Alton Ellis died this week from lymphatic cancer, at the age of 70 in his adopted city of London, his primary residence since 1973. He continued to perform until nearly up to his death.
Ellis, dubbed The Godfather of Rocksteady, is said to have released the first real rocksteady record, “Get Ready-Rock Steady,” which basically incorporated a slowed-down ska beat. The bassist didn’t show for the recording session of the song, and Jackie Mitto, primarily a keyboardist, could not keep up with the frenetic ska rhythm. The slowed-down syncopation allowed Ellis to drag out his vocals, emphasizing the smoothness of his voice.
Rocksteady was a short-lived genre, as it was usurped within a few years by reggae and the popularity of artists like Bob Marley. It emerged out of the phenomenon of young people from the Jamaican countryside making their way into the ghettos of Kingston, creating rude boy culture, which rebelled against post-independence optimism. Essentially, rude boys were juvenile delinquents who leaned toward political rebellion vs. complacency. While many rocksteady artists were fighters, Alton Ellis was more of a lover, singing several songs, like “Dance Crasher,” which denounced rude boy violence.
Ellis had over twenty children, cementing his reputation that he was definitely more of a lover.
Here are some choice Alton Ellis cuts:
Ellis recorded many duets with his younger sister Hortense.
An odd choice for the Kingston-born Ellis, covering the Bee Gees song (an odd song in itself for the British-born, Brisbane-raised brothers):
A song saying, “Hey, don’t break up the dance!”
Here’s Ellis covering “It’s A Shame,” most famously sung by The Spinners. Stevie Wonder and his under-rated wife Syreeta wrote the song about their breakup (see my Syreeta homage Come Give Me Your Sweetness from August 2008).