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TopFeature ArchivesArtist Hall of FameAlton Ellis
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Alton EllisText by Harry Hawks
Alton Ellis was, beyond any doubt, Jamaica's most soulful singer ever and his influence on the development of Jamaican music through his matchless singing and song-writing is profound.
Alton Ellis
Alton Ellis
Real Name Alton Nehemiah Ellis
Born Sep 1, 1938
Died Oct 10, 2008
Place of Birth Kingston Jamaica
Related Artist(s)
Mr Soul Of Jamaica, born Alton Nehemiah Ellis in Western Kingston 1st September 1938, not only possessed one of the most expressive voices in Jamaican music full of emotion, exuberance and love but also wrote some of the finest and most memorable songs in the history of reggae. He regarded himself primarily as an interpreter of other people's material although Alton's self deprecation was typical of a man who did more to fashion the fabric of reggae music than many other, more celebrated, performers.

Alton came from a musical family and his younger sister, Hortense Ellis, appeared in six semi finals and four finals of the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. Alton also triumphed in Vere Johns' legendary talent contests but for his dancing prowess rather than his singing skills.

"I win a couple of contests dancing and then switch to singing... in those days you have a lot of harmony singers in pair: Higgs & Wilson, Blues Busters, Charmers, Clarendonians, Melodians."

In the early sixties Alton formed a partnership with Eddy Perkins; the pair wrote a heart rending ballad, 'Muriel', and took the song to Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd(CS Dodd) who recorded it and released it on his Worldisc label. It was a huge hit which they followed up with 'My Heaven'. Alton and Eddy also recorded 'Let Me Dream' and 'Love Divine' for Vincent Chin(VIncent 'Randy' Chin)'s Randy's(Randys) label in a similar lachrymose style. At this time no-one saw the nascent Kingston music scene as a long term prospect and these fledgling singers, with their shared love of music, wanted nothing more than to become well known local personalities.

"You are a guy from the ghetto and you want to be on the radio, the TV, to be on the Christmas morning big concert. It really was the recognition."

Eddy Perkins departed for a solo career and Alton started to work for Dodd's arch rival Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label as lead singer of Alton & The Flames. As rock steady came to prominence in 1966 Alton became the undisputed leader in this brand new musical field and Treasure Isle the undisputed top studio and record label. Rock steady allowed singers, influenced by American harmony groups such as The Impressions, to express themselves in a uniquely Jamaican way. Alton's 'Rock Steady' seven inch release was one of the first ever records to use the term and his long playing 'Mr Soul Of Jamaica' for Duke Reid is rightly regarded by the cognoscenti as the definitive rock steady album.

He was one of the first Jamaican singers whose songs reflected local social issues and, while others remained ambivalent towards the lawless behaviour of the rude boys, Alton put himself in the firing line and issued a series of records, including 'The Preacher' and 'Blessings Of Love', that condemned their anti social behaviour. In 'Dance Crasher' he urged the rude boys to do something constructive with their lives and, instead of committing acts of negative violence, to be more like local hero boxer Bunny Grant. But taking a stand like this in the volatile area of Kingston where Alton lived only served to make him another rude boy target.

"Then I got threatened a couple of times. Living in Trench Town and being in that environment amongst the people and being an artist I'm easy to get at. So I tell Duke Reid I would refrain from singing these types of songs..."

In 1967 Alton was persuaded by Coxsone, now running his powerful Studio One organisation, to become the featured vocalist, alongside Ken Boothe, for The Soul Vendors UK Tour and Alton left Duke Reid and re-recorded many of his Treasure Isle hits for Coxsone. The tour was an unqualified success and Alton, Ken and The Soul Vendors returned to Kingston in triumph. Alton now began work on a series of recordings at Studio One that would enhance his reputation still further; some of his best work from this period can be found on three essential Studio One albums: 'Alton Ellis Sings Rock & Soul', 'The Best Of Alton Ellis' and 'Sunday Coming'. Many were autobiographical love songs about his wife Pearl and the heartbreak he endured when they broke up: one his most beautiful songs, 'I'm Still In Love With You(I'm Still In Love)', was sung as a direct appeal to Pearl.

"I back off from that type of recording and go back to more loving sounds. But of course love is a fact too and a serious fact... It's easier for me to sit down and write a song about love than about other situations. I feel it more and express it more. I think it's in my nature... And most of these songs are a story I'm telling about my life... it's personal."

As the sixties drew to a close Alton began to freelance for a number of different producers. He interspersed romantic songs including 'I'll Be Waiting' for Winston 'Techniques' Riley(Winston Riley) and 'Too Late To Turn Back Now' for Clive Chin at Randy's(Randys) with more socially conscious 'reality' lyrics such as 'Back To Africa' and 'Deliver Us' for Lloyd 'The Matador' Daley(Lloyd Daley). He returned to his anti rude boy stance and admonished them once again in 'Big Bad Boy' for Keith Hudson's Mafia label.

He came to England in 1972 to record for Herb Alpert & Jerry Moss' prestigious A & M label and, after the release of 'Sho Be Do Be Do (I Love You)', Alton took up permanent residence in London where he added immeasurably to the capital's reggae scene. He recorded sparingly but nurtured the careers of others including Janet Kay at the beginning of her rise to 'Queen Of Lovers Rock'. Alton also organised annual Rock Steady Gala shows held at the Hammersmith Palais over the Easter holidays in the nineties which showcased the cream of sixties Jamaican talent in a superbly sequenced setting. In 2004 Alton was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in recognition for his services to the music business. Four years later, on 10th October 2008, he died of cancer of the lymph glands in West London's Hammersmith Hospital.

He continues to inspire a singular love and devotion amongst reggae devotees but, outside of reggae, people are aware of his music but remain unaware of the creator. 'I'm Still In Love With You(I'm Still In Love)' inspired Althea & Donna's 1977 worldwide smash 'Uptown Top Ranking' for Joe Gibbs(Joel Gibson) and the song was returned to in 2004 by Sean Paul and Sasha; their version remained on the Billboard charts for six months. 'Mad Mad' another huge hit from Alton's Studio One sojourn became a dance hall staple in the eighties after Michigan & Smiley deejayed the rhythm as 'Diseases' for Henry 'Junjo' Lawes. In the nineties it went on to become a hip hop staple sampled by KRS One and The Notorious B.I.G. amongst many others. To call his work influential, even seminal, barely hints at the truth.

Alton Ellis is a giant but a giant who is nowhere near as well regarded as his myriad musical achievements deserve. During his lifetime he learned to accept this lack of recognition with a proud yet world weary resignation but, had he worked in any other musical genre, he would be universally revered as a towering presence for shaping and making music as we now know it .
Date Added: Oct 19, 2010 / Date Updated: Nov 07, 2012
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