Alpha Boys: A Playlist of Sounds From the Cradle of Jamaican Music

February 25, 2018

Words by Joshua Chamberlain
Photos by Martei Korley
Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Kingston’s Alpha Institute (formerly Alpha Boys School) is often considered the cradle of Jamaican music. The roots of ska are said to have grown from the musical bonds forged here by the founding members of the Skatalites, and the formerly residential school has been home to reggae icons (Johnny Osbourne, Leroy Smart, Yellowman), soul innovators (Cedric Brooks, Lennie Hibbert) and jazz greats (Dizzy Reece, Joe Harriott), who found their calling through the school’s noted music program.

Today, this tradition continues under the guidance of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who have operated Alpha since 1890, and talented bandmasters including Lennie Hibbert and, most recently, Winston ‘Sparrow’ Martin, who is still active at Alpha. In fact, the music legacy is so great that Alpha started a radio station where every song played has at least one past student.

Here, Joshua Chamberlain, the general manager of Alpha Boys School Radio, selects 18 essential tunes from Alpha alumni, illustrated by latter-day scenes from a typical day at Alpha Institute. Listen to the playlist now on LargeUp’s Apple Music channel.

Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Wilton Gaynair, “Blues For Tony” (Blue Bogey, 1959)

Wilton “Bogey” Gaynair (11 January 1927 – 13 February 1995) was a jazz musician, whose primary instrument was the tenor saxophone. Bogey moved to Germany in 1955, where he died four decades later at age 68. He recorded very seldom, appearing only three times as a bandleader in his lifetime. Two of those recordings came during visits to England: 1959’s Blue Bogey on Tempo Records and 1960’s Africa Calling, which was also recorded for Tempo, but remained unreleased until 2005.

Dizzy Reece, “Groovesville” (Starbright, 1960)

Alphonso Son “Dizzy” Reece (b. 5 January 1931) is a hard-bop jazz trumpeter. The son of a silent movie pianist in Kingston, he first played tenor and baritone saxophone. After moving to London in 1948, he played with Victor Feldman and Tubby Hayes and can be heard on various albums for the Tempo label. Reece worked throughout Europe before moving to New York at the urging of Miles Davis, who once said of Reece, “There’s a great trumpeter over in England, a guy who’s got soul and originality and above all, who’s not afraid to blow with fire.” In New York, Reece recorded several albums for Blue Note and had his own formation with Art Taylor. He is still active as a musician.

Joe Harriott, “Jaipur” feat Amancio D’Silva (Hum Domo, 1969)

Joe Harriott (1928 – 1973) was an alto saxophone jazz player, who moved to the U.K. as a working musician in 1951 and settled there. He is best known for his innovative development of “free form” music. During the late 1960s he and violinist John Mayer developed Indo-Jazz Fusion. The Hum Domo album came after the recordings with John Mayer wherein Harriott developed his own brand of East-West fusion, using Western as well as Eastern instruments.

Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Rico Rodriguez, “Man From Wareika” (1977)

Emmanuel Rodriguez (17 October 1934 – 4 September 2015), better known as Rico, was a Cuban-born, Alpha-trained ska and reggae trombonist. He was known as one of the first and most distinguished ska artists. Years later, he recorded Man From Wareika for Island Records, an album which spoke volumes about the social power of music. After moving to the U.K. in the early 1960s, he performed and recorded with the Specials, Jools Holland and Paul Young, among others.

Lester Sterling and Stranger Cole, “Bangarang” (1969)

Alto sax player Lester Sterling is a founding member of The Skatalites, and the only original member still alive. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sterling played as a studio musician, along with most of the future Skatalites members, in bands such as Clue J & His Blues Blasters. In 1969, he collaborated with fellow ska pioneer Stranger Cole on “Bangarang,” a tune sometimes cited as the first reggae track.

Yellowman – “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng” (1982)
Yellowman – “Eventide Fire” (1980)

While still living at Alpha in the late 1970s, two-time Grammy nominee Winston “Yellowman” Foster (a 2-time Grammy nominee) gained attention when he won the Tastee Talent Contest, a talent competition where deejays would perform. Like many Jamaican toasters, he honed his talents by frequently performing with Jamaican sound systems. Yellow has said that the first sound system he deejayed on was “Sister’s Sound,” referring to Sister Ignatius from Alpha Boys School. Regarding “Eventide Fire,” Yellowman says: “This song is very important, because It hurt me so bad that these old people perish and die in sad wicked way these people was spending them last days of there life.”

Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Johnny Osbourne, “Truths and Rights” (1979)
Johnny Osbourne, “Come Back Darling” (1969)

Johnny Osbourne (born Errol Osbourne, 1948) rose to success in the late 1970s. Truths and Rights, his first album after returning from a 10-year stay in Canada, was a major success with a number of hits including the classic title track. Johnny Osbourne continues to be very popular among sound system participants for songs like “No Ice Cream Sound,” “Budy Bye” and more. “Come Back Darling” was originally recorded with the Sensations for Winston Riley just before Osbourne left for Canada.

Don Drummond, “Don De Lion” (1964)

Don Drummond was a trombonist and composer who formed the Skatalites in the early 1960s with three other past Alpha boys, Tommy McCook, Lester Sterling and Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore. His musical career began in 1950 with Eric Dean’s All-Stars when a teenage guitarist named Ernest Ranglin approached Sister Ignatius at Alpha on Eric Dean’s behalf. He composed many of the Skatalites songs, and also released tracks under his own name, like “Don De Lion.” “[Drummond] was a musical prophet created by the people,” according to Herbie Miller, “not one imposing himself on them in pursuit of stardom, but having it thrust upon him.”

Tommy McCook and the Skatalites, “Occupation” (1964)
Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, “Comet Rock Steady” (1967)

“Occupation” was originally released on the B-side of “Don De Lion” by Coxsone Dodd’s Ska Beat label. Another Cuban-born Alpha past boy,  Tommy McCook was a founding member of The Skatalites and later made his mark as the musical director of Duke Reid’s band, The Supersonics, during the heyday of rocksteady.

Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Tony Gregory, “Gypsy Girl” (1982)

Tony Gregory first turned professional musician playing with older Alpha alumnus Bertie King’s Big Band. “Gypsy Girl,” Gregory’s first hit as a solo vocalist was an accidental one. “Nobody wanted it,” he said. Thankfully, Neville Lee at Sonic Sounds “was not that enthusiastic but decided to go ahead.” The first run of “Gypsy Girl” sold out within a week, before going on to sell 60,000 copies in Jamaica alone.

Lennie Hibbert, “Village Soul” (More Creation, 1969)

Lennie Hibbert, who attended Alpha Boys from ’36-’44, played in several orchestras after leaving the school. In 1946, he joined the Military Band, where he taught himself to play the vibraphone. In 1955, he returned to Alpha as bandmaster, and continued working as a live musician in jazz groups. He worked frequently with Sound Dimension, contributing some of the best-known riddims for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. He recorded his debut solo album, Creation, at Dodd’s urging in 1969, comprising instrumentals featuring Hibbert’s vibraphone playing. A single from the album, “Village Soul,” has been described by Reggae: The Rough Guide as “simply one of the most beautiful instrumentals ever to emerge from Brentford Road” where Dodd’s Studio One was based.

Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Leroy Smart, “Ballistic Affair” (1976)
Leroy Smart, “Badness Don’t Play” (1977)

One of Leroy Smart‘s best known songs, “Ballistic Affair” was recorded at Channel One in 1976 and quickly became a roots anthem. That same year, Smart appeared in the film Rockers along with Alpha classmates Leroy ‘Horsemouth’ Wallace, Richard ‘Dirty Harry’ Hall, Bobby Ellis and Tommy McCook. Another recording released on the Channel One label, “Badness Don’t Pay” solidified Smart’s roots credentials.

David Madden and Cedric Brooks (Im & Dave), “Money Maker” (1970)

David Madden was an arranger, session musician and featured soloist for Studio One. He teamed with saxophonist and fellow Alpha Boys alum Cedric “Im” Brooks as the duo Im & Dave. Their instrumental “Money Maker” reached Number 1 on the local charts. Madden was also co-founder of the forward thinking ‘70s band Zap Pow, whose sax player, Glen Dacosta, was an Alpha alum. Both Dacosta and Madden were regular hornsmen for Bob Marley in the studio and on tour.

Cedric Brooks and the Light of Saba, “Rebirth” (The Magical Light, 2003)

Cedric “Im” Brooks (1943 – 3 May 2013) was a Jamaican saxophonist and flautist known also for his solo recordings, and as a member of The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, The Sound Dimensions and the Light of Saba. Released in 2003, The Magical Light of Saba assembles rare cuts from the 1960s, fusions of African, Jamaican, and American music.

Alpha Boys School, Kingston, Jamaica

Feeling the vibe and want to help today’s Alpha students, most of whom reside in inner city communities? The Reggae Auction supports Alpha students’ nutrition, medical and clinical services through the auction of reggae arts and cultural experiences in Negril, Kingston, Montego Bay as well as New York, London and Liverpool. Visit Alpha Boys School Radio to preview and bid. And while there turn on the 24/7 soundtrack with at least 1 past student from Alpha Boys School on every track.