Trolls are nothing new. Even in the mid 1960s in Jamaica, decades before the internet, trolls took their aim at various gripes in the “Letters to the Editor” section of the Daily Gleaner, and ska could be the target. I’ve started a file of these funny little gems, and offer two excerpts here, from just one day, an average day, on March 22, 1964. It’s worth a little giggle.
The first, from E.A.W. Morris, concerns his experience in Cinchona Gardens in the Blue Mountains. Morris states in the beginning of his letter, which he titled, “Strange Practices,” that he is a temporary resident of Jamaica, and he airs his grievances, including the location of a “no parking” sign and an encounter with a police offer, but it s the end of the letter that I include below:
The very same section of “Letters to the Editor” includes a different writer, G. McKenzie, who complains about sacrilegious ska music. It is not the first such letter I have read. Some found that certain lyrics were meant for one arena only–the church–and to include them in ska music, which was not sacred, was akin to blasphemy.
So the next time to dance to ska, watch the flowers, will ya? And make sure you’re not yelling “Amen!” every time a trumpet finishes a killer solo!
The Frats Quintet were a vocal group popular in the 1950s in Jamaica who sang traditional folk music that is still performed today. Songs like “Linstead Market” “Sammy Dead-Oh” and “Slide Mongoose” (also titled “Sly Mongoose” at times or just “Mongoose”) are staples of the Jamaican culture. One of the very first recordings of these songs came from the Frats Quintet and Edward Seaga, who had been researching and recording folk traditions during this time, had his hand in helping to put these songs in people’s homes, or at least those who owned a record player.
Two years earlier, in 1956, Seaga had recorded and released his “Folk Music of Jamaica” recording with the Smithsonian. This came as a result of his study of revivalist cults including Pukkumina, Kumina, and Zion. He had been speaking to organizations in Jamaica upon his return from studying in the United States, having obtained a degree in anthropology from Harvard in 1952. Perhaps he was getting his feet wet for a political career, as he entered this arena in 1959 as the youngest member in history of the Legislative Council, appointed by Sir Alexander Bustamante (nick-namesake of Prince Buster). He then became elected to Parliament in 1962 for the West Kingston district and was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister of Development and Welfare where he championed Jamaican arts, music, and culture, especially in the name of tourism. Of course, he later went on to become fifth prime minister of Jamaica in the 1980s. I am writing a book this summer on Seaga’s role in the promotion of ska during the post-independence years, as well as all of the efforts during this time to establish Jamaican identity through ska.
I came across this short article in the Jamaica Gleaner from June 10, 1958 that announces this Frats Quintet recording, which was recorded in Kingston, but pressed in the United States.
Here are a few photos of that actual album:
The following is an article from the Daily Gleaner that provides some more information about this important vocal group. Of particular interest, at least to me, was the memory of Nina Simone:
Remembering the Frats Quintet
Published: Wednesday | July 22, 2009
Members of the 1950s group Frats Quintet from left, Henry Richards, Winston White, Granville Lindo, Sydney Clarke and the only surviving member, Wilfred Warner (back). – Contributed The following is an article on 1950s Jamaican folk group Frats Quintet.
It was written by Patrick Warner, the son of one of the group’s members, and previously appeared in Canada’s Abeng News.
In the years before reggae, rocksteady and ska put Jamaica on the world musical map, mento and folk ruled the roost and the top folk exponents of the day were the Frats Quintet.
None of the Frats Quintet members were formally trained in voice dynamics. They sang for the love and appreciation of the art and a fondness for the songs, the majority of which originated from the plantations and from the hearts of the slaves who would sing as they worked. Since work time conversation was not allowed, music not only entertained and made work more tolerable, but messages were conveyed in song. Even post-Emancipation songs were composed and sung in the same manner to make heavy work light, while some songs reflected the social order of the day.
Before the Frats Quintet, there was the Young Men Fraternal. Their home base was the East Queen Street Baptist Church under the baton of J.J. Williams. Back in the day, it was the largest men’s choral group in Jamaica, and the sound they produced could make your hair stand on end or bring you to tears. A Sunday night evensong at the church was a treat not to be missed.
As a child, I can clearly remember visiting the Baptist Church a few times to hear the Young Men’s Fraternal sing to a packed house on a Sunday night. They would always be elegantly dressed in their vicuña cream jackets, white Oxford shirts, black bow ties and black trousers. The overflowing audience would take their places anywhere that offered a good vantage point; some were content to just listen.
It was from this group that the Frats Quintet was formed in 1951. The five, young men, Sydney Clarke, Henry Richards, Granville Lindo, Winston White and my father, Wilfred Warner, travelled the length and breadth of the island on a busy schedule, in addition to working their full-time jobs.
“Over the period of one year, we must have performed in every parish and major town in the island, as well as overseas,” muses my dad, the sole survivor of the group. “We rehearsed in the evenings after work, because our weekends were solidly booked at the hotels, and on Sunday, the services.” He never hesitates to add confidentially: “I met your mother at a performance in Savana-la-Mar you know.”
The group became a household name in Jamaica in the ’50s, doing ads on the radio (who could forget Ajax, the foaming cleanser?), and travelling the world, representing Jamaica on the international music scene. Some well-known songs from their repertoire included Linstead Market, the lament of the vendor as her provisions return unsold from the market, Shine-EyeGal (she want, and she want, and she want everything!), Sammy Dead-Oh, and Nobody’s Business, which Peter Tosh retooled to the popular reggae beat.
I can remember once attending a night function at my elementary school where the quintet was to perform, and the police had to be called to restore order as a stampede occurred outside the school grounds. The concert was sold out, and spectators were positioned in trees just to hear Jamaican folk music. It was a night to remember.
There was always music in the home; I would be doing homework to the sound of folk music or negro spirituals from the rehearsals, and when those rehearsals were over, my father would exercise the double bass of his vocal chords loudly enough to wake the dead. Perhaps, with this immersion, there was absolutely no way I could avoid becoming a member of The Jamaica Folk Singers later on, but that was a different era.
The Frats Quintet also became the musical ensemble on and offstage for the National Dance Theatre Company, and their crisp trademark a cappella interspersed the scenes in a few of our pantomimes.
Most memorable recording
The quintet also ushered in Jamaica’s Independence celebrations, and sang their way into a few televisions around the island to welcome the now-defunct JBC TV. One of the group’s most memorable recordings, according to my dad, was providing the backup for late Soprano Joyce Laylor when they recorded the timeless Jamaican classic Evening Time, a celebration of the end of the workday, the setting sun and the cool evening breeze.
“You could feel the energy in the studio,” he beams, “and we were so in sync together, even the first take was exceptional.” My father is fond of reminding me that, in those days, there was no fooling around in the recording studio, as all artistes had to perform together on a single track. “It had to be perfect the first time,” he reflects.
The most disappointing moment for the group? Although the exact date is not clear in his mind – he remembers the late 60s – my father still has an angry glint in his eyes when he recalls jazz diva Nina Simone being booed onstage by an unappreciative audience at the Carib Theatre. Apparently, the quintet had warmed the stage for her, and when she appeared, the audience expected her to open with one of her more popular numbers. When she didn’t, they did not hesitate to voice their disappointment. Father still bristles, he says, with the shame.
The Frats Quintet took Jamaican folk songs on the international stage, performing at UN functions in New York, Expo ’67 in the Jamaican Pavilion and before world dignitaries in Montreal, the popular Eistedfod Music Festival in Wales (1958) where they copped a second-place award, and while in Britain gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.
Later, there was another performance on tap for Princess Alice, the then Chancellor for the University of the West Indies, and the group also performed on many occasions in Cuba, much to the delight of Fidel Castro. As Jamaica’s musical ambassadors, they performed for visiting dignitaries at state functions and dinners.
For my father, the ire of the Nina Simone episode is only eclipsed by the much-publicised disappearance of audio and video material from the JBC archives. “So much of our rich cultural history – gone just like that,” he snaps, full of emotion, and suddenly, the fire is gone from his eyes. At least in his head he still has the folk songs he can remember.
Charley Organaire, whose real name is Charles Cameron, performed on April 14th in Chicago alongside Lester Sterling, the last living instrumentalist in the Skatalites, and Sultan Ali, son of Prince Buster. It was a fantastic show, billed as Two Legends and a Son and it was organized by Organaire and Chuck Wren whose dedication to ska music across the generations has been unwavering.
Here are a few photos I took at the show, including Charley Organaire’s beautiful coat that he wore during the show, his harmonicas in their cases, and of course, plenty of Charley!
The following is a post I wrote in 2014 about Charley called “Charley Organaire–Master of the Harmonica:”
You may know Charley Organaire best from his harmonica solo in Stranger Cole’s classic “Rough and Tough,” (listen to it here: Rough and Tough), or over 1,000 other Jamaican recordings over the years, but did you know that Charley is still going strong, singing and harmonizing all over the world? His song, “I Never Stop Loving You” was featured in the classic movie “Love Jones.” And Charley Organaire is performing tonight in his hometown since the mid-1970s, Chicago, to kick off his European tour with the Prize Fighters, a stellar band from Minneapolis. Charley Organaire, along with Roy Richards, was responsible for pretty much all of the harmonica in ska and rocksteady, even reggae, during the 1960s and 1970s in Jamaica (unless you count Lee Jaffe on Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues,” because we all know, he sure likes to count himself!). The harmonica is an important but overlooked instrument in Jamaican music. But the harmonica not only provides lyrical musical harmonies—it also gives Jamaican music its spine, the essential rhythm that makes ska ska, rocksteady rocksteady, and reggae reggae.
Charley not only performed the harmonica back in Jamaica, but he also sang. In fact, in 1967, at a New Year’s Day show, a three-hour show at the Ward Theatre, Organaire was touted for his vocal performance. The Daily Gleaner article on January 3, 1967 stated, “One of the featured singers, Charlie Organaire, brought down the house with such popular hits as ‘Goodnight My Love,’ and ‘Stand’ By Me’ and was called back to give another performance.” As Rico Rodriguez would say, “Nice!”
Smoooooth moooooves! Charley Organaire
According to the Jump Up! Records website, which is the label founded and operated by Chicago ska, rocksteady, and reggae authority Chuck Wren, Charley Organaire has a rich history as a musician and entertainer. The Jump Up! website states, “Charles Cameron was born in Kingston, Jamaica on March 20, 1942. He was inspired by the singing of his mother Louise, and his neighbor Mr. Randolph, a mean harmonica player. From the early age of 5, Charles started performing in neighborhood concerts, churches, and lodge halls – reciting poems, singing and playing his plastic harmonica. At the age of 9, a talent scout named Vere Johns had Charles performing on the “Opportunity Knocks” radio program and at various theatres in Kingston, such as the Palace, Ambassador, Gaity, and Majestic. He performed with all the big singers like Jimmy Tucker, Winston Samuels, and Laurel Aitken, plus was a side-kick to Bim and Bam, Jamaica’s leading comedians at the time. In his teens, Charley “Organaire” Cameron performed with big bands lead by Carlos Malcolm and Sonny Bradshaw. Then Charles teamed up with Bobby Aitken and formed a band called the Carribeats, recording the hit track “Never Never” with Bobby on vocals, Charley on harmonica. Charley “Organaire” was now unstoppable, becoming a well known studio musician performing on sessions with Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, The Tenors, Derrick Morgan, Millie Small, Toots and the Maytals, Phyllis Dillon, Stranger Cole, and Lord Creator. The “Organaire” worked for the biggest labels in Jamaica: Prince Buster, Studio 1, Beverly’s, Duke Reed, Treasure Island, Highlights and King Edwards. Charley also started producing hits for his Organaire label, most notibly “Little Village/Little Holiday”, “London Town”, Illusive Baby”, “Sweet Jamaica”, “Your Sweet Love”, and “Let me Go”. Being one of the most popular entertainers in Jamaica, he moved to the north coast and worked in the tourist industry. Playboy, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Yellow Bird, you name it, he played there. Charles moved to Chicago in the late 70’s, eventually forming his own band called “The Charles Cameron & Sunshine Festival”. The “Organaire” band played in various night clubs, for major corporations, and political functions throughout Chicago including events for former Mayors Harold Washington and Jane Burn. Charles also played at Chicago Fest, Festival of Life, Taste of Chicago, and the African Fest. Charley “Organaire” Cameron continues to write and record to this day, the title track from his “Never Stop Loving You” CD appeared in the movie “Love Jones” starring Nia Long and Lorenzo Tate, and his newly released “Friends” CD features collaborations with Charlie Hunt and Steve Bradley. In 2012/2013 Charlie Organaire became a regular fixture at Chicago’s Jamaican Oldies productions at Mayne Stage, performing with Stranger Cole, Roy Panton & Yvonne Harrison, Eric Monty Morris, Derrick Morgan, Derrick Harriott and Dennis Alcapone.”
Charley Organaire, center
My friend Aaron Cohen wrote a fantastic article on Charley Organaire in Thursday’s Chicago Tribune. Here is the text from that article:
“Charley “Organaire” Cameron is a harmonica player and singer, but sitting in the Good To Go Jamaican restaurant in Rogers Park, he is regarded somewhere between a celebrity and favorite uncle. He deserves both roles.
More than 50 years ago, Organaire performed in the instrumental section on a plethora of pivotal early Jamaican ska and rocksteady recordings. Since 1976 he has lived in Chicago, where he’s worked in different musical idioms; until relatively recently only a few fans knew about his historical role. But his upcoming first European tour will focus on the music that he helped originate.
“Charley was the harmonica sound of ska music, as well as an important arranger,” said Chuck Wren of Chicago’s Jump Up Records, which released three new Organaire ska singles this month. “He was on so many sessions; that Wailers tune you hold closest to your heart could have been 90 percent arranged by him.”
All of which began simply enough. Organaire listened to his mother sing and a neighbor play harmonica while he was growing up in 1950s Kingston. He heard different music through Radio Jamaica and from signals farther away.
“That one radio station in Jamaica would play country, blues, jazz and classical music,” Organaire said over glasses of Caribbean ginger beer. “A Cuban station would play Latin music. But where all music came from is basically the R&B from New Orleans.”
When Organaire was a teenager, he picked up a chromatic harmonica, which could play all 12 notes on a scale, as opposed to the more typical diatonic model that covers eight. His colorful tone and dexterity throughout shifting tempos made him valuable on pioneering ska and rocksteady recordings by the Wailers, Prince Buster and Jimmy Cliff. He owned his own record label, also called Organaire, which released his locally popular “Elusive Baby.”
“Back then we’d start every day at 9 in the morning and do no less than eight songs for each session,” Organaire said. “I had a great time working with (saxophonists) Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso. Since they were jazz guys, I learned so much from them.”
Those lessons proved helpful when Organaire got fed up with the Kingston record industry’s often desultory (at best) payment system, and he left to work in hotels and resorts on the country’s north coast. He’s still amazed that tourists preferred hearing him sing jazz standards instead of Jamaica’s own music.
After Organaire accepted an invitation to play in a Greek venue in Chicago in 1976, he stayed here. That gig turned into engagements at the Latin clubs that thrived here decades ago, including El Mirador and Las Vegas in Humboldt Park.
“I would play salsa and a little jazz,” Organaire said. “I’d also sing ‘My Way.’ It didn’t matter if you were from China; everybody knew ‘My Way.’”
A show at the reggae club the Wild Hare led to Organaire’s appearance singing his ballad “I Will Never Stop Loving You” in the 1997 film “Love Jones.” But for the past 27 years, his contributions have not just been musical. He has also worked on behalf of Chicago Concerned Jamaicans, a foundation that raises money to provide scholarships to needy students on the island.
“One student’s mother had six children and couldn’t afford a home,” Organaire said. “We helped her through a scholarship, and now she’s an engineer.”
Organaire’s generosity also emerged two years ago when he began participating in the Jamaican Oldies concerts that Wren has organized at Mayne Stage. Along with performing, Organaire helps the veteran artists feel more at ease working with much younger American backing ensembles. The musicians in one such group, the Minneapolis-based Prizefighters, have been fans of Organaire’s early ’60s sessions and perform on his new recordings. He does not expect this to be the last generation to rediscover his legacy.
“When the right time comes, all you have to do is be ready,” Organaire said. “If you stop, it’s over, and I will keep going on until I drop.”
The following is a presentation I delivered at the Pop Culture Association conference last month in Indianapolis:
“Like a cultural barometer, the rise of ska indicates when and where social, political, and economic institutions disappoint their people and push them to reinvent the process for making meaning out of life. When a group embarks on this process, it becomes even more necessary to embrace expressive, liberating forms of art for help during the struggle. In its history as a music of freedom, ska has flowed freely to wherever people are celebrating the rhythms and sounds of hope,” wrote Editor Scott Calhoun in the foreword to my book, Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation. Perhaps no social, political, and economic condition better prepared America for their rise of ska in the 1980s and 1990s more than the Cold War.
The Cold War began on August 6, 1945 — the day that nuclear terror was introduced to the world when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, according to Peter J. Kuznick and James Gilbert, editors of the book, Rethinking Cold War Culture. Though the fear of nuclear annihilation was present in the decades that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that fear reached a new height in 1980 with election of Ronald Reagan who declared the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and took the Cold War to space with Star Wars, or the Strategic Defense Initiative. Kuznick and Gilbert suggest that the Cold War ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union but state, “What is usually thought of as Cold War culture outlasted the Cold War itself and likely will be with us for a long time.” The effect was a culture of vulnerability, suspicion, and subversion.
This was the culture that welcomed the upbeat tempo, lively horns, and energy of dance and entertainment that was ska. It was the same respite from struggle and tension that had produced ska in Jamaica in the early 1960s, in England in the late 1970s, and now in America in the 1980s and ’90s. Though each country reinvented the genre of ska through their own lenses, blending it with other familiar musical forms and elements of the culture, threads remained the same. The ska beat, with the stress on the upbeat, the beat on the two and the four, instead of the one and the three in a quarter note measure, remained the same. The horns — trumpet, saxophone, trombone — remained the same. The fast tempo remained the same. In addition to the music itself, ska culture from Jamaica to England to America also shared commonalities, such as dance, dress, and attitude. These commonalities bound together fans of ska into a subculture with a shared identity. Central to this ska identity was the rude boy with origins in Jamaica, and the spy, with origins in America.
The Cold War spy character that emerged in American ska and culture was, in part, an evolution of the rude boy character of Jamaican ska and culture that appeared decades earlier. Jamaican Ethnomusicologist Clinton Hutton situated the rude boy as a manifestation of Kingston gangs and lumpenproletariat. The rude boy was a scofflaw, a criminal, one who defied authority. They were aligned with gangs and identified themselves as part of this subculture through their dress — sharp suits, sunglasses, porkpie hats, and pants hemmed high on the ankle. They carried German ratchet knives and were known to break up the dances where ska music played, since gangs aligned themselves with the soundsystem operators who ran the dances. It was a competition of soundsystem against soundsystem, and the one who drew the largest crowd was crowned the king. Rude boys were the henchmen who ensured their soundsystem operator would win that title, by mashing up the competitor’s dance — breaking needles from the turntable, starting fights in the audience, or worse.
The prowess of the rude boy or “rudie” was glorified by some vocalists, as well as used as a warning for others. Songs like, ”007 (Shanty Town)” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “Tougher Than Tough (Rudies Don’t Fear)” by Derrick Morgan, “Rude Boy” by the Wailing Wailers, and “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers, among dozens of others, chronicled rude boy badness. “Symbols of his culture are appearing everywhere,” wrote Jamaican music historian Garth White in 1967. White identified that, “Rudie culture items such as shoes, hats, music . . .” were means of identification for this subculture, a “lower class youth” that is “totally disenchanted with the ruling system.”
The image of the rude boy and rudeboy style carried over the ocean to England as West Indian immigrants populated neighborhoods of Coventry and London. The rude boy appeared in the lyrics of British artists like The Specials, Madness, and even The Clash. But the style of the rude boy became iconic when Jerry Dammers, leader of The Specials, drew a stylized version of Peter Tosh’s rude boy portrayal on the cover of the Wailing Wailers album. The result was Walt Jabsco, a character used to represent the 2Tone label that recorded most British ska during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This character, wearing sunglasses, porkpie hat, sharp suit, and cropped pants became, quite literally, a cartoon, an animation. The character/logo appeared on more than just record labels — it was a way to identify the subculture of ska fans, the self-proclaimed rude boys and rude girls, who belonged to this group. And it is this character, both the rude boy and Walt Jabsco, who influenced the character of the spy in American ska — a character wearing sunglasses, porkpie hat, suit, and possessing the same amount of mystery, intrigue, and badness.
Spies had been part of American culture for decades, as Michael Kackman observes in the introduction to his book, Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture. He writes, “Spies were everywhere in 1950s American media culture. Books, magazines, film, radio, and television were filled with the exploits of secret agent, real and imagined.” And I want to be careful to point out here that the spy in American ska was more an offshoot of the rude boy character, as well as a response to the Cold War itself, which I will discuss in a minute, rather than a continuation of the spies that exist in early Jamaican ska. To explain, a number of Jamaican ska songs covered spy movie themes or identified them in their song titles. This is because Jamaican culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and even beyond, shared an affinity for American film and culture. Musicians adapted some spies and other men of mystery into their ska and subsequent musical forms as a sign of that adulation. So Desmond Dekker’s “007,” and Roland Alphonso’s “James Bond Theme,” were more a link to American film — as much so as the Skatalites “Guns of Navarone,” Carlos Malcolm’s “Bonanza Ska,” or King Stitt’s “Lee Van Cleef.”
In American ska in the 1980s and 1990s, the link to bad guys and spies was something different. It was not as much tied to American film and TV, although there was that link, but it was also because spies were very much part of worldwide culture due to the intensity of the Cold War. And American ska treated these characters very differently than British ska because the cultures of these two countries were very different. Whereas British ska popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s treated social and political issues with a somber tone, American ska popular in the 1980s and 1990s addressed these issues with humor, camp, and novelty. Historian William M. Knoblauch writes of the difference between British and American music during periods of political discord. He says there is a “key difference: Whereas American artists remained upbeat during a tense Cold War period, British groups seemed more serious.” The Cold War terror of nuclear annihilation and fear of global destruction were alleviated in American ska through the theatre of the absurd. Martin Esslin, theater critic who coined the term, “Theatre of the Absurd” in 1962 states, “Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” Songs like Fishbone’s “Party At Ground Zero,” recorded in 1985, demonstrate well this absurdity in the face of despair. The music video, the stage in this theatre, is set in a club called the Atomic Underground and partygoers hold up martini glasses against backdrops of Soviet MIGs, newspapers with headlines proclaiming, “Russia has A-Bomb,” and footage of missile tests. The lyrics proclaim, “Time to sing a new war song . . . Just have a good time the stop sign is far away.”
It should be noted that there is a clear distinction between the absurd, and a theater of the absurd and define how American ska used the later. Ska music evolved in Jamaica in the late 1950s, early 1960s as a blend of indigenous mento, American R&B, and jazz. Because Jamaican ska began before the recording industry on the island was largely underway, it had originated as a live form of entertainment, and as such, the entertainment aspect of ska was a key component. So humor and levity as a means of entertainment became intertwined with some artists’ presentation of the music, in Jamaica, but more so in British ska as well as American ska. But the theater of the absurd was different. It was, as Esslin indicates, to liberate in times of despair, so this specific sort of ridiculousness, found largely in American ska in the 1980s and 1990s, was in response to the threats and fears of the Cold War. American ska used the theater of the absurd differently than the playwrights of this original movement whose commentary was more on a meaningless existence. Instead, this concept in American ska was used as a way to critique imperialism and mock the key players in the Cold War in order to bring relief to audiences and demean the power of the authority. The spy in American ska was a key character in this theatre of the absurd.
The spy became central in American ska whose fans were more akin to followers as this particular genre strongly aligned with identity. It was a subculture. Dress, dance, and style were crucial to ska culture as a way to define the self. Philip Gentry in the introduction to his book, What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity, poses the question, “What is the relationship between these waves of new postwar political movements and the musical revolutions that seem to dovetail so neatly? The cultural transformation at work here is more fundamentally the project of self-making called ‘identity.’ It is a project that is at once both psychological and sociological, a process by which an individual knows him or herself in relation to others in a specific historic moment. . .. Music — performing, composing, organizing, listening, and so on — became a space, and perhaps the most important one, for collective articulations of self. . .. In using it we lay contemporary claim to age-old philosophical speculation: Who am I? We similarly invoke the question of social allegiance: With whom do I share my lot?” For the youth who lived in fear of nuclear war during the later Cold War era, that identity was ska.
Michael Kackman writes that the spy in American culture was satirized and parodied by some television and film writers as a way to subvert “norms, narratives, and authoritative truth claims.” He states, “After the 1962 release of the first Bond film, Dr. No,” which incidentally was filmed in Jamaica and featured the ska band Byron Lee & the Dragonaires in a key scene at Pussfeller’s Club, as well as on the entire soundtrack, “many espionage programs quickly incorporated elements of self-referentiality, parody, and humor. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a self-conscious send-up of both the Bond films and earlier espionage dramas, while Get Smart was a spoof created by Mel Brooks.” Kackman continues that the spy in these instance “becomes the principal source of humor and critique.”
It is no wonder then that this is the character who appears in American ska during the Reagan and post-Reagan Cold War years. The Untouchables were perhaps the first to bring together ska and the spy in their recording of “I Spy For the FBI,” whose lyrics use the spy as a device for stalking and a paramour’s infidelity. This song was first recorded in 1966 by American soul artist Luther Ingram, then called Luther Ingram & His G-Men. Ingram later went on to record the classic hit, “If Loving You is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right).” The song had greater success the same year when Jamo Thomas recorded it with more spy style, both in publicity photos, on the record sleeve, and in television appearances. Thomas’s style was also similar to rude boy style as he appeared on dance shows in cropped pants, skinny tie, pork pie hat, and sharp suit. This song was then recorded in 1985 by The Untouchables, a ska band from Los Angeles. The group was named after the television show about Special Agent Eliot Ness, his battles with the Chicago Mob, and the takedown of Al Capone. The Untouchables, who appeared in the movie Repo Man because one of the band’s fans was Emilio Estevez, continued with the spy theme, including the 1988 album “Agent Double O Soul,” and the song “Bond.”
Other American ska bands in the 1980s and 1990s found intrigue with the spy; including Let’s Go Bowling’s song “Spy Market” in 1996; LA’s Goldfinger payed homage to the spy with their name; Save Ferris of Orange County recorded “Superspy” in 1997; Agent 99 formed in 1994, named after Maxwell Smart’s partner in the TV program Get Smart; and Undercover S.K.A. Band of San Francisco recorded the song “Our Man Flint” from a movie of the same name which was a parody of James Bond staring James Coburn, as well as the songs “Conspiracy” and “Agent 13.”
The Interrupters, a ska punk band formed in LA in 2011, continues the Cold War spy theme in their song, “Can’t Be Trusted,” set in the post-Bush/Cheney era of America. The lyrics state, “I don’t trust no one, under my pillow there’s a loaded gun. The CIA, they wanna put me away, the FBI just sent another spy. The FBI, get your hands off me. There’s no judge, no jury — Patriot Act took our liberty.”
American ska bands appropriated the spy in ska music through their lyrics, imagery and style on their albums and in their videos and live shows, and in zines. One zine called Rude Tales in 1997 portrayed the comic book narrative of a spy who doubled as a ska musician. His gun case featured the tools of his trade — six types of guns, swords and knives, and a trombone, saxophone, and trumpet. Another zine, Rude International, published in 1998, featured an order form for t-shirts depicting a rude boy/spy character holding a briefcase.
Now that Cold War culture has subsided, we are at another flashpoint again in our global political climate in many ways with many of the same conditions — growing threats of nuclear war, racism and hate, divisiveness. The Cold War ended when we tore down walls and now we build them back up, so will we see a new interpretation of ska to relieve our suffering spirits? There certainly have still been spies in recent ska bands, like the group Spies Like Us who formed in 2014 in San Antonio, and the Ska Vengers of New Delhi, India formed in 2009 and tour the world, singing their song, “Frank Brazil,” about an assassin. And we have certainly seen spy activities still make global news, as just this month a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned by a nerve agent, and intelligence in the U.S. and Russia have been embroiled in investigations over meddling in our most recent election. Perhaps we will we see another character representing badness, like the rude boy or the spy, morph its way into ska — perhaps a superhero or a hacker, who knows? Only time will tell.
I’ve been doing a little research on Sister Ignatius and found her birth record! Her birth name is Agnes Marjorie Reeves Davies and she was born on November 18, 1921. Her father was named John Davies and he was a planter of Innswood, St. Catherine, and her mother was named Ethel Davies, nee Starego.
I am desperately looking for any known relatives of Sister Ignatius–siblings, nieces, nephews–anyone, so please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know of any leads. I will pursue like a bloodhound and report my findings here!
And you can read all about Sister Mary Ignatius Davies in Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Music which was just published in November. Order at skabook.com.
I was combing through some copies of Star Newspapers that I had made a few years back at the library in Kingston, and lo and behold, I found an advertisement from December 28, 1964 for the Skatalites’ show that ended in tragedy–Don Drummond murdering his girlfriend, the Rhumba Queen, Margarita (Anita Mahfood).
On the same page appears an advertisement for a show the night before, New Year’s Eve:
Just to be clear, the dancer in this advertisement above is not Margarita–it is Princess Zandra, who was also a popular rhumba and floor show entertainer. Rhumba dancers were a draw for many live bands during this time, so Zandra was a popular performer, as was Margarita, Madame Wasp, and others.
If you wish to read more on the murder of Margarita at the hands of Don Drummond, you can read my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, or if you want a quicker read, you can click this link to my blog post on the topic:
Here is a close up of the two Skatalites logos on this advertisements, which I think are super cool:
You can see the names of the members (though a few are spelled incorrectly) clockwise from left, Lloyd Brevett, Dizzy Johnny Moore, Jackie Mittoo, Roland Alphonso, Lord Tanamo, Lester Sterling, Harold McKenzie, Lloyd Knibb, and Don Drummond.
Ever wonder how Vincent Chin became known as Randy’s? It was after another Randy’s Records that Chin named himself, his shop, and his label–one that was featured during an advertisement on WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. On a clear day or night, Kingstonians and Jamaicans could tune in to WLAC to hear early rhythm and blues and so the advertisements for Randy’s Records in Gallatin, Tennessee were part of the broadcast. The following is an article on the original Randy’s Records, named for proprietor Randy Wood:
Jamaican music has long chronicled political and social events, even when there are no lyrics. Ska songs, most notably those by the Skatalites, frequently bear the titles of politics, popular culture, and events of the day. Perhaps the most popular example of this is the Skatalites’ song “Christine Keeler,” a peppy little number with seductive horns that bear witness to the political scandal, the Profumo Affair, that rocked Britain, and therefore Jamaica, which was at that time was a newly independent nation. It was a cover song of “Comin’ Home Baby” by Ben Tucker, recorded by The Dave Bailey Quintet, Mel Torme, and Herbie Mann before the Skatalites recorded their re-titled version. It was likely that Coxsone Dodd at Studio One gave it the name “Christine Keeler” since the salacious name would sell better than “Comin’ Home Baby.”
Keeler, who died on December 4, 2017 at the age of 75, was a siren. She was a beautiful model who had an affair in 1961 with the British secretary for war, John Profumo, and the Soviet attache Yevgeny Ivanov. This resulted in the resignation of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963. It was the stuff of spy scripts, and was too alluring not to commemorate in song.
Add to this another layer of Jamaican linkup, quite literally, as Keeler had a relationship with Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon, a Jamaican jazz vocalist who had immigrated to the UK. Gordon’s obituary in the Guardian last March, which was written by Chris Salewicz, discussed the connection:
“On 7 August 1961, in the Rio Cafe in run-down Notting Hill, west London, Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon, a Jamaican jazz singer and hustler, met Christine Keeler for the first time. It was an encounter that would unravel a scandal and help to secure the downfall of the Conservatives at the 1964 election, ushering in the Labour administration of Harold Wilson. Gordon, who has died aged 85, was affected by its consequences for the rest of his life.
He was selling marijuana, and Keeler was looking to buy. With her were two men: Stephen Ward, the mysterious society osteopath, a pimp-like mentor to the soon-to-be-notorious Keeler, and John Profumo, secretary of state for war and Keeler’s lover, who handed the young woman cash for the drug.
Gordon was immediately besotted by the beautiful 19-year-old model. Soon he also became her lover, but their fractious relationship quickly disintegrated in violent encounters. In the second half of 1962 Keeler sought refuge from Gordon’s temper by hooking up with Johnny Edgecombe, an Antiguan shebeen owner. That led to a confrontation between Edgecombe and Gordon in October of that year outside the Flamingo Club in central London, in which Edgecombe slashed Gordon’s face with a knife, the wound requiring 17 stitches.”
The website, nickelinthemachine.com, takes the story from there:
“Gordon was treated for his wound at a local hospital but a few days later in a fit of jealousy, and rather unpleasantly, he posted the seventeen used stitches to Keeler and warned her that for each stitch he had sent she would also get two on her face in return.
Meanwhile a scared Edgecombe, along with Keeler, went into hiding from the police. Keeler even bought a Luger pistol in a bid to protect herself from the dangerous and still threatening Gordon.
On December 14th 1962 Keeler finished with Edgecombe, after finding him with another lover, saying that she would testify that it was he who had attacked Lucky Gordon at The Flamingo two months previously.
Keeler went to visit her friend Mandy Rice-Davies at Stephen Ward’s flat in Wimpole Mews with Johnny Edgecombe following her there in a taxi. When Keeler refused to speak to him he angrily shot seven bullets at the door of the flat. Frightened, the girls called Ward at his surgery and he in turn called the police who soon came and arrested Edgecombe.
Before Edgecombe’s trial, Keeler was whisked off to Spain, one assumes because somebody, somewhere, thought various people would be badly compromised if she was allowed to talk in the witness box. Conspicuous by Keeler’s absence Edgecombe was found not guilty, both for assaulting Lucky Gordon and the attempted murder of Keeler. He was, however, found guilty of possession of an illegal firearm, for which he got seven years and served five.
On April 1st 1963 Christine was fined for her non-appearance at court and Lucky Gordon was bundled away by the Metropolitan police, shouting ‘I love that girl!’ Not long after Keeler bumped into Gordon back at The Flamingo Club and again he had to be dragged away from her by other West Indian friends of hers.
In June 1963 Gordon was given a three year prison sentence for supposedly assaulting Keeler and in the same month Stephen Ward was arrested for living off Christine’s immoral earnings.
By now the whole story involving Profumo and the Russian attache/spy Ivananov was emerging, drip by drip. The chain of events that started with the fight of Keeler’s jealous ex-lovers at The Flamingo Club eventually caused the infamous resignation of the Secretary of State for War John Profumo, the suicide of high society’s favourite pimp, portrait painter and osteopath Stephen Ward, and ultimately, it could be said, the fall of the Conservative government.
In December 1963, after a drunken tape-recorded confession that she had lied about Gordon assaulting her, Keeler pleaded guilty of perjury and conspiracy to obstruct justice at Lucky Gordon’s trial. Her barrister had pleaded to the judge before sentencing: ‘Ward is dead, Profumo is disgraced. And now I know your lordship will resist the temptation to take what I might call society’s pound of flesh.’ It was to no avail and Christine Keeler was sentenced to nine months in jail which ended what her barrister termed, a little prematurely: ‘the last chapter in this long saga that has been called the Keeler affair.'”
According to Howard Campbell in the Jamaica Observer, “After his release from prison, Gordon worked as a cook in London for Island Records founder Chris Blackwell. He prepared meals for some of the label’s artistes including Bob Marley.”
Let’s listen to one good thing that has come from this horrible mess–that classic song by the Skatalites, “Christine Keeler.”
After three years of intensive research, visits to Alpha, writing, rewriting, editing, layout and design, and countless Skype conversations, Alpha Boys’ School: Cradle of Jamaican Musicis finally here! Perhaps one day, Adam, my co-author, and I will actually meet! Yes, you got that right–we’ve never actually met! That’s modern technology for you. We were able to bring together work that we had already done–Adam on a documentary on Alpha some years back, and me with my work researching and interviewing and visiting Alpha, and yet we live across a big pond from one another. Adam hails from Brighton, U.K. and I am just outside of Chicago.
Adam and I had known each other, albeit virtually, for years so when he approached me to ask me about writing this book, I jumped at the chance. I had long envisioned writing this book, and had even asked officials at Alpha to work with me on this book, but they have limited resources, limited time, and much bigger missions, like the boys themselves! Thankfully Adam came along with a similar vision and we began planning this book at the end of 2013. We started writing the following year.
Adam had worked on a documentary on Alpha musicians many years ago. In fact, he traveled to Alpha in Kingston with a film crew and that film is now in the hands of two capable directors and will hopefully see the light of day soon, but as anyone in film will tell you, funding is always an obstacle. Adam is still involved, but tangentially. So he had access to the audio of the interviews he conducted during this time, which included quite a few Alpha Boys in the U.K. who came for a reunion concert in 2007.
I had done a number of interviews of Alpha Boys over the course of my work and so I utilized those, and both Adam and I conducted a whole batch of new interviews. Needless to say, a number of Alpha Boys have died and so for those we were able to utilize newspaper and magazine archives, genealogy archives, and interviews with family members. For all of these interviews, Adam and I are most grateful.
I want to also mention that there is a chapter written by guest author Roberto Moore. He penned a spectacular chapter on Sammy Ismay which includes exclusive photos and even notations of Sammy’s musical scores! We are tremendously thankful to Roberto who is an expert in early Jamaican music and a hell of a writer and researcher.
The cover is by the incredibly talented Jean-Christophe Molinéris who painted the beautiful cover of my Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist. He lives in Paris and we have also never met! One day. The cover design was done by Chris “Sick Moore.
David “Ram Jam” Rodigan wrote the foreword for the book, and there are reviews from a number of notable people in the book, which I have posted below. Thanks to these people for their time and thoughts.
Adam and I hope that this book will both enhance the listening pleasure of fans, bring new ears to this music, and preserve the history of these important musicians for generations to come.
Who is in this book? Well here’s the list of the chapters in this 400-page comprehensive book, which includes a large section on the history of the band and the bandmasters, a suggested listening section, and hundreds of photos, many from private family collections:
Sister Mary Ignatius Davies
Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair
Ferdinand “Bobby” Gaynair
Vernon “Von Mullo” Möller
Harold “Little G” McNair
Alphonso “Dizzy” Reece
“Deadly” Headley Bennett
Edward “Tan Tan” Thornton
Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez
Karl “Cannonball” Bryan
Samuel “Sammy” Ismay
Johnny “Dizzy” Moore
Winston “Sparrow” Martin
Kenneth “Mutt” Davy
Joseph “Jo Jo” Bennett
Cedric “IM” Brooks
“Floyd” Lloyd Seivright
Vincent Gordon “Don Drummond Jr.”
Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace
Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig
Albert Malawi “Ilawi”
Vernal Kelly, AKA Charlie “Eskimo” Fox
Winston “Yellowman” Foster
Osbert Maddo, AKA Papa Madoo
Denver Smith, AKA Feluke
Praise for Alpha Boys School: Cradle of Jamaican Music
The Alpha Boys’ School is at the roots of the explosion of Jamaican music which has circled the world, starting in the late fifties and still evolving right up to today. There are only three countries whose popular music is played all over the world—American music, British music, and Jamaican music. We owe maximum respect and thanks to the Alpha Boys’ School for its contribution to this fact. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records
The Alpha Boys School has produced more major musical talents than any other Jamaican institution, with legendary faculty led by pugnacious Sister Ignatius who had her own legendary sound system. The rambunctious history of the school is now revealed in its fullness by the tireless research of Heather Augustyn and Adam Reeves in a book filled with riotous and rootical ramblings in its hallowed halls. Roger Steffens, author of So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley
A significant history of popular Jamaican music has been documented by this book. It tells how monumental Alpha Boys’ School has been and is without parallel. The testimony of the Alpharians interviewed bears witness to this, as their revelations are insightful and deep. Coming through the narrative is the towering humanity of Sister Ignatius. Dermot Hussey, on-air host, SiriusXM Satellite Radio
The story of the Alpha Boys’ School is a tale of amazing love and care, the transformation of young lives, and the creation of the music for which Jamaica is known across the world. To understand the development, reach and power of Jamaican popular music is to understand the legacy of Alpha and its impact on Jamaica’s creative community. Alpha’s story must be told and retold. The Honourable Olivia Grange, CD, MP, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Government of Jamaica
Under the auspices of the benign taskmistress that was Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, Kingston’s Alpha Boys School was the seed-ground for much of Jamaica’s very greatest music. Among its alumni were Rico Rodriguez, Cedric Brooks, Vin Gordon, Eddie ‘Tan Tan’ Thornton, Joe Harriott, Harold McNair, and Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace. Alpha was an extraordinary educational establishment that literally saved the lives—and directed the first steps of their careers—for many of these artists. There was never a school like it. Chris Salewicz, acclaimed music writer
The progressive role played by Alpha in Jamaican music history can never be underestimated. From the days of Jamaican jazz stars like Bertie King, Joe Harriott, Dizzy Reece, Harold McNair and Wilton Gaynair, through the ska period of Don Drummond, Johnny Moore and Tommy McCook and into the period of roots reggae and dancehall with such prominent artists as Leroy Smart and Winston ‘Yellowman’ Foster, Alpha has provided stability, schooling and musical skills to generations of young men, who owed their success to this wonderful institution. Steve Barrow, former director of Blood and Fire Records and author of The Rough Guide to Reggae
“These are some of my boys,” said Sister Ignatius proudly, gesturing towards the portraits lining the walls. It was my first visit to Kingston’s famed Alpha School, and looking back at us were some of the most gifted and influential musicians that Jamaica has ever produced—all of whom learnt their craft at Alpha, and would make timeless contributions to ska, rocksteady and early reggae music. This invaluable book is the first such tribute to these pioneers, many of whom came from deprived backgrounds, and also those who taught and encouraged them. John Masouri, reggae journalist and author of Steppin’ Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Alpha Boys School. By providing opportunity to young talents who wouldn’t normally have access to musical instruments and training, Alpha vastly enriched the culture within Jamaica, and by extension, the world. Simply put, without Alpha there wouldn’t be Jamaican music as we know it. Respect is due to Alpha for a gift that is as immense as it is immeasurable, and continues to this day. Beth Lesser, reggae photographer and author of Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture
Alpha was formed in 1880 and from that time until now, every musical event that come out of Jamaica, Alpha Boys were involved with it, either playing in a band or production. Alpha is the backbone of Jamaican music today. Tony Greene, Alpha graduate, formerly with the Roots Radics Band and We the People Band