Studio One at the Birth of Roots Reggae
By David Katz
The official opening of Studio One in late 1963 gave Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd a massive edge over the competition. Now that he had a recording studio of his own, he did not need to waste time and money booking recording sessions elsewhere, and could concentrate on discovering and auditioning new talent, and capturing the resultant fresh works on magnetic tape. The musicians of the Skatalites were key to the emerging sound, as was keyboardist and arranger Jackie Mittoo, as well as talent scouts and auditioning supervisors such as Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and BB Seaton of the Gaylads, all of whom performed important roles for Dodd at the new facility.
Between 1963-66, Dodd enjoyed an incredible run of hits with Bob Marley and the Wailers, who burst onto the scene with “Simmer Down” in mid-1964, as well as Toots and the Maytals, visiting Barbadian soul star Jackie Opel, and Jamaica’s first child star, Delroy Wilson, among many others. In the instrumental plane, the Skatalites also continued to score numerous hits at Studio One, though their official formation did not occur until June 1964, and their reign would prove all too short, since the murder of the rumba dancer Anita Mahfood by trombonist Don Drummond brought about his permanent incarceration, bringing the group to a premature end.
In the aftermath of the Skatalites’ terrible demise, saxophonist Tommy McCook defected to Duke Reid’s camp, becoming the bandleader and arranger of the Supersonics, the house band at Reid’s Treasure Isle studio, just as the new rock steady style supplanted ska’s popularity. Reid had been in Coxsone’s shadow during the ska phase, but McCook reversed his fortunes in rock steady; although Dodd enjoyed hits in the form by the Wailers, Ken Boothe and the Ethiopians, the era’s most popular rock steady was issued by Reid. And when reggae subsequently emerged in late 1968 as a fast-paced dance music based on a wild organ shuffle, the initial spoils were taken by Dodd’s former employees, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Clancy Eccles, and other upstart ghetto promoters, such as Bunny Lee.
But Dodd was never one to linger in the shadows for long. In 1969, he began working with previously unknown acts, such as Burning Spear and the Abyssinians, who began directly addressing social issues from a Rastafari perspective, yearning for an African homeland and questioning the social inequalities of Jamaica and the wider Western Hemisphere, while making explicit their belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie for the very first time in recorded history. The new roots reggae sub-genre was thus spawned at Studio One, which would be central to the creation and dissemination of the form during the 1970s.