No easy feat for Alton Ellis ... As he faced many hurdles in his effort to help build rocksteady, reggae
As we come to the close of Reggae Month 2015, it is important that we remember the struggles and impediments that Alton Ellis encountered in his efforts to help establish the rocksteady and reggae genres at home and abroad. Ellis' struggles began shortly after he recorded his first record and first hit, titled Muriel, for producer, Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd in 1957. It was the first recording by Dodd, done for marketing purposes, as all his previous recordings were only played on his sound system. With its slow, relaxed doo-wop style, the words, written by one of Ellis' friends, and sung in duet with Eddie Parkins, was on the lips of almost every music enthusiast at the time:
'If I had a pair of wings, over the prison walls I'd fly
until I find the one I love so well - Muriel.
And just because I love her so,
that is the reason why I'd go,
although I know that it may cost my life - Muriel'.
Muriel was a big hit in England, and a No.1 tune on the Jamaican charts for nearly three months. In spite of all that, Ellis was no way better off financially, and continued to live under tough conditions in Trench Town. In a 2006 interview, he told me: "I left Coxsone and walked the streets for about 18 months, and that's why I didn't have many ska songs. But friends kept encouraging me to get back into the music, and so I put a group together, calling it 'Alton and the Flames', and went to Treasure Isle. It was a time when I was anti-badboy, never like the badboy business that begin to creep up inna the country". He responded in the early 1960s with a series of successful hits like Dance Crasher, Blessing of Love, Cry Tough, The Preacher and Don't Trouble People, for Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label, all denouncing the growing trend. Dance Crasher, done around 1964, was perhaps the most popular of the lot. It urged the anarchists to desist with words like:
'Don't break it up, please don't make a fuss,
Don't use a knife and take somebody else life, you'll be sorry'.
Ellis' success drew the ire of competing producers, who were doing quite the opposite, by glorifying 'rudeboyism' in their recordings. His success was curtailing their sales and Ellis began receiving threats. Herein lies another of his struggles to combat evil with good. The humble man that he was, Ellis decided to instead move into what was really his greatest love - that of writing and singing love songs with expression, emotion and feelings like Breaking Up, I'm Still in Love with You, I'm Just a Guy, and his first transitional rocksteady hit, while still with Duke Reid, Girl I've Got a Date, recorded in late 1965. It was his biggest hit to date, and was so massive that, "it made Treasure Isle rule the business", according to Ellis. This was certainly not to Coxsone's liking and he physically retrieved Ellis to his studios, with a promise to take him on an English tour. The tour did, in fact, materialise and was headlined by The Soul Vendors band and a group of Studio 1 singers in late 1967. The music or rhythm of Girl I've Got a Date was used by The Harry J. All Stars to create the instrumental, Liquidator, while the Staple Singers drew heavily from Liquidator to make their big American No.1 hit, I'll Take you There. Ellis achieved nothing from all of this.
Disillusioned after tour
Ellis returned from the English tour a disillusioned man, but was able to complete for Studio 1, the album, Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul, one of the most popular out of that institution. Continuing his ordeal, Ellis said: "When I returned from England in late 1967, I went straight to Treasure Isle where a lawsuit was served for me and my contract with Coxsone, and is so I reach America for the first time, as Reid sent me in hiding. I was there for over two months, then my mother died and that bring me back to Jamaica. When I was returning to Jamaica in June 1968, I brought Joya Landis with me and she did about six songs". By 1973, Ellis had become disillusioned with the reggae scene in Jamaica because of low financial returns, and relocated to the United Kingdom in search of better rewards. He describes the initial period as the most stressful in his life: "My records were selling like wildfire and I was walking the streets of London hoping to get some herb or something to sell. It was at a very low point in my career, and it was only God that brought me out without a prison sentence. I did a song with Slim Smith before I left and the producers gave it to A&M Records, and that gave me a reprieve, as I signed a contract with them".
Ellis' tour of England in 1967 became historic, when the Palmer Brothers - Jeffrey, Harry and Carlyle, decided to go into the music business, and paid Ellis to do some recordings for them when he returned to Jamaica. The first record that the brothers put out on their PAMA record label, as part of the deal with Ellis, was Ellis' My Time is the Right Time, recorded at Treasure Isle Studios in 1968. PAMA Records, which became Jet Star in later years, became one of the main distribution centres for Jamaican records on both sides of the Atlantic. The move also brought Ellis into the production business, and shortly after, he started his own label, All-Tone.
Scores of albums, issued in the United Kingdom, steadily established him as an international reggae artiste. His struggle, however, continued when a would-be sales agent absconded with the sales from his 1972 self-produced recording, Too Late to Turn Back Now. On another occasion, Ellis gave permission to a friend to release the record in Britain, on condition that he would be paid when he visited him. Ellis, however, was only greeted with a clenched fist when he turned up.