Alton Ellis, 70; Singer Helped To Launch Rock Steady Sound

By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Alton Ellis, 70, the smooth-voiced Jamaican singer credited with helping launch the island's popular rock steady genre, a slow and hypnotically appealing style that borrowed from elements of American rhythm-and-blues, died Oct. 11 at Hammersmith Hospital in London. He had multiple myeloma.

Mr. Ellis's career dawned in the infancy of the Jamaican record industry and spanned almost five decades. His greatest popularity was as an innovator of rock steady, a music style he helped create in the mid-1960s.

Like ska music, rock steady mixed rhythm-and-blues with the accented backbeat of the Jamaican folk music style mento. The difference was the tempo.

Ska music was frantic and mirrored the exuberance of the Jamaican independence in 1962. Rock steady, which overtook ska in popularity, was slower and with prominent syncopated bass lines.

"I spearheaded that sound without a doubt," Mr. Ellis once said, according to the London Independent. "I was off the scene for a while during the ska period and when I returned . . . there was a different mood. The musicians picked up on that, and we kept on going in that direction. The music became slower, which gave the bass player the time to play more notes."

A 1966 tune by Mr. Ellis that includes the phrase "better get ready rock steady" is often cited as the song that named the new style. Reggae, even more syncopated than rock steady, became the dominant Jamaican music style for several decades beginning in the 1970s.

Although in the United States Mr. Ellis lacked the name recognition of his contemporaries Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff, he was consistently popular with Jamaican and British audiences, and his death was a day of national mourning in his homeland.

Alton Nehemiah Ellis, whose father was a railway worker, was born in Sept. 1, 1938, in Kingston, Jamaica's capital, and grew up in the impoverished Trenchtown neighborhood. He was a dancer as a young man before turning to singing, following his sister Hortense in talent shows.

With singer Eddie Perkins, he formed an American-style doo-wop duo, Alton and Eddie, and recorded an early hit, "Muriel." A talent show in 1959 led them to a contract with Studio One records producer Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd. Dodd's other discoveries included future reggae stars Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals.

When Perkins left for America, Mr. Ellis signed with Dodd's chief competitor, Duke Reid of Treasure Isle records. Reid, a sound-system operator, affected the image of a pirate and carried pistols with crossed bandoliers of ammunition to his dances.

With his two backup vocalists, the Flames, Mr. Ellis recorded many covers of American soul ballads in the rock steady style, personalizing for Jamaican audiences such 1960s hits as Billy Stewart's "Sitting in the Park," The Delfonics' "La-La Means I Love You" and Tyrone Davis's "Can I Change My Mind?"

Mr. Ellis also recorded as a duo with the singer Phyllis Dillon, loosely modeling their style on the Motown duo Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

His original songs included "Cry Tough," which alluded to the problems posed by the rudies or rude boys, violent hoodlums from the poorest sections of Kingston. In the song, Mr. Ellis asked plaintively, "How can a man be tough, tougher than the world?" Another original song, "Dance Crasher," was inspired by rude boys who were paid by sound system operators to disrupt their competitors' dances.

Mr. Ellis moved to England in 1972 and continued to record and perform until August, when he collapsed after a concert in London.

His marriage to Pearl Ellis, for whom he wrote many love songs, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Sigma Ellis; and almost 20 children from a variety of relationships. One son, Christopher Ellis, performed with his father for the past four years.

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