Jamaican Music

Top 10 Rock Steady Singers

Ken Boothe Mr Rock Steady
Written by Stan Evan Smith

Rocksteady, as music genre began in Jamaica 1966-1969. The Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle and Sonia Pottinger Gayfeet Label were the primary labels. Rocksteady fused the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, ska, African and Latin American drumming with natural Jamaican musical talent. The Rocksteady period produced, arguably the best music in any era of Jamaican music.  A successor of ska, rocksteady got its name from Jamaican dance style and the father of Rocksteady, Alton Ellis’s hit “Better Get Ready, Let’s Do Rocksteady.” As Jamaican music legend Derrick Harriot noted, “Ask any Jamaican musician and they’ll tell you the rocksteady days were the best days of Jamaican music.”  Beres Hammond and dub poet Mutabaruka expressed similar sentiments in interviews with this writer.

Through Rocksteady’s brief but musically rich 3-year history it was dominated by Jamaican vocal harmony groups, vocalists, male and female and musicians/instrumentalists. The first international rocksteady hit was “Hold Me Tight” (1968) by the American soul singer Johnny Nash when it reached number one in Canada. R&B group, the Staple Singers “I’ll Take You There” was a musical carbon copy of the Rocksteady instrumental “Liquidator” by Harry J All-Stars.

When deciding which singers to include in this list I used the following criteria to inform the choices: chart popularity, the defining song’s special relationship to the genre and general listening public acceptance. Here are my choices of ten top Rock Steady singers.

  1. Ken Boothe – Order of Distinction O.D.- dubbed ‘Mr. Rock Steady’, Ken titled his first album “ Rock Steady”, (1968 ) which included numerous hits such as “The Girl I Left Behind”, “When I Fall In Love”, “I Don’t Want to See You Cry”, “Home, Home, Home”, “Puppet On A String”. His other Rock steady hits included, “The Train Is Coming” (remade/Shaggy on the movie soundtrack ‘Money Train’ starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson), You’re No Good”, “Moving Away”, “Say You” and “Lady With The Starlight”. Boothe was equally successful as reggae singer with hit singles in 1974 “Everything I Own” Number #1 and “Crying Over You”, Number #11 in the UK Singles charts.
  1. Alton Ellis – Order of Distinction O.D- (Died October 2008) – Godfather of Rocksteady. Arguably the defining voice of the Rocksteady era, Ellis’ period of greatest popularity was in the mid to late 1960s. Alton Ellis Rocksteady hits include “Girl I’ve Got a Date”, “Cry Tough”, w/Alton & the Flames, “Dance Crasher”, “I’m Just A Guy”, Breaking Up (is hard to Do), “Let Him try”, “Willow Tree”,  “Ain’t That Loving You” (which also became a major hit for Dennis Brown  in the reggae era), “You Made Me So Very Happy” and “I’m  Just Guy”.
  2. Hopeton Lewis -(Died September 2014) “Take It Easy” 1966, W/Lynn Taitt and the Jets. “Take It Easy” was the first Rocksteady single. Lewis explained to me that “Take It Easy” came about because he was too lazy to sing the tune in fast up-tempo/ska so Taitt, a calypso musician, decided to play the guitar riff as slow down calypso. This sound became the new tempo for Rocksteady. Lewis’ Rocksteady hits singles include “Boom Shaka Lacka”, “Roka Shaka”, “Cool Collie”, “Right Track” w/Phillis Dillion, “Grooving Out On Life”, “Sounds and Pressure”, “Tom Drunk” w/U-Roy, “Rocksteady”, and “Deh Pon Dem”.
  3. Phyllis Dillion Order of Distinction O.D. –(Died: April 2004) ‘Queen of Rocksteady’ – The most successful female Rock Steady Singer. Dillion’s hit singles include “Right Track” w/Hopeton Lewis, “Don’t Stay Away” (1967), “Midnight Confessions” (1967) “Perfidia” (1967), “Remember That Sunday” w/Alton Ellis (1967), “Love Is All I Had” (1969), “One Life To Live, One Love To Give” (1971), “Tomato”, “The Love A Woman Should Give To A Man”.
  4. Delroy Wilson- Order of Distinction O.D. (Commander Class) – (Died: April 2004) Jamaica’s first child star (started singing when he was 13). His early years with Clement “Coxsone” Dodd produced a number of ska hits singles. The biggest of which, was “Joe Liges”. The rocksteady era was Wilson’s biggest hit making period with singles like “Dancing Mood”, “Jerk in Time” (w/the Wailers), “Feel Good All Over”, “I’m Not a King”, “True Believer in Love”, “Rain From the Skies”, “Conquer Me”, “Riding for a Fall”, “Better Must Come” and “Cool Operator”.
  5. Bob Andy-Order of Distinction O.D. (Commander Class). Andy is founding member of The Paragons. Jamaica’s best songwriters. He wrote “I’m Gonna Tell You Goodbye Baby” for Ken Boothe, and “Feel Like Jumping”, “Truly”, “Fire Burning” and “Melody Life” for Marcia Griffiths. In 1966, Andy wrote, produced and sang several hit singles – “I’ve Got to Go Back Home”, “Desperate Lover”, “Feeling Soul”, “Unchained” and “Too Experienced”.
  6. Marcia Griffith- Order of Distinction O.D. (Commander Class) “Queen of Reggae”. Her volume of hits include “Feel Like Jumping”, “Truly”, “Fire Burning” , “Melody Life”, “Words” w/Jeff Dixon, and “Always Together” w/Bob Andy. Her popular song “Electric Boogie” with  Bunny Wailer created the international dance craze Electric Slide. “Electric Boogie” is the highest-selling single by a female reggae singer of all time.
  7. Carl ‘Dego’ Dawkins- Mr. Satisfaction, is one of Jamaica’s hardest working Entertainers/Singer/Songwriter/Dancer. Dawkins and Horace Andy, both of whom I knew growing up in Allman Town had three of the biggest Rock steady hits on the Harry J Label – “Baby I Love You”,Satisfaction” and “Get-Together“. Dawkins also had had other hits like “No Happiness Here”, “This Land” andDr. Rodney”. The latter two songs were banned from the airwaves due to their incisive social commentary. Another of Carl’s big hits was “Part Time Love Affair” which made the Top Ten on the local charts.
  8. Roy Shirley – The High Priest– Died July 2008. Roy was an original member of The Uniques along with Slim Smith. He released “Hold Them” in 1966. The song is credited as one of the first rocksteady songs. He also had a huge hit, “Music Field”.
  9. Slim Smith – Died tragically 1973. The Rough Guide Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton described Slim Smith as ‘the greatest vocalist to emerge in the rocksteady era’. Slim Smith had a great career as a solo vocalist with hits like “Rougher Yet”, and “Everybody Needs Love”,The New Boss”, and “Hip Hug”. He was also the lead vocalist with the two of the greatest rocksteady groups. Smith formed the group The Uniques and scored hits with “Watch This Sound” (1968), “My Conversation” (1967) and “Let Me Go Girl” (1967). Smith was also a founding member and lead vocalist of The Techniques, with hits like “Little Did You Know”, and “Born To Love You”.

About the author

Stan Evan Smith

Senior Editor and North East Media Coordinator for Jamaicans.com