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The Music Diaries | Female rocksteady vocalists impact male-dominated era

Published:Thursday | June 30, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Marcia Griffiths
Rocksteady queen, Phyllis Dillon

Any attempt to compile a top-10 listing of the best female rocksteady vocalists, could prove a very interesting, but challenging exercise.

In a two-year blitz that spawned the year 1967 and most of 1968, the rocksteady beat, from which reggae emerged, dominated the Jamaican popular music scene and was almost exclusively dominated by male artistes like Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, John Holt, Delroy Wilson, Slim Smith, Bob Andy and others. Also in the mix were the groups - The Paragons, Techniques, Maytals, Melodians, Heptones and Gaylads. In this talented-saturated, highly charged, male-dominated field, it would take more than ordinary effort on the part of females to excel. Yet, there were close to a dozen females who made their presence felt in no uncertain way, some even equalling the achievements of their male counterparts.

On this topic, perhaps the name that would come quickest to the mind of most music lovers is Marcia Griffiths. Although dubbed the reggae queen, Griffiths' foundation was deeply rooted in rocksteady. The shift in the beat from ska to rocksteady - a more elegant and rhythmically pleasing music form - in late 1966, apparently presented the ideal platform for some female artistes and a new breed of singers to ply their musical wares. The fury of the previous high-tempoed ska beat was becoming almost unmanageable for some artistes, while the slower pace of rocksteady allowed them more time to stamp their personality on their recordings.

Griffiths seemed to have taken full advantage of the transition when she came on the scene proper as a 14-year old in 1968 with her first number one hit, Feel Like Jumping, a rocksteady cut written by Bob Andy for the Studio1 label. Her follow-ups, Mark My Word, Melody Life, Tell Me Now, Truly and Always Together, in duet with Bob Andy, were all successful rocksteady recordings that sent her on the road to stardom.


'Queen of Rocksteady'


But if Griffiths was dubbed the queen of reggae, Phyllis Dillon was no less deserving of the title, 'Queen of Rocksteady'. The Treasure Isle Studios of producer Duke Reid was her happy hunting ground. Its walls have resonated time and again with a voice that musicologists describe as the most melodious in rocksteady history. Dillon's endless flow of rocksteady hits, that ranked alongside those of her male counterparts, included Perfidia, One Life to Live, Midnight Confession and The Love a Woman Should Give a Man. They were all marvellous rocksteady gems. But when Dillon drifted into Don't Stay Away, it was romance made audible as she sang:

"If you knew how much I love you

how much I need you

you wouldn't stay away.

If you knew you were my one desire

You set my soul on fire,

you wouldn't stay away."

Singing as the lead vocalist with the group, The Gaylettes, Judy Mowatt, a member of Bob Marley's backing group, the I-Threes, had two early rocksteady hits with Silent River Runs Deep and I Like Your World, in 1968. Backed by the guitar genius and rocksteady tactician, Lyn Taitt and his band, the former was a big hit from town to country and in every nook and cranny of Jamaica. Although Mowatt had done some earlier slow pieces for producer Sonia Pottinger, it was her rocksteady cuts that really brought her to public attention. She followed up as a solo artiste with I Shall Sing, Way Over Yonder, and others.

Joya Landis, an almost sound-alike of Phyllis Dillon, was an America-based singer, who immortalised the rocksteady single, Moonlight Lover. It was a sweet concoction of rock and soul as the she sang:

"You're my moonlight, moonlight lover

when you walk along with me-e-e.

Ooh ooh, people say that our love isn't true.

But to prove that it's true, I would die for you."

A couple of little-known facts about her is that she was brought to Jamaica by Alton Ellis and she sang in duet with him on the rocksteady gem, Remember That Sunday. Landis also sang in duet with John Holt on another rocksteady classic titled I'll Be Lonely.

No No No (You don't love me) is perhaps one of the best remembered cliches in Jamaica's popular music, even to this day. It's the title of Dawn Penn's big rocksteady hit for Studio 1 that later became a worldwide hit when she reworked it with a rocksteady beat for producers Steely and Clevie in the mid-1990s. The recording revived Penn's career, after being out of the limelight for quarter of a century.

Norma Frazer is another of the rocksteady singers who helped to bring females to the forefront of Jamaica's popular music during the heyday of the rocksteady explosion. She began as a shy teenager in late 1962, singing in duet with Lord Creator on the classic Jamaican ballad, We Will Be Lovers, but when she unleashed the rocksteady bomb - The First Cut is The Deepest, it literally took Jamaica by storm and earned for her 'the best female newcomer' at the 1967 music awards in Jamaica.

Millicent 'Patsy' Todd became a household name in Jamaica during the ska era, recording successful hits in duet with Derrick Morgan. She proved equally successful in duet with Stranger Cole on the rocksteady releases, Down by The Trainline, Your Photograph and Don't want to be Hurt, while recording a handful of solo songs in the rocksteady and other genres for producer Sonia Pottinger.

Riding on the rhythm of the Techniques' You Don't Care, Nora Dean came good with the rocksteady hit, Barbwire, in 1970. Her other hits, including Mojo Girl, placed her among the top rocksteady female vocalists.

Rita Marley, who began her career with the Soulettes group, had the creditable rocksteady recordings, A De Pon Dem and Play Play Play. Hortense Ellis completes a list of 10 of the most outstanding females singers in Jamaica's rocksteady music. She recorded for various producers, including Clement Dodd (Studio 1), where she had female adaptations of her brother's rocksteady hits, Why Do Birds, I'm Just a Guy and I'm Still in Love.