9 Rusden Road

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This is 9 Rusden Road, the house where Don Drummond lived with and murdered Anita Mahfood, Margarita in the Rockfort neighborhood at the foot of the Wareika Hills. I took this photo last February and it was my second time visiting the home which a lovely woman named Carmen still lives in. These are her grandchildren sitting on the front steps, the same steps that Margarita climbed early in the morning on January 2, 1965. Don Drummond had fallen asleep earlier in the night and missed his gig with the Skatalites at the La Parisienne Club in Harbour View, a club near the Palisadoes Airport in east Kingston. He never made it to that performance. It was not the first time he missed a gig. He frequently missed performances or was late for a gig. Tommy McCook has said that he went to pick up Don at 8 p.m., prior to the gig, and found him asleep so he left without him and returned after their first set during intermission to try again. Still, Don was asleep, a side effect of the medicine he took, said McCook.

I want to take a moment to logically think about an argument that has been made over the years blaming Margarita for giving him his medication late, causing him to fall asleep, and then slipping out to dance against his wishes. How would we know that Margarita did that? She was dead so she couldn’t tell. Could Don have claimed that Margarita gave him his medication late? Not likely as Don was despondent and what talking he did do at the Rockfort Police Station was a lie since he claimed that Margarita stabbed herself and that was proven untrue. It simply defies logic to argue that Margarita administered Don’s medication that night, but it does put the blame on her so it is interesting that those in disbelief over the incident would want to shift the blame.

Margarita’s best friend, Faye Chin, remembers the murder which was easily overheard by the other tenants of the house. That’s right, there were other tenants in this small home. It was split into four rooms with Don and Anita occupying one. It was furnished with two single beds and a desk that contained Don’s compositions on paper. Faye says, “Now this place was like a house and you rent a room and another person rent a room and another person rent a room. So this woman that her room was behind their room, she said she heard when Anita came in and she laid down on her bed, she heard a scream and said, ‘Oh God, Don what are you doing?’ She’s screaming, ‘Don, what are you doing?’ And he stabbed her so badly. There was no blood. The knife stabbed her in the chest. I got a call early in the morning and I phoned Conchita, her sister, I tell her, ‘Okay, I’m coming to pick you up,’ and I drove over to Conchita’s house, pick her up and we went down to identify the body. She had on her jeans (sobbing) and she had on a shirt with a stain in the front at her waist and she was just laying on her bed on her back (sobbing uncontrollably).”

You can read all about the murder from the recollections of many fellow family, friends, and musicians, as well as the trial that ensued in my book Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist (click the “skabooks” link above for more info). I would love to hear your thoughts on this event that literally changed the course of music in Jamaica forever, for it was after this event that the Skatalites broke up without their master composer and it was after this event that the heat wave that summer ushered in slower rocksteady and subsequent reggae. How important do you think Don Drummond was to ska?

 

Ska Takes Center Stage at the Palace Theater

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This is the interior of the Palace Theatre today in downtown Kingston. It’s hard to imagine that this outdoor movie theater was once not only host to some of the most legendary Jamaican ska and music artists, but this is the very stage that launched their careers. The Palace Theatre was home of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, a talent show akin to American Idol or The Voice.

Vere Johns was a theater manager. After serving for many years in the newspaper industry, Johns turned to offering crowds a variety show on nights when the spaghetti westerns and musicals weren’t flickering through the tropical nighttime air. The idea for a variety show came from Vere Johns’ second wife, Lillian Margaret May Johns, who thought that entertainment competitions would bring in extra money on off nights. The competitions took place here at the Palace Theatre and because the show was so successful, it was then replicated at the other theaters Johns managed, the Majestic, Ward, Carib, Queens, Gaiety, Ambassador and others.

The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour featured dancers, instrumentalists, vocalists, comedians, and even performers on bicycles as well. Ten acts appeared on each bill and admission was less than a shilling. Vere Johns auditioned performers each Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. Winners were selected based solely on audience approval—who received the loudest applause at the end of the night won the show. Needless to say, this form of selection allowed plenty of opportunity for corruption, such as packing the house with one’s own friends or supporters, or paying off people to clap for a chosen artist. After the artists performed, Vere Johns stepped onto stage and held the cash prize of two pounds over each person’s head until the audience responded with the appropriate level of applause. Sometimes after a performer won, audience members approached the winner in a threatening manner to demand part of the spoils. If a performer won or came in second place, they returned the next week to perform again, so the corruption continued. Winning the popular talent contests assured success in the musical circuit. The experience was done more for the exposure than the money.

So who are these legends who got their start here on this stage? They include Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis, John Holt, Laurel Aitken, Bob Andy, Derrick Morgan, the Wailers, and Anita Mahfood. In 1997 Derrick Morgan told me, “I started at the age of 17 at a talent show in Jamaica at the Palace Theater by imitating Little Richard, singing ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Jenny Jenny’ that night at the contest. At the contest I sang first. From there, there was a comedian in Jamaica called themselves Bim and Bam and they started taking me around doing stage shows. That was in 1957.”

The stage at the Palace Theatre today should be a museum, a landmark to the music launched here, but instead it is in a terrible state of disrepair. While on this spontaneous tour of the interior in February of this year, the owner told me that there is a remote possibility they will remodel the theater, but it is more likely it will be razed due to safety concerns and expense. The original movie projector is still in the projection booth, a relic of the past, but the ghosts of the early ska era still flicker on the stage, and in our hearts and minds.

Tonight! Marguerita and Don Drummond

june15 1955 don and margarita

There has been much speculation about how and when Anita Mahfood, stage name Margarita or as it is spelled here, Marguerita, and Don Drummond met each other. Some say it was in the Wareika Hills, but there is evidence they met long before that. Here in this June 15, 1955 advertisement in the Daily Gleaner, we see that Don Drummond and Margarita appeared together on the same bill and it is the earliest proof of their performing together. They performed in the same evening of entertainment which was the order of the day–entertainment after movies, between movies, on the outdoor or indoor stages, featured a variety of acts–dancing, comedy, pantomime, and yes, music.

In 1955, those musicians on the bill weren’t playing ska. Performances like these in the early and mid 1950s, even the late 1950s, were largely jazz or American R&B, or calypso. Janet Enright performs here with Don Drummond and the two were good friends from the get-go. Janet was a female jazz guitarist and Don Drummond took good care of her, like a little sister. And we also see Roland Alphonso on the bill too, another skilled jazz instrumentalist who would go on to perform in the studio and stage with Don for the next decade and in the Skatalites.

This advertisement and the placement of Don and Anita in the same place does not suggest at all that the two started a relationship as early as 1955–not at all. Anita would have been only 16 at this point, in fact she had just turned 16 the day before this ad appears. Four years later she would marry boxer Rudolph Bent and have her first child, although not in that order. Still she would continue to perform on bills like this, on the stages of the movie theaters, in virtually every club in Kingston, commiserating with her fellow performers, like Don Drummond and years later, when they grew close in the Wareika Hills, a relationship was kindled–to a devastating end.

Read the details of their lives and relationship in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist, skabook.com.