September 1, 1938 – October 10, 2008
Ashley Beedle pays tribute to one of the great voices of Rock Steady
A couple of years ago my dad gave me his collection of reggae 45’s after years of me badgering him that as I was the d.j. of the family they would be better served.
A couple of weeks ago my dad asked me to burn onto a cd one of those 45’s which he said was his all time favourite.
That particular record was “Muriel” by Alton and Eddie on the legendary Bluebeat imprint.
Alton Nehemiah Ellis was born in Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica in 1938). He was raised in a musical family, learning piano at an early age.
In the late 1950’s he teamed up with Eddie Perkins to form Alton and Eddie.
The dynamic duo scored with their first hit “Muriel” which was recorded for Clement ‘Coxone’ Dodd of Studio One fame.
Eddie Perkins later left for the United States and with Dodd’s tutelage Alton carried on. He received little financial reward though, and switched over to Dodd’s arch rival, Duke Reid and his Treasure Isle set up.
In 1965 he formed a vocal back up trio called The Flames (which initially featured his brother Leslie and Winston Jarrett although membership would fluctuate). Ellis quickly scored a major hit with the antiviolence plea “Dance Crasher”, then the following year he released what was arguably the first rocksteady single “ Get Ready – Rock Steady “.
It’s innovative beat came out of a session where the scheduled bassist didn’t show up, forcing keyboard player the great Jackie Mittoo to play the bass part himself. Mittoo’s left hand couldn’t keep up with the frantic ska beat, so he slowed the tempo down. The result allowed the singer to stretch out more and soon the rocksteady sound had taken over Jamaica with Alton Ellis at the forefront.
Several other major successes followed including “Cry Tough” and the killer smash “Girl I’ve Got A Date” which became his biggest hit and signature song. He also cut several duets with Phyllis Dillon and also his sister Hortense Ellis.
By 1968, Ellis was back at Studio One where he cut the tunes “Willow Tree”, “I’m Just A Guy” and a cover of the Billy Stewart soul classic “Sitting In The Park”. In 1970, he released one of the finest Studio One albums “Sunday Coming”. He also recorded with renowned Jamaican producers Lloyd ‘Matador’ Daley and Keith Hudson. However for all his success he was still not being paid properly. Disillusioned, he spent sometime in the United States and Canada, and then relocated to England on a mostly permanent basis in 1973.
In England, Ellis established his own label called Alltone, which he devoted to both new recordings and compilations of his early classics.
The rise of roots reggae and the dancehall overshadowed Alton Ellis’ considerable legacy but he remained a fondly remembered pioneer of Jamaican music.
His song “I’m Still In Love With You Boy” became a much versioned rhythm culminating in the international number one hit “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea and Donna. His other much versioned song was “Mad Mad” and the instantly recognizable horn riff was reinterpreted by Jamaican producer Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes to become the “Diseases” rhythm. This in turn was sampled by Yellowman, KRS – One, Notorious Big and Blackstar too name a few. This constant reinterpretation and referencing has made Alton Ellis a major but little known influence in the trajectory of reggae, dancehall and hip-hop.
Alton Ellis was a live favourite and made triumphant appearances at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica as well as touring all over Europe.
Alton Ellis died on the 10th October 2008 at Hammersmith Hospital, West London of lymphatic cancer. He fathered more than twenty children including Noel Ellis and Christopher Ellis, who are both reggae singers.
remember him this way;
ALTON ELLIS RIP – SET THE TONE 67’s FOREVER TREASURED 5
1. ALTON ELLIS – DANCE CRASHER – TREASURE ISLE 1965
2. ALTON ELLIS – WHAT DOES IT TAKE – DUKE REID 1970
3. ALTON ELLIS & PHYLLIS DILLON – WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME TO CRY – TREASURE ISLE 1967
4. ALTON ELLIS & THE FLAMES – CHATTY CHATTY PEOPLE – TREASURE ISLE 1968
5. ALTON ELLIS – LA LA MEANS I LOVE YOU – NU BEAT 1968