Zap Pow

Throughout the seventies, Zap Pow was arguably Jamaica’s most successful reggae band, with no less than four No. 1 hit records to their credit.

They were staffed by some of the island’s most in-demand session players ‘ sax player Glen Da Costa and trumpeter Dave Madden included. Based at Harry J‘s studio in Kingston and briefly signed to Island Records, Zap Pow were the real deal; a self-contained unit who wrote, arranged, and produced their own material, and gave some truly memorable stage performances during their ten-year lifespan.

They were formed in 1969, by singer/bassist Mikey ‘Zap Pow’ Williams and guitarist Dwight Pinkney, whose deft use of the tremolo arm had earned him a reputation as one of the island’s most exciting new talents.

Dwight had formerly played with the Sharks, a Kingston band who’d been invited to play for a month at the Lucayan Beach Hotel in the Bahamas, although their residency was soon extended to three months, and finally made permanent. In fact, the Sharks played at the Lucayan for two years, only returning to Jamaica intermittently.

It was during one of their trips home that Dwight wrote ‘How Could I Live’, which they recorded for producer Coxson Dodd, and that later became a hit for Dennis Brown. The Sharks also played on hits by the Wailers, Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe and the Gaylads during their short, but celebrated stay at Studio One, which in fact lasted just two weeks.

Studio recordings were one thing, but the Sharks excelled as a live act, and after returning to Jamaica for good, soon found themselves a slot on the north coast tourist circuit. At first, they played at the Yellow Bird in Montego Bay, but then left for Ocho Rios in 1968, where they eventually disbanded.

Rather than go back to Kingston, Dwight chose to stay put and join Winston Turner & the Untouchables, who played at the Hilton Hotel in ‘Ochi’.  Michael ‘Mikey’ Williams was their bass player, and six months later, the two of them decided to form their own band. Mikey, who came from St. Ann’s, had taken a comic to Dwight‘s room and pointed out one of the illustrations, which had ‘Zap Pow!’ written on it. The pair laughed and named their band after it, since they wanted ‘to create a splash!’

Danny Mowatt was recruited to play drums, and Dave Madden and Glen Da Costatrumpet and saxophone respectively, although Glen also played flute as well as clarinet. Dave is from Newcastle; a hamlet nestled in the hills of St. Andrew’s near Papine. He first became fascinated with the trumpet at the age of four, after seeing someone play one at a fair. This was just before the ’51 Storm, which devastated large parts of Jamaica.

Dave‘s mother made the journey down the mountainside to Papine with him and his sister, but struggled to cope with her children in the absence of their father. He was sent to Alpha Boy’s School in Kingston; an orphanage run by nuns, and that afforded boys like him with shelter and an education. He joined the school band, and learnt trumpet (from Jo Jo Bennett and Johnny Moore) for four years, until he was about sixteen. He then joined an army military band for another four years, taking classes during the day, and playing band and orchestral music in the evenings.

“It was an extension of what we were doing in Alpha, but you might be also playing with these little bands from outside the military who want a trumpet player, so that’s what opened my eyes to the pop music scene”, he told me. “I became advanced in terms of the classics and also pop music, then after those four years, I left to play with Lynn Taitt and the Comets, Lynn Taitt and the Jets, and the Diamonds’ There were so many bands I can’t even name them.

“After doing that now, I get to realise I couldn’t play pop music the way it was at that time, ’cause the Skatalites were so strong, and there were doing things I couldn’t, like play by ear. I could read music well enough, but no one was writing any, so that meant I had to learn to play all over again. I remember asking Roland Alphonso, ‘You guys make all those records and play some fantastic things, but how do you do it?’ He told me it takes constant practice, and asked me how old I was.

I was twenty-one at the time, so he said if I practiced for three years, then I’d achieve everything I wanted. I start to practice hard after that. I went to Montego Bay, and had about a year there during 1968-1969, performing in hotels, and that furthered my whole style of playing, because I was working every night. I played with this sax player called Carlton Samuels, who’s dead now.

Recording was still far away from my mind, but then Tommy McCook saw me playing with Lynn Taitt, and asked me to come play on a session with his group at Federal, so I went down, played what I was supposed to and that gave me the confidence to go to Coxson now, and visit Studio One. The first song I played on for him was Bob Andy’s ‘I’ve Got To Go Back Home’. I walk in there one day with my trumpet, looking for work, Bob Andy said to come into the studio, and then before I know it, the song was a hit!

That was how the relationship between Coxson and myself grew, and then I get together with Cedric Brooks, who I knew from Alpha. We call ourselves ‘Im & Dave, and do this tune for Coxson called ‘Money Maker’, which became a No.1. We were the only horn players with a hit instrumental at that time, and then from ‘Money Maker’, we put a little group together called the Mystics. Cedric, he wanted to go into deeper religious things, right? But I was more concerned with understanding what the instrument is all about musically. Cedric, he wanted to change the name of our band from the Mystics, to the Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari, but I say no, and that’s when I move onto Zap Pow'”

Dave took the Mystics‘ theme tune, ‘Mystic Mood’, with him, and Zap Pow decided to record it. It was the band’s debut recording, and an instant hit.

“Glen wasn’t with us yet,’ continues Dave. ‘He came a couple of months after ‘Mystic Mood’, ’cause we started off with just me on trumpet, then they decided they wanted a sax player and trombone player. He was in the army then, but left soon after he started to play with us. After sitting in with Zap Pow, I made the decision to leave the army then and there!’ confirms Glen, who hails from the Jamaican parish of St. Mary’s.

He was from a large family, and his mother simply couldn’t cope with five children. Like Dave, he was sent to Alpha Boys School, and was given gardening work to do before a teacher spotted him hanging off a tree, listening to band rehearsal. Before long, he’d joined them on clarinet before making the switch to saxophone, and enlisting with the army.

I had only two more years to go, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to play real music, dub music, and had played in a number of other groups by then, like Lynn Taitt and the Comets, Los Caballeros, and Sonny Bradshaw. I’d also played in school bands, but Zap Pow was the icing on the cake. That was one of the best groups I had ever been in, they had some very talented musicians, and that’s what laid the foundation for me in Jamaican pop music.

We had five foundation members, but drummer Max Edwards left pretty early, and we had this other drummer for a while, called Cornel Marshall, who later joined Third World. As a matter of fact, Ras Karbi used to play drums for us as well, during an early stage. Zap Pow was a really integrated group, even though there were so many talented individuals, but then unfortunately it split up.

Dave and I had started to do sessions long before then, because we were doing things for Treasure Isle, Studio One, and all kinds of other labels. Even when I was in the army, I was playing dubplates for sound-system people like King Edwards, or teaming up with Roland Alphonso and Raymond Harper, who was a really good trumpet player from that time. A lot of us musicians were coming from the big jazz bands, and that was the music I’d been attracted to in the first place, although the first recording I did was a special for a sound-system, playing the clarinet'”

Glen used to arrange all the horn parts on Zap Pow sessions, but says the group was a collective, and had no real leaders:

“No, because people in that group communicated a lot about how we wanted to sound. We wanted to be as creative as possible, so it was all there, and we were a complete package. The only thing was, we were always in the studio working on other people’s records, because sometimes we’d be doing like an album or two for the day, and that’s why I don’t even recall the names of them!

Mikey was the singer at first. Then in 1975 came Beres [Hammond] and we started going on wicked with songs like ‘Rootsman Reggae’ for Island, and also ‘Last War (Jah Jah Children)’.

It was the Island [Records] scenario that made us dispirited, and we just decided to call it sort of quits after a while. By then, Glen and I were also playing with Bob Marley, and doing lots of recording sessions, so although we were still in Zap Pow, we were always in demand. We play a lot for Jimmy Cliff as well, who was just as powerful in the music at that time.”

After ‘Mystic Mood’ had announced their arrival in 1970, Zap Pow followed it with ‘This Is Reggae Music’ in 1972, and ‘Scandal Corner’ and ‘Sweet Corn Love’ during 1974, by which time they’d performed on the same bill as the Wailers and Marvin Gaye at the Carib Theatre, and appeared on more reggae albums than a barcode.

Several different singers, including Mikey, would pass through their ranks until they settled on Beres Hammond in 1975. These included Bunny Rugs, who later joined Third World, and Jacob Miller, who rose to fame as the frontman with Inner Circle. Both were excellent, but with Beres at their helm, Zap Pow became the highest paid studio outfit in Jamaica.

Before long, they became synonymous with all the hits flooding out of Harry J‘s, although they also maintained their own rehearsal facilities at 13a Rollins Road, in-between helping to organise musicians’ strikes for better pay, and taking up invitations to play with Jamaica’s musical elite.

Augmented by Vin Gordon on trombone, the Zap Pow horn section played on many of Bob Marley & the Wailers‘ best-selling Island recordings, and the admiration was mutual, since several of the Wailers would guest with Zap Pow from time to time, including Earl ‘Wya’ Lindo and drummer Carlton Barrett.

The fulcrum of Zap Pow, however, was Mikey Williams, who played bass, guitar and drums, in addition to sharing lead vocals. A talented all-rounder, Mikey was also a skilful engineer and producer, and formed his first promotions company, Show-Jam World Festival Company Ltd, in 1974, shortly before Zap Pow signed with Island Records and recorded their first album, ‘Zap Pow Now’.

Island released this album in 1975, but then mysteriously withdrew it, according to surviving band members. Happily, it was later reissued as ‘Jungle Beat’, complete with hits like ‘Cry Inflation’, ‘Rock Your Bones’, and the title track, which is an irresistible synthesis of reggae and funk.

Thanks to a young Bermudan sing-jay called Collie Buddz, Zap Pow‘s most famous track is now ‘Last War (Jah Jah Children)’, which the band recorded in 1978, with Beres Hammond again on lead vocals.

Distinguished by typically regal horns, a solid reggae groove, and heartfelt sufferers’ lyric, ‘Last War’ was sampled by Collie Buddz on his 2007 hit ‘Come Around’ – a Sony release that has topped reggae charts around the world, and given rise to endless new versions. Its success brought Zap Pow back into the spotlight after an absence of nearly thirty years, encouraging reggae fans to re-evaluate their contributions, and Sanctuary to release a long-overdue retrospective.

By the time ‘Last War’ stormed Jamaica’s charts the first time round, Zap Pow had toured the US, Cayman Islands, Guyana, Surinam (where they played at the CARIFESTA), Mexico, Bermuda and Canada. It was whilst travelling through Canada that rifts began to develop.

Soon after their return to Jamaica, Beres left to pursue a solo career, and Dwight enrolled at the Edna Manley School Of Music in Kingston. He’d soon resurface as a member of the Roots Radics, whilst Beres reinvented himself as ‘Mr Soul Of Jamaica’ and became one of Jamaica’s most popular entertainers, with a string of awards, and hit singles and albums to his credit.

It was left to Mikey Williams to continue recording and performing under the name Zap Pow, using assorted pick-up musicians. He sadly died on 9th August 2005 of natural causes, aged just sixty-one, although the remaining key members are still alive, and just as enamoured of music as ever, despite their advancing years.

All record albums of classic and original material, drawn from the mento, ska, rock steady, and reggae tradition. Dwight Pinkney can often be seen playing in Kingston nightspots or north coast resorts, whilst Glen Da Costa lives in Ocho Rios, where he teaches music, and is involved with an organisation called Carib Arts.

He and Dave Madden continue to back Burning Spear, Toots & The Maytals and the Wailers on occasion. In addition, Dave often plays with Sly & Robbie’s Taxi Gang, and has been producing his own albums since 1983, even pioneering new styles of music he calls ‘dance horn’ and ‘cyber ska’.