Please watch out for our upcoming “once in a lifetime”-release:
VARIOUS ARTISTS: ROCKSTEADY - THE ROOTS OF REGGAE
A film and album-project
The sixteenth release on the Moll-Selekta label shares its title with a wonderful film, a heartwarming homage to the golden age of rocksteady. It documents the recordings being made for this very album at the Tuff Gong studios, Kingston, Jamaica in April 2008, telling the story of the original vocalists and musicians involved. Excerpts from an all star reunion concert staged in Kingston and older archive material complete the picture. Never before in the history of Jamaica, which already occupies a unique place on the world map of song, its sound embraced by western popular music, has such an illustrious collection of singers and players been assembled.
The album showcases 15 rocksteady classics in sparkling, deeply inspired new versions, recorded in the studio which also played host to album sessions of a certain Bob Marley. Under the musical direction of Ernest Ranglin, a guitarist of considerable renown not only on the reggae circuit, but also on the jazz scene, mixed by legendary engineer Errol Brown in Duke Reid’s employ at the Treasure Isle studio in the sixties and freshly arranged by Lynn Taitt, each of the new versions was recorded using authentic instruments to capture the true rocksteady style. Lynn Taitt alongside Ernest Ranglin the most famous guitarist and bandleader in 1960s Jamaica,, was actually pencilled in to direct proceedings, but had to withdraw for health reasons.
In the context of Jamaican musical history, Rocksteady enjoyed a relatively brief, two to three year spell in the limelight, taking over from the faster-paced, predominantly instrumental ska sound of the early part of the decade and laying the foundation for reggae to come with its emphasis on bass, more intricate melodies and by bringing singers and vocal trios to the fore. Between 1966 -1968, an unprecedented, and unrepeated, proliferation of marvellous songs moved many fans to call this the golden age. Ken Boothe | Ernest Ranglin
As Ken Boothe one of the main protagonists of the era so aptly notes in the film: “Music have a lot to do with people”, and thus we have the privilege of meeting a number of these delightful legends on film and on the album, people like Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, who had pursued solo careers in the 1960s before forming the I-Threes to accompany Bob Marley as backing singers on his world tour, taking reggae to a global audience. Hopeton Lewis, one of the creators of rocksteady, the great DJ U-Roy, an international pioneer of toasting, a precursor of rap and hip-hop, Stranger Cole, Derrick Morgan and Leroy Sibbles are just a few of the legendary figures taking part, some having met to play together for the first time in forty years. They will be reunited once again in July 2009 at the world’s largest jazz festival in Montreal, performing on the occasion of the film’s premiere. Perhaps the show will then take to the road, following in the footsteps of the Buena Vista Social Club, whose renaissance and the accompanying resurgence of interest in Cuban music owed much to a cinematic portrait by Wim Wenders. This wonderful musical style from Jamaica and the great personalities behind it would certainly be deserving of similar belated recognition.
A historical and essential work in every respect, guaranteed to sweeten the summer for reggae fans everywhere and hopefully opening a door onto Jamaican musical history for a whole host of other listeners.
- CD in a special 8-page digipack
- 15 new recordings of old classics
- many fotos
- 16 page booklet
containing extensive liner notes by the American music journalist Chuck Foster, who takes a closer look at the rocksteady years. Detailed background on each song and its performers rounds off the package.
Artist fotos download possible via: www.mydrive.ch
User: vgreutert - PW: rocksteady
Ernest Ranglin, band leader, guitarist: “It is such a great feeling to see all these musicians. Some of them I have
not seen for 40 years. It is a great moment for me”.
Sly Dunbar, drummer: "Rocksteady is the roots of Reggae. If you ask Jamaicans, a lot of them
would say that they prefer Rocksteady - because it had better sound, better
singing, better playing and better instrumentation."
Judy Mowatt, singer: “The Rocksteady era was a romantic era. We sang love songs. The era and the
times- everything combined. There was no violence. You could walk the
streets of Jamaica at 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock without being harmed.
It was a time when men and women had so much fun!”.
Stranger Cole, singer, composer: “The times were great in the Rocksteady era. There was so much love and
unity. There was no jealousy or envy among singers and musicians…The
Rocksteady days were the real love days of Jamaican music. It was a
wonderful time of togetherness…”
Rita Marley, singer: “Reggae is nice, but if you go back to the days of Ska and Rocksteady, you
find more rhythm and skirt twirling and you enjoy the music more. Boys and
girls danced together. Nowadays, if you go to a party, you hardly find a boy
and girl dancing. You see everyone dancing by themselves and it’s a whole
different thing. During the Rocksteady era, people were having more fun than
today. It was more loving and warm.”
Marcia Griffiths, singer. “The music is the greatest weapon we have today. We are depending on this
music to really unite the people of the world because this is all we have.
And I am a witness to what Bob Marley did and I know that this will never go
in vain. This is why we are here now, uniting everyone, almost everyone in
the music, who can testify to what this music Rocksteady and what our
Jamaican music has done and is still doing for the world.”
Stranger Cole/Sly Dunbar
ROCKSTEADY - THE ROOTS OF REGGAE
A film and album project
My love story with Reggae began in the 1970’s. Like many young people back then, I listened to pop, soul, blues, and all sorts of rock music. Reggae broke into this world, coming directly out of the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. The rhythm was entrancing and enraptured its listeners. The melodies were melancholic and easy to sing along to. The lyrics spoke of rebellion, spirituality and love. Reggae struck a nerve in the lives of an entire generation. Since 1985, in Los Angeles a Grammy has been awarded to reggae music, and Reggae developed many different styles. Reggae entered the mainstream and, as ethnomusicologist Jacob Edgar stated, “if music is the universal language, Reggae is its most widely spoken dialect”. Yet the wider Reggae spread, the narrower my interest in reggae music became. I started asking myself why I had fallen in love with it in the first place. This was the reason why I began looking back at the roots of Reggae, where I discovered a music treasure, which had almost been forgotten: rocksteady.
I decided to embark on a journey of discovery, to learn more about the people and their music. For more than two years I visited as many of the old masters as I could in Jamaica, London, New York and Montréal, hoping to make the right decision. It came to me as quite a shock to find that many of them had already died. And as we were about to start filming in Montréal with legendary Rocksteady guitarist and band leader Lynn Taitt, we could only look on helplessly as paramedics took him to hospital when he suddenly fell ill. This made me realize that there was no time to lose if we wanted to record the best songs of the golden Rocksteady era in its original style.
April 2008: the singers and musicians of the rocksteady era congregated in the large Tuff Gong recording studio in Kingston. For me, it was a dream come true. But as a director of the film I faced a difficult task. Since the recording of the songs and the filming were supposed to take place simultaneously, without playback, the coordination between the musicians, the sound crew and the film crew represented a true challenge. The task became even more difficult, as the temperature was usually around 30 degrees Celsius, thanks to our strong film lights. Nevertheless everyone was in a good mood and the musicians performed brilliantly together. This was something of a surprise, since some of them had not played these songs with each other for more than 40 years. The vocalists were amongst the best singers of their generation, and it is no exaggeration when I say that they still belong to the finest singers of Jamaica today.
We did not only record the songs in the isolated atmosphere of the studio. We also recorded several film-songs at some of the locations which were important for the creation of Rocksteady. Of course, recording some songs in the open created a host of new difficulties. The change of locations stole precious hours from our shooting schedule, due to traffic jams in this million-strong city. Fierce winds on the Kingston waterfront almost forced the sound recordist to give up. And as we wanted to record a song in the ruins of the once glamorous Palace Theatre, our line producer had to silence half a dozen radios, playing at full volume, in the neighborhood. But it was worth the pain, as these songs, mostly acapellas recorded with acoustic instruments, are some of the highlights of the film.
The legendary “Class of 66 - 68” of the Rocksteady All Stars did not only result in this beautiful album and a great reunion concert. It is also a journey back to the Jamaica of the 1960s. In the songs we find all the topics and themes which moved Jamaica in those days, and which are still a part of the island’s reality. In the romantic era of the mid 1960s the lyrics mostly revolved around love and dance. As the economic situation worsened in Jamaica, the songs tell us about emigration and the outburst of gang violence in the ghettos. The visit to Jamaica of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie helped raise Jamaicans’ awareness of their African roots and spirituality. And many of the songs tell of the daily struggle for survival and social justice. As a part of oral history, the film allows us to learn from the singers and musicians of that era, how and why this extraordinary music was created.
After finishing this project I had certainly rediscovered my old love of Reggae again. I hope that this album and the film will help to build bridges between the hearts of people all around the globe.
Stascha Bader (director of the film “Rocksteady The Roots Of Reggae”)
Stascha Bader graduated 1986 from Zurich University with a Ph.D. degree, his thesis being "Words like Fire: Dance Hall-Poetry in Jamaica and England". As a freelance writer and director he made many documentaries and music videos.
Judy Mowatt | Scully Simms & Gladstone Anderson
Rock steady: The holy grail to collector’s of Jamaican seven-inch singles, who consider even the roots music of the seventies “silver” to it’s “golden age,” spanned a brief period in musical history, from the late ska of the mid-sixties to the early reggae music that moved to the fore as the decade drew to a close. Of course, like ska and roots reggae itself, rock steady never died, it morphed into survivals that laid the foundation for reggae and countless artists, especially those like Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis and Stranger Cole who contributed some of it’s finest masterpieces, returned to the well throughout their careers.
Simplicity was the hallmark of the music itself, with three-part harmony, picking guitar and lyrics that dealt with everyday life, love and here and there the broader social context of the time. It was the era of the electric bass, one of the fundamental changes from ska, and the dawn of two-track recording in Jamaica making it possible to get a clean, crisp sound unheard of in earlier times, but otherwise the music had little to do with technology and everything to do with heart and soul. The artists weren’t in it for the moneyas John Holt told me, “You just want to sing and hear yourself playing back on the radio.”
Rock steady didn’t flourish in a vacuumno Jamaican music, from mento through dancehall, hasand it’s interesting to note contemporaneous and earlier influences on the music. Rock steady drew inspiration from many forms of music including the soul styling of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, early Motown and the British “beat groups” of the timeit’s no coincidence one of the era’s biggest hits was a Slim Smith cover of a Buffalo Springfield tunebut there’s something unique and refreshing in rock steady that makes it unlike the rest of the music of it’s day or even the Jamaican styles that precede and succeeded it.
As a musical genre, rock steady (or rocksteady as some would have it) is strikingly different from the up-tempo, horn-dominated music that came before it. Sweet and soulful, stark in it’s simplicity, with the horns stripped out or relegated to a lesser role and the melody, harmonies and singer’s voice out front, the emphasis is as much on the musical groove as the individual song. Reggae is a natural extension of rock steady, rock steady an inevitable reaction to the exuberance of ska. This was a musical style that served it’s singers well and some of Jamaica’s finest vocalists emerged in it’s time.
The purity of the musicand maybe of the timestand out when you hear those original recordings and this celebration of that long-gone era, which includes many original participants, captures some of the feel and attitude that went into the making of those recordings. Many who helped create this music are goneDuke Reid and “Coxson” Dodd, Leslie Kong and Desmond Dekker, Phyllis Dillon, Alton Ellis and so many morebut the music itself will never die. Return with us to another time, when melody, harmony and a dance beat combined to make a sound that will always be fresh: peel back the decades and dance the rock steady.
Hopeton Lewis | U-Roy
NOTES TO THE SONGS:
Rock steady wasand as this anthology shows still is a celebration of life. And no singer is more capable of conveying sheer joy by the tone of his voice than Leroy Sibbles. Even in conversation he can make you feel like the most important person in the worldlike what you have to say really mattersand his love of life spills over and inspires you to get on with the business of enjoying your own existence. When Leroy Sibbles calls you to a dance, you’re going to dance.
The music reminds us of a simpler time, an innocence it’s hard to recapture in the complex world we live in. When the original records were made there were no cell phones, no lap tops, no digital readout, no light-emitting diodes, no cd’s, dvd’s or mp3's. That’s not to say there were no worriespoverty, injustice, hunger, homelessness, war and rumors of war have been around a long time and none of these modern inventions look like they’ll be doing away with them soon.
But music has the ability to stave off the dire thoughts and endless concerns, it offers an ability to suspend in timefor the length of a song, for a night in the dance or for as long as you can keep the spirita mood that lightens the load and puts you back on the right road. Rock steady didn’t solve all the problems in the world but it made being here right now a bit of a joy.
This call to the dance is an open invitation to all the peoples of the world.
SOUNDS & PRESSURE
The original version, like Lewis’ “Cool Collie,” was recorded in the same session with “Take It Easy” and featured Gladstone Anderson on piano and Lyn Taitt on guitar. The feel is pure unadulterated rock steady and the break with busy, horn-drenched ska couldn’t be more apparent. The original arrangement was by Federal Records’ Keith Scott. This time around Lewis gives it a soulful interpretation in keeping with his lengthy career in reggae. These days he has returned to his early roots as a gospel singer.
Pressure was an ever-present theme in Jamaican music in songs like “Keep the Pressure Down” from Errol Dunkley, “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals and later tunes like “Pressure Them Jah Jah.” The legend that rock steady took over from ska because the summer of ‘66 was too hot to dance fast underscores the metaphor of Kingston as a “pressure cooker” and musicin this case rock steadyas the valve that lets off steam.
Though we often talk about the influences that fed into Jamaican music it’s good to remember that the eras of ska, rock steady and roots reggae were times of innovation not imitation. As well informed about American music as the artists wereand like The Beatles in England some of these artists knew more about the American music that preceded them than many Americansthere simply are no records before the original versions of these songs that had this sound. The pressure Jamaicans were feeling was channeled into a music that was more than the sum of it’s parts and the resulting sound is still reverberating.
SILENT RIVER RUNS DEEP
Jamaican parlance is filled with West Indian folk wisdom in the form of pithy sayings that would make Shakespeare or the various authors of the books of The Bible proud. Many of them have found their way into song enriching the music of Justin Hinds & the Dominoes, Bob Marley and the Wailers and dozens of other groups. Often they deal with natural phenomenon which give them the timeless echo of prophecy, stating truths that cannot be argued based on knowledge gained by careful observation. Silent rivers indeed sometimes run deep.
The song was originally recorded by The Gaylettes, who began as a trio featuring Beryl Lawson, Dawn Hanchard and Marie Clemenson. After a period of inactivity Judy Mowatt replaced Hanchard and they began performing live and working as backup singers at Federal Records. “Silent River,” written by Henry Buckley, was a massive hit. Later records included “Something About My Man” and “If You Can’t Be Good Be Careful.” Their work together is gathered on the cd We Shall Sing.
Judy Mowatt went on to a stellar career as “Jamaica’s Aretha Franklin” with hits like “Emergency Call,” “Black Woman,” “Slave Queen,” “Fly African Eagle” and “Only A Woman.” At one point for contractual reasons she recorded under the name ‘Juliane.’ As a member of The I-Threes she toured the world with Bob Marley and the Wailers and in later years found a new direction and career in gospel. Here she reprises her original lead vocal.
STOP THAT TRAIN
The soundtrack to The Harder They Come served as introduction to reggae for many, but it’s odd mix of rock steady and reggae without explanation created some confusion for outsiders for years to come. Keith and Tex did the original version on this one, with Derrick Harriot producing, and Scotty’s brilliant dj spin “Draw Your Brakes,” included on that collection, made huge inroads for reggae internationally, despite being straight up rock steady. Keith Rowe is now a dj in America and Tex Johnson has issued some solo work in the intervening years.
U Roy wasn’t the first Jamaican dj but no one has yet been able to wrangle the title of the best from him and after forty years no one seems likely to. His impeccable timing, lyrical brilliance and incomparable delivery put him head and shoulders above his peers and set a standard that helped to create an industry. More than one, since the artful dj inevitably led to the proliferation of dub and later offshoots from dancehall, ragga and MC to Hip Hop. There would be no such thing as rap if it weren’t for U Roy and a handful of artists who followed in his wake.
In a time when folk singers who sing about trains may never have seen one, we forget how essential the train was in the American South where it spawned thousands of blues songs whose harmonica solos imitated it’s familiar rhythms, or in Jamaica where it was a central mode of transport. More than a metaphor, the train itself punctuated many a relationship as a loved one returned to family or headed to Kingston to try and make a living. “My baby left me on the morning Metro-link” just doesn’t have the same ring.
With the election of Barack Obama as President of The United States this song jumped back to the top of my playlist. Ken Boothe, who voiced it originally (having written it with B.B. Seaton, lead singer of the Gaylads) delivers the song as if he were bringing the tablets of stone down from the mountain top as the clouds were breaking apart and the sun beginning to shine through.
Like The Diasporaor ZionFreedom Street is both a place and a destination, a state of mind and a reality. It’s the path we walk to get to where we’re going, the ancient wisdom that in leaving you arrive and the ultimate end of the road. The song has always called to mind the Civil Rights Erasit-ins and Freedom Riders endangering their lives to cross racial boundaries in the segregated South, the refusal to accept what until then was unquestioned.
Although a good deal of the music of rock steady was based around love songs, some like this one took love to it’s logical conclusion and became anthems for a better way of living. In Ken Boothe’s vision Freedom Street is not an imaginary place, not a pie in the sky, but a tangible, workable, attainable and sustainable vision for the future of mankind.
TOUGHER THAN TOUGH
We think of Rude Boys today as akin to gangsters, but in the time the original version of this song was recorded the Rude Boys were also seen as somewhat revolutionarybucking established trends, not willing to accept the unfair treatment dished out to those without money, clout or connections, ghetto defenders and rebel souls. Derrick Morgan wrote and sang the original and forty odd years later he returns to his role as castigator, instigator and supporter for the outsiders who refuse to be left out. The song was also known as “Rudies Don’t Fear.”
It’s telling that he updated the song in the seventies as “Rastas Don’t Fear.” By then the youth who had been Rude Boysthose who survived or weren’t in jailhad taken another turn as evidenced by the change in appearance and message of former Rude Boys Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, re-manifested as Rasta youth. Today that spirit has gone international and the symbols of those times, from the porkpie hat Morgan himself sported to the dreadlocks of the later days, have manifested internationally.
Best of all we’ve seen revival and survival when it comes to the music itself, with classic tunes reissued and projects like this celebrating the work of the past, the living presence and the future of a style of music that might at one time have been all but forgotten. Though society fought against the “ghetto” sound and style, much of what they upheld has been seen as vapid and transitory while the songs of the uprising have a sense of immediacy and permanence. Society will always try to fight down the youth, but as Morgan point out, they are tougher than tough.
YOU DON’T LOVE ME (NO, NO, NO)
A hit for Dawn Penn in Jamaica in 1967 as produced by Clement Seymour “Coxson” Dodd of Studio One, and internationally in 1994 in an updated dancehall version, the song began life as a blues called “You Don’t Love Me,” said to have been recorded by Bo Didley, Little Willie John and Sonny and Cher among others. The original melody line was retained but the lyrics retooled and, most significantly, the opening “Umn Umn Umn” sung “No No No” in Penn and Dodd’s (and all later) versions. Penn recorded it for Jammy’s as well and K.C. White had a JA hit version in the seventies. Musicologist Chuck McCabe first heard the original song in a coffee house in Newport Beach in 1964, performed by an unknown female vocalist.
The Studio One version is one of the all-time great “riddims,” with the standard blues lick replaced by a horn line straight out of Ricky Ricardo and Penn’s wistful schoolgirl delivery like a voice out of a dream. The Steely and Clevie remake (originally for a Studio One tribute) included a U Roy sample and a sped up and digitalized rhythm, but in essence it echoes the Jackie Mittoo arrangement, Penn’s mature rendition included. She made some other great rock steady records including “Why Did You Lie” for Duke Reid, “Long Days Short Nights” and a version of “To Sir With Love” that topped Lulu’s contemporaneous hit. The latter two are available on the Various Artists anthology The Bunny Lee Rocksteady Years on Moll-Selekta. Her later albums include No No No (featuring the remake), Come Again and Never Hustle the Music. This new version comes closer to the one she did for Dodd in her very first recording session.
LOVE ME TODAY
Stranger Cole is one of Jamaica’s most innovative singer/songwriters and his enduring friendship and partnership with pianist and singer Gladstone Anderson resulted in some magnificent rock steady records that have a beauty, simplicity and depth we don’t often hear in this age of pitch-shifting digital music where the recordings are pristine but capture none of the soul of the old days. Although he has had a long and successful career as a solo singer, Stranger partnered with many other singers over the years including Millicent Todd (a.k.a. “Patsy) and Ken Boothe but his sweet and simple songs with Gladdy stand the test of time.
Some of their great records over the years include “Pretty Cottage,” “Seeing Is Believing,” “We Shall Overcome,” “If We Should Ever Meet” and the massive hit “Just Like A River.” “Love Me Today,” originally known as “Love Me This Evening,” like all of those, was written by Stranger himself, a man who once told me he couldn’t write a song about a car back then because he didn’t have one. When he sings “It won’t grieve me, a love like yours I’ll never find” it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t know exactly who and what he’s talking about.
Gladdy Anderson went on to become one of Jamaica’s most sought-after session musicians, playing on literally thousands of classic recordings including as a foundational member of the original Roots Radics studio lineup. Stranger Cole relocated to Canada where he set up a record shop, then to Los Angeles and finally returned to Jamaica where his son Squiddly had become a top session player himself. Cole’s reggae recordings include magnificent songs like “Abraham Isaacs,” “Black Son” and “Teeth and Tongue” that are hallmarks of roots reggae.
RIVERS OF BABYLON
With lyrics from Solomon’s son David (transcribed from Psalms) Brent Dowe of The Melodians fashioned one of the most enduring Rasta songs of all time. Ernest Ranglin’s guitar on the original is the soul of simplicity, helping create a timeless roots anthem. “Versioned” many times over the years including a disco hit from Boney M, the song has every feature required for a classic: an unforgettable melody, a rhythm as natural as a heartbeat and lyrics of tremendous poetic power.
The versatile Hopeton Lewis can be heard as second singer on some of the best known records of the late Phyllis Dillon, with whom he first worked at Treasure Isle for producer Duke Reid. I saw them perform together in the nineties and they were a wonder to behold. Here Lewis gets a chance to show how capable a singer he is. The late great Joe Higgs used to include this song in live shows on a regular basis. It’s a natural show-closer, everybody out on the stage, like Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.” Samuel the First (on the original track), U Roy and I Roy are among the dj’s who’ve covered it.
SHANTY TOWN (007)
A massive hit for it’s author, the inimitable Desmond Dekker, the original rhythm track returned in 2007 to bed dozens of songs by artists as far-flung as Shaggy, Dennis Alcapone and The Blackstones. It’s a reminder that the sixties were turbulent times all over the world and especially in Jamaica. The ragged rhythm, plaintive lyrics and momentous wail give it the sense of urgency of a newspaper whose print has not yet dried.
Ken Boothe is one of Jamaica’s greatest and most soulful singers with a string of hits that include ska scorchers, rock steady masterpieces like “Train Is Coming” and reggae classics of astonishing depth such as “Old Fashioned Way” or “Christopher Columbus.” Like Toots Hibbert his early records are undeniable classics and his voice got stronger and stronger as the years went by.
Just as it takes an Aaron Neville to cover Sam Cooke, only a singer of Ken Booth’s depth could remake a Desmond Dekker song. Boothe has proven himself time and time again with versions of songs like “Everything I Own,” “Let’s Get It On” and “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” each time somehow managing to top the original. The song also provides an interesting commentary on continuing popularityin book, film and musicof the character of James Bond, created by Ian Fleming, who wrote every one of the original Bond books while living in Jamaica.
THE TIDE IS HIGH
Originally done by The Paragons with John Holt on lead vocal and a lone violin snaking lead, the song was remade by rock and roll’s Blondie in the early eighties and went to the top of the international charts. To this day some people, on hearing the original, think it is a reggae cover of a Blondie song just as some people think ska began in England in the eighties. The remake made such an impact the Paragons, two of whose members had relocated to the U.S., reformed and recorded several later albums.
Marcia Griffiths, who performs the song here, has a long and distinguished career in reggae music, beginning with her own rock steady recordings for Studio One, classic roots tunes like “Peaceful Woman” and “Stepping Out of Babylon” for Sonia Pottinger and, as a member of The IThrees alongside Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley, international tours with Bob Marley and the Wailers. She went on to her own international success with the song “Electric Boogie,” written for her by Bunny Wailer, which inspired the international dance craze The Electric Slide.
Her other hits include “Feel Like Jumping” alongside Jackie Mittoo, several albums with Bob Andy as Bob and Marcia including the massive UK hit version of “Young, Gifted and Black” and (more recently) combination records with Cutty Ranks, Tony Rebel, Beenie Man, Buju Banton and Da-Ville. No other Jamaican female singer can boast chart records in each of the last five decades.
Leroy Sibbles was a major force in rock steady and reggae. As lead singer of The Heptones alongside Earl Morgan and Barry Llewelyn, he fronted one of the most outstanding Jamaican vocal groups of all time. As Studio One in-house bass man he and keyboard maestro and house arranger Jackie Mittoo constructed some of the most enduring “riddims” of all time, the foundation upon which all of reggae has continued to build. After leaving the group he also sustained a solo career that continues to this day.
Though few could match The Heptones for great love songs, message tunes like “Be A Man,” “Freedom Line” and “Message From A Black Man” are among their best work from the Studio One days and later works such as “Mystery Babylon,” “Cool Rasta” and “Repatriation Is A Must” among the all-time great roots tunes of the later reggae era. “Equal Rights,” a hit in Jamaica long before the Peter Tosh song of the same name, is a simple plea for tolerance.
Poverty and racism have been linked like ball and chain for years and it’s no coincidence that Haile Selassie’s vision “That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes” and “Until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation” has greater resonance as time goes on. Imagine what a world we would live in if we truly held these truths to be self-evident.
Derrick Morgan ruled the ska, rock steady and early reggae days and helmed revivals for each in turn after relocating to England. From his early work with Prince Buster through magnificent recordings for Leslie Kong and Bunny Lee, Morgan stood head and shoulders above the crowd and his boastful series of records like “I Am the Ruler” and “I Am the Conqueror” spawned later hits such as Cornell Campbell’s “I Am the Gorgon” and the dibby-dibby dj’s whose puffed-up posturing were pale echoes of Morgan’s challenge.
His notorious war of words with Prince Buster, issued on a series of 7" singles that served as broadsides in more ways than one, was carried on despite the pair’s continuing friendship. Over the years Morgan issued many great records of this type including “Be Still (I’m Your Superior),” “Leave Earth” and “Blazing Fire.” Though he is primarily thought of as a “Blue Beat” or ska and rock steady artist today among his many great reggae records are songs like “Babylon Is Public Enemy Number One” cut for Bunny Lee.
From early hits like “Forward March,” issued in celebration of Jamaica’s independence. through UK hits like “Moon Hop” to mid-seventies classics like “Behold” with Johnny Clarke, Derrick Morgan kept up high musical standards and became a kind of elder statesman to the next generation. Today his daughter, who records and performs under the name of Queen Ifrica, continues to uphold the family tradition making records that matter despite prevailing trends.
TAKE IT EASY
Debates will always rage about what was the “first” record in any given stylealthough Jackie Berenson’s 1952 hit “Rocket 88" (powered by Ike Turner’s rhythm section) is generally conceded to be the “first” rock and roll record there are Fats Domino songs from 1947 in exactly the same style. So it is with ska (was Theophalus Beckford’s “Easy Snappin’” ska or Jamaican rhythm and blues?), reggae (if Larry Marshall’s “Nanny Goat” wins the title what is The Folkes Brother’s “Oh Carolina”?) and rock steady, with Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them” often offered as the contender to Hopeton Lewis’ original recording of “Take It Easy.”
Setting that debate aside, “Take It Easy” was a record that tore up Jamaica and caused everyone to come with something in response, tolling the death knell for ska (though ska had the last laugh with an international revival that still casts a shadow over the style that replaced it). The message of this songas inherent in the beat or “riddim” as the lyric, leads directly to later hits like Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Bobby McPheron’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s also the delightful first lesson any visitor to Jamaica learns. No problem!
Hopeton Lewis is a Jamaican soul singer with roots in American R & B. His other rock steady hits include “Sounds and Pressure” and “Cool Cool Collie” and he continued into the reggae era with songs like “Boom Shaka Laka” (1970), “Grooving Out On Life” (1971) and covers of anything from “City of New Orleans” to “The Wind Cries Mary.” His “Leaving Babylon” (1975) is a roots reggae classic and his live performances are legendary.
It’s interesting that the music itself has always held the spotlight in Jamaica. Rock steady gave birth to the version, with an instrumental over the same rhythm track as the vocal often filling the ‘B’ side of a record. In the reggae era version gave way to dub, and once again the focus was on the music itself. In Jamaica the underlying structure of the recording became known as the “riddim,” and original riddims have been re-made and endlessly recycled, resulting also in the “remix” of contemporary dance music, once again passing a uniquely Jamaican innovation on to music lovers around the world.
Fans of reggae can name hundreds of these riddims, originally titled by the first version of the song, though for various reasonsincluding the obvious one that obscuring the riddims’ origin might save the producer some moneythis tradition has given way to an endless series of names. In whatever form these classic structures, many first created at Studio One, have become a kind of lifeblood for reggae. Like many other things in reggae, the roots reach back to the rock steady era as well.
One benefit of this is that traveling artists can join forces with local bands and call out a series of riddims to voice their own songs over. “Bog Walk!” The dj yells, the band jumps in and even the brief rehearsal has become unnecessary. Bog Walk itself is actually the name of a place in Jamaica. One of the great things about the riddim is that even something new contains a familiar element, so the ice is already broken before the song proper begins. Though groups like The Soul Vendors might not have known it, they were creating a body of work that would serve as a foundation for an endless series of permutations that would make some always want to seek out the original. Here some of Jamaica’s greatest players take us back to a sweeter time.
Scully Simms | Marcia Griffith
PLAYERS OF INSTRUMENTS
It seems only fitting to close with a word about the musicians who played on these tracks.
Original rock steady would not have been what it was without the work of Jamaican session players like Lynn Taitt and Jackie Mittoo. For this project album producer Moss Raxlen and film director Stascha Bader have assembled a who’s who of Jamaican players including many who played on the original rock steady hits. Guitarist Ernest Ranglin has played for everyone from The Skatalites to The Wailers and his distinctive style informs thousands of records from Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” which he arranged, to dozens of solo albums. Hux Brown is well known to reggae fans from world tours in the seventies with Toots and the Maytals to work in England, Jamaica and the U.S. and played on many of the original Duke Reid rock steady recordings alongside Lynn Taitt and bassist Jackie Jackson.
Lloyd Parks, an original member of rock steady’s vocal group The Termites, toured internationally with his We The People Band helping take reggae international. Leroy Sibbles, who contributes vocals as well, played bass at Studio One on some of the most classic recordings of the rock steady and reggae eras. Although drummer Sly Dunbar is known throughout the
world as one of reggae’s leading lights, as a schoolboy he fed his lunch money into the juke box
to hear original rock steady hits by Ken Boothe and others. Many of the great hits he backed in the reggae era were updates of riddims he soaked up in those early days. Robbie Lyn, who plays alongside Dunbar as a member of the Taxi Gang, provides organ and piano. Pianist Gladstone Anderson first recorded for Duke Reid in the mid-fifties, before ska or rock steady, and released later solo albums like Glady Unlimited, It May Sound Silly and (as a vocalist) Gladstone Anderson Sings Songs For Today and Tomorrow.
Three of Jamaica’s greatest percussionists are featured here as well. Sticky Thompson is well known to reggae fans from world tours backing the likes of Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley but his roots are in the rock steady era. Both Scully Simms and Bongo Herman had hits in the heady days of rock steady as well, and both have continued as top session players to this day. Though we don’t hear a lot of violin in reggae it was a major element in rock steady hits by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes and others and is featured here as played by Jon Williams.
Horns were a major element in the ska era that preceded rock steady and though their use was more subtle when the tempo slowed they were also a crucial element in the later music. Trumpeter Dave Madden and Saxophonist Glen DaCosta, for instance, both played on Dawn Penn’s Studio One version of “No, No, No” and reprise their roles here. Another top Jamaican saxophonist, Deadley Headley, and trombonist Bubbles Cameron (who, along with Madden and DaCosta toured extensively with Bob Marley and the Wailers) add spice to this re-discovery of the great sound of rock steady.
Harmony was a crucial element in rock steady and backup singers here include Yeshema McGregor, Latoya Hall-Downer, Jacqueline Brooks, Bunny Brown and Prince Taf Thompson as well as Derrick Lara, Sylvanus Moore and Carlton Smith, who together comprise The Tamlins, who toured with no less than the mighty Peter Tosh. It’s only fitting that the engineer for this project would be the great Errol Brown, who started his career recording rock steady with the legendary Duke Reid and went on to top honors as one of the finest reggae engineers in Jamaica. Ska, rock steady, reggaeJamaica has contributed so much to the musical landscape including dub, dancehall and the dj style. Always innovative, always on the move, Jamaican music seldom takes the time to look back so this project holds a special place as some of the top singers and players recapture a simpler, sweeter time when we were all younger and had a hunger for a style of music that could get your feet moving and take away the troubles of the day.
Chuck Foster writes the Reggae Update column for Beat Magazine and is the author of Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music From Ska To Dancehall (Billboard Books). He hosts Reggae Central on KPFK-LA which can be heard anytime by visiting KPFK.ORG.