LYNN TAITT with JASON WILSON & TABARRUK and JAY DOUGLAS at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), tonight (Thursday, April 13), 8 pm. $30, advance $25. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
When I finally reach Lynn Taitt at his Montreal home, the rocksteady legend apologizes for not hearing the phone ring. It's not because Taitt's half-century in the music business has affected his hearing. He's just been locked away in his self-built garage studio working on some new arrangements he's been hired to write for a local Italian wedding group who just scored a bar mitzvah gig.
"I'm always busy," laughs Taitt, who still hauls out the guitar for infrequent concert dates, playing his classic ska and rocksteady instrumentals. "If it's not doing some new charts for the wedding band, it's working on songs with the calypsonians for our annual Carnival celebrations here in Montreal. I've got a good little business going. Anyone who wants to do a song, they bring me their idea on a cassette, I'll write the music and arrange it so they can sing it. There's always something for me to do."
It's just business as usual for the tireless 71-year-old Trinidadian transplant, who's never stopped working since leaving his San Fernando home for Jamaica to cash in on the independence festivities.
Unfortunately, Taitt got there in 63, a year late, yet he wound up getting involved in Jamaica's emerging ska scene at a time when guitarists were in fortuitously short supply. Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb was impressed enough with Taitt's picking prowess to invite him to Duke Reid's studio to throw down with Baba Brooks, Ska Campbell and Roland Alphonso, which resulted in the ska classic Shank I Sheck and launched Taitt's career as an in-demand studio ace.
Not only did Taitt introduce the sound of solid-body electric guitar to ska music, but he also added what he thought was a minor arrangement feature that changed the way ska was played.
"Before I came along, only jazz players in Jamaica were using electric guitars like mine. Jah Jerry, who worked with the Skatalites, played an acoustic guitar with a pickup screwed onto it that he'd strum up with his thumb. That's that choppy sound you'd hear on all the old ska recordings. Every one of them would begin with a drum roll, so I tried fooling around with a guitar introduction instead. I'm the one who started that."
Perhaps Taitt's greatest musical contribution was the invention of rocksteady, which provided an evolutionary link between the uptempo bounce of ska and the downtempo throb of reggae. The way Taitt tells the story, it wasn't something he was planning, This was supposed to be just a regular studio session like any other.
"Hopeton Lewis came into Khoury Studio with a ska tune he wanted to do called Take It Easy, but the tempo was too fast for him and he kept singing out of time. So I told Gladdy (pianist Gladstone Anderson), "Slow down the pace and let's see what happens.' We tried it slower and the engineer said, "Man, that's real slow but, you know, it sounds good.' That thing took off like wildfire."
More than merely slowing down the rapid charge of ska, Taitt also hit on the brilliant concept of using his guitar to double up on the bass line, which gave rise to what would come to be known as the rocksteady rhythm.
Again, it was no big deal to Taitt.
"That idea came from the bands I'd hear in Trinidad. At a certain point in the song, the guitar and bass play the same thing, so I just took that and applied it to what I was doing in Jamaica.
"I was also the first to have what's called a "combo side' just five musicians and a singer. Because I wasn't using horns, producers found that it made good business sense to record with me, which also helped the rocksteady sound to catch on. Between 1966 and 68, I practically lived in the studio."
So many amazing songs were produced in Jamaica during the rocksteady era, it's still difficult to fathom that it was all finished in just over two years, making way for the reggae explosion. The question is, why did production of the hugely popular rocksteady sound in Jamaica come to a screeching halt in 68? Perhaps Taitt had something to do with that, too.
"In 68 I got a contract to come to Toronto to work with a band. I didn't really want to go, but it was only going to be for two weeks. I arrived in Canada on April 8, 1968, and it was so beautiful and peaceful here that I decided to stay.
"That's it. I have no regrets."