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Saxophonist Roland Alphonso was one of the major figures of early ska and reggae on several fronts: his recordings as a soloist and bandleader, his work as a member of the Skatalites, his prolific log of session appearances on 1960s Jamaican recordings, and his role as arranger for Studio One. Although his roots were in the jazz he played as a teenager and young man, he adapted to the emerging Jamaican popular music so well that he became one of its defining innovators. Certainly he was one of reggae's most accomplished instrumentalists; while many horns on ska and rock steady discs of the 1960s are off-key or whiny, Alphonso's tone was in a league with American jazzmen and R&B players. His versatility allowed for a wide scope of recorded material, from up-tempo ska novelties and ballads that showed his skill at jazz improvisation to numbers with an R&B/soul base.
Born in Cuba in 1931 to a Jamaican mother and Cuban father, Alphonso moved to Jamaica with his mother when he was two years old. As a teenager in the late '40s, he began playing professionally with jazz bands on tenor and alto sax, taking Illinois Jacquet as one of his inspirations. By the early '50s, he was already recording as a session man, playing on sides by calypso artists like Young Kitchener. In 1956, he made his first tracks with producer Coxsone Dodd, and although those were lost when they were sent to New York to get mastered, Alphonso soon became a feature of Dodd's sessions at the Federal Records studio. From the late '50s onward he recorded often under his own name, both for Dodd and for other producers, such as Duke Reid.
In the early '60s, Alphonso pioneered the ska sound on instrumentals that matched R&B and boogie influences from the States with the clipped, quick rhythms of Jamaica. He became a major part of the scene at Dodd's Studio One operation, playing alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, as well as flute. He also worked as arranger and helped emerging major groups, including Bob Marley & the Wailers. And around the end of 1963, he teamed with several other top Jamaican musicians to form the Skatalites, the most important ska instrumental band (who also provided studio backing for vital vocalists, such as the Wailers).
The Skatalites broke up in August 1965, but Alphonso continued to play and record in the newly formed the Soul Brothers, who turned into the Soul Vendors by 1967. All the while he kept on recording, either as a part of those prominent bands or under his own name. His playing, as well as the arrangements on his sides, were keeping pace with contemporary trends, as demonstrated on "Do It Good" (recorded in 1966 but not released until 2000), which has funky horn lines not far removed from James Brown records of the era.
In the late '60s and early '70s, Alphonso led the Ruinaires, the house band for the restaurant/nightclub the Ruins. That gig came to an end in the early '70s when he suffered a stroke at the age of 41. He was able to recover pretty quickly, however, moving to the United States at the end of 1972 and soon returning to performing and recording. By the late '70s and early '80s, he was active on the New York-area live circuit with the band Jah Malla, also playing regularly at the Apache restaurant in Brooklyn. The Skatalites re-formed for the first time in 1983, and in the 1980s and 1990s, they would tour the world and record, receiving far more international acclaim than they had in their mid-'60s heyday. In the 1980s he also recorded a solo LP, Roll On. He suffered a burst blood vessel in his head during a Skatalites show in Hollywood in November 1998 and died after another burst vessel a few weeks later.