The following is an excerpt from chapter six, “Dance Craze,” of Operation Jump Up: Jamaica’s Campaign for a National Sound by Heather Augustyn. This book is 200 pages of exclusive interviews, photos, archival documents, and narrative that chronicles Jamaica’s effort to bring ska to the United States, and the world, in 1964.
Reggae Steady Ska’s Charles Benoit recently published an interview about this book, so have a look here.
The book is available for purchase ($20) at skabook.com.
Marketing a dance to accompany the music was a brilliant way to further the reach of the music, especially in the days of a thousand dances. The “Mash Potato” had been a popular dance in the United States and audiences in Kingston knew all about it since King Coleman, creator of the song and subsequent dance, came to the Regal Theater to perform in December of 1960. Also in late 1960, Jamaican papers carried the news of a “new dance craze in Trinidad” called “de saga ting.” The Star Newspaper on November 10, 1960 stated, “It’s a bit like that latest Jamaican craze, the mash potato. The big difference is that there isn’t such a pronounced stamping of the feet. In a way, it’s like the dance of the John Canoe men, with the head tilted at forty-five degree angles, first this way, then that, and the hands held either motionlessly in the air or the fists used to ape the stance of a pugilist.” In mid-1961, another dance called the La Pachanga was delcared a “new Latin craze” by the Star Newspaper on June 15, 1961. “Although the shenanigans of Fidel Castro and the rift with Cuba is giving Americans a big headache these days, and there is talk of putting an embargo on more Cuban products besides sugar, just about the hottest—and zaniest—Cuban export, the La Pachanga is catching on like wildfire in dance halls all over New York, and the nation … Pachangaging is the nearest thing to a cross between a Cha Cha, the Charleston and the Bunny-hop,” stated the article which featured a diagram complete with footprints, arrows, and numbers along with instructions like “bend knees” and “kick.” The Hully Gully was also a craze in 1962. The Star on April 6th stated, “Reason for the name, nobody knows,” though it also went by the moniker The Continental. “A group of Hully Gullists, as they are called, form a line facing in the same direction and to the chants of a caller goes through the movements—strange movements with equally strange names. They dance to such shouts as ‘Spank the Baby,’ ‘Marilyn Monroe,’ ‘Fidel Castro,’ ‘Slop,’ etc.”
In 1959 a little song called “The Twist” was released in the United States as a B side performed by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. It was only a moderate hit until the following year when Chubby Checker covered it and performed it on American Bandstand complete with dance moves that launched a worldwide craze. In late 1961, the Twist was already popular in Jamaica. A full-page photo spread appeared in the Star Newspaper on November 6, 1961 depicting two London dancers showing readers step-by-step how to do the Twist. “It is called the Twist—the wackiest, gayest dance since the Charleston … The Twist started in San Francisco. Skipping New York, it turned up next in Paris, where it is the rage of every Left Bank night club. Next place to get Twist Fever was St. Tropez, on the French Riviera, where they dance it till dawn on moonlit beaches. The rage went from there to New York. Now London. And, soon, your local dance,” read the photo caption.
Sure enough, the Twist did soon come to the “local dance,” as clubs hosted competitions and events. The Carib promised “£10 cash for anyone who out-twists Big Maybelle,” and at the Odeon Theatre in July 1962, a “colossal show” featuring Jimmy Cliff, Roland Alphonso and his Upsetters, Higgs & Wilson, Hortense Ellis, and “Special Guest Don (Trombone) Drummond” was billed as an event called “Twisting to Independence.” Merchants like Davon, men’s clothier, depicted twisting men in print advertisements and encouraged buyers to “ask for Davon’s latest—‘The Checker.’” The popularity of the dance craze brought Chubby Checker himself to Kingston to perform in mid-June 1962 at the Carib Theater. It was “Chubby Checker’s Twist Spectacular” and guests were encouraged to “Come ‘Fly’ with Chubby.” A preview article in the Star Newspaper on May 31, 1962 stated, “Not only have the teenagers gone mad over the Twist, but adults of all age groups are taking Twist lessons from the teenager set.” Sam Cooke came to Kingston and the North Coast in May, 1962 for his show called “Twistin’ the Night Away” after his hit tune, and when Johnny Nash came to Kingston to perform at the end of April, 1962, he was sure to bring with him the “Tom Johnson Twisters,” who were billed as “New York’s Champion Twisting Team from the famous Peppermint Lounge in New York.”
In addition to the creation of a dance to promote the ska, a film was also created to showcase what Seaga hoped would be the next big trend. Cinematographer Franklyn “Chappy” St. Juste recalls, “This is Ska was filmed at two locations—Sombrero Club and The Glass Bucket Club. The intro was shot in a studio at the JIS Film Unit and at Sombrero. I was the cinematographer for the studio scene and filmed mostly at Glass Bucket, only a few times at Sombrero. Most of the Ska films—there were two released—were done in 1964. There was some filming in 1965 I think, and this would be at Sombrero.” One of the films, from 1964, featured Byron & the Dragonaires backing up numerous artists including Stranger Cole, Toots & the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and others. The other film featured Carlos Malcolm as backing band for artists like Prince Buster. Malcolm says, “Carlos Malcolm and His Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, we accompanied Buster at the Sombrero Club singing the American song ‘Lucky Ol’ Sun,’ re-named in Jamaica, ‘Wash-Wash.’”
Tony Verity, emcee of the film, and popular emcee of entertainment events throughout Kingston, narrates a bit like Rod Serling, “Since 1959, the west-end of Kingston, Jamaica has throbbed with a musical beat—a hypnotic sound of surging excitement and power. People hearing it became caught up in a frenzy and couldn’t help moving to the tempo of this pulsating, almost religious beat. This is Ska!” After the “Jamaica Ska” song plays, and dancers including children are shown enjoying the various moves of the ska, Verity reappears on the screen and states, “Yes, this is Ska, original and indigenous, the music of guitar, saxophone, trumpet, bass, and drums. These instruments are playing a monotonic, grassroots rhythm. This beat has taken Jamaica by storm and is swiftly spreading to other parts of the world. Now what is the authentic style of this new dance craze? Let’s take a looksee, shall we? There are four basic steps to the Ska. The first is to keep the beat with the upper half of the body, bowing forward with a straight back and a slight bend in both knees. At the first bow, the arms extend to the sides. At the second bow, the arms cross in front. The body straightens up in between the change of arms from one position to the other. Basic step number two is practically the same as step number one, but with the addition of a sidestep. First to the right by moving the right leg on the extension of the arms, then bringing up the left leg on the closing of the arms. Step number three is once again, very similar. Only the arms change. First right, then left swing up and down in front of the body, finishing with the body beat when the right arm is in the air, and then when the left arm is in the air. The arms are to be very relaxed and then swung on either side of the legs, or between the legs. These basic steps may be done face to face, or side by side with your partner. Finally, our fourth basic step. Now this is perhaps the most energetic of all basic Ska steps. It’s being done by two members of the band [Keith Lyn and Carl Brady] and is called rowing—a similar action to rowing a boat. It’s either done facing your partner or beside your partner. The first move is to reach out with the arms keeping both back and legs perfectly straight to form an angle at the waist. Then, a pull back, throwing backwards the upper half of the body from the knees up. Ska is as easy at that. How about us joining a regular ska session.”
The next section of the film then shows Eric “Monty” Morris performing “Sammy Dead-O” with pans of the floor covered in ska dancers, and shots of the bandstand musicians, up close. Next performance on this film is Jimmy Cliff with his tune, “One Eyed Jacks,” his arms in the air like a champion, singing into two microphones on stands. Prince Buster in his Cincinnati Reds baseball cap appears next singing “Wash Wash” surrounded by other singers including Derrick Harriott and Carlos Malcolm who steps off of his trombone for a few vocals on the mic. The Maytals perform next with “Treat Me Bad,” the three singers gathered around two microphone stands that captures the harmonies, Vernon Möller, Sammy Ismay, and Byron Lee clearly visible in the background with cutaway shots to Granville Williams on keyboard. They continue with “She Will Never Let You (sic) Down” though Toots Hibbert is visibly absent from the trio. “So Marie” from The Charmers follows with plenty of footage of the crowd dancing and a shot of the Charmers, Lloyd Charmers and Roy Willis, under the banner, “Cool Ska Cool.” Stranger Cole with “Rough and Tough” is next in a dapper suit, white dress shirt, and dark tie singing, “For the good you do lives after you,” as the crowd bobs and swings. Roy & Yvonne then appear singing, “Two Roads Before Me,” dressed to the nines in a buttoned-up suit and gown with sparkly jewelry, respectively. They each take their turn at the microphone for the duet before The Blues Busters (Philip James and Lloyd Campbell) take the stage with their song, “I Don’t Know.” All the while, Ken Lazarus along with Keith Lyn and Carl Brady call out to the dancers to “get ‘em up, get ‘em up” or “get down, and up! Get down, and up!” Keith then takes over the microphone for his version of “Sammy Dead-O” as Ken ends the tune with some vocal percussion invented by toasters like Lord Comic and Count Matchuki. Jimmy Cliff is back up with a few roars before launching into his “King of Kings,” bouncing on the stage with energetic dynamism. Derrieres wiggle, arms flail, and feet hop as the film comes to an end. A crowd seated at a table filled with empty beer bottles and plates applauds.
The stage was now set. Step one utilized a dance-obsessed America. Step two brought a music that was lively, spirited, and made for dancing. Step three was showcasing a newly-independent country that was eager to show the world its culture and people. Now all America had to do was follow the steps.