Alton Ellis: Pioneering reggae singer known as 'the godfather of rocksteady'

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The Independent Online

The sweet-voiced Jamaican singer Alton Ellis was the artist most commonly associated with the rocksteady genre of the mid-1960s, and was indeed often called "the godfather of rocksteady". As the frantic ska beat previously popular on the island's sound systems slowed down to a syncopated rhythm more conducive to dancing with a partner, his soulful vocals shone on "Get Steady – Rock Steady", a track featuring the pianist Jackie Mittoo and recorded for Arthur "Duke" Reid's Treasure Isle label.

The first song to use the term "rocksteady", it exemplified the more languid tempo which subsequently evolved into reggae. "I spearheaded that sound without a doubt!" he said. "I was off the scene for a while during the ska period and when I returned and joined the Treasure Isle studio, I came there with a different mood. The musicians picked up on that and we kept on going in that direction. The music became slower, which gave the bass player the time to play more notes. In 1965 I named it rocksteady. The first rocksteady song was 'Girl I've Got A Date'. That one was still a bit up-tempo, leaning towards ska. It turned the tide and made Treasure Isle the number one studio."

Just as significantly, the infectious backing rhythm and instantly recognisable descending horn riff of "I'm Still In Love", one of Ellis's '60s hits in Jamaica, formed the basis for one of the biggest crossover reggae records of all time, Althia and Donna's "Uptown Top Ranking", a British No 1 in 1978. The ballads Ellis recorded, as well as his distinctive covers of soul and pop hits such as "Sitting In The Park", "Can I Change My Mind?", "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and "Massachusetts", also anticipated the advent of the softer style of reggae known as lovers' rock. His influence on this subsequent genre became manifest when he worked with Janet Kay, of "Silly Games" fame, after moving to the UK in the mid-1970s.

Born in 1938 (some reports state his year of birth as 1940 or 1944), he grew up in the Trenchtown district of the Jamaican capital, Kingston. Part of a musical family, he learned to play the piano, though in order to get any practice, he would often break into a local youth centre to use the instrument there. In the late 1950s he teamed up with Eddie Perkins to form Alton & Eddie.

The pair scored a hit with "Muriel", their first recording for the producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, and had another success with "My Heaven", but when Perkins left Jamaica for the United States, Ellis soldiered on Dodd's guidance. He received little financial reward for his endeavours, though, and switched over to Reid, Dodd's arch-rival.

A peace-loving man, Ellis was one of the few artists to condemn rather than glorify the rude boys so prevalent in Jamaican dance halls at the time with the anti-violence message of "Don't Trouble People", "Dance Crasher" and "Cry Tough". Backed by the Flames, a vocal trio often featuring his brother Leslie, he also had hits with "Girl I've Got A Date" and the genre-defining "Get Ready – Rock Steady" in 1965.

Over the next couple of years, Ellis worked with Lloyd Chalmers and The Heptones and also recorded a series of duets with Phyllis Dillon, and his younger sister, Hortense. His 1967 album, Mr Soul Of Jamaica, lived up to its title and remains one of the finest to come out of Jamaica. Never one to be tied down to a specific operator in the notoriously cut-throat world of the Jamaican music business, Ellis later collaborated with Lloyd Daley – "Lord Deliver Us", "Back To Africa" – Bunny Lee, Keith Hudson and Herman Chin Loy in the 1970s, and Henry "Junjo" Lawes, Sugar Minott and King Jammy in the '80s. After spending two years in Canada, he moved to Britain in 1974, and ran a record shop and the Alltone label in south London.

Sadly, even though the rhythm and horn riff of "I'm Still In Love" became omnipresent in reggae throughout the 1970s, with Althia and Donna as well as Yellowman, and has since been reinterpreted by dancehall artists like Sean Paul (in 2003), and sampled by hip-hop acts such as KRS One, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, Ellis received little credit, if plenty of kudos. He continued performing in the UK and beyond, even when he was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph glands in December last year. He was admitted to Hammersmith Hospital after collapsing during a show in London two months ago.

Ellis despaired of the recent vogue for "slackness" – or vulgarity and crude, sexual lyrics – among DJs and dancehall artists in Jamaica. "I don't like them copying the American style and going on about bling and guns and other foolishness," he said. "You understand how much the mentality swing in Jamaica? The whole thing swing. Because the aggression take over, and the violence take over. Pure sex business and violence. Gun and all them things. But I don't know. Who am I to change it? It's the youth who make the changes. And I accept the changes in reggae. It's only that I want them to clean it up, do you understand? My message is very simple and universal, not very intellectual, but humane. Just love each other and live!"

Pierre Perrone

Alton Nehemiah Ellis, singer, songwriter: born Kingston, Jamaica 9 September 1938; married (more than 20 children); died London 10 October 2008.