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|Cultural origins||Mid-1960s, Jamaica|
|Music of Jamaica|
Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor of ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was the dominant style of music in Jamaica for nearly two years, performed by many of the artists who helped establish reggae. For example harmony groups such as The Techniques, The Paragons, The Heptones and The Gaylads; soulful singers such as Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy, Ken Booth and Phyllis Dillon; musicians such as Jackie Mittoo, Lynn Taitt and Tommy McCook. The term rocksteady comes from a popular (slower) dance style mentioned in the Alton Ellis song 'Rocksteady' that matched the new sound. Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today.
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The Jamaican musicians and producers who created the rocksteady sound out of ska were well-versed in jazz and readily influenced by other genres, most notably rhythm and blues (R&B), but also Cuban and other Caribbean sounds plus African drumming. When considering the differences between ska and rocksteady it is worth remembering that the musicians and producers were essentially the same (many continuing into Reggae).
Perhaps Rocksteady’s most easily recognizable element, and that which could be considered reggae music's gift to the world, as in ska, is an offbeat rhythm: staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the offbeats of the measure.
The perceived tempo became slower with the development of rocksteady than it had been in ska. The guitar and piano players began to experiment with occasional accents around the basic offbeat pattern. This can be heard throughout Jamaican recordings in subsequent years.
Rocksteady, even more so the early reggae that followed, was built around the "one drop" drum beat, characterized by a heavy accent on the third beat of every bar. This differs markedly from the drumming styles in R&B and rock and roll, which put the emphasis on the second and fourth beats.
The slowing that occurred with rocksteady allowed bass players to explore more broken, syncopated figures, playing a counterpoint to the repetitive rhythm of the guitar and keyboards and this new style eventually largely replaced the walking patterns that had been so characteristic of many ska recordings. The slower tempo and smaller band sizes in turn led to a much larger focus on the bass line in general, which eventually became one of the most recognizable characteristics of Jamaican music. In rocksteady, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line, in the muted picking style created by Lynn Taitt (as on "Run for Cover" by Lee "Scratch" Perry).
Smaller band sizes and slower tempos also led to a number of changes in the way horn parts were written and arranged. Whereas, in ska, the horn section had often spent much of the song playing the offbeats with the guitar and piano, in rocksteady they favored repeated rhythmic patterns or simply sitting out all together until the lead line.
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Due in part to the heavy borrowing from US soul songs, many rocksteady songs are love songs; e.g. "Sharing You" by Prince Buster, which is a cover of a soul singer Mitty Collier's original, and "Queen Majesty" by The Techniques, which is a cover of "Minstrel and Queen" by The Impressions.
There are rocksteady songs about religion and the Rastafari movement, though not to the same extent as in reggae. Rocksteady coincided with the rise of rude boys and some rocksteady songs reflect this (usually negatively) such as "Rude Boy Gone A Jail" by The Clarendonians and, most famously, “Judge Dread” by Prince Buster.
Crying was a theme in some rocksteady songs, such as Alton and the Flames' "Cry Tough", which urged Jamaicans in the ghettos to stay tough through the hard times.
As a popular musical style, rocksteady was short-lived; its heyday only lasted about two years, from around summer 1966 until spring 1968.
Also, in the middle to later part of the decade, as ska began to fade in popularity and the optimism that accompanied Independence in 1962 dwindled, young people from the Jamaican countryside were flooding into the urban ghettos of Kingston—in neighborhoods such as Riverton City, Greenwich Town and Trenchtown. Many of them became delinquents who exuded a certain coolness and style. These unruly youths became known as rude boys.
Alton Ellis is sometimes said to be the father of rocksteady for his hit "Rocksteady", but other candidates for the first rocksteady single include "Take It Easy" by Hopeton Lewis, "Tougher Than Tough" by Derrick Morgan and "Hold Them" by Roy Shirley.
In a Jamaican radio interview, pianist Gladstone Anderson said that bandleader Lynn Taitt made a suggestion to slow the music down whilst recording "Take It Easy". Taitt backed this up in a 2002 interview, stating: "I told 'Gladdy to slow the tempo and that's how Take It Easy and rocksteady came about. Rocksteady is really slow ska."
The record producer Duke Reid released Alton Ellis' "Girl I've Got a Date" on his Treasure Isle label, as well as recordings by The Techniques, The Silvertones, The Jamaicans and The Paragons. Reid's work with these groups helped establish the vocal sound of rocksteady. Some would consider the Rocksteady years to be Treasure Isle's best. Rocksteady's dominance meant that all record labels of the time released music in the genre; Studio One, Bunny Lee and Prince Buster were predominant, with Reid.
Notable solo artists include Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe and Phyllis Dillon (known as the "Queen of Rocksteady"). Other musicians who were crucial in creating rocksteady included keyboard player Jackie Mittoo, drummer Winston Grennan, bassist Jackie Jackson and saxophonist Tommy McCook. When ska band The Skatalites disbanded (64/65—accounts vary) McCook went to work at the Treasure Isle label and Jackie Mittoo went to the Studio One label—these two artists/arrangers became instrumental in the way these two labels became dominant and helped to form the sound of Rocksteady.
Despite its short lifespan, rocksteady's influence is great. Many reggae artists began in rocksteady (and/or ska)—most commonly reggae singers grew out of rocksteady groups, e.g., Junior Byles came from The Versatiles, John Holt was in The Paragons, both Pat Kelly and Slim Smith sang with The Techniques (Pat Kelly sings lead on "You Don't Care") and Ronnie Davis was in The Tennors while Winston Jarrett was in The Righteous Flames. The Wailing Wailers were similarly a vocal harmony trio (modelled on The Impressions) who came from ska, through rocksteady and became a reggae band with just the one main vocalist.
Transformation into reggae
Several factors contributed to the evolution of rocksteady into reggae in the late 1960s. The emigration to Canada of key musical arrangers Jackie Mittoo and Lynn Taitt—and the upgrading of Jamaican studio technology—had a marked effect on the sound and style of the recordings. Bass patterns became more complex and increasingly dominated the arrangements, and the piano gave way to the electric organ. Other developments included horns fading farther into the background; the introduction of a scratchier, more percussive rhythm guitar; the addition of African-style hand drumming, and a more precise, intricate and aggressive drumming style.
Also around this time (1969–70) the use of a vocal-free or lead instrument-free dub or B-side "version" became popular in Jamaica; at the beginning this involved the use of Rocksteady tracks, most notably with U-Roy deejaying over Treasure Isle rhythms (made by a young Osbourne Ruddock, later known as King Tubby, beginning with "Wake The Town"). Indeed, this collaboration provided rocksteady with an afterlife as U-Roy rocksteady-based songs rode high in the charts (1970–71) even as Reggae began to establish itself as the new sound.
By the late 1960s, the Rastafari movement became more popular in Jamaica and rocksteady became less popular. Many reggae songs became focused less on romance and more on black consciousness, politics and protest. The release of the 1972 film The Harder They Come and the rise of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley brought reggae to an international level that rocksteady never reached.
Although rocksteady was a short-lived phase of Jamaican popular music, its influence on what came after: reggae, dub and dancehall is huge. This is hard to over-state. Many bass lines originally created for rocksteady songs continue to be used in contemporary Jamaican music. Such as the rhythm from "Never Let Go" by Slim Smith (sometimes known as the answer rhythm) and “Real Rock” both from the Studio One label; “My Conversation” also sung by Slim Smith, produced by Bunny Lee; “Queen Majesty” sung by The Techniques and “Lonely Street” by The Conquerors, both for Treasure Isle label.
- "Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae". BBC. Retrieved 28 October 2011.
- "ZonaReGGae reviews "Many Moods of…Alton Ellis"". WordPress (in Portuguese). Retrieved 14 December 2019.
- Keyo, Brian. "From The Aces To The Zodiacs, A Primer in Jamaican Rock Steady". Tallawah.com. Retrieved December 14, 2019.
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- Campbell, Howard (2012), "Gladstone Anderson: Key player in rocksteady’s genesis", Jamaica Observer, 1 June 2012.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 352. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
- Walker, Klive (2005). Dubwise: Reasoning from the Reggae Underground. Insomniac Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-894663-96-0.