Alton Ellis Biography

1944, Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies. Ellis, Jamaica’s most soulful singer, celebrated 30 years in the business several years ago and yet he is still making important records. In many ways he epitomizes the story of reggae vocalists: a start in the business at a very early age, massive popularity for a limited period, and a gradual decline in prominence while continuing to make excellent records. In addition to his songwriting abilities and voice, Ellis’ particular gift was his ability to take R&B or soul songs and place them in a specifically Jamaican context, and so make them ‘reggae songs’ rather than mere cover versions. Ellis was born into a musical family, and he first recorded in the late 50s as part of a duo with singer Eddy Perkins for Randy’s and Studio One as Alton And Eddy. They enjoyed some success in the R&B style and ‘Muriel’ was a massive hit for them. Perkins departed soon afterwards for a solo career and Alton continued with Studio One at Brentford Road, as well as working with Coxsone Dodd’s arch-rival in the business, Duke Reid, at his Treasure Isle Studio in Bond Street, initially as Alton Ellis And The Flames.

Ellis came to undisputed prominence with the rise of rocksteady in 1965-66, when the ska beat slowed down and instrumental records became less important. This ‘cool’ music gave singers far greater freedom to express themselves - they no longer had to battle against the frantic ska pace and ‘noisiness’, and Alton Ellis reigned supreme - his ‘Get Ready - Rock Steady’ was one of the first records actually to use the term. Both Dodd and Reid made many classic records with Ellis as he moved between Brentford Road and Bond Street, but he recorded the definitive rocksteady album for Treasure Isle - Mr Soul Of Jamaica - while his Studio One output is collected on three albums, all of which have their high points.

In the late 60s and early 70s he went on to record for some of Jamaica’s finest producers and he achieved two huge hit records for Lloyd Daley - ‘Deliver Us’ and ‘Back To Africa’, while a cover version of ‘Too Late To Turn Back Now’ that he made for Randy’s in the early 70s, has remained a firm favourite with the reggae audience ever since. He toured the UK in the 60s as a vocalist for Studio One’s Soul Vendors band, and he returned to England in 1972, where he has based himself (intermittently) ever since. However, he has now sadly admitted his disillusionment with the reggae business. He accepts its machinations with a dignified resignation, just as in the early days when his songs were covered and no royalties were forthcoming: ‘I was just proud that, whoever, would do an Alton Ellis song.’ He was involved in the beginnings of Janet Kay’s career and a cover version of one of his greatest songs, ‘I’m Still In Love With You’, formed the basis for Althea And Donna’s ‘Up Town Top Ranking’ - a UK number 1 in 1978 - but his records and live shows became few and far between, until Ellis succumbed to cancer in 2008.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.