Forty-nine years. Nearly five decades. Almost half a century. That's how much time has passed since The Skatalites first assembled boogie-woogie blues, jazz, Calypso, mento and African rhythms into one of Jamaica's signature musical styles. Nine of the original 10 Skatalites have passed on, but founding member Lester “Ska” Sterling continues to hold forth on alto sax as the newer version of the band tours in support of their latest album, “Walk With Me.” From the 1964 debut album, “Ska Authentic,” to the new one, the times and musicians may have changed, but the music -- and the love of it -- has remained the same.
Things started way back at what was considered a place to send “wayward boys,” Alpha Boys School. The school, run by the Sisters of Mercy, maintained not only high expectations of behavior, but of musicianship as well. Original Skatalite Tommy McCook was enrolled in Alpha Boys School in 1938. Other Skatalites, including Sterling, trombonist Don Drummond, Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Cedric Brooks, Vin Gordon, Rico Rodriquez, Ernest Ranglin, Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, Bobby Ellis, “Horsemouth” Wallace and JoJo Bennett, all of whom have played with or were members of The Skatalites, were also students at Alpha Boys School.
Sterling remembers the school as a place you could learn a trade and an instrument. Legend has it that Moore got himself in trouble just to be sent to Alpha so he could play music with the best. Music theory was an integral part of learning to play, and the rigorous training at Alpha Boys School resulted in a brilliant generation of Jamaican musicians. These musicians would influence the changing sounds of the 1960s.
As Jamaica gained its independence, the island's music took on a new life, mixing dancehall with jazz and incorporating social consciousness into the greater themes of the songs. The brain trust of this new world was Studio One, where The Skatalites began recording. One of their songs, “Simmer Down,” became Bob Marley's first No. 1 Jamaican hit. In addition to backing Marley and The Wailers, The Skatalites played behind other top singers of the day -- Stranger Cole, Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, Toots and The Maytals, Delroy Wilson, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff, all of whom benefited from the incredible musicianship of the band.
How good were they? So good that after officially forming as The Skatalites in 1964, their first rehearsal -- at the Hi-Hat club, a legendary New Orleans burlesque club -- turned into their first gig when so many people crammed inside to listen that the owner started charging admission. The salad days were short-lived however, as The Skatalites' story took a dark turn.
Trombonist Don Drummond was often described as a “mad genius.” Widely acknowledged as both a brilliant songwriter and erratic performer, Drummond often admitted himself to the sanatorium. Ultimately, his instability led to the stabbing and killing of his common-law wife Marguerita Mahfood in an apparent fit of jealousy on New Year's Eve of 1965. By August, The Skatalites had split into two supergroups, Rolando Alphonso and the Soul Vendors, and Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. In early 1967, Drummond's ska adaptation of the theme to the film “The Guns of Navarone” entered the U.K.'s Top Forty chart. He died in the Bellevue Asylum in 1969.
But this was not to be the end of the story. In 1974, bass player Lloyd Brevett was recording a solo album that, bit by bit, turned into a Skatalites reunion. In 1979, the band recorded an album that remains unreleased due to contractual disputes. That setback didn't keep them from moving forward -- they reunited and played Montego Bay's Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1983. The success of that show propelled them forth yet again. Simultaneously through the late 1970s and early 1980s, English two-tone revival groups The Specials, Madness, The English Beat and Selector incorporated The Skatalites influence into their own highly popular music. American bands followed along including The Slackers, HepCat, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, David Hillyard and The Rocksteady 7, The Toasters and King Django. The success of bands influenced by The Skatalites has helped keep the originals -- and the new version of the originals -- in demand.
Through the late 1980s and into the 2000s, the band continued to tour and record. Notably, after first serving as Bunny Wailer's backup band in 1989, they followed up in 1990 performing behind Prince Buster. The momentum continued, leading to 1993's highly acclaimed “Skavoovee.” U.S. audiences were embracing ska with fervor at the time and the constant touring of The Skatalites kept their old fans engaged while gaining new ones exponentially. Even as the band returned to their jazz roots, their following remained extremely loyal.
The Skatalites' current members are Lester Sterling (alto saxophone); Doreen Shaffer (vocals); Azemobo “Zem” Audu (tenor saxophone); Andrae Murchison (trombone); Kevin Batchelor (trumpet); Val Douglas (bass guitar); Natty Frenchy (guitar); Cameron Greenlee (keyboards) and Trevor “Sparrow” Thompson (drums). When it comes to adding new members, the guiding philosophy is that the music is its own entity and each musician brought on board respects that and helps to continue carrying it through to audiences new and old.
Reviews of “Walk With Me,” The Skatalites' 15th studio album released in May 2012, praise the expert arrangement and impeccable performances. Dana Smart writes in the Examiner that “their inimitable chug and hot syncopation confirming the band's status as the originators with such zeal that one would swear Duke Reid or Coxson Dodd himself was behind the boards, coaxing these fiery performances from the band.” In the Austin Chronicle, Dan Oko raves “... dancehall done right. Pass it along!” An Afropop Worldwide review gushes “'Walk With Me' is, front to back, an unqualified pleasure of a listen.”
Samples from “Walk With Me” can be found in the audio section of skatalites.com.
With the word “legendary” firmly attached to their reputation, the fact that The Skatalites are coming to Humboldt is spectacular. The fact that they're playing in the intimate venue of Arcata's Jambalaya is even more amazing. Catch them Saturday at 10 p.m. and be sure to get tickets ($20) in advance through jambalayaarcata.com. The show is 21 and over. Elephant Dub Squad opens.
What: The Skatalites
When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jambalaya, 915 H St., Arcata
Admission: $20 in advance, 21+