By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 6, 2016
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 6, 2016
The singer known as Lord Tanamo shared with audiences around the world the buoyant sounds of ska music born in the shantytowns of his native Jamaica.
As a vocalist with the Skatalites, Lord Tanamo gave voice to a music that would thrust his island homeland to the forefront of popular culture. Although the band's original lineup lasted less than two years, the group's recordings had a profound impact.
Ska melded traditional island music with American blues and jazz, creating a fast-paced, infectious, danceable sound with a steady bass line and an emphasis on the upbeat. It was the sound of poor, black Jamaica and a precursor to reggae. Ska has undergone at least two revivals since the Skatalites broke up in 1965. The surviving members have had several band reunions with Lord Tanamo joining them for tours of Europe, Asia and South America.
The singer had already settled in Canada when hired in 1969 to perform at the Jamaica pavilion in Montreal at the post-Expo exhibition known as Man and His World. Based in Toronto, he performed on occasion in the city even as he returned frequently to his homeland to record.
In 2008, the singer suffered a stroke, which left him unable to speak, a cruel affliction for one whose voice had entertained audiences for so many years. He communicated by batting his eyelashes. He lived in an assisted care facility in Toronto until his death from natural causes on April 15. He was 81.
With a lollipop physique, the singer was neither a crooner nor a belter. Lord Tanamo preferred a relaxed, seemingly carefree vocal styling, capturing in recordings the feel of the easygoing street musician and hotel entertainer he had been as a young man.
The singer was also a noted percussionist for his playing of the rumba box, a bass lamellophone also known as a tinkle box. The instrument provides the heavy bass line typical of Jamaican music and is usually played by sitting atop the box while reaching between the legs to pluck the keys.
In island fashion, he took as his performance name a noble title paired in his case with an exotic locale, Tanamo (pronounced TAH-nah-mo) being a shortened version of Guantanamo, the Cuban city across the Caribbean Sea from Jamaica.
Joseph Abraham Gordon was born on October 2, 1934, in Kingston, Jamaica, to Julia (née Dunkley) and Charles Simeon Gordon, who operated a business in the craft market aimed at tourists. The boy, the youngest of 15 children, remembered first hearing the sound of a rumba box when Cecil Lawes, later known as Count Razza, visited the family home with one. The instrument fascinated him.
“I liked the sound from the first time I heard it,” Lord Tanamo told Tim Perlich of Toronto's Now newspaper in 2002. “Later, when I was a teenager, I began performing on the corner with Cecil and his rumba box. In the day I'd put on torn pants and a straw hat and sing calypso to hustle the tourists, and then at night I'd put on my suit and tie and sing ballads with a band.”
As a young man, Mr. Gordon performed in swanky hotels along the island's north coast — the Royal Caribbean, the Casa Montego and the Casa Blanca. He sang calypso, the Trinidadian style that became a sensation with North American audiences in the early 1950s, and he also sang mento, the unique music of the Jamaican countryside known for witty, sometimes ribald lyrics and an emphasis on the upbeat.
Meanwhile, the Kingston businessman Stanley Motta, a prominent electronics and appliance merchant, launched a domestic recording industry by opening a recording studio and launching his own label, M.R.S., for Motta's Recording Studio. Lord Tanamo had his first hit at age 20 with “Crinoline Incident,” released as a 78 r.p.m. record. Strongly influenced by the stylings of calypso singer Lord Kitchener (a Trinidadian born as Aldwyn Roberts), Lord Tanamo would remain a presence on the Jamaican charts for years to come.
When Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong arrived on the island with his orchestra for an engagement in 1957, he was greeted at the airport by dignitaries, while a band led by Lord Tanamo played calypsos, including a number titled “The Things Satchmo Said,” written by Tanamo for the occasion.
Radio Jamaica regularly played Lord Tanamo's songs, including “Come Down,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Jamaican charts in 1963. His first album, “Come Come Come to Jamaica,” featuring a selection of mento tunes, was released the following year. The singer also performed live in theatres on stage-and-screen cards including dozens of acts, including comics and dancers, as well as movie double bills.
The evolution of the ska genre coincided with the heady days following Jamaican independence in 1962. At the heart of the new sound was a band of crackerjack instrumentalists who had attended the Alpha Boys School. The Skatalites formed in 1964, featuring two tenor saxophones, an alto saxophone, a trombone, a trumpet, an upright bass, drums, piano, guitar and several vocalists, including Lord Tanamo and Doreen Shaffer, though many of their most popular numbers, including “Guns of Navarone,” were primarily instrumental tunes.
Lord Tanamo took credit for coining the band's clever, punning post-Sputnik name, although other members dispute his claim. In any case, the Skatalites quickly became the most popular band on an island filled with terrific musicians. In 1965, the group performed aboard a float in the independence day parade in Kingston, preceded by the Jamaican Agricultural Marketing Corporation and followed by a bevy of beauty queens.
For a time, Lord Tanamo had several songs on the Jamaican charts, both as a solo artist and as a Skatalite vocalist.
One of his more popular songs was “I'm in the Mood for Ska,” a bouncy cover of “I'm in the Mood for Love,” a song first made popular by Louis Armstrong.
After the Skatalites broke up, the Jamaica Tourist Board hired Lord Tanamo as a troubadour promoting island music. In January, 1966, he performed at the Eaton's store in downtown Toronto with a calypso band as part of a promotion for the tourist board and Air Canada. The band, with members wearing torn straw hats and ruffle-sleeved shirts, played in the store throughout the day.
A local woman invited the band to her home in Etobicoke for dinner. When Lord Tanamo telephoned to announce the band was on the way, the call was answered by the woman's daughter. After he hung up, the singer told his bandmates, “I am going to marry this girl.” He married Joan Fletcher in a ceremony in Jamaica that December.
In 1969, the singer and his Calypsonians, including old friend Mr. Lawes on rumba box and Wilbert Stephenson on bamboo saxophone, travelled to Montreal for a four-month gig at the Jamaican pavilion at the successor to the world's fair.
In Toronto, he formed a mento group that became the quartet for the keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, another Skatalite original who had also settled in Canada. The two men also owned and operated the Record Nook with Karl Mullings, a shop which became a popular gathering place for the Caribbean diaspora.
On one of his return trips to Jamaica, Lord Tanamo recorded a reggae cover of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” a plaintive version which spent seven weeks at the top of the Jamaican charts.
On his many forays to his homeland, Lord Tanamo recorded backed by the likes of the famed reggae rhythm duo Sly & Robbie (drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare). In 1979, an album, “Calypso Reggae,” was produced and arranged by Bunny Lee (born Edward O'Sullivan Lee), a prominent figure on the Jamaican music scene.
A revival of ska in Britain in the late 1970s led to a reunion of the Skatalites in 1983. The band played together for the first time in 18 years at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, where Lord Tanamo delivered “a sensational performance,” according to Jamaica Gleaner newspaper. He joined the Skatalites on several subsequent global tours and sat in with the band for a performance at the Glastonbury Festival in England in 2003.
In 2000, he revisited many of his mento and ska hits on a compact disk titled, “The Best Place in the World,” backed by Dr. Ring-Ding and the Senior Allstars, a German band with which he toured Europe.
At home in Toronto, he performed at such night clubs as the Silver Dollar and the El Mocambo. In 2002, he sang old-time mento tunes and played the rumba box during a Legends of Ska concert at the Palais Royale, which was filmed by Brad Klein for a documentary of the same name released last year.
The singer was honoured at an event called Canada Salutes Icons 2003, in which the calypsonian Jayson (a Juno-winning singer named John Perez) and the singer and dancer Pluggy Satchmo (John Gilbert Peck) were also praised for their cultural contributions. Lord Tanamo had to skip the ceremony as he was touring overseas with the Skatalites. At a London show during the tour, he was urged by bassist Lloyd Brevett to give the crowd “some real old time music.”
Lord Tanamo looked out at a crowded venue filled with young dancers before pronouncing, “Old thing? A new thing this!”
He leaves Joan, his wife of 49 years, from whom he had separated, as well as their two sons and a daughter. He is also survived by two sons and a daughter from a previous relationship with Helena Khouri of Jamaica. He was predeceased by their son, Joseph, who was killed during political strife on the island in 1979. Lord Tanamo is also survived by five siblings and several grandchildren.
A visitor to his room at the assisted-living facility noted a framed invitation to Barack Obama's inauguration on a wall, while his beloved rumba box rested in a place of honour in a corner.
In 1989, his cover of “I'm in the Mood for Love” was licensed for a 30-second British television commercial in which a bored man has an ecstatic reaction after being served chicken coated in Paxo breadcrumbs. The spot thrust Lord Tanamo's 25-year-old recording onto the charts, where it peaked at No. 58, his only hit in the United Kingdom.