Album of the Week: Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul (1967)

“Mr. Rocksteady”. “Godfather of Rocksteady”. If you Google Alton Ellis, these are the sobriquets you will see again and again. The rocksteady subgenre of reggae lit a fire in the heart of a million lovers, and the late Ellis is certainly one to thank for this. Recording at producer Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One in Kingston in the 1960s, Ellis was at the forefront of the rocksteady movement, and his first album Sings Rock and Soul is all killer, no filler.

A mix of Jamaican originals and (as the title implies) rock covers, “I’m Still in Love With You” is the album’s most recognizable classic, having been later covered by Marcia Aitken and (much later) Sean Paul. This riddim also served as the backing track for Althea & Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking” and Trinity’s “Three Piece Suit”. Ellis sings the track with confidence and ease. The Beegees ballad “Massachusettes” is given a chill spin, and “Baby Now That I Found You” might be impossible to not sing along to. Later, “Opression” finds Ellis rocking a killer falsetto.

These are all winners, but Ellis’s take on Procol Harum’s signature song “Whiter Shade of Pale” is my favorite track here. The song’s nautical lyrics are well-suited to a Jamaican interpretation, and the organ as filtered through the relatively lo-fi Studio One production sounds so damn good. The track also fades out unexpectedly, which fits the surreal vibe of the song overall. Gold star goes to whoever decided on this cover.

In a late interview, Ellis had this to say on Coxsone Dodd: “He reminds me a lot of Moses. He was doing so much good things but at the end of his days he blasphemed against God… The sin that he committed was getting so carried away with the money aspect of it all. At the end he was completely blinded and mesmerized by the amount of money he was earning and he became a very hard and greedy person.” Jamaican singers were often exploited by producers in this era (as you can see dramatized in the classic movie The Harder They Come), and Ellis was no exception. But Ellis’s success lasted beyond his early years, as he moved to England and found success among a number of Jamaican expats living there. He passed away of cancer in London in 2008. While I haven’t heard other albums by Alton Ellis, this debut is an outstanding collection of rocksteady classics and recommended to anyone with an interest in the genre.

Listen to Sings Rock and Soul here.

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