Don Drummond

Don Drummond, aka Don Cosmic, was born in 1943, Kingston, Jamaica. To state anything more than that, would be a travesty. Apart from the fact that like all legends, nothing seems to known about his early days, men like Don D are just here for a short while, then gone…

Don Drummond was a part-time music teacher at Alpha School, a rather strict Catholic school for boys who were nearly all from poor, underprivileged backgrounds. The school, which was situated on South Camp Road, in West Kingston, was (and probably still is!) almost penal in its discipline, with beatings a regular occurrence.

Alpha veered towards the European musical tradition of marching and classical music. At the time Drummond attended Alpha, so were many other internationally known musicians, including: Wilton Gaynair, Owen Grey, Roy Harper and Herman Marquis. Don D graduated from being one of the schools top seniors, to its supreme tutor. 

Amongst his influences stood such greats as Kai Winding and JJ Johnson, and Drummond was to influence many others himself. In his wake came such luminaries as Rico Rodriguez, Rupie Anderson, Vernon Muller, Carlos Malcolm, Carl Masters, Tommy McCook, Eric Clarke, Vincent Gordon, Joe Harriot and Bobby Ellis.

In 1940's Jamaica, big band swing and jazz ruled, and the starting place for musicians like Tommy McCook (1943) and Roland Alphonso(1948), was the Eric Dean Orchestra. Drummond joined them in 1955 having been voted Best Trombonist in 1954, and then formed The Don Drummond Four. He was also cutting specials for sound systems before being spotted by Clement 'Coxone' Dodd, performing at the Majestic Theatre.

Drummond had just completed one of his many short visits to one of the local mental hospitals, and didn’t even own a trombone, but Coxone was impressed enough to take Drummond on him as a solo artist and session player. In the meantime, the specials Drummond had previously cut were starting to be released commercially in Jamaica and England to critical acclaim. Drummond started his recording career sometime around 1956, with his first record being "On the Beach", with Owen Grey on vocals.

In 1962, Chris Blackwell started releasing recordings in England, and many of Drummond’s compositions first saw the light of day on the Island and Black Swan (left) labels. Drummond recorded over 300 songs before he died at the age of just 27.

In 1964, under Coxsone's supervision, keyboardist and musical director Jackie Mittoo began to assemble the best musicians in Jamaica to create a sound that would dominate the music scene for years to come. The seeds for the Skatalites were sown while Mittoo played in the Sheiks, alongside Johnny Moore (trumpet) and Lloyd Knibbs on drums. After guitarist Lynn Taitt and Tommy McCook declined to join the band (though McCook later claimed it was his idea to form the band), Drummond was the man Mittoo turned to, and he quickly became the most prolific composer and musician in the band.

No mean feat when you consider the rest of the Skatalites later consisted of such names as Roland Alphonso & Drummond & coTommy McCook on tenor saxes, Lester Sterling on alto sax, Leonard Dillon on trumpet, Lloyd Brevette on bass, Jah Jerry on guitar, Ernest Ranglin on guitar, Rico Rodriguez on trombone, Arkland 'Drumbago' Parks and Cluett Johnson on bass. These names would soon become legends, and the band is still playing today, although the fairly recent deaths of Tommy McCook and Roland Alphonso have saddened events.

Right, (left to right) Rico Rodriguez, Don Drummond, Carlos Malcolm and Rupert Anderson.

Drummond’s first solo single, "Don Cosmic" was followed by such timeless magnificence as "Confuscious", "Ringo", "Treasure Isle", "Eastern Standard Time", "Heavenless", "Occupation", "Meloncolly Baby", "Snowboy", "Elevation Rock", "Schooling the Duke", "Valley Princess", "The Reburial of Marcus Garvey", "Addis Ababa", "African Beat", and my own personal favorite, "Further East".

Sometime in 1964, "Man in the Street" (left) entered the UK top 10, and later, in 1967 Drummond’s adaptation of the theme to the film "The Guns Of Navarone" gives him his second UK Top 10. These events confirm Drummond’s rise to the top and he is named by both George Shearing and Sarah Vaughan as one of the five top trombonists in the world. Vaughan came to this conclusion after seeing Drummond just once. Tommy McCook recalls;

“Don came on the scene initially about ’52. He became very popular and was playing with good bands at the time. He was a member of the band that backed Sarah Vaughan when she came to Jamaica and performed at the Glass Bucket club. She heard him for the first time and told the Jamaican public that she figured that he was rated in the first five in the world. From then on Don lived up to what Sarah said – he was even thought of at one time as being the best in the world. His tone on the trombone, his approach, everything was so perfect. I considered him a genius on his instrument. Even other players of the instrument expressed this, and they should know.”                          

Don Drummond was not just a genius. Drummond’s prestige among other musicians carried with it the hopes and dreams of all of Jamaica’s shantytown musicians. This was an incredible stress on a man whose life hovered between eccentricity and manic depression. His delicate mental condition was not helped by the amount of ganja he consumed, and the pressures of fame without gain simply helped to push Drummond completely over the edge. The crunch came one early morning in January 1965, after his live-in lover returned home to the apartment they shared together at Rushden Road, Johnson Town in East Kingston.

Rhumba dancer stabbed to death; Trombonist held on murder charge, screamed the January 2 1964 Gleaner Headline; 23 year old Anita Mahfood, (known as Margarita) and Jamaica’s leading exotic dancer, came home at 3.30 a.m. after a gig at the Baby Grand Club in Cross Roads. At approximately 4.30 a.m. Drummond walked into the Rockfort police station and told Constable Aston Pennycooke that;

“Ah woman in de yard stab herself with a knife and ah would like de police to come and see her.” 

What the two police officers that accompanied Drummond to his home found, in a front room, laying on one of the two beds, was the body of Anita Mahfood. She had been stabbed many times, and the knife was still stuck in her breast, under a piece of chamois cloth laid over her chest. Drummond said of the cloth that;

“Dis is de cloth which she held the knife with a stabbed herself”.

In death though, Mahfood had sealed Drummonds guilt. Lying on the floor was Drummond ‘s trombone, and Anita Mahfoods hand was pushed right in the bell…Don Drummond was held on a murder charge.

During the subsequent trial at Kingston’s Sutton Street courthouse, which took place on Tuesday February 9 1965, neighbours of the couple testified that at 3.30 they heard a car door slam twice outside the gate, followed by footsteps going up the stairway to Drummond’s apartment. Mahfoods voice was heard to say;

“Junie, please open de door fe me”.

Drummond then replied “Nuh, it is not locked”.

Mahfood then knocked on the door twice before Drummond opened it.

Witness Enid Hibbert then recalled the following heated exchange taking place, which she recalled Mahfood saying:

“Imagine I teken’ a five-minute nap an’ when I wake up I see yuh sittin, beside me very serious. Wha’ happen mon?”

To which Drummond replied “Yuh don’ wan’ ta sleep. Go an’ sleep nuh, mon. Ain’t yuh just come in?”

Mahfood: “Ah cyan’t sleep under dose conditions fe yuh have a knife wrap in a chamois between yuh feet!”

According to Hibbert, Drummond then said the knife was in his pants behind the door.

Mahfood: “Nuh, de knife is not in yuh pants pocket, it is wrapped in a chamois between yuh feet”.

Drummond “Nuh!”

Mahfood: “Nuh, Junie, nuh, Junie, nuh, Junie – Help! Murder!”

The coroners report stated that: “All four wounds penetrated the chest wall”, and “the wounds were produced by four separate stabs and all four were inflicted with considerable force”.

In answer to the question from the court; “Doctor, do you think these four wounds could have been self-inflicted?”

The coroner concluded that: “No, they could not have been”.

Drummond was duly convicted and remanded to the Belle Vue Asylum where he died in 1969, but the story doesn’t end there. For even in death, Drummond’s tortured soul could find no rest, and soon after his demise conspiracy theories took hold. Supersonics drummer Hugh Malcolm theatrically tore up Drummond’s death certificate at his memorial service, refusing to believe its official position.

Like many people in Jamaica, Malcolm thought Drummond’s death was far more sinister in origin, and definitely not suicide. The theory is that Drummond was beaten to death by guards, with the governments blessing, and the fledgling democracy had indeed repressed the West Kingston musical scene for years, along with its rasta brethren. Another theory passed about includes plots by gangsters who mixed with Mahfood’s father.

The truth probably is a lot simpler, and is probably a combination of all the theories with some simple truths. Drummond was a sick man, and the pressures of stardom are not easily handled, especially if you live life right on the edge. The history of music is littered with casualties, and with genius often comes tragedy, and the great Don Cosmic is just another star who shines bright in heaven.

I shall leave the last words on Don Drummond to someone who knew and worked with the man himself, the late great Tommy McCook. He reminisces about the Skatalites;

“The line up included Don Drummond. He really was fantastic, both as a composer and as an instrumentalist. He knew no boundaries. He would take the simplest ska tune and make it into a gem…”

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