In the 1950's sound systems became the principal medium of popular entertainment on
Jamaica. Sir Coxsone's Downbeat, Duke Reid the Trojan, King Edwards The Giant
and Prince Buster's Voice of the People, and dozen of smaller 'sets' blasted out music
in clubs, on the beach, on downtown street corners, in fact anywhere that there was an
audience. The music that they played was principally American Rhythm and Blues.
Artists like Louis Jordan, Shirley & Lee and Fats Domino were all the rage. Very
popular was also Rosco Gordon, the Memphis-based singer/pianist who played in a
'back to front' style -stressing the second and fourth beats of each bar - and who
played live shows in Kingston about this time.
The vast majority of records produced in Jamaica itself since the late 1950's were
American R&B covers. What set Jamaican R&B apart from its American models was
in part its incorporation of elements from indigenous traditions, like mento, rastafarian
drumming, gospel, pocomania and even calypso. These ingredients were further
cooked by musicians for the most part well-schooled in US swing and bepop
improvisations. The musicians were capable of spinning the mix further with Latin
touches from elsewhere in the Caribbean. Gradually, the second and fourth beats of
each bar were stressed more and more. Ska was born.
So Ska obviously had American roots. The later rocksteady singing style also
undoubtly had its roots in the USA. The influence of groups like The Drifters and
Impressions on, for example, the Wailers, the Uniques and the Techniques, is clearly
In its turn, Jamaican music did reach the States. In 1964 Byron Lee & the Dragonaires
were selected as a house band for the most ambitious attempt yet to draw Jamaican
music onto the world stage. Future prime minister Edward Seaga arranged for ska to
have a presence at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, with sets from Jimmy Cliff,
Prince Buster, Millie Small, Monty Morris and the Blues Busters. The excursion was no
success. Much criticism has since been levelled at the choice of Byron Lee & the
Dragonaires over the Skatalites. Many admit that the Dragonaires could play ska, but
that they did not live it. Besides, there seemed to be cultural differences between the
'uptown' Lee and co and some of their 'downtown' tourmates.
The Dragonaires released an album in the USA, on Atlantic, entitled Jamaica Ska. A
great album, but it did not sell well. It was not the first attempt to take Jamaican music
to the USA market. In the five years previously, the Jiving Juniors (who recorded in
New York), Higgs & Wilson and Laurel Aitken had all been released there. After
Jamaica Ska Epic Records put out The Real Jamaica Ska, a compilation LP
co-produced by Curtis Mayfield. An often critisised album, very unjustly in my view.
Capitol went with the Blues Busters and Time, MGM and Atlantic released numerous
other ska singles. But, outside of Millie Small's 'My Boy Lollipop', ska failed to gain a
foothold in the States.
In the mid 1960's King records, a label that had been very successful with R&B and
soul, wanted the American rights to Prince Buster's entire catalogue. The company
was making moves to aquire it on the recommendation of soul legend James Brown,
far and away King's star act, who had been turned on to Buster during a visit to
Jamaica. However, King and United Artist could not agree on the publishing. There
were also rumours that the Maytals would sign for Atlantic, but these were never
Interestingly, in 1967 Prince Buster had his first (and only) American hit. The four year
old 'Ten Commandments Of Man' (on Philips) spent some weeks in the charts. Buster
himself was critical on the 'ska thing' in the USA. On the back of the sleeve of his Pain
In My Belly album he wrote that 'too many imitators were following up with a phoney
ska style which sounded more like the old-time twist then the real thing.' Also, Prince
Buster claims there never really was a dance called ska. In Chang & Chen's Reggae
Routes Buster says: 'The proper dance in Jamaica to ska music was the bebop
dance, push and spin, and natural Jamaican things like flashin [snapping] the fingers
and pickup moves from Pocomania and mento.' Jimmy Cliff concurs: 'It was just a
bunch of businessmen coming together to exploit it. Ska was never a dance, just
With those 'businessmen' Cliff is probably referring to Byron Lee. Lee admitted true
ska was not a dance at first. 'When we went to the World's Fair there were dances all
over the place. The Twist, Mashed Potato, Cha Cha Cha, plenty of them. In order to
compete and sell our product, we Jamaicans had to have a dance too. That really is
how the ska came about. In a sense it was Jamaica Twist.' Not only ska, but later also
rocksteady was presented as a dance. Not only by Byron Lee, but also by other artists.
The breakthrough for reggae in the USA came with Desmond Dekker's Israelites, that
in 1969 became a number ten hit. Sporadically, Americans started to play reggae.
After Paul Simon had heard Jimmy Cliff's 'Vietnam', he travelled to Kingston and
booked the same rhythm section, studio (Dynamic) and engineer (Leslie Kong) to
record the fine 'Mother And Child Reunion' - arguably the first white US reggae song
(1971). A year later, the movie The Harder They Come did much to introduce the
history of reggae to the USA.
Willie Dickson And The Playboys
Emperror Rosko/Michael Pasternak
Bobby Jay And The Hawks
Billy Strange/Lloyd Thaxton