The WBH Guide to Jamaican Music, part 2: The Golden Age – Rocksteady and Early ReggaeFor part 1: Ska, click here
Ska, which had completely dominated Jamaican music from the early 60s, couldn’t last forever. By mid-1966, a new sound was emerging, one that permanently changed Jamaican music forever: rocksteady, which lasted a mere month and a half or so before morphing into the earliest form of reggae, the name that has persisted till the present. These two forms together only lasted about six years, and while rocksteady is widely acclaimed as the golden age of Jamaican music, the official WBH opinion is that early reggae belongs in that era as well. In full disclosure, rocksteady and reggae up till about 1972/3 – stylistically very close to rocksteady – is arguably my favorite genre of music, leaning slightly more to the reggae side.
Following is the absolute best of the best that the island has produced, and dozens of brilliant tracks.
By the summer of 1966, several changes were occurring that effectively killed off ska – a worsening mood in the country following the euphoria of independence, the influence of American soul music, an influx of rural Jamaicans into Kingston, some who sang, others who became rude boys, and, last but not least, a massive heat wave that rendered dancing to ska’s fast beats uncomfortable. What resulted was firstly a much slower form of music, but still bearing some similarity to ska, as exemplified in these transition-era singles:
“Girl I’ve Got a Date” by Alton Ellis
“Tougher than Tough” by Derrick Morgan
“Take it Easy” by Hopeton Lewis
But as you can hear, these songs aren’t just slower. The big band sound of ska was no more, the bassline came forward, and vocals played a bigger role. As the summer progressed, this trend only continued, and what emerged was more complex, small-combo music with a pervasive bass groove, a new drumbeat (the “one-drop,” emphasizing beat 3), more guitar, fewer or no horns, a chilled-out tempo, more varied and interesting chord progressions than ska, and a much greater emphasis on vocals, driven partially by young singers in Kingston with nothing else to do, as well as by the popularity of American soul vocal groups. These characteristics would come to define Jamaican band-based music. 1966-1967 saw an explosion of superstar singers and groups, singing about love, life in the inner city, and other personal matters. While ska had some throwaway singles meant for a quick dance, the quality of the new music was consistently very high. When you consider this, plus the fact that the rocksteady era lasted little more than 18 months yet saw such a huge profusion of records, it’s no wonder that aficionados consider this the golden age.
One of the giants of the genre was Alton Ellis, who named the style in his single “Rock Steady,” which referred to the slower dancing that took place to the emergent music:
The track title was quickly adopted as the name of the entire genre, and by the end of 1966 it had completely supplanted ska. Other hits by the “King of Rocksteady:”
“Bye Bye Love”
“Cry Tough” (a rude boy classic)
“I’m Still in Love with You Girl” (covered by Sean Paul, among others)
I consider myself extremely lucky to have seen Alton Ellis sing in London about two months before he passed away in 2008. The King of Rocksteady was a true legend.
But there were of course many other stars of this era – Desmond Dekker’s climb to the top continued in this era, now accompanied by his group the Aces:
“007 (Shanty Town)” (massive single at the time)
“Beautiful and Dangerous” (absolute monster song)
The inimitable Prince Buster carried on into the rocksteady era:
“Judge Dread” (classic rude boy anthem)
“Wreck a Pum Pum,” Buster’s notorious “slack” (sexual) anthem, which presumably has inspired dancehall singers everywhere.
Lee Perry also continued rising in this era, in various guises as the Sensations or the Defenders:
“I am the Upsetter”
“Set Them Free”
Other solo stars were Derrick Morgan, another holdover from the ska era and already noted as a rocksteady pioneer above:
“I am Not a King”
“Can’t You See”
But as I said, this was really the age of the vocal group. I mentioned The Paragons before, but here’s are a couple songs to remind you, as well as other great bands:
“Riding on a High and Windy Day” (one of the best rocksteady choons ever)
“On the Beach”
“Little Nut Tree”
“Ba Ba Boom”
“Stay Loose” by Hemsley Morris
“Silent River Runs Deep” by the Gaylettes (killer track!)
“Draw Your Brakes” by Scotty
“Dreader Than Dread” by Honey Boy Martin
“Rudies All Around” by Joe White
Rocksteady ran into the beginning of 1968, about 18 months from when it debuted. But starting in late 1967, the by-then patented rocksteady sound began to be altered by a few groups. The keyboards started to shuffle more, and often bands ditched the piano, swapping it in most cases for an electric organ, occasionally varied the metronomic offbeat guitar hits, pushed even further on the syncopated baselines, and, most noticeably, sped the music back up. Not as fast as ska, but appreciably faster than middle-of-the-heat-wave rocksteady. The earliest singles really were offshoots of rocksteady, and to the casual listener they may sound nearly identical. Here’s the first crossover track – note the faster tempo and shuffling piano line – “Longshot (Buss Me Bet)” by the Pioneers:
Other important transition singles from late 67/early 68:
“Say What You’re Saying” by Eric “Monty” Morris
“People Funny Boy” by Lee Perry and the Upsetters
And the first full-fledged reggae track – “Nanny Goat” by Larry Marshall:
Properly into 1968, rocksteady had essentially crossed over into this new sound, which was given its name by the mighty Toots Hibbert of the Maytals, in their song, “Do the Reggay,” which then referred to a dance. The song was the first time the word had ever appeared in print or been applied to a style of music, and it stuck. Reggae had arrrived:
You’ve probably noticed how different this sounds to reggae as made famous by Bob Marley and others. Firstly, the Rastafari movement had yet to go mainstream, and secondly, early reggae was still intended to be dance music. And despite the international success of the later style, it was early reggae that first got global attention for Jamaican music. Granted, ska was a big splash at the World’s Fair, and the mods devoured Bluebeat over in Britain, but 1968 saw such milestones as the Beatles recording a reggae-influenced song (“Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”), and Desmond Dekker’s massive reggae tune “Israelites” reaching number one in Britain and the top ten in the US, and made Dekker Jamaica’s first global star:
Early reggae became even more popular in the UK than ska and rocksteady, becoming the music of choice for the first (inclusive) wave of skinheads – such that it’s often called “skinhead reggae” to distinguish it from later styles – which ultimately led to reggae’s influence on punk in the UK. There’s even an expression “Spirit of 69,” in the old-school skinhead community, referring to the heyday of early reggae influence.
In 1972 early reggae received its maximum exposure, with the release of The Harder They Come, Jamaica’s first feature-length movie, starring reggae star Jimmy Cliff, and featuring his music alongside other stars of the local scene. The soundtrack did massively well in the US and Europe, and was the bestselling reggae album for a decade, introducing untold millions to reggae and rocksteady.
The title track:
Others from the soundtrack include Jamaican hits from the years prior to the film – “Draw Your Brakes” by Scotty, Desmond Dekker’s “007”, and these, among others:
“Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers
“Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians
And two huge tracks from the Maytals aka Toots & the Maytals, including:
“Sweet and Dandy” (one of the best songs ever recorded in any genre)
Active since the ska days, The Maytals, led by Toots Hibbert, were unquestionably the dominant vocal group of the early reggae era, with a string of hits from the late 60s through the 70s. Some classics from the 67-72 era:
“54-46 That’s My Number”
“Pomps and Pride”
Other stars of the era were also carryovers from the ska and rocksteady eras:
“Swinging King” by Ken Boothe
“Copycat” by Derrick Morgan
“Longshot Kick de Bucket” by the Pioneers (huge classic tune, and sequel to their earlier song, “Longshot Buss Me Bet”)
“Have You Ever Been in Love” by the Paragons
“Ali Baba” by Paragons lead singer John Holt
“Rod of Correction” by Clancy Eccles
“Feel It Festive Spirit” by the Jamaicans
“Push It In” by the Versatiles
“I Specialise in Good Girls” by the Techniques
Of course the era produced many artists who debuted or only first got big in the period:
“Shine Eye Gal” by Vincent Foster
“The Liquidator” by Harry J Allstars
“Blood and Fire” by Niney (later covered by Manu Chao, among others)
“Tighten Up” by the Untouchables
“Slippery” by the Crystalites (superb instrumental, written and produced by Derrick Harriott)
This era was also critical for the development of two Jamaican stars who would have an indelible imprint on not only Jamaican but global music – Lee Perry and Wailers, the former as the leader of the Upsetters and pioneering studio wizard, beginning to invent what would become known as dub, and the latter as a trio of newly converted Rastas (Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer) under the production of Perry (with the musical backing of the Upsetters). But in this early era, both legends remained firmly rooted in the early reggae style.
“Return of Django”
“Jungle Lion” (strictly after the “early reggae” period, but belonging stylistically to it, and a MASSIVE, KILLER track)
“Dem a fi Get a Beatin”
“Soul Rebel” (future classic, presaging things to come)
Apart from studio albums by Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers, or the Upsetters, your best bet is compilations, either from the big singers/bands like Desmond Dekker, Alton Ellis, etc, or from the record labels:
Anything you can find by Studio One – though the Early Reggae collection seems to not be for sale anymore.
Trojan: Rocksteady. 50 classics.
History of Trojan Records Volume 1: 1968-1971. The Trojan guys do it again. Great stuff, given that early reggae is so overshadowed by rocksteady, ska, and later reggae. The Rare Groove, Tighten Up, and especially the Skinhead Reggae box sets also have loads of 68-72 era stuff.