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Alton Nehemiah Ellis, O.D. was known as the “Godfather of Rocksteady”.   He was born on September 1, 1938 and grew up in Trench Town, Kingston, Jamaica.  A soft spoken and humble individual, his music reflects his philosophy.  Alton is the elder brother of the late Hortense Ellis (one of Jamaica’s popular female vocalists).  As a youngster he learned to play the piano by sneaking into a local youth center to practice at nights. He attended Ebenezer and Boys’ Town schools excelling in music and sports. Alton initially was a dancer and competed in the “Vere Johns Opportunity Hour” contests and was quite successful.  He was a fashion designer by trade, so he was one of the slickest dressers on stage.  In 1959 he decided to switch to singing and teamed up with Eddy Perkins to form the duo Alton and Eddy. They recorded the massive hit single “Muriel” for producer Coxsone Dodd on his Studio One label. Alton had written this song whilst working as a laborer on a building site.


“M y Heaven”, “I Know It All”, I’m Never Gonna Cry, “Lullaby Angel” and “Yours” were to follow. The duo also did some recording for Vincent Chin on his Randy’s label. The group split when Perkins migrated to the United States, while Ellis remained in Jamaica, working as a printer.  Alton next joined up with John Holt for a short stint before Holt moved on to join the group The Paragons.  Not being hindered he started another group calling it “The Flames”.  This group was comprised of Alton, his brother Leslie Ellis and floating members David Gordon and Winston Jarrett.  The group worked with producers Coxsone Dodd and his arch-rival Duke Reid.  During this era the music was changing from ska to rocksteady and the birth of the rude boy sub-culture began to emerge in the dancehalls. Many of the artistes during this period were glorifying the rude boys.  Ellis however was turning out songs like “Dance Crasher”, and “Don’t Trouble People”. The Flames scored with the massive hits “Girl I’ve Got a Date”, “Cry Tough”, and “Rocksteady”. Alton’s “Mr. Soul of Jamaica” album was regarded as the definitive rocksteady album.



His friends and fans hold Alton in high esteem. It is sad that a singer of such talent was never given the financial rewards he richly deserved. What was remarkable about Alton is that with over four decades of experience in the business, he didn’t complain. The music of his time was of far more superior quality than most of the crap that is on the market today. Between the late 1960s to the early 1970s Alton recorded for some of the top producers, resulting in the hit singles “Deliver Us” and “Back to Africa”. Most of his biggest hits of the late 60s came out of Studio One, with songs such as “Willow Tree”, “I’m Just a Guy”, and “Sitting in the Park”. In 1967 Ellis along with Ken Boothe and the Soul Vendor Band toured the United Kingdom. On his return to Jamaica he released his debut album “Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul”. He also began to produce his own records, releasing “My Time Is The Right Time” and “The Message”.


Alton Ellis is one of those artistes who created the sound of the 60’s that we are now focusing on. The secret behind his high quality recordings is that he placed great emphasis on melody and proper orchestration. No two of his songs sounds alike. The “Mad Mad Riddim”, first recorded in 1967 by Ellis was later remixed in more than one hundred songs. The popular “Diseases Riddim” is a spin off from that riddim. Alton Ellis made several trips to England, working with several London based producers. In 1970 he released the album “Sunday Coming”. However he was still not receiving proper financial compensation for all his success. Disillusioned, he spent some time in the United States and Canada before taking up permanent residence in England. During the 1980s he continued to record and performed regularly including performances in Jamaica on Reggae Sunsplash in 1983 and 1985. Ellis recorded with King Jammy, Henry “Junjo” Lawes and Sugar Minott.


Alton Ellis launched his label called “All-Tone” and also opened a record shop also naming it “All-Tone”. In 1985 he released the album “Continuation” on his “All-Tone” label. In 1990 he teamed up with his sister to record the album “Alton and Hortense at Studio One”. Ellis recorded the single “Man From Studio One” for Coxsone in 1991. Alton continued to play an active role on the Reggae scene until his health began to deteriorate. In 2001 his album “Live with Aspo: Workin’ on a Groovy Thing” was the only live album he ever published.


In 2004 Alton Ellis was awarded the “Order of Distinction” by the Jamaican government in recognition of his achievements. In December 2007 he was admitted to hospital in London for treatment of cancer of the lymph glands. He returned to the stage continuing his live performances after receiving chemotherapy. Ellis died of cancer on October 10, 2008 at the Hammersmith hospital, West London. Ellis had made a monumental contribution to the development of Jamaica’s popular music. His musical legacy lives on.  Look out for the next generation Alton’s son Christopher Ellis.


Girl, I've got a date

And I just mean, I can't stay late, whoa-ooh

All my life and I've warning you girl

And not just once or twice

Take this from me, I'm as free as the birds in the tree………..

--Lyrics of Alton Ellis signature song “Girl I’ve Got a Date”.



Anthony Williams.


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