In the early 1960s, Jamaican producers such as Leslie Kong, Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd and Duke Reid created a new sound to replace American R&B acts. The new sound drew on R&B, rock & roll, swing, jazz, calypso and even European ballroom music. When Jamaican folk or ‘mento’ rhythms were added with the distinctive banjo twang, ska was born.
Pioneers included Prince Buster, Don Drummond and Desmond Dekker; the first two were purveyors of ska instrumentals while Dekker created such classic vocal tracks as The Israelites (UK #1 in 1969). Rounding off the original ska quartet was Derrick Morgan, a teen star who became a rude boy icon.
Ska acts were prolific musicians. Drummond wrote 300 tracks in his brief five-year career until he was gunned down by the family of Marguerita Mahfood, his former girlfriend whom, they believed, he had killed. But then in Jamaica and in Britain alike, ska fans seemed eager to buy every track by their heroes. This did not apply in the US, although Dekker did make the Top 10 with The Israelites.
The battle between producer Prince Buster and Leslie Kong (the elder statesman of ska) helped define the genre. In 1963 Buster’s protégé Derrick Morgan defected to his old cohort Kong and ‘borrowed’ an instrumental break from one of Buster’s songs for his first Kong release.
A series of records followed, including Blackhead Chinaman, as renowned for their magnetic beats as their scathing lyrics. The battle boiled over in 1966 as rocksteady and the rude boy culture emerged.
Morgan/Kong’s hit Tougher Than Tough told the tale of four rude boys on trial for violent crimes, yet let off by a lenient, unnamed judge. The song began a furious war of words, with Buster releasing Judge Dread, the magistrate sending the same boys down for centuries.
Judge Dread spawned a host of courtroom soap-style tracks, culminating in Buster’s The Barrister (credited to The Appeal). The barrister’s judgement even made national news, but Morgan had the last word: in Judge Dread In Court the notorious magistrate is jailed for impersonating a judge!
Founded in 1959 by Jamaican native Chris Blackwell, Island records captured the sound of ska as it emerged into a distinct form. In 1962, Blackwell and Island moved to London and began catering to the immigrant community in Britain’s large cities.
My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small became an international hit in 1964, exposing ska to more people than ever and catapulting Island into the big time.
During the 1970s reggae superseded ska in Jamaica, but ska had garnered enough of a following in the UK to inspire a wave of ska-inspired hit-making acts in the late 70s/early 80s. Madness and The Specials combined ska’s dance beat with the energy of punk to spearhead a very popular ska revival.