The reggae world is currently mourning the loss of one of its greatest singers. Alton Nehemiah Ellis (1939–2008) died Friday at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, 10 months after he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. He was 70 years old. Ellis was prolific in the 1960s and '70s and known as “Mr. Soul of Jamaica” for his pioneering rocksteady hits, “I’m Still In Love” (covered in 2004 by Sasha and Sean Paul), “I’m Just A Guy,” “Dance Crasher,” and others.
In 2007, Ellis received Jamaica’s highest national honor, the Order of Distinction on Heroes Day, and also participated in a film documentary and concert about rocksteady music, even as he was undergoing cancer treatment. According to BBC news, Ellis was still performing until August this year, when he collapsed after a concert in central London.
Jamaican minister of Information, Sport, and Youth, Olivia Grange, credits Ellis and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo with creating the rocksteady beat in the '60s. “Like thousands of other Jamaicans, I deeply mourned the passing of Jamaica's most famous exponent of rocksteady,” she told the Observer on Sunday.
After a brief career as a boxer and frequent dance contest winner, Ellis formed vocal group the Flames in the early 1960s. Group members included reggae greats Lloyd Charmers and Winston Jarrett. Ellis recorded for rival labels Studio One and Treasure Isle and delivered hits for both, including the signature “Get Ready (Rocksteady).” While the influence of American soul artists like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye is apparent in his work, Ellis was a singular vocalist, influencing several generations of artists in Jamaica and abroad.
Ellis had lived in London since the late 1970s, where he owned the Brixton-based Altone record shop. He continued to record music into the '90s, as well as tour with his son Chris Ellis, who is blessed with his father’s sweet vocal intonation.
For a thorough history of Alton Ellis’s music and legacy, check Trojan Records' reverent obituary.
Alton Ellis “I’m Just A Guy”
Photo by Kat Geb.