Keyboardist and Boston native Ken Stewart (at the top of the stairs in the photo above) has been playing with ska pioneers The Skatalites since the 1980s. He’s also been serving as their manager. I’ve been fortunate enough to see this act a few times now and he’s been helping to deliver the ska sound both in the studio and on stage since his joining.
I recently–and in fact almost missed it–listened to his interview with GO FEET! Radio, a ska and reggae radio show and podcast out of New Zealand. Among other things, he sheds some light on the bands origins. I don’t consider myself a ska historian by any means, but I’ve certainly tried to do my homework. Skatalites mythology has always included the notion that they were the studio backing band for many artists of their era, not unlike the Funk Brothers, the collective of session musicians that performed on Motown Records hits in the 1960s. In the interview, Ken vehemently argues that this was not the case. Ken states that they were in fact the musicians (and not the only musicians) who played on hits prior to the bands founding in 1964, but that band was not known as the Skatalites. The founding members built this new band for the purpose of live performance, hand-picking the personnel from this cadre of session musicians. It’s a small distinction, but it’s an important one.
The other tidbit was the origin of the band’s name. I had always taken for granted that they were not only the creators of a sound, but the initiators of a long tradition of names that are portmanteaus of the word ska, and some other word (we keep calling them puns and I’m pretty sure that’s not how puns work). To hear Ken tell it, there was also more to this. Being the late 50s and 60s, the Atomic Age (think The Jetsons) was very much the zeitgeist. He references peer bands with names like the jets and the comets. They were leaning towards The Satellites and for one member, it was obvious to put the word ska in front.
It’s a long-ish interview and Ken seems a bit worn out from travel, but there’s some good stuff in there. Listen to the interview at Musical Occupation, home to many ska podcasts, to include one of my favorites, GO FEET! Radio.
The Skatalites – “Latin Goes Ska” – Live, Prague, 2014