As the Fifties drew to a close, Kingston Sound System entrepreneurs, such as Clement 'Sir Coxson' Dodd and Arthur 'Duke' Reid, realised that changing fashions in the U.S.A. meant that the driving Rhythm & Blues 78rpm discs, which had ensured their musical supremacy, were becoming increasingly scarce, and that they now needed to make their own music to play on their Sound Systems.
Not being musicians themselves they turned to the island's Jazz fraternity to fulfil their needs and it was the innate musical sensibilities of men such as Tommy McCook that would eventually make Jamaican music a living reality. He was one of a handful of architects, alongside other giants, such as Ernest Ranglin and Jackie Mittoo, who not only designed, but also laid the foundation stones of Reggae music. Even the most casual of listeners to Jamaican music will be familiar with the sound of Tommy McCook's tenor saxophone, yet today many still remain unaware of either who he actually was or of the full range and scope of his incredible achievements.
Tommy was born in Jamaica in 1927 and at the age of eleven, his mother entrusted him to the Roman Catholic nuns at the Alpha Catholic Boys Home & School, a noted charitable institution for under-privileged children, where great emphasis was placed on musical tuition. In fact, the staff at Alpha had been running their own band since the 1890's and had developed a formidable reputation for both their discipline and their music:
"It was a Catholic school for the poorest kids of Jamaica. I grew up without a father and it was tough on my Mum. I attended this school because of that and to learn music."
At Alpha, Tommy studied music theory, flute and tenor saxophone for four years. He was in good company, for many of Jamaica's leading Jazz musicians including Don Drummond (who often returned to help out at the school), Bobby Ellis, Vincent 'Don D Junior' Gordon, Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore and Rico Rodriguez also studied there, under the guidance of band master, Lennie Hibbert.
"The first thing you learnt at Alpha was the rudiments of music: lines, spaces and scales. Theory was a must. You were asked questions on a blackboard and you gave your answers verbally. You didn't start to play just so. You had to know what you were doing so our upbringing was very enlightening."
So prodigious were young Tommy McCook's talents that when he graduated from Alpha he immediately began to play with the Eric Deans Orchestra. Eric Deans was also an instructor at the school and he enrolled the most promising pupils for his Orchestra, with Roland Alphonso, Baba Brooks, Don Drummond and Ernest Ranglin all working under his leadership. Tommy also played for the Ray Coburn Dance Band where he was able to develop his skills still further and he blossomed into one of Jamaica's finest young Jazz musicians. Many of the island's Jazz musicians, such as Joe Harriott, Harold McNair, Wilton Gaynair and Noel Gillespie, had left the island during the Fifties to seek their fortunes overseas because of the lack of musical opportunities at home. In 1954 Tommy McCook joined this exodus and left for Nassau in the Bahamas for a long-term engagement with a dance band.
"We used to play orchestrated music from the U.S. from the Big Band era. I started in Big Band music. In 1943 I was playing American orchestrations, Count Basie, Glen Miller, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and later Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa. - the whole thing. But in the dance bands I played in, especially in the Bahamas, the tourists didn't want to hear any Jazz at all. They wanted to hear island music: Rumbas, Calypsos, whatever. The minute we started an American standard they would say 'we don't want no American music. We just left that at home. We don't want that here.' But it was fine by me. By 1963 I was tired of it."
On his return to Jamaica, Tommy began playing alongside Aubrey Adams at the Courtleigh Manor Hotel, and even though he had already made Ska recordings for both Duke Reid and Clement 'Coxson' Dodd, the story goes that he took some convincing that the burgeoning Ska style could be anywhere near as serious as his beloved Jazz.
"Jazz was my first love. I love Jazz music."
Jazz in Jamaica had always been a minority interest, yet the "twenty or so studio musicians who played on nearly all early Jamaican records" were all Jazz men and Coxson Dodd and Lloyd Knibb eventually persuaded Tommy McCook to organise the loose collective of musicians into a cohesive unit. Jazz was to remain the guiding inspiration for the Skatalites and this small group of Jazz musicians and aficionados exerted a massive influence on the development of early Jamaican music.
"From the recording of 'Occupation' and 'Garden Of Love' by Don Drummond, Tommy McCook and the Skatalites, this band has really been swinging. There have been fewer popular bands than Tommy McCook's."
Tommy McCook is credited with giving the Skatalites not only the added dimension of his organisational and arranging abilities and his melodious tenor saxophone but also their name although he was careful to point out that he had nothing to do with the naming of Ska:
"The term 'Ska' was invented before my time. It was introduced by Clue Johnson, the leader of The Blues Blasters. His nickname was 'Skavoovee'. That's the way he would greet everyone 'What's happenin' Skavoovee?' and since he was instrumental in creating the music that's the way it had to be called."
"Satellites was the thing happening at the time. It was 1964. America was trying to go to the moon. These satellites were always orbiting the earth but I thought it shouldn't be satellites but Skatalites because we were playing Ska…Somebody had suggested 'The Satellites' . It was 'Dizzy', Lloyd Knibb or one of the brothers. But I said 'No. 'The Skatalites', since the Ska was what we played."
"One day in the studio Tommy McCook said 'Gentlemen we should give ourselves a name because people hear us backing all these records and are asking to see us perform live'. All agreed it was a good idea. But what would they name it? The Russians had just launched the Telstar satellite into space so Lord Tanamo suggested The Satellites. Almost as a joke Tommy said 'No. Let's call it The Skatalites and the name stuck."
Officially formed at a meeting in the Odeon Theatre, Kingston, the Skatalites played their first engagement shortly afterwards at the Hi Hat Club in Rae Town. They played their farewell show in August 1965 at a police dance held at the Runaway Bay Hotel and although the Skatalites had only remained together from 1964 to 1965, during those eighteen months or so, they established the rules and set the precedents for all that was to follow in Jamaican music.
"But by this time some hot instrumentals were out there and people were going crazy over the recordings! So the group was formed, we went down the road and everything looked rosy for fourteen months."
They created an authentic new music that combined the influences of the Big Bands of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, forties Swing Bands and free blowing Be-Bop mixed with the rhythms of U.S.A. Rhythm & Blues and Boogie Woogie. South American Latin and Samba influences of band leaders, such as Mongo Santamaria, blended together with African based Buru drumming and Rastafarian ideology for, during the Fifties, Tommy McCook had attended many Buru sessions at Count Ossie's Rennock Lodge Community in East Kingston, alongside Rico Rodriguez, Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso, Ernest Ranglin and Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore, where their mutual musical admiration grew and developed together with a spiritual appreciation of the tenets of Rastafarianism.
The Skatalites broke up through a combination of personal, organisational and financial problems amid rumours of discontent amongst the band members, that Coxsone was supposedly playing Roland Alphonso against Tommy McCook and that the musicians were not earning enough to support their families. In the summer of 1965, Tommy took over arranging the horn parts for society band Kes Chin and the Souvenirs. Lloyd Brevett recalls:
"Duke Reid started with Tommy and Roland was with Coxsone. Roland was Coxsone's fancy and Tommy was Duke Reid's fancy."
As the music shifted towards Rocksteady, Jackie Mittoo and Roland Alphonso went with Coxsone to Studio One to form the nucleus of the Soul Brothers, while Tommy McCook and his Supersonics became the house band for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label. Tommy also became Treasure Isle's musical co-director alongside alto saxophonist, Herman Marquis.
"I was fortunate. I had the ideas that the guys needed on their sessions and they respected my compositional skills to put music to the rhythms."
Tommy McCook played a defining role in creating the sound of Treasure Isle and in establishing Duke Reid's Recording Studio. Duke Reid purchased much of the equipment from Linden Pottinger when the latter had relinquished his studio interests and, according to the musicians and singers, the wooden construction of the studio above Duke's Liquor Store on Bond Street gave its acoustics an added warmth and richness that the competition lacked.
"The purpose for producing these new songs was to provide music which his followers could dance to with ease, as well as listen with pleasure."
As 1966 dawned, the Ska beat gave way to Rocksteady. The slower, cooler rhythms not only allowed vocalists to shine but also the soloists who no longer needed to blast their way through the 'zinc fence wall of sound' and the component members of the Skatalites now formed into smaller studio based ensembles. It has been said that the advent of Rocksteady heralded the end for horn sections and, while there is a certain amount of truth in this, the horn players remained on the scene as both featured instrumentalists and musical arrangers. Far sighted musicians, including Tommy, saw the limitless potential and open ended nature of this new form and, as musical arranger and tenor saxophonist for Treasure Isle's house band, he was once again at the forefront of another Jamaican musical revolution.
"Tommy McCook is no newcomer to the local music scene. He has been in recent years one of the leading exponents of Rocksteady, Ska and Soul music generally. Tommy McCook's band the 'Supersonics' is regarded as one of the most explosive sound where Rocksteady is concerned."
The Rocksteady beat that emanated from Duke Reid's studio down on Bond Street defined an era and, for a while, no other producer could ever hope to match Treasure Isle's supremacy. This pre-eminence was due to the musical majesty of Tommy McCook and the Supersonics with Lynn Taitt and Ernest Ranglin on guitar, organists Neville Hinds and Winston Wright, Gladstone 'Gladdy' Anderson on piano, drummers Hugh Malcolm and Arkland 'Drumbago' Parks, Clifton 'Jackie' Jackson on bass and Tommy alongside Herman Marquis on saxophone. The Supersonics were surely the greatest Jamaican session band ever created.
"Backing all the cuts on this L.P. is Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, by far the most explosive sounding band where Rocksteady is concerned. Tenor saxophonist Tommy has been recording for Duke Reid since 1962. Duke says of Tommy McCook that he is one of Jamaica's greatest resident musicians. Tommy's band is without a doubt the greatest exponent of the Rocksteady beat, which is to music what three dimension is to vision."
It might have seemed that the Jazzmen's work was over and done as the Sixties came to a close and the organ dominated Reggae style took over, but, having set the pattern and made the mould, the consummate musicianship of men such as Tommy McCook was constantly in demand and they continued to make their presence felt in reality and in inspirational terms. As the Seventies progressed new, younger producers began to delve deeper into Jamaica's rich musical heritage and brought the horn players into the limelight again, as Bobby Ellis, Vincent 'Don D Junior' Gordon, Herman Marquis and Tommy McCook once more led the way in studio aggregations such as Channel One's Revolutionaries, Bunny Lee's Aggrovators and Joe Gibbs' Professionals. This was roots music that combined the old and the new and really did come from the roots, as described by producer Herman Chin-Loy:
"I wanted to bring in a kind of orchestra feel in terms of complementing the horn section with the rhythms. I was influenced by the Skatalites and I wanted to put that feel into dub music."
By the time computer driven music started its meteoric rise to Reggae prominence in the early eighties an entirely new audience had been created for the musical innovators of the early Sixties. The organisers of Reggae Sunsplash 1983 had been the first to suggest a Skatalites reunion and the following year, the remaining members of the Skatalites reformed to play the Sunsplash festivals, both in Jamaica and the U.K., where the audience reaction was truly overwhelming:
"I knew people would like the music if they got a chance to hear it. But this kind of response is unbelievable… So the reaction was really shocking. Because we had never dreamt that the music would have such an effect on the young people of today."
The Skatalites have subsequently toured the world, and they continue to do so, recruiting other Jamaican musical legends along the way. Their shows transcend mere nostalgia and the vast majority of their audiences were not even born during the time of the Skatalites' heyday, for the group's appeal and their love of making music is timeless.
"The older the wine is the more vintage. The older the guys get is the more mellow they become and they play better."
Tommy McCook sadly died in May 1998, aged seventy-one, after a life completely dedicated and livicated to making music. A man who always preferred to blow his tenor saxophone rather than his own trumpet, his musical legacy will live forever.