Johnny, tell me how you started out to be a musician
Well, it’s a long story. That’s from my early childhood days. I grew up in a home where there was some music there. But, according to the folks it wasn’t for me to be a part of. So I wound up in Alpha Boys School where I learnt to play some music and I took it from there you know?
How did you end up in Alpha School For Boys?
Well, I had to pull a couple of pranks. My folks wasn’t the type who would have liked to dump their kids there y’know? So I had to pull a couple of pranks so that they figure I was going haywire.
You did it on purpose?
Yes, because I had to learn the music and ever since I was a kid I told them hey I didn’t want to do any’ting else. I used to like use the leaf of the pumpkin and make like flutes, papaya stalks that kind of stuff there and combs, sardine cans with elastics, anything that would make a sound.
How did you know the Alpha School was the place to go?
Funny. I seen some kid next door to me. Beating off a mean drum. I say “bwoy, where did you learn to do that?” And he said “Alpha”. I said “where is that”. He says “you can’t go there”, coz my folks they weren’t the worst off. They weren’t the type of people, were Seventh Day Adventists, they don’t go with the Roman Catholic sentiment of things anyway, y’know? I says “whoah, I got to get to that place”. Like I said, I had to pull a couple of pranks (laughs).
But, the nuns at Alpha didn’t encourage you playing popular music?
Well, I wouldn’t say that. Because at one stage in the school there was a dance band there. Guys pulled from the regular band and they had a little dance group going. So I wouldn’t say that.
What sort of training did you receive at Alpha School?
Well some academical training and the music. I even went into the electronical field, but, that wasn’t me you know? I got a prize one time as the best electronic engineer. We were studying some type of thing from Bennett’s College in Britain. But, I was a bit upset because I wanted the prize for music (laughs). I never got it.
Well you had a lot of competition because out of Alpha came a whole generation of great especially horn players.
Yes, that is very much so. Some good musicians come from the institution. We had a very good tutor. His name was Reuben (sic) Delberry [Reuben Delgado], he was very good. I think he learnt his music at Kneller Hall at Britain. He was very good.
I guess you got to an age when you had to leave Alpha School. What happened then?
I left and I didn’t get a job as a musician right away. I applied to the Gleaner company as a liner type operator. I did a little printing at school also y’know? But, one day the postman came in and there was two mails. One from the Jamaica Military Band and one from Gleaner company (laughs). So you know what happen. You can just imagine what happen there.
The Gleaner company of course is the main newspaper in Kingston
Yeah, well that one, I threw that one away. Because the Jamaica Military Band was right up my line. That was music y’know?
How long did you spend in the military band?
Maybe about three years and eight months. But, I got kicked out ‘coz I was messin’ around Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that sort of stuff and they tell me “hey that’s not what we pay you for”. I was still into that. When I should have been practicing like Beethoven and Bach I was working on Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
What was your first band after the military band?
Oh. First band. Well, while I was in the military band I used to play around with one Stanley Edgar. But, after the military band I wound up with Mapletoft Poulle. He was kind of one of the society top bands y’know? Some lawyer by the name of Poulle. I played around for some time until my hair start going too long and he figure its time for me to get a haircut. I say “uh uh”. No more cutting.
Were you a rasta then?
Well, I always was a rasta. I was in love with rastafari from my early childhood days. But, it started coming out now. That was part of the problem in the military band too, like I refuse to shave and that sort of thing. At that time in the military you had to be clean shaven y’know? I can remember one day (laughs), the sergeant booked me for being "dirty on parade". For being unshaven. So he called the corporal and says “corporal book him”. The corporal took out his notebook and pen, started writing. But, something hit me. I said “hey serge, can I ask you a question?”. “oh yes ”. “you’re a Christian man sir?”. “yes I am”. “you believe in the lord god Jesus Christ?”. “yes of course I do”. I said “your god nastier than me. Same beard, longer than mine”. And the whole parade cracked up. (laughs). Everybody started laughing. I ran in a lot of trouble inside there y’know? Being who I am really.
Was there a lot of work for you even after you left the dance band?
After I left Mapletoft Poulle things were not all that rosy. Because in that time nobody catered to rastas y’know? Rastas were like outcasts in society. Even your very folks would try to get you out of sight y’know? So I went with my bredren some. We used to play around with Count Ossie with the drum and music and entertain ourselves and whoever wanted to could come and listen.
Was that in the Wareika Hills?
You must have come down at one time because then you were a member of The Skatalites?
Yes. Well, eventually. Wha’appen is that. When the hunger for the music really start eating away at me, I decide to check on Coxsone. Suggested to him that could make some local music rather than going to the states every so often to buy some music. Well at first he thought I was a bit crazy coz there was all those great pop musicians in America. Great musicians in general. He thought I was a nut trying to make some music that could send up against that American art form y’know.
At that time the only music being played on the island was imported American R&B?
Yes. Very much so.
Was American jazz very popular as well?
Yes. Jazz was very popular in Jamaica coz at that time most of the nightclubs used to have a lot of jazz. I at one time used to run gig around sometimes. I didn’t really play too much of that. The times kind of change.
It always appeared to me that the audience of the early days of the late 50s wanted to hear R&B. Wanted to hear Louis Jordan, Rosco Gordon, Fats Domino sort of thing. But, all the horn players really wanted to play jazz. I wouldn’t put it like that. You have the people downtown and the people uptown. People uptown want to cater more to the jazz form. The ones downtown looking more to the R&B portion of things y’know?
So your sets would change significantly depending upon where you were playing?
How did you actually hook up with The Skatalites?
Well, The Skatalites came out of the studio. Studio players. What we did was to pick some from… pick the better players from those that work in the studio. There was a group. The Cavaliers. The Cavaliers fell apart and we decided to on putting The Skatalites together.
Just go through the original members of The Skatalites for me.
We have Jackie Mittoo. Lloyd Brevett, bass. Mittoo keyboards, Brevett bass. Knibbs, Lloyd drums. Well the guitar was like Jah Jerry sometime. Sometimes a kid by the name of Harold Mackenzie. And there’s two other guys that happen along, I can recall their names, that would construct the rhythm section. The horns we had Mccook, Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond and myself. There was a second trumpet player that sit in with us most of the time by the name of Dillon [Percival "Rupert" Dillon]. I don’t know where he is. I haven’t heard from him for a very long time. That would put the horn section together. We also had a large vocal section. We had Jackie Opel, Lord Tanamo, Tony De Costa, Doreen Shaffer. We had a show band that if we had a show in the theatre we didn’t have to hire no-one from outside.
You seemed to be a bit of a misfit and Don Drummond had personal…
Yeah well, Drummond was on a pedestal by himself in more ways than one. Some people figure he was a bit crazy. Too me he was just highly emotional. Most musicians that are go in the music as deep as he did was often thought of as being not too straight in the head y’know? As the music it demands a very strong level of concentration. The way he went into it he might have done it intensively you know? Very intense his things. Some people think he was crazy.
Did other people recognise his greatness at the time or is it only since I tell you something. What they got on record as ska is not really the better part of Drummond. He was a very good trombone player, a very good musician. What they got as ska was after he got kind of disoriented. He was an inventive musician and Jamaica is not much of an inventive country. If you invent, people tend to say "nobody don’t know dat”. They like cover versions of things. Things like they import and they have heard already. He was very inventive. So he wound up in the hills like myself you know? And the ska enabled him to re-establish himself in the musical field. He was a much much better trombone player than what you here on records. What you here on records is some watered-down stuff. Coxsone sometimes complain when music too smooth or classical or too much jazz you know? Coz I guess they were looking for something with a different shade y’know. A different shade of black they call it, or green or whatever.
There have been few bands who have dominated the music scene in a country like The Skatalites did in the early and mid-sixties. I mean you only existed for about two years but during that time you were on everything, you were everywhere. It seemed like you couldn’t do any wrong. What was it like being part of that
Oh it was fun. We used to have a heck of a time. Go to the country and things like that and play for different parties, some balls and things. We used to have a great time y’know? It’s just a pity that we couldn’t have stayed together much longer.
Was it the death of Don Drummond that broke up the group?
No I wouldn’t say that. After Drummond passed off, after he got incarcerated that last time, we used to function just the same without him. There were trombone players that we could have drawn for. That could have filled the space. Maybe not like Donald could, but, we could have went on minus Donald and the show would have went on you know?
Of course he was locked up first wasn’t he?
Yes. Most of the times we play he was not there anyway. But, when he was there, his presence was known y’know? He would be outstanding.
So he was a bit unreliable?
No not unreliable. There was times when he would go through that emotional thing whereby he would like sit it out and wouldn’t want to play you know?
Tell us about the day when it all fell apart, The Skatalites.
Well, it’s a bit difficult. The leader figure he could have got a job with someone else. So it wasn’t necessary for him to be a part of that aggregation.
Is that Tommy McCook?
Yeah. But, what happen is that I guess we were a bit short-sighted ourselves. We should have done is allow tommy to go and leave and keep on with what we were doing. I know that eventually tommy was going to come back. But, everybody was so upset from seeing the leader making statements like that you know? So some went back to Coxsone and whole thing fell apart.
Was there much jealousy? I mean you’ve got all these great horn players. I’m thinking between Roland, Tommy yourself… I wanna tell you. The only problem might have been between Roland and Tommy. The rest of us were getting along quire fine. Myself and Roland would getting along well. Sterling. We had our differences, but, it didn’t get in the way of the music.
When The Skatalites broke off Roland went and joined Coxsone?
He didn’t went and join Coxsone. We all used to work for, work with Coxsone in the studio one.
Tommy took off and worked primarily with…
Duke Reid. Yeah. Coz me said he could have got a job with china man. He found at that china man was really Kes Chin. Coz I went to England with the soul vendors. Myself, Roland, Brevett, Jackie Mittoo from The Skatalites. We went to England. Coming back I went and joined The Supersonics the same band that Tommy had. Worked with Kes Chin some and worked with Treasure Isle studio.
So you worked with both outfits?
In the rocksteady days it seemed to be a progression. Where ska was dominated by the horns, at the beginning of rock steady again there were nice horns laying down melodies, but they began to disappear from the sound.
Yeah. When we came back from England, the whole thing fell apart then. Coz I left the group and went with Tommy so that stable lost something. Because I was one of the major players there. I went to Supersonics. Now Supersonics had a nice horn section if you listen to most of Duke Reid’s stuff you’ll hear a lot of horns playing.
So do you think it was at Studio One where he began to peel back the horns and everything followed?
Yeah. Well. As I said Supersonics used to use a lot of horns. We went to Canada and again The Supersonics fell apart. I guess that was it. The horn players were missing for some and they had to go on so the continued with what they had.
As rocksteady became reggae did you find you had as much work as a horn player?
Yes. I didn’t have a problem there coz how I see it is that Coxsone’s stable was the producer of rocksteady. The reggae, in my opinion, came out of Duke Reid’s stable. Coz the reggae was a bit more on the mento jazz side. The rocksteady didn’t have that much mento or jazz in it. Duke Reid was a person that was in love with the mento. He used to sing a lot of mento bass lines. That contributed a lot to that reggae thing.
What do you think was the greatest recording session that you played at? Which song perhaps?
So many songs its hard to really say which is the best. I like some things special. I like Ringo. We did that tune for Yap. Phillip yap. The Skatalites did that for Phillip Yap. I like Man In The Street. Earlier tunes I like Schooling The Duke. Lot of tunes. It’s hard to remember all of them now.
Could you have imagined back then in the sixties that you would become such a legend now and that you would still have work and that ska would still be so popular and in other parts of the world?
Well if I am to be truthful, I, as an individual, was looking forward to something like that.