ALTON ELLIS – FROM TRENCH TOWN TO KING. One of the names synonymous with Jamaican music is unquestionably Alton Ellis OD; also recognized as the ‘godfather’ and the ‘king of rock steady’, although Alton’s career started long before rock steady was established as a music form.
Alton Nehemiah Ellis was born in Trench Town, the music mecca of Jamaica, into a large musical family. His older sister Hortense Ellis’ early success, popularity and constant prodding were the main influences that led him to a music career. Most persons don’t know that Alton started his career as a dancer, winning several of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour talent contests. His sister Hortense was more convinced than Alton of his singing ability and encouraged him to enter the talent series as a singer which he did, also winning on many occasions. Alton later teamed up with another Trench Town resident Eddie Parkins, forming the duo Alton & Eddie and after being introduced to Studio One by his sister Hortense, they recorded the immortal ballads “Muriel” and “My Heaven”. These were very significant recordings as they were recorded at the very first commercial recording session booked by Coxsone Dodd in 1958 at the Federal Recording Studio (now Tuff Gong), years before Coxsone established the historic Studio One on Brentford Road. Two other famous songs recorded at that session were “Easy Snapping” by Theophilus Beckford and “On The Beach” by Owen Gray, signaling the birth of ska.
Shortly after the initial releases, Eddie migrated to the USA and Alton tried several combinations, including duets with his sister Hortense for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label and interestingly, two ska duets with a young John Holt for the Randy’s label (“Rum Bumpers” and “Mouthamassy Liza”). When John joined the Paragons, Alton formed the Flames (the original lineup consisting of his brother Leslie Ellis, David Gordon and Winston Jarrett) …. and the rest is history. The hits flowed non-stop mainly for the Treasure Isle label at the time (1965 – 1967) including “Dancecrasher”, “The Preacher”, “Cry Tough” (interestingly the bass voice in “Cry Tough” is the late Lloyd Chalmers singing the lines “…how can a man be tough, tougher than the world ….”), “Blessing Of Love”, the phenomenal “Girl I’ve Got A Date” considered one of the very first rock steady records, “Get Ready Rock Steady”, “Breaking Up”, “Why Birds Follow Spring”, “All My Tears Come Rolling”, “Duke Of Earl”, “Ain’t That Loving You”, “Oh Wee Baby”, “Can’t Stop Now”, “I Can’t Stand It”, “La La La La means I Love You” and his signature cover of Chuck Jackson’s “Willow Tree” all excellently backed by Tommy McCook and the Supersonics. As a matter of fact, “Girl I’ve Got A Date” was copied to create the popular rhythm “Liquidator” produced by the late Harry Johnson (Harry J) who recently passed away April 3 this year; and also copied by the Staple Singers to produce their international multimillion-selling single “I’ll Take You There”.
A little known fact that Alton has never officially received credit for. Alton also recorded an album of duets with rocksteady queen Phyllis Dillon for Duke Reid including the hits “Remember That Sunday” and “Love Letters”; and was simultaneously recording as a solo act for Duke Reid’s arch-rival Coxsone Dodd.Alton personally related the very humorous story to me that during his prolific recording years at Studio One, he was having a lot of difficulty with his girlfriend in Trench Town nicknamed “Money” (I wonder why); who he loved dearly. Whenever they had arguments and weren’t on good terms, he’d be inspired to write hit songs, which made Coxsone very happy. When he would visit the studio and Coxsone heard the lyrics he brought to record, he would know there were some personal problems and a hit song was in the making. Listen to the Studio One songs he wrote like “Almost Anything”, “Breaking Up”, “Pearl”, “This Feeling Of Love”, “Tumbling Tears”, “Hurting Me”, “A Fool”, “I’m Just A Guy”, “Mad Mad” (this rhythm has been reused and sampled with telling success by Yellowman – “Zungguzungugguzunguzeng”, Michigan & Smiley – “Diseases”, and foreigners like KRS-One, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur), “I’m Still In Love With You Girl” (which hit number one and sold millions in several forms for Marcia Aitken, Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking”, Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit & Ting” and Sean Paul and Sasha’s recent cover). If you give these songs a listen you’ll realize that they’re more than just songs but real expressions, feelings and emotions of a man who’s hurt in love.
There were other massive hits for Coxsone like “Live And Learn”, “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle”, “Sunday Coming”, “Can I Change My Mind”, “Lord Deliver Us”, “Sitting In The Park”, “Let Them Try” “So Much Love”, “Never Love Again”, plus hits for many other producers including Bunny Lee, Lloyd Matador, Herman Chin Loy, Keith Hudson and Pama Records in the UK. Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe and the Soul Vendors were the very first Jamaican artists to tour Europe (1967), and Alton eventually migrated first to Canada in the early ‘70s then moved to England in the mid-‘70s from where he operated until his untimely death on October 10, 2008. Alton was a mainstay of the internationally renowned STARTIME vintage concert series in Jamaica, sharing the honour with John Holt of making the most appearances in the concert’s 19 years, drawing record crowds whenever he was billed to appear.
I had the privilege of getting to know him very well during his many visits to perform in Jamaica from 1988, and found him to be a very intelligent, wise, firm, yet a humble, jovial and at times vulnerable soul. Not surprisingly, many of his children are professional singers including his sons Christopher Ellis, Noel Ellis, Troy Ellis and daughter Lovella Ellis. His nephews are comedians Owen “Blacka” Ellis and Owen’s brother Ian Ellis (Ity of Ity and Fancy Cat fame). In 2004 Alton was conferred with the Order of Distinction (O.D.) by the Government of Jamaica for his tremendous contribution to our music history and his positive influence on most singers who followed. The constant reinterpretation and referencing of his music has made Alton a major but unrecognized influence on today’s reggae, dancehall and hip hop genres. We as Jamaican music lovers must give thanks for his life and always remember the ‘godfather’ Alton Ellis for his contribution to Jamaica’s heritage and music. ….. Long live the music of the King! Fittingly, Alton is buried at Dovecot in St. Catherine, Jamaica immediately beside Joseph “Culture” Hill and Gregory Isaacs.
Contributed by Michael Barnett