Tommy McCook was born in 1927 in Havana, Cuba though his family was Jamaican. The McCook family returned to Jamaica in 1933. Five years later, at the age of 11, Tommy started attending the Alpha School for boys which was a Catholic school for the poorer kids, and troublesome kids. In the book "Roots Rock Reggae" by Chuck Foster, Tommy says this on why he attended the school: "I grew up without a father, and it was tough on my mom. I attended the school because of that and to learn music". The Alpha school is renowned for being the place of musical education for an overwhelming amount of talent in Jamaican music.
Tommy started learning the tenor sax at the school eventually graduating into the Eric Deans Orchestra in 1943 playing the hotel circuit in Jamaica's north coast tourist spots. Happily playing jazz throughout the 40s, Tommy left Jamaica in 1952 to play jazz in the USA.
When he returned to JA in 1962, he formed a small group and started playing jazz at various clubs when the offers started coming. Producer for the Studio One label, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd approached Tommy to form a ska band, ska being the hit sound in Jamaica at the time. Soon other producers were asking and each time, Tommy turned them down, devoting himself to jazz and jazz only. It wasnt until about a year later that Tommy finally gave in after recorded one of his first ska songs, "Exodus" for Dodd in 1963. The Skatalites were born in 1964
Consisting of the islands top musicians, The Skatalites would go one to become one of the most prolific (and prolifically good) studio bands in Jamaicas musical history. The line up was as follows: Tommy McCook (Tenor Sax), Roland Alphonso (Tenor Sax), Lester Sterling (Alto Sax), Don Drummond (Trombone), Johnny "Dizzy" Moore (Trumpet), Lloyd Brevitt (Bass), Lloyd Knibb (Drums), "Jah" Jerry Hines (Guitar) and Jackie Mittoo (Pianos). The group was used not only to back up the leading singers of the day (they are the ones providing the backing for Bob Marleys first songs as the Wailers) they also have released a countless number of singles for practically every producer of note during the ska years in Jamaican music.
This heyday would prove not to last long though, in the fall of 1965, just a year after the groups formation, the groups trombonist Don Drummond murded his girlfriend by stabbing her. He ended up being sentenced to the Bellevue mental institution where he later died in 1969. After that, there was no trust of the people backing the band and so they ended up calling it a day a few months later.
About a year later, ska was out of fashion among the Jamaican public and the new sound, Rocksteady, was all around. After the split, 2 new groups were formed from the ashes of the Skatalites. One, led by Roland Alphonso and Jackie Mittoo at Coxsones Studio One called themselves The Soul Venders. The other group, led by Tommy McCook went to the rival Duke Reid and called themselves the Supersonics. The Supersonics were incredibly smooth and soulful with instrumentals that sounded as if they were recorded at Stax in Memphis rather than the Treasure Isle studio in Kingston. From Tommy McCooks latin jazz solos to guitarist Ernest Ranglins brilliant guitar licks, The Supersonics stood for the soulful, more mature sound that rocksteady was going for.
As rocksteady gave way to Reggae, Tommy returned to freelance work recording with every producer from Bunny Lee to Joe Gibbs. He recorded many roots era records playing on hits with The Aggrovators songs "MPLA" and "Angola" at the famous Channel 1 studio. In 1975, Tommy McCook was awarded the Order of Distinction or OD by the Jamaican government for his contribution to Jamaicas musical heritage.
In 1983 at the famous Reggae Sunsplash festival, Tommy McCook reformed the Skatalites for what looked like the beginning of a new era for the oldies group. Later they relocated to America and released albums like "Return of the Big Guns" and "Ska-Voovie" to major success. Since then the tours and albums have never stopped and the Skatalites of today have lasted much much longer that the Skatalites of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the world was given a huge blow on May 5 1998 when McCook, who had been suffering from heart problems for a few years previously, had a heart attack and passed away. Tommy leaves his wife Iris and stepson Andrew Davis, and eight children; Donovan, Stanley, Tyrone, Janet, Colleen, Donna, Regina and June, and twelve grandchildren, plus his enormous legacy of music.
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