By: Elizabeth Smith
Ska and reggae pioneer Alton Ellis will be sadly missed throughout the world. His premature passing last Friday in London at the age of 70 sent a ricochet of heavy hearts in all corners where people know and love not only Alton himself but also: ska, rock steady, reggae and dancehall music.
His long list of hits continue to thrill crowds; those who can remember, youth and musicologists who appreciate the value of lessons taught through experience and its impact on the future.
In Jamaica, where his career that spanned around 5 decades took root, tributes have been pouring in with many around the world singing Alton’s praises.
Ken Boothe spoke of Alton as one of the many ‘Kings inna dis.’ He said, “One of the musical Kings have left us and I want to send condolences on behalf of me and my family.”
With history being the best barometer for the future, Ken referred to the ground-breaking throne that Alton occupied as a King of the rock steady sound. “Even Bob who was king, sat upon this historical throne - a throne that started it all. Laurel Aiken sat upon the throne Owen Gray did too and so on,” Ken told Yardflex. He explained that Alton started out with Vere John talent special and opportunity knocked; he left the live show that had become a major part of his musical development.
“Alton made a great contribution to the development of Jamaica’s music like Delroy Wilson, and Bob Marley…and many who have left us did. I am gonna miss him as I miss all the rest that have gone,” Ken stated.
Judy Mowatt only got a chance to meet Alton personally last year when she toured with him to St. Kitts. She told Yardflex that Alton was a man she admired. “I never got a chance to meet him in the era when his music was extremely popular, but after making his acquaintance last year I recognized he was a man with a deep sense of understanding for his music and culture and I developed heartfelt respect and a deep love for him.” That was Judy’s first time meeting Alton and this year the pleasure was again hers, as she shared the stage with him at the Rock Steady Documentary Project Concert where clips were shot for an upcoming Canadian documentary on Rock Steady.
Reflecting on his strong creativity, Judy said Alton was a prolific writer with clean lyrical content that focused on life - the things experienced by man and woman. “I am very happy that I got to meet Alton Ellis personally and I know that my encounter with him will always be cherished in my heart,” Judy said.
Commander of the Big Ship, Freddie McGregor relayed his fondest memories of Alton to Yardflex saying that the ‘Godfather of Rock Steady’ had been a great source of inspiration for him. “I personally patterned and looked up to him; I always said I wish I could sing like Alton Ellis…I also looked up to singers like Dennis Brown, but Alton is one of them that stands out very much,” he revealed
Freddie spoke of one special time about six years ago when he was pleasantly surprised to have been invited to perform on a concert that Alton was producing at the impressive London based, Royal Albert Hall. “Alton flew me in first class and it was a real masterpiece at a very prestigious venue. I will always remember him calling me up; and we sang “Let Him Try” together.
Veteran international reggae manager and tour coordinator, Copeland Forbes was in England when the news broke about Alton’s serious illness and he told Yardflex that what surprised him was to see the convalescing rock steady singer full of strength and hanging out backstage at a Valentines show last February. “And he did a few songs…he was sick but fighting…John Holt, Marcia Griffiths and Sanchez performed and we were all pleased to see him,” Forbes said.
His plan was to feature Alton, the rock steady master, on an international tour, but Forbes regrets not being able to fulfill that dream. “I lived in Trench Town and admired Alton’s songs. Many people are not aware of the fact that Alton’s girlfriend back then – who was so pretty they called her Money – was the inspiration for many of his hit songs. She gave Alton a lot of headaches,” Forbes disclosed.
From his first hit song, Murielle – done with Eddie Perkins, Alton has been blazing a trail; and Forbes said that he will be sadly missed because of the amazing legacy of music that he left for us.
Robert Bolous, co-producer of the documentary flick, “Get Ready To Rock Steady,” that will be released in the Spring of 2009 said he found it highly commendable that Alton remained who he was – never switching, but staying true to his art. “We wanted to have him as part of the documentary but he was not available. He came for the concert, but I did not have the pleasure or privilege to work with him; which makes it sadder because he should have been a part of it all,” Bolous told Yardflex.
Bolous, who hails from Montreal said Swiss co-producer and director, Stascha Badder met and discussed the project with Alton, whose health issues - that saw him going in and out of hospital, prevented his involvement. “While not the only rock steady icon, Alton got the title ‘Mr Rock Steady’ because he had an immense talent in his unique stage delivery and singing,” Bolous said.
Marcia Griffiths reflected on her many memories of Alton saying, “There are so many memories, because when I was a little girl in the 60s – 1968, 69; we used to do the tours in Jamaica of the 14 Parishes; it was Byron Lee, Alton and myself. Whenever it would be my turn to go on stage Alton would always give me a boost of confidence with his sweet and encouraging words,” Marcia explained.
“We go way back,” Marcia continued. “He always had a beautiful smile and I can still picture us as we used to walk from my community in Hannah Town to Trench Town where we would pick up his sister Hortense, then walk down to the Majestic Theatre on Spanish Town Road where we would get the bus that took us to our performances.”
“The whole rock steady era is dominated by Alton’s lyrics and vocals,” Bob Andy said as he mused on the well known role that Alton played in the evolution of Jamaican music.
“He was very complex, as most of us are as artists; and I would like to give credit to him for The Paragons’ coming into existence,” Bob said. He explained how Alton’s song “Murielle” that was recorded with Eddie gave him huge inspiration as he solidified his group, The Paragons with John Holt and Howard Barrett. “Murielle was the first song we ever loved and the duo of Alton and Eddie was the family that inspired us to sing together,” Bob stated.
Not able to see his inspiration as often as he would have liked since Alton lived in Canada for a few years and then moved on to take up residence in England, Bob said, “I would only see him if I toured…and as a person I found him quite amiable and his contribution to Jamaican music is quite remarkable.”
In 2007 Alton was inducted into the Hall Of Fame at the International Reggae and World Music Awards (IRAWMA), and from there, one of the world’s most lasting memories of him will linger, as his dynamic performance with Junior Gong made a big impact. The audience enjoyed seeing both veteran and young trailblazers on stage side by side.