Trojan
 

"Alton Ellis has always been popular with the younger generation. A most competent exponent of Rock Steady, Soul and Reggae"

Aton Ellis, born in Western Kingston in 1944, possesses one of the greatest, most exciting, and most expressive voices in any genre of music full of emotion, exuberance and love. He has written some of the finest and most incisive songs in the history of Reggae and yet typically still regards himself primarily as an interpreter of other people's material:

"I was very much into the beat. I could take a song like 'My Willow Tree' or 'Ain't That Loving You' and make it into a Jamaican song... I was capable of placing the song so properly within the Rocksteady rhythm that you could hear the R&B flavour and feel the Rocksteady rhythm at the same time. I put them together properly and this is one thing I am proud of."

It is a fact that one of his many gifts was to take Rhythm & Blues, Soul or Pop songs, place them in a particularly Jamaican context and make them far more than 'cover' versions, but Alton's self deprecation is all too typical of a man who has done more to fashion the fabric of Reggae music than many more celebrated performers. Jamaica has long been noted for its incredible depth of musical, and especially vocal, talent, and Alton Ellis is beyond any reasonable doubt the island's most soulful singer ever - quite simply, his influence on the development of Jamaican music is profound. He came from a musical family and his younger sister, Hortense, appeared in six semi-finals and four finals of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour before being awarded the title of Jamaica's best female vocalist in 1964.

Alton too triumphed in Vere John's talent contests but his initial success was for his dancing prowess rather than his singing skills:

"I started as a dancer on Vere John's opportunity Hour. This was an open contest that took place around Jamaica for a period of six or seven years. Majestic Theatre, Ambassadors Theatre, Palace Theatre were the three main venues but sometimes on the final night it would move to a bigger theatre like Ward Theatre or Carib. I win a couple of contests dancing and then switch to singing. I was singing on my own and Eddy Perkins asked me to join (him as a) partner. In those days you have a lot of harmony singers in pair: Higgs & Wilson, Blues Busters, Charmers, Clarendonians, Melodians. So it was Alton and Eddy then. We wrote 'Muriel' and went to 'Coxsone'. That was the birth of my career really. We had no general direction. No set pattern. We just recorded anything that sounded good and was saleable..."

'Muriel' was released on 'Coxsone' Dodd's Worldisc label and proved to be a huge hit and, as Alton and Eddy began to make a name for themselves, they also recorded for Vincent Chin's Randy's label and Dodd's arch rival Duke Reid, in the same slow ballad style. Initially no one viewed the nascent Kingston music scene as a long term prospect and these fledgling singers, with their shared love of music, had ambition to become nothing more than well known local personalities:

"In the earlier days all the guys in the business used to work together. I might have Ken Boothe or Delroy Wilson, John Holt or Pat Kelly or one of The Heptones on backing vocal. 'Coxsone' used to pay for backing vocals too so it was extra money. But you also did it for fun and for public recognition more than anything else. You are a guy from the ghetto and you want to be on the radio, the TV, to be on the Christmas morning big concert. It really was the recognition."

Eddy Perkins decided to depart for a solo career and Alton continued to make records in a solo capacity for Studio One and also started to work for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label, as lead singer of Alton & The Flames. In 1966, as Rocksteady came to prominence, Alton became the undisputed leader in the musical field and Treasure Isle became the undisputed top studio and record label. Rocksteady allowed singers, under the influence of USA harmony groups, to express themselves in a uniquely Jamaican way. Alton's 'Rock Steady' released on Treasure Isle seven inch was one f the first records to use the term, while his 'Mr Soul Of Jamaica' album for Treasure Isle is still regarded by the cognoscenti as the definitive Rocksteady album. He was persuaded by 'Coxsone' to join Studio One's Soul Vendors band as featured vocalist for a tour of the UK and he consequently re-recorded many of his Treasure Isle hits for Studio One. The tour was an unqualified success and on his return to Kingston he continued to move between Brentford Road and Bond Street. Some interesting variations occurred as he sang different versions of the same song for both producers such as 'Black Man's Pride' also known as 'Black Man's World'. Alton sung 'I was born a loser' for Studio One but Duke Reid told him that there were no losers at Treasure Isle and Alton, after having sung the defeatist refrain, then sang it again for Duke as 'I was born a winner'.

Alton was one of the first singers whose songs reflected local social issues and concerns and, while other singers chose to remain ambivalent in their attitude towards the lawless behavior of the rude boys, Alton put himself right in the firing line and issued a series of records including 'The Preacher' and 'Blessings Of Love', on which he vehemently condemned their anti social behaviour. In 'Dance Crasher', he urged them to do something constructive and, instead of committing acts of negative violence, to be more like local hero boxer Bunny Grant, who had attended Boys Town School with Alton:

"Bunny Grant was lightweight champion then. I was proud of him because Bunny is a Boys Town boy also and instead of fighting in the dancehall and cause all them fuss they should be a champion and have a nice successful life. I don't know what him make of it now, but then Bunny was very successful and I was pointing the youth in his direction."

But taking this type of stand in the volatile area of Kingston in which Alton lived served to make him a target for the rude boys:

"Then I got threatened a couple of times. Living in Trench Town and being in that environment amongst the people and being an artist I'm easy to get at. So I tell Duke Reid I would refrain from singing these types of songs...

And so he returned to love songs:

"So I was telling the young guys to lay off violence... I back of from that type of recording and go back to more loving sounds. But of course love is a fact too and a serious fact. I was always personally inclined to be a more loving type of person. This is something I have come to realise over the years. It's easier for me to sit down and write a song about love than about other situations. I feel it more and express it more. I think it's in my nature... And most of these songs are a story I'm telling about my life - it's personal."

Many of these autobiographical songs are about his wife, Pearl, and the heartbreak he endured when they broke up, and one of his most beautiful (and most versioned songs) 'I'm Still In Love With You' was sung as a direct appeal to Pearl. As the sixties drew to a close, Alton moved on from both Studio One and Treasure Isle and began again to intersperse his romantic songs with the more socially conscious lyrics that would become increasingly popular in the coming decade.

He freelanced for a number of different producers, often producing himself too, and many of his greatest performances from this period are featured on this set. Alton returned to his anti rude boy stance and seriously admonished them alongside Keith Hudson in 'Big Bad Boy'.

He returned to the UK in 1972 and took up permanent residence in London where he has based himself intermittently ever since. he has added immeasurably to the capital's Reggae scene where he nurtured the career of Janet Kay at the beginning of her rise to the role of 'The Queen Of Lovers Rock'. Alton also organised Rocksteady Gala shows held annually at the Hammersmith Palais over the Easter Bank Holidays in the nineties, showcasing the cream of mid to late sixties Jamaican talent. These proved to be very popular and when Alton closed the 1993 show with a rendition of Rosco Gordon's 'Let Him Try', performed not as an upbeat Rocksteady into Reggae song as he had done for his Studio One release but as a slow churning ballad in the style of the original, the tears welled up in my eyes.

Aton's later recorded work continues to do far more than relive past glories and he realises that in singing politically aware songs early on in his career he was instrumental in setting the blueprint for the direction that the music would take, but he is also aware that perhaps singing (and talking) about a revolution might not be enough. At least it was a start:

"At one time I think Jamaicans was too subtle a people. Too subservient you know. Badly suffering and yet we do nothing about it more than just fold up like cabbage. So maybe that was the time when the revolution business turn over and it start. But I didn't appreciate it from the angle. Because you don't start in the dancehall. That don't really solve any political problem."

He continues to inspire a singular love and devotion amongst Reggae music followers and his appearance at Jamaica's Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1994 caused one middle-aged fan to scale the eight feet high fence between the audience and the photographers' enclosure, perch precariously at the top and tearfully cry out for Alton to sing his favourite song for him:

"Me a beg you... Me a beg you.... Me a beg you...."

Alton leaned forward and cupped his hand to his ear but was unable to discern what song it was that this man was so desperate to hear and I feel that I have experienced similar difficulties here in attempting to describe and communicate my love and admiration for Alton Ellis and to question why he is nowhere near as universally revered as his achievements deserve. If he had worked in any other musical genre he would be regarded today as a towering presence for shaping and making the music what it is, yet he accepts this with the kind of proud yet world-weary resignation that it takes a lifetime of getting knocked back to achieve. He has come to terms with his disillusionment with Reggae business:

"You learn as you get older and realise..."

I am still unable to and continue to wait for the day when it will be put right...

HARRY HAWKE

Something You've Got
Dance Crasher
Don't Trouble People
The Preacher
Blessings Of Love
Shake It
(Girl) I've Got A Date
How Can I
Cry Tough
Rocksteady
Duke Of Earl
My My Tears (Come Rolling)
Ain't That Loving You (For More Reasons Than One)
Why Birds Follow Spring
If I Could Rule The World
Oowee Baby (Baby I Love You)
My Willow Tree
I Can't Stop Now
Why Did You Leave Me
I Can't Stand It
My Time Is The Right Time
Bye Bye Love
Tonight (aka Feeling Inside)
Give Me Your Love
Keep On Yearning
La La Means I Love You
If I Had The Right
Breaking Up
Diana
Remember That Sunday
What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)
You Made Me So Very Happy
Black Man's World (aka Black Man, White Man)
I'll Be Waiting
It's Your Thing
(Lord) Deliver Us
Back To Africa
Wide World
You Said It Again (aka I'll Make It Up To You)
Working On A Groovy Thing
Hey World
True Born African
(If I) Don't Care
Harder And Harder
Play It Cool (aka Rock On Time)
Be True (To Yourself)
(Baby) I'm Trying
Wonderful World
Big Bad Boy
You Are Mine
All That We Need Is Love
(I Don't Know Why) Truly
Alphabetically Yours
I See My Future In You
Alton's Official Daughter
Better Get Your Hands Together (aka I'll Take Your Hand)

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