He is commonly overshadowed by well-known band members such as Tommy McCook, Jackie Mittoo or Don Drummond. Sterling is the only original member who is still a part of the band. Raised in the Kingston Jamaica neighborhood of Allman Town, Lester started at St. Ann’s school before he entered the Alpha Boys School, where he was a student for 10 years. All four of the Sterling brothers went to Alpha and all have enjoyed careers as professional musicians.
Gladston on sax in Nassau Bahamas and Roy on trumpet and Keith on keyboard in Jamaica. Keith has played with Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and currently is with The Wailers band. Lester started on trumpet in 1945, inspired by his friend Frederick Brown who was in the Alpha Band. The Bandmaster at the time was Reuben Delgado and, "Delgado was in charge of all of we", Lester recalls. No easy task, melding a band out of a school peopled with chronic truants and youth placed there for a variety of indiscipline.
But under Delgado’s instruction, four future Skatalites blossomed. Shortly before Lester departed from Alpha, he and classmate Karl "Cannonball" Bryan joined Stanley Hedlam’s band. Then there were stints in club bands such as at Copacabana and at The Glass Bucket before Lester and his trumpet joined Val Bennett’s band in 1956. It was his elder brother Gladston’s skillful playing of the saxophone that first caught Lester’s attention. Then when he heard Charlie Parker in 1958 he had to switch to alto.
By 1959, he was good enough to enter Vere Johns Opportunity Hour and win all the competitions up to the Grand Final at the Majestic Theatre. "You have to play four different songs, one in each quarter and if you win with all four then you have to play them all in the Grand Final", remembers the winner. In 1960 Lester joined the Jamaican Military Band and moved in to the barracks at Up Park Camp. During his brief stint, the Military Band included Lloyd Mason, Cedric Brooks and Johnny Moore. It was during his Army bid that Lester cut "Whalebone".
"I composed this on the spot at Federal Studios. We did this after Rico came to Up Park Camp [JA Army HQ] in early ’61 to tell me that he was going to England. I recorded it using the tenor of the Jamaican Military Band." After his discharge from the Army, there was a brief stint with Kes Chin and the Souvenirs before Lester quit to be a part of The Skatalites formation in May 1964. When that juggernaut crashed to earth in 1965, Lester became a freelancer, cutting for Clement Dodd, Duke Reid, Leslie Kong, Bunny Lee, etc..
By 1967, Lester started playing trumpet again when he became a Dragonaire for Byron Lee. "My picture is on the cover of the Dragonaires LP, Top Of The Ladder. There were three trumpets, myself, Winston Graham and Lester Williams." It was in ’67 that Lester also had his first #1 hit in Jamaica, "Pupa Lick". The title is derived from diving, as explained by Lester.
"Pupa Lick is what we used to call it when divers spin." In late 1968, Lester cut his signature tune "Bangarang." Another Jamaican #1, and hailed as a first Reggae, I’ll let Lester tell it. "Well the first part and the inspiration for ‘Bangarang’, I make up the bridge, came from Kenny Dorham’s ‘Bongo Chant’. Me and Rico used to play it from the late 50’s when it was on the sound systems. I get the idea from this woman and her daughter.
The daughter emigrate to America and then I think she encourage the mother to leave me and emigrate too." Backup vocals are by Wilburn "Stranger" Cole, Lloyd "Charmers" Tyrell, and Maxwell "Romeo" Smith. There are hundreds, if not thousands of versions of Bangarang, including those by Soul Vendors, Lord Creator, Nitty Gritty, Brigadier Jerry, Lt. Stitchie, and Dillinger. At the start of Stir It Up! A tv program broadcast by England’s Channel 4 in 1994, producer Bunny Lee is in his Burns Avenue studio in Kingston. Lee picks up a 1/4 inch tape and begins, "Yeah, I want to tell everybody, the whole world, this is the first Reggae tune that was done in Jamaica, see it? It was done in 1968 in Duke Reid’s studio.
I want to play it and mek the whole world hear, ‘Muma no want no Bangarang’. It was Lester Sterling, Lloyd Charmers and Stranger Cole…is really the emphasis on the organ. Mek the organ go Reggae, Reggae…this is the great Bangarang." In the 1982 video production Deeper Roots, also by Channel 4, Lee notes, "…same like in the Reggae ting, is a man just bawl out one day, we were having a session, say, make the organ go Reggae, Reggae and the name. Everybody claims the name and they don’t even know how it start, right." Sterling shares Lee’s recollections, adding emphatically that it was he who told organist Glen Adams to, "mek the organ go Reggae, Reggae".
Sterling explains, "I insisted that Glen play [back and forth with his hands] Reggae, Reggae, Reggae. Glen couldn’t get the keyboard part, and so I told him to just play anything to mek it go Reggae, Reggae, Reggae." After "Bangarang", Sterling cut ‘nuff for Bunny Lee and only a few others while he was busy playing and touring with Byron Lee. Included from ‘68-’69 are; "Spoogy", the title of which is a "little nickname", according to Lester, "Reggae In The Wind", featuring Sterling on his Selma Mark VI tenor. "I sold that one to Roland in 1995 and then he sold it to Justin Yap from Top Deck.", "Lester Special", "Forest Gate Rock", which is Sterling’s version of Charlie Parker’s "Barbados", and "Reggae On Broadway", of which he notes, "I cut my version before George Benson did his." In the spring of 1972, Sterling resigned from the Dragonaires and emigrated to the US, settling in NYC.
His first gig was with Junior Soul and the Debonairs, whom he later introduced to Rolando Alphonso when Rollie came to NYC in 1973. There were lots of gigs in the tri-state area for Lester, and one of the most memorable was playing lead alto for the NYC Jazzmobile Big Band where he met Charles Davis, Jimmy Heath, John Stubblefield and Billy Taylor. Around 1973, Lester recalls cutting "Casa Blanca" in Brooklyn, for $33 dollars! He solos on his Selma Mark VI and Lyn Taitt solos on guitar. It was 1978 when, as Lester puts it, "I reformed The Skatalites". He hastens to add that it was a completely new lineup, apart from himself of course. That band’s existence was shortlived, but they did cut "Devil’s Triangle w/Triangle Version".
Sterling’s title refers to the Bermuda Triangle. Solos by Sterling, Alonzo Connell and Calvin Folkes on trombone. Vocals on the version are by Tony Ramsay and by Lester. Recorded on an 8 track board at Frano’s Studio in Brooklyn, it was the first release on Lester’s Echo label. Since that time, Sterling has toured the world with The Skatalites, although for a brief time in the summer of 1994, he formed his own group and played out as Lester Sterling’s Ska Macka band.
In 1998, the Governor General of Jamaica, Sir Howard Cooke, awarded Sterling the Order of Distinction, the second highest honor awarded to citizens of Jamaica. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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