Reggae 101: ALTON ELLIS

Alton Ellis undeniably laid the foundation for the contemporary roots reggae music we know and love today.  He also completely changed the landscape of Jamaican music across the globe in the late 1960’s.  Ellis did all of this with one song and one album.  The album: appropriately titled “Mr. Soul of Jamaica.” The song: eponymously titled “Rock Steady.” The song, “Rock Steady,” became unbelievably popular and literally defined the music that followed it.  The acclaim thataccompanied “Rock Steady” forced reggae fans at the time to shift from a fast-paced “Ska” sound to a mellow, more laid-back Rock Steady sound.  The new sound of reggae at the time captivated audiences across the island.  For the first time in Jamaica, a widely disseminated musical art form was indicative of the people’s contemporary societal woes.

Before Alton Ellis made Rock Steady music increasingly popular, Ska music ruled the island.  Ska music mirrored the happy-go-lucky attitude shared by most Jamaicans around the time Jamaica gained its independence from Great Britain in the early 1960’s.  Unfortunately, this upbeat musical euphoria was fairly short-lived.  Years of economic disparity between Jamaica’s upper- and lower-class population, as well as Jamaica’s constant political unrest, caused mounds of discomfort among Jamaica’s poverty-stricken people.  What resulted was an increased presence of a new group of musical fans called “rude boys.”  Rude boys embodied the island’s rough and tough interior, and general disagreement with the status quo.  The introduction of rude boys marked the beginning of the end for Ska music’s popularity.  But reggae music was in sync with Jamaica’s shifting social climate in the mid 1960’s.  As the music slowed down to suit the rude boys’ taste, a budding reggae artist named Alton Ellis (trying to find his niche on a fast-changing msucial scene) released the song “Rock Steady” around 1966.

Ellis, in his breakout single, gave listeners a fair warning about the Rock Steady movement, telling them they “better get ready to do Rock Steady.”  This warning could not have been more on-point.  The song's mellow beat accompanied by reggae’s signature one-drop piano riff catapulted the single to the top of reggae charts worldwide.  The masses quickly bought into what this new Rock Steady sub-genre had to offer.  There soon became a tremendous request for more Rock Steady and Alton Ellis submitted to the fans’ demands.  In 1967, Ellis’s “Mr. Soul of Jamaica” soon followed his hit single “Rock Steady” and almost instantly became one of the greatest Rock Steady albums in history.

Indeed, Alton Ellis’s ability to “rock your soul” with his musical styling was a clear indication that Ellis was, for some period of time, “Mr. Soul of [Jamaican]” music.  The album may not have been an enormous commercial success at the time, but its cultural impact undoubtedly was second-to-none.  Ellis voiced his tracks over Treasure Isle “riddims” having vast staying-power.  Hit singles, such as “Breaking Up,” “Ain’t That Loving You,” “Baby I Love You,” and “Willow Tree” were reproduced repeatedly in both dub and vocal versions in the decades that followed the release of “Mr. Soul of Jamaica.”

Although the Rock Steady movement was engulfed by the roots-reggae movement, Rock Steady’s impact is undeniable.  Nearly all of the beats and echoed versions of Rock Steady dubs survived the Rock Steady era and bled into the roots music, which had a more conscious, Rastafarian overtone.  Alton Ellis was the spark that lit the torch that has carried throughout the roots-reggae music scene.  If you ask those fortunate enough to have lived through Ellis’s rise to music prominence, they will tell you that Alton Ellis was one of the best to ever do it.  Ellis died of cancer in late 2008, but his music will live on and remain a staple in reggae music for as long as reggae is a relevant genre of music. - Shomari W.

Listen to Alton Ellis: Rock Steady