(The Tenor Titan)
The 'Tenor Titan' Tommy McCook left us
late on May 5 1998, expiring from heart failure that followed
pneumonia which came quickly after a hospitalization for a
Tommy was born on the 3rd of March,
seventy-one years ago in Havana, on the island of Cuba.
was there with his mother, brother and sister to be close to
Panama, where his father was working.
This was because
Panama canal workers were not allowed to bring their families,
In 1933 Tommy come back to Jamaica with
his mother Ivy, brother Frank and sister Inez, and the family
settled in East Kingston.
While on a visit to see his
brother who was attending the Alpha Catholic School for Boys,
Tommy heard and saw the band rehearsing. He decided then and
there that he too would like to go to Alpha and also that he
wanted to be in the band.
His fascination for music began
when he visited his mother at the Bournemouth Beach Club,
where she worked.
Bournemouth was in East Kingston, not far
from the family's residence on Slipdock Road. There Tommy was
able to watch the bands rehearse. 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
Orchestra, come calling and auditioned Tommy, who passed with
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 [Brian Keyo] that one of his most treasured
moments as a musician was taking his first solo as a
professional 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
After leaving Deans band, McCook and
trumpeter Raymond Harper joined Don
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
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 went back to Jamaica, Tommy stayed on,
playing in small groups at parties and then on a private
yacht. That's how he first went to the US, Miami, in 1956.
That's also when Tommy first heard John Coltrane, which he
told me, "changed my life and how I played the
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".
Arriving in Jamaica a few
months into '62, Tommy formed a little combo and played Jazz.
"We were playing shots by Coltrane, 'I Love You', 'But Not For
Me', and others, he related.
This was when Tommy was first
being approached to record by Clement 'Coxson' Dodd. Next was
Vincent 'Randy' (VP) Chin. "I just said no thank you", McCook
Eventually, Tommy consented to do a Jazz session
in late '62, later released as the Jazz Jamaica LP.
Soon after he began to be wooed to lead a
band by Lloyd Knibb, whom he had known from visits to Count
Ossie's yard in his home area of East Kingston. "Count" Ossie
Williams led a group of rasta drummers who still play the
African-derived drum based music so fundamental to the history
of Jamaican music. Count Ossie and his Mystic Revalation of
Rastafari group can be heard on many recordings, including
early hits such as "Oh Carolina" from 1962.)
to check McCook's gig with Aubrey Adams group at the
Courtleigh Manor hotel, and then drive him home. As they'd
drive east, Knibb would reason with McCook that as the
potential band members were the ones making most of the studio
recordings, as soon as the public could hear them together
live, they could become the biggest band in Jamaica.
McCook eventually agreed to lead the band, 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".
formed in June of 1964 and, performing as Tommy McCook
The Skatalites, they played around the whole of
Jamaica, although they were
essentially based in East
Kingston at the Bournemouth Club.
The Skatalites made several
hundred recordings and backed the best of Jamaica's vocalists
on hundreds of others. But various pressures, including Don
Drummond murder of his girlfriend Marguerita Mahfood,
contributed to the band's demise by the fall of
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 ensconced 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
At that time McCook put life into, and his name
onto, a new group called "The Supersonics". The Supersonics,
along with the also mighty Lynn Tait and The Jets, were among
the first to be proficient in the new Rocksteady sound that
evolved by 1966.
For sure, it can't be denied that the
velvety phrasing of Tommy McCook had a great influence in, if
we can speak with those terms, "tranquilizing" the Ska
The saxophone sound is almost never aggressive, the
notes are smooth.
Listening with some good headphones,
to McCook's solos on Supersonics' instrumentals on the
Treasure Isle label such as "Down On Bown Street" and "Jam
Session" the impression is that, from the highness of his
potent stature McCook is telling you a solar poetry of palms,
sunsets on the sea, life lived on the beach.
Tommy's genius is widely
recognized on the Island, and the Supersonics are, as the
Skatalites before, one of the most famous, and most able
groups Jamaica has produced.
Treasure Island productions
have a unique sound which is best exemplified in Rock Steady
recordings, most of which were arranged by bandleader of the
Supersonics and Musical Director of the studio, Tommy
Sometime the Supersonics sound, at first carefree
and charming, transforms itself, thanks to some wild Winston
Wright keyboard or a Hux Brown guitar solo, to a Funky-soul
which seems to come from Memphis. This is all sustained by the
heavy, heavy bassline of "Jackie" Jackson.
delighted and captivated with the Supersonic's vibes and
melodies on instrumentals, there's better availability of
material which features Tommy and his Supersonics backing
vocalists and groups.
However, we can recommend on the
HeartBeat label, the CD called "Run Rhythm Run". A 1996
release with solid selection of 18 cuts ranging from '66 to
'72. The absolutely-not-to-loose track are the famous "Macca
Bacca", "Psychedelic Reggae" and "Stealing Stealing", which is
being used currently in Jamaica by producer Fatis Burrell.
Fatis has produced and enjoyed hits with the singer Luciano's
excellent "Ulterior Motives" and the DJ Sizzla's "Dem A Try A
All the most famous Rocksteady vocal talents
sang over Treasure Isle rhythms orchestrated and arranged
mainly by Tommy itself. Wonderful work with The Techniques,
The Melodians, The Gladiators, The Sensations, The Paragons,
The Silvertones, The Jamaicans, The Ethiopians, The Renegades,
Justin Hinds & The Dominoes, the superlative Phyllis
Dillon, the sublime Girl Satchmo and man like Alton Ellis,
Hopeton Lewis, Ken Parker, and John Holt made the Duke's
Treasure Isle the top Jamaican studio during the Rocksteady
Maestro McCook must be considered the driving
force behind Treasure Isle's preeminence throughout Rock
Steady and into the Reggae period from 1969 and on.
is the only session musician who was able to sustain a career
as a band master. Since he returned to Jamaica in 1962 until
the time of his death, he was the leader of the band.
McCook led the band at Treasure Isle until the death of
Duke Reid in September of 1976 from cancer.
In addition to
his work at Treasure Isle, McCook freelanced for younger
producers such as Joe Gibbs, Winston Riley, Glen Brown, Harry
Mudie, Gussie Clarke, Clive Chin, Jimmy Radway, Herman
Chin-Loy, and Bob Marley. McCook and Ansel Collins combined to
deliver "Stalag 17" for Riley, and Tommy blew killers like
"Dirty Harry" and "Determination Skank" for Brown. McCook also
arranged and blew on Bob Marley's first solo production,
"Lively Up Yourself", in 1971, with Tommy's "Live" on the
B-side, and on "Screwface", with Tommy's "Faceman" on the
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 McCook 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.
1975, the Jamaican Government recognized the contributions of
Thomas McCook to the nations musical heritage by awarding him
the "Order of Distinction".
Between '68 and '78 Tommy
works at all the most important Jamaican studios.
for Lee Perry (for which he was never paid), for Bunny Lee as
a featured member of his Aggrovators backing band. For the
Hookim brothers at Maxfield Avenue's Channel One Studio with
the Revolutionairies, that is Sly Dunbar, Ansell Collins,
Ranchie Mclean etc.
He also cut records with trumpet
players such as Bobby Ellis and Dizzy Moore, and as a soloist
on instrumental LP's such as "Cooking" (1974), Brass Rockers
(1975), Hot Lava (1977) and Blazing Horns (1978).
blew mostly sax on the many mid seventies instrumentals he led
though he also recorded several LP's worth of flute
In the early eighties, McCook 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 to perform at the 1983 Splash. In the
summer of that year he played with the rest of the original
1964 line-up at the Blue Monk Jazz Gallery in Kingston for a
wonderful three night stand that was a quite a reunion.
the years after The Skatalites broke up in 1965, they had
never all been present on any session, but some played in 1974
on an album which has been released at least five times now,
with several titles, including "African Roots" and "The
Rebirth of the Skatalites (It is not a Skatalites LP, but does
feature the playing and arranging of Tommy McCook on one
track, "Jumbo Malt").
The 1983 shows and rehearsals
at the Blue Monk were recorded by Herbie Miller, the club
owner, who saw fit to release the rehearsals on the US ROIR
label and the shows on a Japanese label.
Recently ROIR has
re-released the rehearsals with five more tracks.
Skatalites.com will soon
post infomation about the sessions and some answers from
Herbie Miller as to why the band only received an initial
payment for the release.
The playing is loose and sloppy,
as befits a rehearsal, but the most telling item missing from
the rhythmic stew might be the steady, honking baritone sax of
the one Dennis 'Ska' Campbell.
Campbell, for "non insider",
is the man behind that unceasing saxophone which croaks "Ska
Ska Ska" throughout most every Skatalites recording.
listening to 'Dick Tracy' or even the Wailers "Simmer Down"
and I'm sure you'll hear what we mean.
From 1983 on,
vertiginous musical activity enveloped The Skatalites and
propelled them in orbit around the globe. Numerous tours of
the US and Europe, annual jaunts to Japan, homecoming shows at
the National Stadium in Jamaica and even a swing to the Indian
Ocean island of Reunion, all are handled with aplomb by the
originators of Ska music, out to claim what is their richly
They've also worked with many artists whom
they help make names for back in the sixties, including Prince
Buster, Laurel Aitken, Desmond Dekker, Toots Hibbert, Justin
Hinds, Doreen Shaffer, Lord Tanamo, and Lynn
Meanwhile, the guitar player Jah Jerry in 1986,
being one of the oldest and having as the latest professional
activity behind some tracks in the Rico Rodriguez 1980 album
"That Man Is Forward" and being probably in bad condition,
retired to Jamaica, making space for guitarist Devon James. A
veteran of the North Coast hotel circuit in Jamaica and an old
'spar' of Lloyd Knibb from the band Teddy Greaves and The
In 1989 the Skatalites 'exploded' when
they opened shows for Bunny Wailer on his
tour. The band was mobbed by teenagers in California who
couldn't believe the sounds they heard.
In 1993, with
several guests, the Skatalites recorded "Skavoovee" which
eventually saw release on Shanachie, an American label.
CD is mostly Jazz-Ska, played with vigor and potency. There
are new tracks, old hits from the past, and some covers. It's
all arranged and produced by the inexhaustible
Certainly a CD you'll want to posses. Recorded, as
usual, in typically direct Skatalites
Respecting the sound achieved with Skavoovee, in 1994
Tommy produced the "30th anniversary recording", the excellent
"Hi Bop Ska", on the same label and with more special guests.
If "Skaoovie" was totally instrumental, "Hi Bop Ska" contains
four vocal cuts, two from Doreen Shaffer and one each from
Prince Buster and Toots Hibbert (of the Maytals).
years, the superb "Split Personality" by Toots and the
Skatalites has been at the top of my personal Ska hit parade
Also extremely interesting is the track
written by Tommy called "Burru Style", which features Lloyd
Knibb, and underlines the attachment of this saxophone player,
and this drummer, to the ancient rhythms coming from
The latest McCook recording, a third CD on
Shanachie, is titled "Greetings From Skamania" and also
features vocals by Doreen Shaffer and more highly animated
instrumentals. The arrangements and particularly the
adaptations made by Tommy of two Jazz standards, "I Wish You
Love" and "Have A Good Time", are brilliant. The last two CD's
received Grammy nominations for Best Reggae
It is my opinion [Sergio] that
comparisons between these recordings and what Tommy, and all
the other Skatalites, made in the '60 are not valid. The
technological evolution doesn't permit it, and common sense
doesn't either. Regardless, Tommy McCook music is always
splendid. His very recognizable sound undoubtedly had an
important role for a period of twenty or so years in
Though he played with different musicians over the
years, from The Skatalites with Lloyd Knibb and Lloyd Brevett
to The Supersonics with Hugh Malcolm, Jackie Jackson and
Vincent "Don Drummond Jr." Gordon on trombone to the
Aggravators with Robbie Shakespeare and Santa Davis, the sax
of Tommy McCook was accompanied during his fifty year musical
career, by all the best musicians that Jamaica has
The sensitivity and the different feelings each
musician brought out is what fixes the
the music of one period and the music of another period, even
from the same artist.
We will miss Tommy; we will miss
him a lot. I feel a sympathy toward Tommy [Sergio],
as with the other artists which I never had the pleasure to
encounter. Not just for his music, which I adore, and it's
keeped in his recordings, but for his face nicely smiling, and
because I have the idea, as maybe someone else might who is
now reading this, that very high Jamaican gentlemen, was a
warm person, someone who writes, in the back sleeve of "Hi-bop
Ska", that, after having thanked God for having driven and
sustained him through all the years, writes to all his
colleagues and friends; "To my loved ones, I say thank you for
standing beside me with your Love, Care and Devotion, for
without love I am nothing".
Welcoming him in the Sky, there
were Bob and Peter, Jackie Mittoo, Baba Brooks, the Don, "Ska"
Campbell, Jackie Opel, Winston Wright, and Count Ossie, to
begin the longest Ska and Reggy jam session ever.
love, love and peace, Tommy! from Sergio
Yes, much love to
TMac from Brian