benton. He also cut a number of sides for Bunny Lee in 1978, backed by some of Jamaica's finest session players of the day (including Sly & Robbie) and mixed by the legendary King Tubby, the recordings seeing issue on the LP, 'Calypso Reggae'. His recording work was by no means restricted to Jamaica, however, and in between these Kingston sessions, he cut 'Got To Have You Baby' and 'A Dash Of The Sunshine' at the RCA Studios in Toronto, both songs incidentally featuring a string quartet from the city's Philharmonic Orchestra.
Sadly, in June 2008, Tanamo suffered a serious stroke and has since resided in the Lincoln Place nursing home in Toronto.