The Race To The Death (From My 5 Years With The Skatalites)

Was inspired by reaction I got from my post on Tooting My Horn For Toots and a little dialog I was having on my favorite writers, Michael Masnick of Techdirt’s blog. Here is ons of the stories I remember from my five years working with the Skatalites as their A&R person at Shanachie, one which I have heard told back to me a few times. It has become a legend in the ska world/

After making that “Hi Bop Ska,” I was hired by Shanachie and soon promoted to A&R and was assigned to A&R and assistant produce the Skatalites, who I was product managing as soon as I was hired there in 1994, new album. The album, which I got to title and design the cover was the 1996 Grammy nominated “Greetings From Skamania.”

Anyway, it was the traditional stressful record, but by now we were used to the constant fighting amongst members, the ganja smoking, late starts (way on Jamaica Time), the sketchy hangers on, the shoddy studio and equipment problems, lack of money and I can go on.

After the third day of tracking, Skatalite saxophonist and co-founder, Roland Alphonso, went on strike. He simply put his sax down on the couch and walked out of the studio – something about not getting his per diem – he didn’t remember or understand that I paid him his per diem in advance as a condition of his paying on the record. Didn’t matter, to him, Tommy McCook was refusing to pay him. We got things cooled out, recorded some basic tracks and Steve Turre came up tp play on the record. I love Turre and he always refused to be paid for recording with the Skatalites – it was such an honor to him to ‘sit in the Don Drummond chair’ that he couldn’t take their money.

At the end of the session, the band loaded up into the van and drove back to the hotel and we spent the rest of the night doing edits and some board mixes. We were felling better and the next day’s session was called for 1pm (Jamaica time = 6PM)

Anyway, around 6:15, I was outside the studio with the assistant engineer having a cigarette when the van pulled up. Nathan Breedlove, the de facto leader of the band now that Tommy was sick (he had a heart attack the previous year and stopped touring) and the rest of the band didn’t want or could handle the job, got out and was shaking his head. I asked what was wrong and he just said “it’s bad, Charlie – you got to get in there and talk to Tommy and Rollie. They both refuse to record.”

As I got into the van, both were on the most opposite sides as you could get – suddenly the thick silence was cut before I could say anything and the following transpired (in thick Jamaican accents so this is my translation):

Roland to Tommy: “God took your heart.” (referring to Tommy’s heart attack and surgery a few months earlier)
Tommy to Roland: “Blood clot – you a crippled old buzzard.” (referring to the fact that Roland had two major strokes and his hands were crippled, don’t you dare ask about what Blood clot means, it isn’t an embolism believe me).
Rollie: “I challenge you a race to the death – we start running now and the first one to drop dead loses.”

So the two got up out of their seats and began to prepare for a race down the streets of upper class, suburban Bronxville, NY, the winner would be the one who didn’t drop dead. What that would resolve, I have no idea, but man was I freaking out. As much as I would have liked to draw a line (3:5 odds on Rollie) and be the official starter, I thought it wouldn’t be good for the record. So, me, Nathan and a few others got the two separated, calmed and separated.

The funny things was, an hour later, they were both in the studio recording like nothing had ever happened. Best observation was from Joe Ferry right before we made the second record “These guys been fighting for 30 years, ain’t nothing we are going to do to stop it. It is the way they work”

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2 Responses to The Race To The Death (From My 5 Years With The Skatalites)

  1. I’m glad this incident is documented because it was 10 times as surreal as Charlie describes. On the way to the studio I put on a tape of John Coltrane(thinking this would chill Tommy and Roland out since they both loved Trane) and as the argument increased in vehemence I gradually increased the volume of the music. Charlie left out the showdown in the studio afterwards when Tommy was on the phone with Randall Grass(label head) telling him that the Skatalites were finished as an entity. Randall simply said, “put Nathan on the phone.” I put Lester Sterling in between Tommy and Roland and convinced them to finish the recording. My relationship with Tommy afterwards was never the same…Nathan Breedlove

  2. dahancb says:

    OMG – that is right – Randy then called me asked for a progress report – I told him we had ten good ones in the can with overdubs or easy fixes including the key tracks – El Pussycat and Phoenix City and he said ” It is OK to Punt.” But, we got it settled down and got the rest over the next two days. Nathsn, I am going to write the Grammy Awards story with Roland next.

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