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Who Is Alton Ellis?
The Legendary Godfather of Rocksteady

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Who is Alton Ellis?Who is Alton Ellis?

By Venesha Johnson | Associate Writer

โ€œBetter get ready, Just to do rock steady, You've got to do this new dance, Just like Freddyโ€ If you have ever rocked to these lyrics then you have great taste in music! These are the lyrics of our Godfather of Rocksteady's popular and aptly named track, โ€œ Rock Steadyโ€. You don't know who that is? Let me tell you all about him. 

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Alton Nehemiah Ellis OD, born on September 1, 1938, was a Jamaican singer-songwriter whose impact on music is immeasurable. He is known as one of the innovators of rocksteady, a genre that laid the groundwork for reggae. Because of this Ellis earned the informal title of the "Godfather of Rocksteady." His contributions to Jamaican music were so significant that in 2006, he was rightfully inducted into the International Reggae And World Music Awards Hall Of Fame.

How it all started:

Hailing from Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica, Alton Ellis was raised in a family deeply rooted in music. His older brothers, Leslie and Irving (known as 'Niney'), were both involved in the music scene. Ellis himself learned to play the piano at a young age and showed promise in both music and sports during his school years at Ebeneezer and Boys' Town schools.

Ellis's journey into music began in 1959 when he formed a duo with Eddy Parkins called Alton & Eddy. They recorded for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, initially exploring the R&B style. Their first hit, "Muriel," marked the beginning of Ellis's illustrious career in music.

Career Progression-

As Ellis's career progressed, he ventured into various musical styles, including our very own ska and rocksteady. His solo career took off in the mid-1960s, and he released several anti-rudie tracks, addressing the rude boy subculture prevalent in our dancehall scene at the time. Hits like "Don't Trouble People," "Dance Crasher," and "Cry Tough" solidified his reputation as a versatile artist unafraid to tackle social issues through his music.

One of Ellis's seminal tracks, "Girl I've Got a Date," recorded with a stellar lineup of musicians, including Gladstone Anderson and Lynn Taitt, is considered foundational in the development of rocksteady. Another landmark moment came with the release of "Rock Steady" in 1967, which became the first song to explicitly reference the new genre.

Ellis's collaboration with legendary producers such as Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, Duke Reid, and Bunny Lee yielded numerous hits and cemented his status as a pioneering figure in Jamaican music. His album "Mr Soul of Jamaica," recorded with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics, is regarded as a definitive work in the rocksteady genre.

Major Hits

Alton Ellis's influence extended far beyond our shores, with his music inspiring artists across genres and generations. His songs have been covered and sampled by numerous hip-hop, dancehall, and reggae artists, attesting to his enduring legacy.

He had an extensive discography filled with numerous hits that helped shape the landscape of Jamaican music. Some of his major hits include:

  1. "Rock Steady": This song is not only one of Ellis's major hits but also gave its name to the entire sub-genre of Jamaican music. Released in 1967, "Rock Steady" is an iconic track that epitomizes the smooth, soulful sound of the era.

  2. "I'm Still in Love with You": This romantic ballad, released in 1977, showcases Ellis's emotive vocals and heartfelt lyrics. It remains one of his most enduring and beloved songs.

  3. "Willow Tree": A soulful lament about lost love, "Willow Tree" is another standout track in Ellis's catalogue. Its haunting melody and poignant lyrics have made it a favourite among fans of rocksteady music.

  4. "Girl I've Got a Date": Originally released in 1967, this infectious tune became one of Ellis's biggest hits, both in Jamaica and internationally. Its catchy melody and irresistible groove helped to solidify Ellis's reputation as a pioneering figure in Jamaican music.

  5. "Cry Tough": A powerful anthem of resilience and determination, "Cry Tough" showcases Ellis's ability to blend social commentary with infectious rhythms. Released in 1967, the song remains a classic of the rocksteady era.

  6. "Dance Crasher": This uptempo track, released in 1967, became a staple of Jamaica's dancehall scene, with its irresistible beat and catchy chorus. It exemplifies Ellis's ability to create music that is both socially conscious and highly danceable.

These are just a few of his major hits, but his catalogue is filled with many more timeless classics, from romantic ballads to socially conscious anthems.

Despite battling health issues in his later years, Ellis remained active in the music scene, performing across Europe and releasing the live album "Live with Aspo: Workin' on a Groovy Thing" in 2001. His contributions to Jamaican music were officially recognized in 2004 when he was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government.

Ellis's passing in 2008 was met with an outpouring of tributes from fans, fellow musicians, and government officials. His funeral service, attended by a wide array of personalities from the music industry and beyond, served as a testament to the profound impact he had on Jamaican culture.

In honour of his legacy, the main hall of the Trench Town Multi-Purpose Building was named the Alton Ellis Auditorium in 2012. With a musical lineage that includes his late sister Hortense Ellis and his sons Noel Ellis and Christopher Ellis, Alton Ellis's influence continues to reverberate through the realms of reggae, dancehall, and beyond.

Alton Ellis may have left this world, but his music lives on with all of us.

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References & Sources For Who is Alton Ellis?

  1. Alton Ellis. (n.d.). Discogs. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from https://www.discogs.com/artist/77086-Alton-Ellis
  2. ALTON ELLIS. (n.d.). https://nlj.gov.jm/REGGAE%20EXHIBITION/Alton%20Ellis.htm
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