Lloyd Brevett interview
The Skatalites form the backbone of Jamaican popular music. They strongly influenced a coming generation of musicians by creating original rhythms of a very high standard, and giving the island, and the world, its own identifiable sound. The engine of the band, which formed in 1964, was Lloyd Knibb on drums and Lloyd Brevett, the subject of this article, on upright bass. Steeped in mento, jazz and R&B, they put all of this into their own melting pot and out came the shuffling sound of ska which gave a start to the Jamaican record industry; a productivity which hadn’t been the same before and wouldn’t be the same thereafter. By the 1970s it was widely looked upon as the third largest in the world, and the Skatalites was the foundation of it all.
THE ALMIGHTY BASSLINE
Lloyd Brevett was born into a musical family. His father played bass in jazz groups when Lloyd was a youth, but became himself a master of the instrument and began his career playing in various jazz outfits in Kingston. Over the past few years several of the later Skatalites recordings led by Lloyd, such as the ‘African Roots’ album, originally a mid seventies LP on Tropical Soundtracs, has turned up on British releases, even a dub project mixed by the late and great King Tubby. Brevett is no longer a permanent member of the group, and some of the reasons why is discussed in this interview. My thanks to Lloyd, Ken Stewart, Carlton Hines, Tim P, Donovan Phillips, David Corio, and Steve Barrow.
If we go back to where it began for you, you grew up in Kingston?
Yeah, I’m born in Kingston.
I birth in Jones Town, at the time it was called Jones Town. It don’t really adjoin to Trench Town, it was off Trench Town… Yes! Trench Town is adjoinin’ to Jones Town, right.
I think you have mentioned somewhere that your father played jazz in a big band at some point?
My daddy is about the first man that start to play bass, upright bass, in Jamaica. He played jazz, and at that time… Yeah, he play jazz, a little jazz, but at that time you have different, different little band, y’know. They play the jazz songs.
Yeah, yeah, mento and rumba, those type a music, calypso, and they played a few jazz tunes.
So your father was the one who taught you the bass?
Yeah. And he taught me to make bass too!
(Chuckles) Oh, so you practically built your first bass?
(Chuckles) Yeah, an’ my daddy build his bass, make his bass, the one he played with.
What was appealing about the bass then?
Well, at the time when I was learnin’ to play bass, I never really much attracted to bass, I was attracted to drums. Yeah, I did like drums. When I start to play bass I was at some place that they called Coney Island, there my dad used to play. And when I learn to play the bass, my dad always take me there and let me hold the bass, I never get the time fe play the drums. And Lloyd Knibbs at that time, he was learnin’ to play the drum, and the man that used to play the drum he always guide me to play the drum too. He used to make my dad learn the drum also.
So that’s where the first encounter with Knibb was. I thought you met at Alpha (Boys School) for some reason.
No, Lloyd Knibbs wasn’t at Alpha Boys School. Lloyd Knibbs was in his boy days at some Catholic people, they have a church round deh. That’s how I know him.
So none of you went to Alpha.
No, I don’t go Alpha, I didn’t go to Alpha. My dad taught me to play bass.
Did you get to play with the Eric Deans Orchestra in the mid fifties as well?
I played all the jazz groups dem in Jamaica, Eric Deans, and man come there without bass. An Australian group (possibly the Caribs) come there without bass. There was a few jazz band but they couldn’t get a bass man to fit in with them. ‘Cause they call up some guy but they couldn’t get him to fit in, they wouldn’t consider that guy, and I heard about it while I was with Lord Fly’s band. I heard about that they needed a bass player, and I go up there, the Glass Bucket Club in Half Way Tree, that’s where them come fe play. They couldn’t get a bass player, so I passed through. And someone there knew me, they call me to him, a guy name Sonny Bradshaw.
Right, he had an orchestra at the time.
Yeah, and they called me and I fit that test. They play a tune, a jazz tune, and right there so I fit in with that band and I stay a couple of years with them. Then I start to do studio work, with Tommy McCook and some other guys, Don Drummonds, and there we start the Skatalites. Lloyd Knibbs wasn’t – when we start the Skatalites, Lloyd Knibbs wasn’t there, he was on a ship, y’know. So we start with some other guy on drums that I couldn’t even remember now…
Drumbago (Arkland Parks)?
No, not Drumbago, Drumbago wouldn’t fit in too much. He never really round there among us. But then the Skatalites start in ’62.
How did the formation of the group come about in the first place?
Well, at Studio, y’know, Studio One. We was workin’ together and so the group formed. Tommy McCook was the leader. There was Roland Alphonso, Don Drummonds, so we was very good in the studio making the tune dem. Ca’ the people around Jamaica want to know the band that really make these tunes, we decide to form up the group, I and Tommy, Lloyd Knibbs was there, we name the group the Skatalites – Tommy McCook really name the band, ‘The Skatalites’.
It was Tommy?
Yeah. It was a ska this and the sound seh ‘ska’, and Tommy McCook come up with the name, ‘Skatalites’. We move on from there. The band jus’ stay together for a year (actually circa two years as a recording outfit). Johnny Moore, me and Tommy quarrel, so the band break up. We let the band break up. The man from Studio One decide to form a group, he take some of us and decide to form a group with Johnny Moore, me myself, Roland Alphonso. We do a session, and in that session we come up with ‘rock steady’. Yeah, that session change it, the change cut dung the ska to rock steady.
And the same studio.
Studio One. Downbeat, Coxson. And this guy, he write up a tune name ‘Rock Steady’ (chuckles)… what’s his name…?
Alton Ellis, right you are. Yeah. I stay with that band we formed name Soul Vendors, that band there.
But there was a band before that called the Soul Brothers, with Bobby Ellis and a few others. I think they came from the remnants of the Skatalites.
Yeah. That is when we’re going to England. I was with the Soul Brothers, spend a couple of weeks, and then break up again. Then Coxson form it back and name it Soul Vendors. We go to England, when we were in England some dispute come up again, Soul Vendors mash up again, right. The same man dem, yunno, same man dem, Skatalite band dem (chuckles).
So you were a member of the Vendors, I thought that was Brian Atchinson on bass and Joe Isaacs on drums, only.
Yeah, it was when Lloyd Knibbs wasn’t around, the first Skatalites break up and Lloyd Knibbs went to Montego Bay.
During the short time the group was together in its initial years, it must’ve been an overload of work and consequently a very tight schedule and a lot of pressure, with so few really qualified musicians around you were all in demand constantly, and you recorded for not only Studio One but also Top Deck, Randy’s, King Edwards, and so on, if not in the studio working then you probably played in clubs. Is this exaggerated or how could you manage to squeeze in so much work?
Well, we always hit the ball, yunno. Night and day we is at studio, and the studio sometime…
You lived in the studio, huh?
(Laughs) Yeah! You could’ve thought it was that! Yeah man, the Skatalites, the sound, to record the sound, man, the band have a good vibes. Since Tommy come in to the United States, get a lickle group together, him name it Skatalites but it couldn’t be. Only in Jamaica with me and Lloyd Knibbs could he get the right riddim. So then we form back the Skatalites.
But before that though, about Don Drummond’s work with the band, several of the Skatalites tunes was Drummond’s compositions, perhaps more than known.
Well, a lot of the tunes, Don Drummond write them, lot’s of the tune dem. They credit some of our tunes to him, but a lot of the tune was his tune dem.
How do you remember him now?
How I remember him? Well, I know the man so I must remember him. I remember a lot of Don.
How was he, artistically and personally speaking?
Well, he was a quiet brother. When he come to studio he just go by himself and go write a tune or practice until the band ready. He was a man who stay by himself, personally. He was often not – when the band formed he just play at a club that pay three times a week, for not every night him play with we. But Don Drummond is a man that stay by himself more time. And it so happen that I was off the road for a few months, ’bout three months, and they couldn’t get no bass player to fit in during them three months, couldn’t get no bass player to fit in to fill my space. And they try all by Dodd’s, but by that time there was some trouble with Don Drummond, him jus’ sayin’ that him stop playing. How him going to get (inaudible) when he die then now… Him tell them seh him stop play, and tell his girl – she, Margarita, his girl, he told her she must not go to the show. According to what I hear, when he drop asleep she went away to the show – ca’ he stop play. And she went away to the show, he woke up before she came back. When she came back he stab her, she die from that.
Would you say he was that difficult as many have him?
No. You mean like erratic and all that?
No man, him quiet. For him grow like that, him was just a quiet brother. Don Drummond wasn’t a Rasta at all. I am the Rastaman in the band those day. No other Rastaman was in the band.
Still Drummond wrote those Rasta-inspired tunes like ‘Addis Ababa’ and so on.
And you had Jah Jerry.
Jah Jerry was an older man who I would say was, yeah, a Rasta.
Not Knibb and the boys then?
Lloyd Knibbs? A pretty erratic guy, a quibbler when him drink too much rum. Yeah.
Was that a big problem in the band, that most of the members sometimes drank too much?
Well, Tommy, the band leader, him don’t drink at all. I don’t drink a beer an’ all dem t’ing, I don’t drink at all. I drink no strong drink nor smoke cigarette an’ all those kinda t’ings.
How would you describe your style of playing the bass guitar, you set out to create your own identifiable style, or it just happened, it came natural?
Well, everything with the bass I create on my own, it’s coming straight from Jah, the Almighty Jah.
What other bassists did you pay attention to in those days?
Well in those days I listen to the great Leroy ‘Slam’ Stewart and all those type a bass player. Very good. I listened to jazz, and jazz I used to play. All the jazz band dem in Jamaica. From that I start work at the hotel dem every night. All type a music.
Jazz, popular standards, mento, all that stuff.
Yeah, at the hotel, ballad an’ all those t’ings. When I travel I took out my bow. When I workin’ in the hotel I took out my bow to play some nice, soft music. Totlyn Jackson and all those type a singer.
You backed up some of the visiting American acts at the hotels?
Yeah, but I couldn’t remember them names ca’ it is so long, since I working the hotels.
Do you recall any of the more obscure names you backed up for people like (Prince) Buster, a guy called Vernon Allen for example?
Yeah, Vernon Allen?
Right, he cut tunes like ‘Far I Come’ and ‘Babylon’ for Buster.
I do so much music that some of the tunes I couldn’t even remember.
I do a lotta tune with Prince Buster.
There was another one called ‘Bongo Man’ Byfield.
Yeah, I know that guy. Yeah, him a Rasta, the Rasta guy.
What became of those people?
I really couldn’t tell you what happen to them, because from I step out from Jamaica – is twenty year over here now, with Tommy a start up the Skatalite, we’re so far off now.
What about someone like Aubrey Adams, he’s gone now but from I hear very influential in his day.
Aubrey Adams was a good, number one jazz bass player/keyboard player, I play with him all the time.
Hotels and all that.
I think I saw something somewhere that you joined a group before the Skatalites at Federal studios, perhaps with Bobby Aitken or some of those guys.
Yeah. Well, it wasn’t really a group, ’cause the group at that time – at that time I was with Eric Deans’ band, I just go to the studio and work with those guys. But it wasn’t a group, a studio band. Studio band that regularly play at the studio, with Duke Reid and all those studios, was really the Skatalites. At the time it wasn’t really named the ‘Skatalites’, but it was the number one studio band. At that time period we play with Roy Coburn Band, a very big band, then Eric Deans’ band, then you have a next band name Joe Bundy. Big band, those guy a big band. Joe Bundy band, them play jazz.
Was it difficult to make a living off the musicianship in the fifties until the recordings came about?
I survived, got to survive. In the fifties I play in a lotta lickle band. I play in Joe Bundy Band, those band have a job all the time.
There was enough work at the time.
Yeah, those band have dem lickle job all the time, when it’s not one it’s the other, y’know. So, a so I survived.
When the Skatalites broke up, immediately after that, did you go into playing at the hotels or what happened? You didn’t do as much sessions?
Well, after the Skatalites broke up, and the Soul Brothers and the Soul Vendors, ca’ Skatalite change name to those names that they record, change name to Soul Brothers…
Then there was the Supersonics.
Well, Tommy McCook, he form up a group and call it Supersonics. Some of the time with certain music he want to play, he gotta call me. I was with the Supersonics, I was with the Soul Brothers (here pronounced ‘Souls Brother’). After the Skatalites it was the Supersonics and the Soul Brothers. So, those band broke up and when those lickle band broke up it was job in the hotels dem, play in the hotel for a couple of nights. But for a while I really changed to some contracting work, for a good while. The government know me from the Skatalites, so when them have something I go up there and I – mason, my daddy teach me that also, we do the mason work, constructing work. So I just turn to that and the government, some of them call me to work. So that’s the way I survived until ’86 when the Skatalites form back.
But before that you had a Skatalites reunion at the Reggae Sunsplash ’83 festival, didn’t you? It was recorded, it’s on film, and a gig previous to that was recorded and released as well, as ‘Stretching Out’.
How did that come about again?
Well, it was one of the guys in the Skatalites, some of them get together and form up this t’ing for Sunsplash. And we do a session to boost the Sunsplash, but that session never really finish. About eight tune we do, Skatalite do, an’ some fuss start in the studio an’ it never finish. And we went an’ do Sunsplash later. And that music there now, sometime a guy will re-release some music for me in England, name ‘African Roots’.
Right, tell me more about this recording. It was cut in the mid seventies anyhow, and Clive Hunt was involved.
Yeah. Well, when Skatalites was off the road, I decided to do a session. And I write some music, write up some music for it, and in the first part of the session I start with some Rasta music. And the second part of the session, I call up Roland Alphonso, Tommy McCook – although Tommy McCook blow on the Rasta music dem, Don Drummonds wasn’t around so we call up a guy, well, he call himself ‘Don Drummonds’, play Don Drummond style.
You mean Vin Gordon, ‘Don D Junior’?
Yes, we call up Vin and some more guy, and we do ‘African Roots’. Lloyd Knibbs wasn’t on it, we had some other guys on it. Sound good.
‘African Roots’ sound good.
Yes, but that album was a big mess because you had some serious problem with the contract and all that, it came on a bunch of labels at the time, with a number of names involved which didn’t have anything to do with the production, originally.
You mean… which album?
The same ‘African Roots’, it was a mess with the companies back and forth, Jam Sounds, Tropical Sound Tracs, United Artists, and so on.
No, the first guy I lent that music to…
Pat Cooper, the PNP guy?
Yes, you know ’bout that. They go away with the music an’ I couldn’t hear nutten from them. Nutten from the music an’ they go away, he give me some money on the contract, he go away with the music and I didn’t hear nutten from them until – I heard that them release that music in Englan’, all now I don’t hear nutten from ‘im. I hear he was in Miami an’ I call him, he said that – I forget the guy name, he was on the music…
Producer Clive Hunt perhaps?
Clive Hunt, yeah. And him cannot hear from Clive Hunt, an’ I hear nutten from them. Then one day my friend come in with it, him say, “Brother Brevett, a your music this, ‘African Roots’?” A CD, an’ I just get me lawyer, an’ when I get fe understan’ this guy – whe him name…? The one who in contract now with it…?
(Going off to ask someone in the next room, and coming back) The guy that in contrac’ with it now is James Dutton, you ever heard of him?
The Motion label in London, right.
Yes, is him in contrac’ with it now, an’ when I check it out, the guy have the music – a guy from there get the tape an’ go an’ make contrac’ with James Dutton with the music whe him havin’, an’ selling. Yeah, I dunno how long dem have it selling, but the lawyer write him, an’ when the lawyer write him he take it away from the contrac’, from the guy who steal it an’ carry it away. And him make up a contrac’ with me, an’ him have it selling fe the last I think November comin’, the contrac’ go ‘pon a seven year him ‘ave runnin’.
But originally you gave that album to a guy in Miami called Tye Hutchinson?
No, I don’t give nothin’ to no Hutchinson, I don’t see me an’ him ‘ave no arrangement ’bout it. I write them, an’ dem no write me back.
Where was the album recorded at that time?
I record at…
Well, the second part record at Aquarius. The first part, the Rasta part of music…
At the Black Ark, Lee Perry’s studio?
How was the sessions?
How do I remember the session? The sessions was all right, I get to play the drum again.
I have that album on a German CD release, called Grover. Authorised?
With my music?
Yeah. Out of Munster, Germany.
There’s four bonus tracks on it, named ‘Just Cool’, ‘Japan Special’, ‘Space Light’, and ‘Rock With Me Baby’. And it says ‘under license from Lloyd Brevett’. A pirate?
Is a pirate, man.
Seems like it out came out about ten years ago.
We’re getting back to it. So you got King Tubby to do the mixes for the album.
How was that, he had never worked with Skatalites members before?
Who that, King Tubby? Well, he was a good man, he do good job, very. The best. Anyt’ing in music, he work on, very good.
There’s some different releases or versions to this album, ‘African Roots’. One called ‘Herb Dub, Collie Dub’, another one was ‘The Legendary Skatalites In Dub’, all are basically the same album with the same mix?
This guy, the same guy that I tell you ’bout in England, he re-release the dub, about two-three different way.
OK, new titles only.
Yes, James Dutton. Yes, same album but he put in music that we didn’t have on the other dub. You had one name ‘Starlight’, he didn’t have it ‘pon the dub that he make. So he call me up an’ say he get a music – he heard a music name ‘Starlight’, it sound (sings): ‘On the day when Jah was born, Angels come together…’. A great music, yea, somet’ing like that. And him put it on a dub. So there’s three different way of it, a jus’ so him do.
So what about your involvement with the current Skatalites, I heard you broke away from them. What is the status of that as we speak?
Yes. Because the band was going down… Beca’ what ‘appen, when the people take onto me, when they’re writing book right around Europe, they put me on the front, they put me in the books an’ they don’t put them, so them become a lickle annoyed about it. And Lloyd Knibbs an’ (Lester) Sterling an’ them start to go on with t’ings, so I couldn’t take it. They fight against Cedric Brooks, Cedric was one of the lights in the band, beca’ he tried to play like Roland Alphonso, and the people love him also. So they fight against him, and get him out of the band. And they go to Canada, hook up a guy that used to play at the train station, Karl Bryan, and they put him in the band to take Cedric Brooks’ place. And the tempo they want me to really stay up and play, is the tempo that first time the Skatalites used to play. And those tempo, those tempo right now for the youths, and it’s mostly youths who used to follow us also. But the band was doing well in Europe, some of the place we play have ten thousand people, forty thousand people. The band was doing well, and it start to get down bad with them. When I change tempo – ca’ we say we a go play some Bob Marley music, that type a music, the people love it. We play the ska, them want to play – through Lloyd Knibbs, him don’t want to play the ska up to tempo for the youths them, him want fe keep the same bounce tempo whe Skatalites used to play in the old days. The music is good, but those tempo was from a different age of people – Skatalites used to play for big people, it wasn’t lickle youths like in these ages now. So I couldn’t stick with the band with that, y’know. I just step down an’ leave them.
Do you think you are off the Skatalites forever now, or? You don’t talk anymore?
Well, no, I don’t really talk with them anymore. I just left them.
I think they have Val Douglas from the Now Generation band on bass now.
I don’t know who they are dealing with, I know the band aren’t doing as well as they used to. Is only two Skatalites in it, which is Lloyd Knibbs and Sterling.
Talking the future, are you trying to get a new band together?
Or maybe you’d like to retire after such a long, long life in the music business?
Well, I would do a session. Music, you don’t know what will happen though, you’ll see. You know, when you becomes professional with the instrument that you play, if you get a call it’s a good call. Yeah.
How do look back on your career so far, how do you view it?
Well, my long life in music I do well, because I’m not a man who really get around when I earn my couple of dollars or pound, y’know, I put it together and save it. So now that I’m off music I no worry, I’m happy. If I just go to Jamaica for a while, it’s cool (chuckles).
What do you think is so lasting about ska music, that music refuse to die out and it never will, but what is your impression of the ever lasting quality of the music?
Ska, I know that when I was out there playing we invent the ska, I just don’t – I change my bass work, that’s why we’re doing it in a way that it’s coming straight from Jah. When I do bass work, I do it to make people feel nice and get the people to move, so that they dance with the bass. Yeah, that’s why people love we in Europe so much, because the bass is just an exceptional bass. Some of the people say that my bass make them hot, them move till them hot. And seriously, I play my bass and I see people cry (laughs)!
(Chuckles) Not bad.
By the way, that German CD might be your own project after all, it’s put out by someone called Dr Ring Ding.
(Silence) Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah… Yes, I know. Yes, I get into it, they put it out but I try going to Germany so many times, I will get to… get onto him.
So you’re aware of this release at least.
Not a pirate in other words.
I know about it and tek it off a him, tek him off a it. Yeah, I do no business with him no more.
Is there anything specifically that you would like to bring to the public’s attention that we haven’t spoken of so far?
Well, the only t’ing is my music dem that I have out there, make some change off a my music. Yeah. So, I would like to say to the public: One love.
Brevett is the rhythm foundation of Jamaican popular music and as such cannot be underestimated. Just like Lloyd Knibb was an exceptionally good drummer in his day, Brevett gave Jamaican ska the drive and the swing it is so known for. He embodied the ultimate bassline and later musicians, like Jackie Jackson, Family Man Barrett, Robbie Shakespeare, they refined it. Sadly, the way I see it, he is very overlooked when members of the Skatalites are praised for their individual talents and contributions; usually Tommy McCook, Don Drummond and Roland Alphonso, all now gone in the flesh, are the ones mentioned the most. Maybe it’s time to lift the rhythm foundation, Brevett and Knibb, to a place they truly deserve: at the forefront. Brevett’s legacy as an outstanding musician can partly be found in ‘African Roots’, it’s a fine effort, but he shined the most on the various recordings for Studio One, Treasure Isle, King Edwards and, last but definitely not least, for Justin Yap’s Top Deck imprint.