Love it or hate it, but The Beatles 'Ob La Di Ob La Da' was Paul McCartney's tribute to Jamaican ska music. Surrounded by the sound of rocksteady and early reggae that was all the rage in the U.K, in the late 60's, McCartney's tale features a character named Desmond (likely after Desmond Dekker who was enjoying a string of hits including 'The Israelites') and his wife Molly set to a ska like rhythm. Even more interesting is the story about the man who was the inspiration for the song -- Jimmy Scott -- and his fascinating connection from The Beatles to New York ska maestro Rob 'Bucket' Hingley of The Toasters and later 2-Tone ska heros Bad Manners.
But let's start at the beginning. 'Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra' was a phrase McCartney had heard from a Nigerian friend named Jimmy Anonmuogharan Scott Emuakpor (known as Jimmy Scott), who he met out in Soho night clubs in London. The phrase was Yoruban for 'Life goes on'. Scott was born in Nigeria, and came to England in the 1950's, where he found work as a jazz musician and became an in demand percussion player. He played with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames in the Sixties, backed Stevie Wonder on his 1965 tour of Britain and later formed his own Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da Band. According to McCartney:
I had a friend called Jimmy Scott who was a Nigerian conga player, who I used to meet in the clubs in London. He had a few expressions, one of which was, 'Ob la di ob la da, life goes on, bra'. I used to love this expression... He sounded like a philosopher to me. He was a great guy anyway and I said to him, 'I really like that expression and I'm thinking of using it,' and I sent him a cheque in recognition of that fact later because even though I had written the whole song and he didn't help me, it was his expression.
It's a very me song, in as much as it's a fantasy about a couple of people who don't really exist, Desmond and Molly. I'm keen on names too. Desmond is a very Caribbean name.The fact that Paul used this catch phrase as the basis of a song later became a matter of real controversy with Scott.
"He got annoyed when I did a song of it because he wanted a cut," Paul told Playboy in 1984. "I said 'Come on, Jimmy. It's just an expression. If you'd written the song, you could have had the cut.'"According to several Web sites dedicated to The Beatles, Scott actually played congas on the recording session for 'Ob la di Ob la da' in July 1968 - the one and only time he worked with the Beatles. Later that year, he was arrested and taken to Brixton prison to await trial on a charge of failing to pay alimony to his ex-wife. He asked the police to contact the Beatles' office to see if McCartney would foot his huge outstanding legal bill. McCartney did, on condition that Scott dropped his case against him over the song.
It took 42 hours to complete the recording of 'Ob La Di Ob La Da', mostly because of Paul's perfectionism. John Lennon was apparently sick of the song when he turned up in the studio. Allegedly under the influence of drugs, he sat down by the piano and smashed the keys at twice the speed of the more ska-like takes. Interestingly, this was the version the Beatles ended up using on the record. Below is one of the more ska-like versions of the song that The Beatles recorded which includes Scott's percussion:
Give a listen to Scott's percussion prowess on his band's hammond jazz funk track below:
Scott's brush with ska music did not end in the 60's with The Beatles. In fact, just as 2-Tone was exploding all over the U.K., Scott joined a short-lived ska and reggae band called I-Witness that had as one of its members Rob 'Bucket' Hingley, who would later move to New York City where he would found The Toasters. I Witness did achieve a small degree of commercial success with the song 'Portabella Cheryl' but the band didn't stick together. I spoke with Hingley who shared the following memories about Scott:
Jimmy Scott was quite a character to say the least. Originally from Nigeria, or Ghana, depending on who you asked or what time of the day it was, he was a virtuoso percussion player. I got to know him well whilst we were both playing in an ska/reggae outfit in London in 1979 called I-Witness and who had some minor success with a tune called Portabella Cheryl. He was on bongos in that band and for him everything was "high life" There really was an irrepressible good humour to the guy and he was fun to work with as he was always very excited about everything and had an incredible energy on stage where he would show up in full tribal regalia. When we were learning the tunes there weren't, according to him, any chords or notes, everything was "a goong-goong"
There was one day where my Jennings Music AC30 (which was pre Vox from 1959) got dropped down the stairs at Ronnie Scott's in London and Jimmy joked that the only thing there older than that was him!
Truly a great person and I was very sad to hear of his passing, but in true Jimmy fashion it was while he was gigging.
In 1983, Scott joined Bad Manners (he's sitting with his dog in the picture above) and toured with the band for three years (I was lucky enough to see him perform with the band at The Ritz in New York in 1984). He is featured on the band's one American release 'Forging Ahead' on Portrait Records and 'Mental Notes' on Magnet Records and and was still with the band when he died in 1986. According to Doug 'Buster Bloodvessel' Trendle:
"We'd just done this tour of America and he caught pneumonia. When he got back to Britain he was strip-searched at the airport because he was Nigerian. They left him naked for two hours. The next day he was taken into hospital and he died. Nobody is too sure how old he was because he lied about his age when he got his first British passport. He was supposed to be around 64."In July 1986, a concert featuring Bad Manners, Hi Life International, the Panic Brothers, Lee Perry and the Upsetters as well as many others was mounted at the Town and Country Club in London to raise money for the Jimmy Scott Benevolent Fund. He left a widow Lurcrezia and an estimated 12 children from two marriages. "Jimmy was essentially a rhythmic, charming, irresistible man with the gift of the gab," Lurcrezia Scott wrote in the benefit's program. "If life was sometimes dull, it shouldn't have been, for his stories of people, of places, of incidents, were an endless stream bubbling with fun."
Below are two videos of Bad Manners featuring Jimmy Scott on percussion. The first is the promo video of the band performing a cover of Millie Small's classic 'My Girl Lollipop' and the other of the band performing their classic 'Special Brew'. Enjoy and RIP Jimmy Scott!