Published on January 6th, 2023

The Skatalites are one of the reasons for the global appeal of rocksteady, ska and reggae music. Everyone trading in any of these genres today — the forward-leaning one-drop beats that power vocal hooks and instrumental grooves — owes them a debt of gratitude and possibly their careers.

They backed a young Lee “Scratch” Perry on his way to becoming a visionary musician and producer. Before they first emerged as the “Ska-talites” with songs and an identity of their own, they played on the debut single by The Wailers, “Simmer Down,” released in 1963.

Before, during and after their first brief run in 1964-1965 — fourteen months! — band members were present at and part of the creation of ska as a genre and as a precursor to rocksteady and reggae. The Skatalites helped to re-imagine what popular music could be, and helped to put collaborators including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Toots Hibberts on trajectories for success.

A CD compilation, “Foundation Ska,” assembles 32 sides featuring the Skatalites, all produced by Studio One’s resident genius, Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, in that short momentous heyday. It is an amazing document of a turning point in music, not to mention a swinging record with a future hall-of-fame cast.

Internal struggles interrupted the band’s own build-up to stardom, and revivals in the ’70s were brief and less eventful. But the Skatalites are so central to the through line of island music, they couldn’t stay broken up forever. With goodwill for them built up by successors such as The Specials and Madness, and renewed interest from the music industry, the Skatalites re-formed in 1983 and haven’t missed a beat since.

At this point, they are a collective — as much an ethos as a band. The only founding member of the original ten still aboard is singer Doreen Shaffer, aka the First Lady of Ska. Yet that doesn’t seem to matter. There are no expectations today but rhythm, soul and a great time. And whatever the personnel, the world is a better place with the Skatalites in it.

The Skatalites play 7pm Friday at the Ground at Club Space in Miami.

~ Tim Moffatt