Alton Ellis: The Man That Started Reggae and Was Overshadowed by Bob Marley

Without Alton Ellis’ rocksteady, Bob Marley’s reggae would’ve never existed.

Isabel Cara

Alton Ellis: The Man That Started Reggae and Was Overshadowed by Bob Marley

At night he used to sneak into the school where he studied to play the piano for six or seven hours. That student named Alton Ellis would go on to invent in the mid-1960s one of the most important genres in Jamaica, his native country, rocksteady. “It was me who invented rocksteady really. I was touring with Byron Lee around Jamaica. Jo Jo Bennett would open every show by saying ‘People, get ready, for this is rock steady,’ and that gave me the idea for the song ‘Get ready Rock Steady.’”

“Girl I’ve Got A Date” was the first song of this new genre, a successor of ska and precursor of reggae. The way it was danced was much slower, in pairs and without the energy that characterized ska. Unlike ska, where the wind instruments were the main focus, in rocksteady, the guitars, and bass carried a much more evident weight.

The birth of this genre took place together with the cultural phenomenon of the so-called “rude boys,” young people from the poor neighborhoods of Kingston who were dissatisfied with the political and economic situation of the island and created groups of rebellion and protest. Many of the rocksteady lyrics were based on the experiences of these teenagers, who were labeled as delinquents.

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Alton Ellis (1944, Kingston, Jamaica) belongs to that list of musicians whom history has not forgotten but gives an undeserved place. Not only is he the father of rocksteady but he also placed Jamaica in an important chapter in musical history. It was in 1950 when he formed with Eddie Perkins the group Alton & Eddie, partly because of Ellis’ fear of performing solo. Together they wrote “Muriel,” a hit polished by producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd.

Although Ellis’ lyrics portrayed the lives of rude boys, he was an advocate for peace. His messages were calls for peace and equality in the country, as well as gender equality, as shown in the 1965 song “Get Ready – Rock Steady.” His collaboration with a host of musicians was a constant throughout his career: Phyllis Dillon, his sister Hortense, Lloyd Daley, Bunny Lee, and Keith Hudson. Herman Chin Loy, Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Sugar Minott, and King Jammy were some of those who created music with Jamaica’s musical hero.

The lovers of his music remember the sweet and powerful voice of Ellis, which was capable of giving sensations of beautiful harmonies in each listening of his records or his concerts. The decades of the sixties, seventies, and eighties were filled with the magic of his lyrics, and his rhythms and for having created an extraordinary bridge between ska and reggae.

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Much of the public not familiar with the history of ska or reggae may have Bob Marley in mind as the great Jamaican music colossus; however, Ellis’ importance is greater than that of the former. In the words of Dennis Alcapone, a Jamaican artist who often worked with Ellis: “Alton was a bigger artist in Jamaica than Bob Marley. Everybody, even Bob, would love to be able to sing like Alton Ellis. Everybody would sit and listen to Alton because Alton was the king.” Prolific musically, he was also a father to more than 20 children. One of them, Christopher, would say in an interview with the New York Times: “My dad did a lot for music, but he didn’t really brag about it as he could have.”

Marley has made Ellis’ story somewhat forgotten today. Fortunately, the accolades came slowly: he received the Jamaican Order of Distinction in 1994 and was inducted into the World Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

He passed at the age of 70, after a life dedicated to music and the movement. He lived in England, the United States, and Canada, countries that had the privilege of having his presence and his presentations in the different underground circuits. Ellis’ main passion, beyond the musical field, was the peace of the world and the prosperity of his country: “My message is very simple and universal, not very intellectual, but human. Just love and live!”

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva