Remembering Lester ‘Ska’ Sterling

By:  Carter Van Pelt

Skatalites founding member and saxophonist Lester Sterling, O.D., passed away on May 16th at the age of 87. A product of Alpha Boys School’s illustrious music program, he had been the last surviving charter member of the globally influential Jamaican ensemble. He first appeared on recordings as early as 1962 for Coxson Dodd (with Herman Sang’s City Slickers) and was a studio session regular in the 60s and 70s, including dozens of ska and rocksteady dates with The Wailers, Maytals, Gaylads, and Heptones. He participated in the revived career of the Skatalites from the 1980s to his retirement in 2014, able to see the lasting influence and acceptance of three genres of music he helped create: ska, rocksteady, and reggae.

In the Skatalites, while he was often overshadowed by legendary hornsmen Don Drummond, Johnny Moore, Roland Alphonso, and Tommy McCook, he came to the fore as alto saxophonist on popular instrumentals such as “Latin Goes Ska,” “Hot Cargo,” and “Indian Summer.” As did his fellow alumni from the Skatalites, Sterling helped in the transition to the rocksteady era, recording lasting sides such as “Inez” for Duke Reid, “Pupa Lick” for Dodd, and “Soul Voyage” for Bunny Lee, whose production career he would help launch (along with the reggae genre itself) by providing one of his earliest hits. The anthem “Bangarang” with Stranger Cole is known to this day as one of the genre’s first recordings. As Max Romeo explained, “I was in the studio when Bunny Lee was trying to attempt a change of beat, and we come up with a song ‘Bangarang’ with Lester Sterling. That was actually the launching of the whole change of beat from rocksteady. There are people who say otherwise, but I know better. I was there.”

In addition to alto saxophone, Sterling also played trumpet, his first instrument, and played trumpet on several albums for Byron Lee. As a flutist, he recorded occasionally but added the perfect finishing touch on Bob Andy’s “Too Experience,” one of the key aspects of the song.

Lester Sterling’s arrangement of Bert Kaempfert’s “Afrikaan Beat” has also endured and provided the blueprint for countless versions. Sterling recorded on the first production for influential producer Hyman “Jah Life” Wright, the instrumental “Age Of Revolution,” itself a heavy update of Dave Brubeck’s well worn “Take Five.”

Sterling is featured on three tracks on the recent Bunny Lee compilation Who Wants Some?, with “Spoogy,” “Reggae On Broadway,” and “Forest Gate Rock.”

Watch this classic performance: