Top Deck Presents: Ska Instrumentals - 40 Essential Instrumental Hits

Roland Alphonso - A Shot In The Dark
Johnny Moore - Red Is Danger
The Skatalites - Lawless Street
Roland Alphonso - Determination
Tommy McCook - Scattered Lights
The Skatalites - Marcus Junior
Roland Alphonso - V.C. 10
Jackie Mittoo - Warlock
The Skatalites - Confucious
Roland Alphonso- Cleo's Back
Baba Brooks - Shock Resistant
Roland Alphonso - Non-Stop
The Skatalites - China Clipper
Roland Alphonso- Because Of You
Lynn Taitt & Skatalites - Ska-Ta-Shot
The Skatalites - China Town
Roland Alphonso- Rolli Rollin’
Raymond Harper - Ti-Pi-Tin
The Skatalites - The Reburial
Roland Alphonso & Joshua Rosen - Step Down
Roland Alphonso - Ska-Ra-Van
Don Drummond - Love In The Afternoon
The Skatalites - Smiling
Lynn Taitt & Jackie Mittoo - Live Wire
Johnny Moore - South China Sea
The Skatalites - Ghost Town
Roland Alphonso- Tough Talk
Baba Brooks - Five O’Clock Whistle
The Skatalites - Ringo Rides
King Sporty & Roland Alphonso - El Cid
Johnny Moore - Yogi Man
The Skatalites - Ska-Boo-Da-Ba
Roland Alphonso- A Shot In The Dark
Johnny Moore - Red Is Danger
King Sporty & The Skatalites - Lawless Street
Roland Alphonso - Determination
Baba Brooks & Trenton Spence Orchestra - Distant Drums
The Skatalites - Surftide Seven
Lynn Taitt & The Skatalites - Ska-Ta-Shot
Roland Alphonso- Live Desire

"When they worked for me, they didn't have to come back the next day. I Never give them cheque, always cash - in envelope, the precise amount - not a penny short"; so said producer Justin Yap of his policy with recording personnel. His approach was at odds with the normal Jamaican way of working, whereby musicians could be waiting weeks for 'soon-come' payments, with many producers having the nasty habit of making 'deductions' from the final sum when it did finally emerge. Yap's refreshingly honest approach not only gained him massive respect from the guys, but also led him to getting the absolute best from them in terms of their performances.

Yap was born Philip Yap on the 23rd of May 1944 and grew up in the Barbican area of Kingston JA where his Chinese-Jamaican parents ran a restaurant and ice-cream parlour. In his teens Philip changed his name to Justin and along with his brother Ivan (aka Jahu) established the Top Deck sound system to entertain the clientele at his parents premises.

At 18, Justin began to write songs to impress a young lady called Josephine, and after a few attempts at primitive home recording, took a chance and booked Federal Studios for a session. His first producing efforts were with a singer he met by the name of Ephraim 'Joe' Henry and resulted in 'My Darling Josephine' (an obvious title given Justin's interest in the young lady at the time), 'There She Goes' and 'Last Summer', all of which were issued on he and brother's new Top Deck record label. Joe G. Henry, as the label credited him, had worked with future Island boss Chris Blackwell and had an easy-going relaxed style of singing reminiscent of Nat 'King' Cole who had a huge following in Jamaica.

The records gained little interest or airplay, either on sound systems or the radio, but the second attempt 'Too Young To Be In Love', by a new young artist by the name of Fitzroy 'Larry' Marshall, provided him with a minor hit, just as the Ska era was emerging. Encouraged by the interest in his work, more subsequently followed from the singer, such as 'Promise Is A Comfort To A Fool' and a re-reading of Paul Martin's US R&B hit, 'Snake In The Grass' a Jamaican number one. In fact, 'Snake In The Grass' was to be something of a staple of the local recording industry with Larry, among others, re-cutting the song for Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd a couple of years later, this time with sometime singing partner, Alvin Leslie, as Larry & Alvin.

Further releases followed by groups such as the School Boys before bandleader and trumpet player Oswald 'Baba' Brooks took an interest in Justin's work and offered him a couple of recordings, 'Five O'Clock Whistle' and 'Distant Drums' - a version of US Jazz Band leader Artie Shaw's 'Jungle Drums'. Originally a pre-war big band hit, it transferred in to the rhumba with ease, and it was this ease of movement from US big band and R&B that made Justin decide to concentrate more on instrumental productions.

The following year, 1964, Yap sought out the magnificent Skatalites, who for the past year or so had been working as Coxsone Dodd's house band, although, as his associate, Alan 'Bim Bim' Scott pointed out, their agreement with the producer was non-exclusive, so the group were at liberty to play for whoever they wished.

In November of that year he secured the services of the band for one night at Studio One only by paying double the going rate. An 18 hour marathon session ensued with plenty of food, drink and ganja made available by his brother. The session yielded the magnificent 'Ska-Boo-Da-Ba' album, consisting of compositions by Justin himself, master trombone player Don Drummond and various Skatalites members, plus a few Ska'd-up covers of US tracks, notably the title track which was adapted from a 1958 Bill Doggett groove 'Boo-Da-Ba' which had an almost primitive Ska rhythm to it.

"This was a monster session and it turned out the greatest recording for me" he recounted to Jamaican music writer, Steve Barrow some years later, and indeed it was with the combined talents of the Skatalites, plenty of refreshments and high pay, the band gave their best.

Yap's way of working was much of a combined effort with the band members as trumpeter Dizzy Moore recalled, "Most of the arrangements were more or less spontaneous. Like a melody would be submitted and everyone got to have their own line".

Don Drummond had five compositions recorded, 'Confucius', 'Chinatown', 'Marcus junior', 'The Reburial' and 'Smiling', all of which are now recognised as classics of the Ska era. The composition of minor chords with a melodic and melancholic style was to become known as the Far East Sound, plus his mind-set was obvious with his referencing to Black History, with 'Marcus junior' referring to the great Pan African leader Marcus Mosiah Garvey and 'The Reburial' commenting on the re-internment of Garvey's mortal remains from London to Kingston JA.

The Skatalites and Justin Yap took inspiration from many sources. The immense Duke Ellington catalogue was plundered for a few adaptations, notably 'Skaravan'. a song written by Ellington and trombone player Juan Tizol which first saw issue as 'Caravan', and 'Surftide Seven', which is taken from 'In A Mellow Tone', composed again by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Bass-playing Phil Upchurch had a major US hit in 1961 with the Jazz-tinged 'You Can't Sit Down', so it was almost inevitable that the Skatalites would reinvent it in the Ska-style, re-naming the number 'Ghost Town'. Other adaptations included 'Lawless Street', an old Jamaican Mento number updated with deejay-talk-over from King Sporty and featuring 'peps', the chucka-chucka sound made by an anonymous band member to keep the rousing rhythm rolling.

Elsewhere, the syncopated rhythm of 'Shake A Lady' by another Jazzman, Rusty Bryant, was transformed into the magnificent 'VC10 (Shake A Lady)', which saw issue on another Yap label, Tuneico, complete with saxophonist, Roland Alphonso really showing his considerable skill in the solos. The Yaps also used a third label, Top Sound for a very limited number of releases, such as 'Love In The Afternoon' by Don Drummond.

Film music also came under the scrutiny of the Skatalites and Henry Mancini, being at the top of his game in the 1960s, unknowingly provided a particularly fine composition for Alphonso to ply his trade to great effect. 'A Shot In The Dark', the slinky piece originally scored for the 'Pink Panther' film was hot-rodded with Ska for Roland and the boys to really let rip.

One of Justin's personal favourites was Jazz vibraphone player, Arthur Lyman, who contributed 'Dahil Sayo', re-worked by the group as 'Because Of You' and 'China Clipper', with the original versions of both first finding release on the American's much acclaimed 1959 album 'Taboo'.

One aspect to the late night session with the Yaps was the decision to recut tracks with different lead instruments. These variations have slowly appeared over the years, thanks to Justin retaining the majority of his master tapes. Clearly seeking the perfect cut of each song, it must have been almost impossible to make a call on which version to issue, given the quality of each given take.

But it wasn't just instrumental that were recorded that hot summer night and also present were singers such as Ferdie Nelson, Gaylad's founder, Horace 'BB' Seaton, along with his group Bibby & The Astronauts, and the Barbadian-born vocalist, Jackie Opel, whose magnificent career was tragically cut short in a fatal car crash in 1970.

In 1965, Justin returned to Studio One at Brentford Road to record with Opel, plus various Skatalites, including Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore and Roland Alphonso, although sadly Don Drummond was missing after being incarcerated for murdering his girlfriend Marguerita on New Year's Day of that year. Drummond was later committed to Belle Vue Mental hospital where he passed away in 1969.

Sessions were also recorded at JBC Studios in the same year before Justin decided to escape the deteriorating political climate and ensuing violence spreading through Jamaica by emigrating to the USA, late in 1966. He settled in New York City and gained US citizenship before joining the army and serving in the Vietnam War. After his discharge in the early 1970s he became involved in the fledgling computer industry before driving a taxi for many years. His brother Ivan disappeared off the scene after their recording sessions finished, and as far as this writer is aware, no one knows of his whereabouts or what he made of his life after Top Deck.

In the 1990s, Justin returned to Jamaica, where, five years later, he underwent a triple heart by-pass in 1995. Sadly, just three years on he was diagnosed with liver cancer, subsequently travelling back and forth to the USA for treatment, but tragically he finally succumbed to the illness, passing away in New Jersey on the 23rd July 1999.

Quite how well the Yaps productions sold in Jamaica is unknown beyond the records that hit, but based on the scarcity of original 45s on the collector's scene and the high prices they command, it must be concluded that many were pressed in very small quantities.

The 'Ska-Boo-Da-Ba' album found a UK release on Graeme Goodall's Doctor Bird label in 1966, but strangely, considering the high quality of the music, few of the Top Deck recordings saw issue in Britain on 45, and of those that did, 'Confucius' and 'Marcus Junior' didn't appear until the Ska era was well and truly over, and then only as B-sides on the Doctor Bird subsidiary, Pyramid.

After 1967, the Top Deck catalogue remained idle for almost three decades, but by the 1990s, things had changed with a massive worldwide interest in 'oldies' and a fast growing collector's market. The development ultimately resulted in extensive release programme of Justin's productions, both on CD and vinyl, with him playing a pivotal role in the re-issue of his work.

Justin Yap was a very rare thing in Jamaican producers; he paid well, looked after his players and gave them credit for their hard work. In return they gave him their best, as can be clearly heard in this collection. His voice may have been stilled, but hopefully every time one of his productions is played he's smiling along with those now long-gone and legendary players, content that their wonderful work is still greatly appreciated and enjoyed by those of us still down here on this mortal plane.

Michael de Koningh
All material © Trojan Records