Lord Tanamo and his rhumba box
The music world received the news that yet another Jamaica legend had recently passed away, and so Foundation Ska pays tribute to this musical master, Lord Tanamo, who died on April 12th at the age of 82 in Toronto, Canada. He was former member of the legendary Skatalites and the Jamaica Observer wrote of him:
The singer/percussionist, who was born Joseph Abraham Gordon, combined ska with mento and calypso on several of his songs including Japanese Invasion. He led the Skatalites on songs like Come Down and I’m In The Mood For Ska.
Musicologist Kingsley Goodison remembers Lord Tanamo as a very influential member of the Skatalites.
“In addition to having his own songs, he was a percussionist as well as a back-up vocalist. He acted as emcee for the band and introduced the songs before they were played,” Goodison told the Jamaica Observer.
Raised in Denham Town, West Kingston, Lord Tanamo was strongly influenced by the legendary Trinidadian calypsonian Lord Kitchener, who lived in Jamaica during the 1940s.
At the dawn of the 1970s, when calypso and mento waned among Jamaican artistes, he kept the beat alive with songs like Rainy Night In Georgia, originally done by Tony Joe White.
He migrated to Canada during the mid-1970s but continued to record singles and albums for producers in Jamaica, most notably Bunny Lee and Sonia Pottinger.
“He left and went to Canada with keyboardist Jackie Mittoo. They performed together and became a big hit there,” Goodison added.
In 2008, Lord Tanamo suffered a stroke that left him unable to talk.
Lord Tanamo and his Calypsonians, from the Daily Gleaner, June 26, 1969.
A 2002 article in NOW magazine out of Toronto includes words from Tanamo himself. The article states: The Kingston, Jamaica-born Joseph “Lord Tanamo” Gordon, who has made Toronto his home for over 35 years, helped create the sound we now know as ska by combining elements of calypso gleaned from Lord Kitchener with the lilting mento rhythms of his childhood.
“When I was about four years old,” recalls Tanamo from his home at Dufferin and Eglinton, “a fella, Cecil Lawes, came into my yard with a rumba box, which is similar to a marimba. I liked the sound from the first time I heard it. That’s where it all came from.
“Later, when I was a teenager, I began performing on the corner with Cecil and his rumba box. In the day I’d put on torn pants and a straw hat and sing calypso to hustle the tourists, and then at night I’d put on my suit and tie and sing ballads with a band. It was all just music to me.”
It was a few years later, in the spring of 64, that Tanamo would make his most notable mark in ska history, following a fateful recording session with some of Jamaica’s top young studio talent.
“When we did recordings, the musicians were usually paid individually, but for some reason on this date Mr. Khoury made out only one cheque payable to me. So I said, “Gentlemen, since we have this bulk payment, why don’t we form a band?’
“When they asked me what we should call it, I thought, well, we’re playing this way-out music and the Americans were sending satellites into space after the Russian Sputnik. So I said, “Let’s call it the Skatallites,’ because ska was the thing everyone was doing.”
Along with naming the Skatalites, Tanamo is also credited with being among the first of many popular Jamaican artists to take up residence in Toronto, where he opened the Record Nook, the city’s first record shop selling the exciting new music coming out of the Caribbean.
“I think it was in 64 that the Eaton’s company sent for me, through the Jamaican Tourism Board, to come to play some shows in Canada with the rumba box. When I arrived in Toronto, I liked the multicultural atmosphere and I guess I fell in love.
“It happened at a show,” he remembers wistfully. “I saw a young girl crying at the front and I asked if my music was making her sad. She told me that it was actually making her happy. For some reason, I married her, and I’ve been trapped here ever since.”
This article in the Jamaica Star, June 5, 1964, noted how Lord Tanamo had switched from calypso to ska. What a dapper young Tanamo! Handsome fellow! In case you don’t want to get out your glasses, here’s what the article says:
Big name in the world of ska today is Joseph Gordon, alias Lord Tanamo. The 28-year-old Kingtonian entered show business 13 years ago as a calypso singer appearing at leading hotels in the city with his small band before moving to the North coast to perform at hotels. After two years on the north Coast, where he appeared at such hotels as the Royal Caribbean, Tower Isle, Casa Montego and Casa Blanca, Tanamo began recording calypsoes, his first one being “Crinoline.” In 1962, however, he switched from calypso singing to ska and today his first ska recording, “Come Down” is still a favourite with radio, juke box and sound system fans. Tanamo now claims hit parade tunes “Iron Bar” and “Matty Rag,” both of which are old Jamaican folk songs done up in ska style. His popular “Ol’ Fowl” recently finished a long stay on the hit parade, but is still riding high in juke boxes and on sound systems. Apart from thrilling thousands of record fans, Lord Tanamo has long been a favourite with stage and nightclub audiences.
From the Daily Gleaner, 9-14-1957
Lord Tanamo is photographed below during the Legends of Ska Concert back in 2002 in Toronto. Tanamo is on the far right next to Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, Justin Hinds, and Stranger Cole.
And of course, here is the great Lord Tanamo here with the Skatalites, as one of the four vocalists for the legendary group. Lord Tanamo is to the right of Doreen Shaffer.
From the Daily Gleaner, June 26, 1969: Calypso Group in Montreal–MONTREAL, June 16. Terres-des-Homes (or Man and his World) 1969 got off to a roaring start with a huge fireworks display on Thursday June 12th. Total attendance for the first three days was 297,000 visitors. Feature attraction at the Jamaica Pavilion this year is the Jamaican Group of Lord Tanamo and his Calypsonians. This group is already an early favourite and has drawn special attention with its unique Jamaican musical instrument— a rhumba box and a bamboo saxophone, with a fork and grater occasionally thrown in. When asked about the durability of his saxophone, Wilbert Stephenson replied that he keeps it in a cool place to avoid possible splitting of the bamboo due to heat and as an added precaution he brought an extra one with him. The group will play daily at the Pavilion until the Fair closes in September. Personnel of the group is as follows: Lord Tanamo (Joseph Gordon), guitar; Carlton Lewis, maracas and bongo drum; Cecil Laws (rhumba box); Cecil Largie (congo drum); Wilbert Stephenson (bamboo saxophone).
Mike Garnice has substantial information on Lord Tanamo and his mento career which can be found HERE
So raise a Red Stripe in toast to Lord Tanamo, and enjoy these fine chunes from Mr. Gordon!
Watch him perform in 2003 at the Glastonbury Festival with Lester Sterling, Lloyd Knibb, and of course, Ken Stewart on keyboard and band manager for decades! I’m in the Mood for Ska
One of my favorites, a tribute that Lord Tanamo did as a tribute for Don Drummond, Big Trombone
From the Daily Gleaner, June 21, 1964.
2 thoughts on “Tribute to Lord Tanamo”
This newspaper articles are real eye-opening for me. I had heard that in the early days everything was 45s and sound systems. But it seems there was a robust performance scene too?
Thanks for your comment, Dan, and oh yes, there was a vibrant live performance scene. In fact, prior to the recording industry, that’s all there was, and this continued all through the 1960s. Clubs like the Glass Bucket, Silver Slipper, Bournemouth Beach Club, Club Havana, and others featured live music nightly. Movie theaters also opened their facilities during times when movies were not playing to host bands and vocalists. In fact, Vere Johns hosted his talent show, The Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, at the movie theaters he managed, thereby launching the careers of numerous artists. And hotels featured live music too, especially on the north shore, but also in Kingston, at the Myrtle Bank Hotel and Cortleigh Manor.