1. Exodus – 2:43
2. Adam’s Apple (AKA Don’t Bother Me No More) – 2:26
3. Ska Ba – 2:55
4. Freedom Sounds – 3:42
5. Latin Go Ska (AKA Pachito Eche) – 3:01
6. Cow And Gate – 2:51
7. Don’t Slam The Door – 2:17
8. Trotting In – 3:03
9. Road Block – 2:15
10. Ska Legion – 3:08
11. Peanut Vendor – 3:12
12. Sauvitt (AKA Sauvito) – 3:08
13. Goldfinger – 2:57
14. Junior Jive – 2:30
15. A Little Bit Of Heaven – 2:31
16. Wheel And Turn – 2:40
17. Jazz Walking – 3:19
Bonus Track
18. The Answer – 7:41

Tommy McCook has left us, expiring from heart failure at the Rock Dale Hospital in Conyers, Georgia. The ‘Tenor Titan’ was 71.

Hopefully these few words, combined with his classic Ska and Jazz recordings and two previously unreleased gems, can convey a little of who Thomas Matthew McCook was, and scratch the surface of his 54 year career as a professional musician. A career which included positions in many bands, but none so famous as The Skatalites, which Tommy led. The band was known professionally as Tommy McCook & The Ska-talites, although many Treasure Isle issues read Tommy McCook & His Ska-talite.

Tommy agreed to lead The Skatalites in 1964, but his story actually begins in Cuba. He was born in Havana in 1927, to his Jamaican parents Ivy and Alfred McCook. Alfred left Jamaica to work on the Panama Canal. As Tommy explained it, his mom couldn’t go to Panama, as workers were not allowed to bring their families with them. Therefore Cuba was the closest place they could meet. So that’s where Ivy set up their household.

In 1933, Tommy returned to Jamaica with his mother, brother Frank and sister Inez and the family settled in East Kingston. While on a visit to see his brother at school, Tommy heard and saw the band rehearsing and decided that he wanted to go to the Alpha School too, to play in the band.

His mom had gained a position in the kitchen at the busy beachfront Bournemouth Club, nearby to where the family lived on Slipdock Road. When he visited his mother at work, Tommy was able to watch the bands rehearse, which he claimed was where his fascination for music began.

His mother, through contacts made at Bournemouth, managed to get in touch with Mr. George Neilson, who was the bandmaster at the Alpha School, and inquired about whether there could be a place for Tommy in the band.

“I was 11 when I started, and it was on tenor sax. Mr. Neilson said they needed a sax player and I jumped in. I took over the school sax and sat next to Bra [Wilton] Gaynair when the band rehearsed and played”, McCook explained.

After McCook had attained a solid musical education at Alpha, the noted bandleader Eric Deans, who regularly creamed the graduating classes of Alpha for his bands, came calling and auditioned Tommy, who passed with flying colors.

That was in 1943, when Tommy’s 54 year career as a professional musician began with Eric Dean’s Orchestra. Deans band was one of Jamaica’s best and was stationed at the Bournemouth Club. It was especially nice for Tommy to be able to play in front of his mother, and he told me that one of his most treasured moments as a musician was taking his first solo with his mom watching. He told me of how he closed his eyes and followed the progression of the melody during his solo, and as he was finishing, he heard applause from the crowd and opened his eyes to see tears of joy on his mother’s face.

After leaving Deans band, McCook and trumpeter Raymond Harper joined Don Hitchman’s sextet. Hitchman was an excellent guitarist and as a member of his group, McCook became one of the first Jamaican musicians to make a recording, reportedly in 1953, though Tommy thought ’52. That happened at the first radio station in Jamaica, Z or Zed QI. Archie Lindo extended the invitation to Hitchman so that station personnel could test their new recording equipment. What they recorded was immediately pressed on soft wax and McCook recalled that the tunes were played back to the band within ten or so minutes after the recording.

This was around the real advent of Jamaican Jazz, when people were first dancing the ‘Skank’, and the ‘Half Time’. Speaking of which, does anyone remember how to do the ‘Buggy Ride’?

In the early fifties, Tommy was a featured soloist in the greatest band to coalesce in Jamaica before The Skatalites, Roy Coburn’s Blu-Flames. The Blu-Flames were anchored by Ken Williams on drums, Cluett Johnson on bass, Don Drummond on trombone, Raymond Harper on trumpet, and vocalist Carlyle Heywood. But the heart of the band was the saxophone section with ‘Young’ Bobby Gaynair, Roy Coburn and Rolando Alphonso on alto and Harold ‘Little G’ McNair, Wilton Gaynair and Tommy McCook on tenor. That wasn’t usually the extent of the talent on the bandstand however as guest musicians frequently joined in. They could include Baba Motta, Con Allison, Seymour Mullings or Lloyd Adams on piano, trumpeters Billy Cooke and Sonny Bradshaw, trombonist Herman Wilson or maybe altoist Joe Harriot. Guest vocalists such as Julian Iffla from Eric Deans’ band, Winston Roach and Totlyn Jackson were also ready to step in for a tune.

In 1954, Tommy was invited to go to Nassau to play at the Zanzibar Club. He agreed and went along with Ernest Ranglin, trumpeter Frank Anderson, pianist Linton Thomas and others. After the Zanzibar gig ended in ’55, and some of the band returned to Jamaica, Tommy stayed on, playing in small groups at parties and then on a private yacht. That’s how he first went to America. It was to Miami in 1956. That’s also when Tommy first heard John Coltrane, which he told me, “changed my life and how I played the saxophone”. Jazz became Tommy’s focus after that and by the time he left Nassau for Jamaica in 1962, “I had decided that I was gonna play only Jazz”.

“From I heard Coltrane, there was no one else in my mind, that I would love to play like. I listened to Sonny {Rollins} before him and I listened to James Moody before that and Illinois Jacquet, and so on, but when I heard Coltrane I knew that was it.”

Returning to Jamaica a few months into ’62, Tommy formed a little combo and played strictly Jazz. “We were playing shots by Coltrane, ‘I Love You’, ‘But Not For Me’, and others,” he related.

This was when Clement ‘Coxson’ Dodd first approached Tommy to record. Next was Vincent ‘Randy’ (VP) Chin. “I just said no thank you”, McCook told me.

Eventually, Tommy consented to do a Jazz session in late ’62, which was released as Jazz Jamaica from the Workshop on the ND Records label of Coxson Dodd. “The Answer” is the title of the composition contributed by Tmac. The session at Federal was Tommy’s since his return to JA, and his first for Mr Dodd. But “The Answer” was not the first tune penned. “Roadblock was the first tune that I wrote when I got back. Then ‘The Answer’ and I think it was ‘Freedom Sounds’, ‘Ska Ba’ and then ‘Musical Storeroom’, which we cut as a combo that had Frank Anderson on trumpet”, Tommy explained.

That’s Anderson soloing with aplomb on “Exodus”, and his trumpet features on “Peanut Vendor”, “Ska Ba” and “Wheel and Turn” as well.

Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore is the trumpeter with the martial sounding solo in “Freedom Sounds”, which he told me was based on his brief experience in the Military Band. The Skatalites other veteran of the Military Band is altoist Lester Sterling, who solos on “Latin Goes Ska”.

“Peanut Vendor” is a wicked Ska take on a 1930’s tune popularized by Stan Kenton in 1947, and while “Wheel and Turn” updates a timeless Mento, the most senior tune here might be “A Little Bit Of Heaven”, originally composed in 1914 by Ernest Ball. “Ska Ba” is the fruit of the union of Ska and the Brasilian Bossa Nova, as fused by Tommy McCook.

It was after recording these initial Ska shots that Tommy was urged by Lloyd Knibb, whom he knew from visits to Count Ossie’s yard in Rockfort, to lead a Ska band that Knibb and his mates from the Cavaliers Orchestra, Johnny Moore and Jackie Mittoo, had been planning.

Knibb used to check Tommy’s gig with pianist Aubrey Adams group at the Courtleigh Manor hotel, and then drive him home. Since the advent of Jamaican Jazz in the fifties, the corporate area has played host to most live sessions, particularly on Sundays. After the gig, as they’d drive East, Knibb would reason with McCook that because the potential band members were the ones making most of the studio recordings, as soon as the public could hear them together live, they’d become the biggest band in Jamaica.

When McCook eventually agreed to lead them, it was after he had acceded to Coxson Dodd’s overtures, and recorded his first tune with most of the men who would become the Skatalites almost a year later. That tune was “Exodus”, Tommy’s version of Ernest Gold’s movie theme.

Since The Skatalites didn’t form until June 1964, the original 7″ of “Exodus”, a 1963 release on the Music City label, credited Tommy & His Group for the Ska-adaption. “Don’t Bother Me”, an ND Records 45 release which was also issued as “Adams Apple” on the All Stars label with the credit to Rolando Alphonso, credited Tommy and his Band and “Goldfinger, a Treasure Isle 45, credited Tommy & Orchestra. The superlative soloing on the latter track is by Tommy and Don Drummond. According to Mr. Dodd, the DJ voice, “Shocking, shocking, shocking”, is that of King Sporty.

Tommy was aware of how his Jazz stylings were favored by the public. “I immediately became popular with the fans in Jamaica because of my Jazz input into the Ska. My solos were different from the other saxophonists.”

It also didn’t hurt that when Tommy came back on the scene Rolando Alphonso had just taken a cruise ship gig and was not often in the country.

Many of the tracks that The Skatalites recorded for Duke Reid and Coxson Dodd were Ska-adaptions of the work of popular composers and bandleaders. For instance, “Latin Goes Ska”, which was Ska-adapted by Tommy from Beny Moore’s Mambo “Pachito Eche”.

Foremost among the popular artists whose work The Skatalites transformed was Mongo Santamaria, who like McCook and Alphonso was born in Cuba. On this set, you can hear versions of Mongo on “Don’t Bother Me” and “Sauvitt” at least. Mongo’s band also did a grand version of “Peanut Vendor” on their epic Watermelon Man Lp, which will sound very familiar to anyone who enjoys The Skatalites, as Mongo’s Lp was essentially re-cut for Mr. Dodd. As Tommy put it, “Yeah, we liked Mongo a lot, but the producer, Coxson, liked him more. Most of Coxson’s Ska instrumentals are Mongo’s originals. Jamaican people always loved the Latin flavor, like when Coxson would use Larry McDonald.” For reference, check McDonald’s conga playing on “Sauvitt”.

“Jazz Walking” and “Ska Legion” are the two previously unreleased tracks, and both are revelations. The former because it is a Duke Reid Jazz production boasting the same musicians with whom Tommy recorded “The Answer”. That is, Ernest Ranglin, Carl McLeod, Lloyd Mason, Don Drummond, Cecil Lloyd and Billy Cooke, who distinguishes himself on trumpet with a fiery solo.

“Ska Legion” is an unusual track as it features Tommy running up and down the register for the length of the cut, backed by The Skatalites.

A handful of Tommy’s first recordings utilize the violin of Raymond, a veteran of country dances where quadrilles were a must. His violin playing adds a particular flavor to “Adams Apple”, “Cow & Gate”, “Road Block”, “Junior Jive”, and “Wheel & Turn”. Raymond’s violin can also be heard on Skatalites tunes such as “Below Zero” and “Air Raid Shelter”.

The Skatalites made several hundred instrumental recordings and backed the gamut of Jamaica’s vocalists on hundreds more. The sources of their creative appropriation were disparate; ranging throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean but the deepest well was from the North. As Tommy explained, “Our music originally came from American big-band swing influences like Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. We selected parts of these great artists’ work and injected them into our own material. Our music is a complex, artistic communication that should be danced to and listened to simultaneously. We explore the human imagination and delve into emotions.”

True enough, but in the band’s initial incarnation, the force of emotion got the best of them. The Skatalites demise was due to various pressures from the industry and then from the public following Don Drummond’s murder of his girlfriend Marguerita Mahfood. These pressures exposed the often raw emotions within the band’s galaxy of individual stars, emotions which propelled them upward before bringing them crashing back to earth by the fall of 1965.

In the aftermath, McCook took an offer from producer Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid to become the Musical Director for his labels. Within a few months, Tommy was working out Rock Steady arrangements in the new, state of the art Treasure Isle Studio that Reid built atop his liquor store at the corner of Bond and Charles in Kingston. Tommy named and led The Supersonics band in the studio and as a live act.

At Treasure Isle Tommy arranged seminal compositions such as his own “Real Cool” as well as the crucial catalog of songs done by The Techniques, Paragons, Jamaicans, Melodians, Sensations, and Silvertones, and singers like Alton Ellis, Phyllis Dillon, and Hopeton Lewis.

Tommy led the Supersonics until they disintegrated on a trip to Montreal Canada in 1969. In addition to his work at Treasure Isle, Tommy freelanced for younger producers such as Joe Gibbs, Winston Riley, Glen Brown, Clive Chin, Edward ‘Bunny’ Lee, Harry Mudie, Rupie Edwards, Ivan ‘Jimmy’ Radway, Herman Chin-Loy, Vivian ‘Yabby You’ Jackson and Bob Marley. Tommy arranged and blew on Bob Marley’s first production apart from Lee Perry, “Lively Up Yourself”, which was done at Harry J’s on Tommy’s recommendation in 1971. Tommy’s “Live” was on the flipside, and if you check the 45 of Marley’s “Screwface”, it has Tommy’s “Faceman” on the B-side.

A trip to England with Jimmy Cliff’s band in 1973 for a BBC special on Cliff led to a meeting with Jazz artist Herbie Mann. Mann engaged Tommy to put together a band to make a Jazz LP of Reggae rhythms. Tommy accepted the challenge and put together the band that cut Mann’s album Reggae, which sold in excess of a million copies, according to Tommy.

In 1975, the Jamaican Government recognized the contributions of Thomas McCook to the nations musical heritage by awarding him the Order of Distinction, or O. D..

His stint in the mid-seventies at Channel One on Maxfield Avenue as a featured member of The Revolutionaries yielded bedrock rhythms such as “M. P. L. A.” and “Angola”, Tommy’s sax cut of The Mighty Diamonds “Roof Over My Head”. He arranged the horns on their Right Time LP, as well as many other top Rockers era LP’s such as Bunny Wailer’s Black Heart Man and Culture’s Two Seven’s Clash.

In the early eighties, Tommy played on several LP’s recorded by the Nighthawk label and then became involved with Synergy, the founders of Sunsplash, in trying to re-form the Skatalites for the 1983 Splash. Their success gave the band momentum and helped them to realize they could make a go of it again. Various gigs and distances held them back until Tommy reasoned that they needed to coalesce in America, already the home of Lester Sterling and Rolando Alphonso.

Tommy came to America in September 1985, and was assisted by his friend Clinton Saunders. Soon after, Lloyd Brevett and Lloyd Knibb emigrated to the States, and the Skatalites began playing out in 1986.

The Skatalites got a boost in 1989, when they opened for Bunny Wailer on his “Liberation” tour, and ever since they’ve kept a rigorous tour schedule.

In the ’90’s, Tommy led the Skatalites and his handpicked guests on sessions that resulted in three new releases, 1993’s Skavoovee, ’94’s Hi Bop Ska and ’96’s Greetings From Skamania. The latter two received Grammy nominations for Best Reggae Recording.

While The Skatalites enjoy widespread acclaim in the 90’s, the financial rewards are usually concomitant to the band’s status as originators of the Ska genre. That’s been a source of friction exacerbated by The Skatalites spawning of hundreds of young bands who claim that they play Ska, when in fact most are rock bands with horns.

As Tommy put it, “Younger bands play the Ska with more of a rock ‘n’ roll influence in the solos. They don’t play as many phrases and notes as we do. The solos are more of the rock era, not of the swing soloists of the ’30’s and ’40’s, because these kids weren’t around then. The beat they play is not really like the original Ska artists, the original Ska beat that we introduced in Jamaica.

Well, I figure Ska is here to stay, everybody is still interested in the Ska, but how strong it will be I don’t know, ’cause there’s so many groups doing Ska and some of them are not doing it properly. Some of them are just doing it because it’s making them some money, but to us it’s a tradition because we’ve been involved with this music from we were young and it’s part of our lives.

We are here and we are trying to improve the music and I mean they are in a position to do so and I think they should get more serious with the music, then we all would benefit more from it. I think they need to put more into the music rather than just imitating all the way, just put some more into the music, take it more serious and do some more good arranging on the songs they do, then we will feel better, I personally would feel better.

It’s not that they’re not doing the music, they are doing the music, but it could be deeper.”

It was in the spring of 1995 that Tommy’s health took him off the road, following a heart bypass operation. He was well enough to resume touring in early 1996, but a series of dates in Colorado ski country led to his decision to leave the road just a few weeks into the tour.

Tommy enjoyed his move to the Atlanta area in late ’95, and acknowledged that it gave him the rest and relaxation he needed, but he was torn that, “my musical world…is around New York, and I might have to go back there”.

Tommy said that to me in March of ’98, during a visit to his and Iris’ idyllic ranch, which is ensconced amidst the Georgia pines immortalized in song by Ray Charles. We passed a few quick days and nights talking and playing music, and checking video such as the film Rockers, where we joked about whether Tommy’s line was scripted.

Tommy leaves his second wife Iris and stepson Andrew Davis, eight children; Janet, Colleen aka Candy, Donna, June, Regina, Donovan, Stanley and Tyrone, and fourteen grandchildren.

Tommy was interred at Dovecott Memorial Park following a Service of Thanksgiving at The National Arena in Kingston Jamaica on May 17th, 1998. There was also a memorial service for Tommy at the Allgood Road United Methodist Church of Stone Mountain Georgia on May 12.

On December 21, 1998 in a ceremony at The Alpha School, Tommy’s widow Iris McCook donated his tenor saxophone to Sister Ignatius and the school for permanent display in the Music Hall. Tommy’s son Tyrone and stepson Andrew Davis were in attendance as was Mr. Dodd.

–Brian Keyo

I’d like to thank Iris McCook, Sister Ignatius, Lloyd Knibb, Richard Fletcher, Hartley Neita, David “Dro” Ostrowe, Terry Wilson, Ben Mapp, Al Kaatz, Joshua Blood, Chris Wilson and Rachel Racine.

CARL McLEOD-DRUMS on “The Answer” and “Jazz Walking”.
LLOYD MASON-BASS on “The Answer” and “Jazz Walking”.
BILLY COOKE-TRUMPET on “The Answer” and “Jazz Walking”.
CECIL LLOYD-ORGAN on “The Answer” and “Jazz Walking”.
ERNEST RANGLIN-GUITAR on The Answer” and “Jazz Walking”.

First solo Frank Anderson
Second solo Tommy McCook

First solo Frank Anderson
Second solo & end Tommy McCook

First solo Frank Anderson
Second solo Tommy McCook

First solo Tommy McCook
Second solo Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore
Third solo Rolando Alphonso
Fourth solo Tommy McCook

First solo Rolando Mr. Dodd says Roland, then Tommy?
Second solo Lester Sterling
Third solo Tommy McCook

First solo Frank Anderson
Second solo Tommy McCook

First solo Lester Sterling Mr. Dodd has Tommy, and Frank.
Second solo Frank Anderson
Third solo Tommy McCook
Fourth solo Rolando Alphonso?

First solo Don Drummond
Second solo Rolando Alphonso
Third solo Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore
Fourth solo Tommy McCook

Solo Tommy McCook

Solo Tommy McCook

Theme Frank Anderson
Solo Tommy McCook

First solo Lester Sterling Mr. Dodd has Lester, Tommy, Frank
Second solo Tommy McCook

First solo Tommy McCook
Second solo Don Drummond

Solo Tommy McCook

First solo Tommy McCook
Second solo Oswald ‘Baba’ Brooks

First solo Frank Anderson
Second solo Tommy McCook

First solo Tommy McCook
Second solo Billy Cooke

First solo Tommy McCook
Second solo Billy Cooke
Third solo Don Drummond
Fourth solo Ernest Ranglin

Compiled by Clement Dodd & Brian Keyo