Global Hit – Alton Ellis

The World

If Bob Marley was the musical conscience of Jamaica, then Alton Ellis was the country’s musical soul. Alton Ellis died this weekend in London, where he had been fighting lymphatic cancer for some years. The World’s Marco Werman remembers.

Alton Ellis wasn’t the king of reggae. But rocksteady — that soulful strand in reggae, the part that resonated with Americans when reggae became big here in the 70s — that’s the part of reggae that Alton Ellis was responsible for.

Ellis had many of his own original hits. But a lot of his big songs were covers. Alton Ellis happened to be listening to the radio in the right place and at the right time.

The songs he was hearing in the 60s came from radio stations broadcasting out of Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans.

Alton Ellis simply put Jamaican mento and early reggae to soul tunes like “It’s a Shame” by the Spinners…

or…”La-La Means I love You” by the Chi-Lites…
Ellis even covered in his own way tunes by the Everly Brothers…
And the Beatles…
�He took all those ingredients you know and he just did it intuitively…And when it came out it had such a popular form. I mean he is in a sense a real pop act in reggae.�

That’s Warren Smith, who’s the musical director of the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in Booneville California. Smith presented Alton Ellis three times in that festival.

�He was a songbird. I mean I always see him like, yeah, he had soul in it, but he left his own imprint. I mean as an artist he’s more of a rocksteady artist than a reggae artist. But I think he transcends all that.�

News of Alton Ellis’s death has been dominating the Jamaican media. And Jamaicans old and young are mourning him. This young woman wasn’t even born when Ellis started his career.

�It’s always sad to lose somebody like that. He’s an icon, his music is very good, I enjoy his music, although I’m not that old. And it’s a loss.�

The three times Warren Smith presented an older Alton Ellis at his California music festival, he saw a musician who cared — above everything else — about getting the songs perfect.

�I remember one time we had a backing band out here from Jamaica that was going to be working with him. And the bass player and himself kind of got into it. And I had to kind of go in there and work on it, but all of a sudden I realized how it really had to be according to his standards. He really took his music very seriously. He wouldn’t let a half-put-together show go on. It really had to be right.�

With digital technology, the Alton Ellis hits from now-defunct Jamaican record labels are widely available…his original songs, as well as his unforgettable covers, like Tyrone Davis’s Can I Change My Mind.

As Warren Smith says…

�I mean he’s one of these people who, his record sales will see a big spike right now, but they’ll keep on going forever.�

Alton Ellis was 70. The Jamaican government is considering giving him a state funeral.

For The World, I’m Marco Werman.

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