Caltone Records Part 1 (the Caltone story)

Obituary of Blondel Keith Calnek

Rocksteady producer Blondel Keith Calnek, also known as Ken Lack, died on June 6, 2001 after a long illness stemming from heart problems. He was 67. He was living in Port St. Lucie, Florida in recent times, but was relocated to Miami near one of his sisters for his hospitalization. He was the youngest of 8 children, only one of which remains in Jamaica. He left Jamaica in the early 70s and only returned a handful of times to visit family and friends.

Mr. Calnek is best-known for his Caltone and JonTom (in honor of Johnny Dizzy Moore and Tommy McCook) record labels that featured some of the best rocksteady songs ever recorded. He had briefly been the touring/road manager for the Skatalites up until Drummond’s demise, and used this connection to McCook and Taitt to then go into producing records. The last Skatalites tune proper (sans Drummond) was produced under his tutelage (title escapes me now, but it came out on Caltone).

He was the first person to produce Max Romeo, then singing with the Emotions, and the Heptones. He was not a big-time producer, and recounted to me several years ago how he’d lost the Heptones and their “Fattie Fattie” tune to Coxson because he didn’t want to rush into the studio again so quickly with them, and they promptly went to Coxson.

The Caltone/JonTom catalogue combined is a relatively small one (a handful of songs were recorded in the reggae era as well), but qualitatively has long held rightful cult-status for the singular excellence of the recordings. Most of this can probably be put down to the musicians/arrangers that Calnek hired, which was either Taitt or McCook’s band. He would record either at WIRL (mostly) or Treasure Isle, and Bunny Lee was a frequent “participant” in those sessions. There are also still some unresolved questions relating to tunes involving Phil Pratt, which may be incorrectly accredited as Caltone productions.

by Mark Williams

Caltone Records – an overview

Blondel Calnek or Ken Lack (Calnek spelled backwards) first went into music production in the mid sixties with tunes like Outer Space, reputed to be one of the very last Skatalites tunes. His connection to the Jamaican music scene seems to have started with a brief spell as the Skatalites road manager working alongside PJ Patterson. His most active period for record production was in 1967 when Rocksteady was at it’s peak, his last releases were in 1968 or possibly 1969.

He had a close working relationship with other young producers of the time; namely, Phil Pratt (to who he’s been described as a mentor), H.Robinson and Bunny Lee. It seems likely that some sessions were shared between producers and on more than one occasion he would arrange for the others records to be released, a number of Jamaican productions by both H.Robinson and Phil Pratt appeared either on Caltone/Jontom labels or have Caltone matrixes. He was probably also responsible for licensing this material to R&B records in the UK for release on their own Caltone label. Alongside messrs Phil Pratt and H.Robinson Ken Lack also released sides that were produced by the Ex-Skatalite and leader of the Supersonics, Tommy McCook.

The Heptones were introduced to Ken Lack by Sidney Crooks of the Pioneers. They recorded their very first tunes for him including Crying Over You (which they later re-cut for Lee Perry) and Gunmen Coming To Town. As Mark Williams recounts in the obituary above they left for Coxsone when they were on the cusp of even greater things.

Whilst Coxsone’s gain might have been Ken Lack’s loss with the Heptones, the reverse is true of the Clarendonians who jumped ship from Studio One and immediately recorded the biting Bye Bye Bye straight to Coxsones head:

“…Now I’m free from the cat
who always scratches me
yes I’m free and so glad
he no longer holds me…”

Ken Lack was also responsible for issuing the first ever recordings by the Uniques; The Journey and Do Me Good on the Jontom label (though these may have actually been produced by Tommy McCook).

Yet another first for Caltone was the début recordings of a young Max Romeo with his band The Emotions (with Lloyd Shakespeare, brother of Robbie Shakespeare, and Kenneth Knight). Their first release was (I’ll Buy You) A Rainbow which Max recalled was number two on the radio station charts in early 1967. Eclipsing the success of the Emotions was Roy Shirley and his only solo release for Caltone, Get On The Ball released in 1967 (a couple of years after his first sides as a member of the Uniques) and the biggest seller of Ken Lack’s all too short career in music production.

Part 2

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