First Class Rock Steady
17 North Parade, VP Records
The smooth, soulful sounds of rocksteady have always been an obsession for me. This obsession is so powerful that in 1996, when I started producing my radio show at WMBR in Cambridge, The Bovine Ska and Rocksteady, I had to put that magical rhythm in the title of my program. It has been a huge part of my show ever since. In 2006, my good friend Eli Kessler even wrote rocksteadys for the legendary Trinidadian guitarist Lynn Taitt, who invented that rhythm in 1966, and we subsequently brought Taitt to Boston and recorded those songs with other area musicians who shared our love for Taitt and the genre he created and helped to make famous, which was an experience that all of us will never forget. It is now 2016, and thus it is the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of rocksteady, which is being commemorated this summer with special concerts in Jamaica and in many cities across the United States, as well as with a special box set of rocksteady classics and rarities from the folks at VP records entitled: First Class Rock Steady (the title of the rhythm being either one or two words is as contentious as the battle between comicbooks or comic books as the proper notation).
So, at this point, you might be justifiably asking yourself: Why all of this commotion about the rocksteady? Well, to put it in the simplest terms, rocksteady forever changed the sound of Jamaican music.
In the beginning of 1966, Jamaica’s national music had become the ska, a fast rhythm that was born out of Jamaica’s fascination with American rhythm and blues, the kind created by Roscoe Gordon or Fats Domino. Beginning in the 1950s, Jamaicans played coveted, imported R&B records from the States on soundsystems, and during that same time, most of the limited recordings that were done on the island were in the mento style (simply put, a kind of Jamaican calypso); that is until musicians like Owen Gray and Laurel Aitken began writing and recording their own original rhythm and blues compositions. The Jamaican rhythm and blues period lasted for a few years until the early 1960s when that beat was changed to make ska, which incorporated a similar beat to that of rhythm and blues but with the addition of jazz elements, for many of the island best instrumentalists were trained in that genre.
This all changed one day in 1966, when Lynn Taitt, who primarily played calypso in his home country and who came to Jamaica years earlier and became a prolific ska instrumentalist, went into the studio to play and arrange a track for Merritone entitled, “Take It Easy,” for the soon to be legendary vocalist, Hopeton Lewis. Try as Taitt and the band could, “Take It Easy” did not work, as the song contained mellow lyrics that didn’t make sense when matched with the upbeat ska rhythm of the day. Taitt soon instructed the band to slow the rhythm down, and then the guitarist, drawing from his calypso roots, matched his guitar via a stick line to the existing bassline to produce a sound that was dramatically different from the ska. Besides the colossal feat of inventing a rhythm that became the precursor to reggae, Taitt is so important because he brought Jamaican music even further away from American influence by adding another island sensibility, that of calypso, to make rocksteady an even more Caribbean sound. Rocksteady would only last for about eighteen months from 1966 to 1968, but the impact was huge.
The story behind Taitt’s creation of rocksteady as well as quotes from other notable musicians and producers such as Bobby Aitken and Bunny Lee, who were integral to the rhythm’s popularity, are contained in the masterfully constructed liner notes inside the two-disc First Class Rock Steady box set. Of the forty expertly digitalized tracks selected for this collection are many well-known rocksteady gems as well as a few rarities that to my knowledge have not been part of any previous compilations. One of the rarer tunes that leaps to mind is one from the little known vocal group, The Jupiters, who in 1967 cut a tune for one of the most prolific producers of the period, Joe Gibbs, and his Amalgamated label. The song, “The Return Of Ezekial,” is a “rude boy” tune done in a courtroom conversation style similar to that of “Judge Dread,” an immensely popular recording that was written, performed, and produced by Jamaica’s “Voice Of The People,” Prince Buster. Given the worsening of Jamaica’s post-colonial economy in the mid-1960s, Kingston became massively overcrowded with job seekers. Given the limited work available to the influx of new Kingstonians, “rude boys,” unemployed youth who turned to crime in order to survive, became not only the subject of headlines but also the music of the time. Hence, another less rare but essential rude boy tune from 1967, Honey Boy Martin’s “Dreader Than Dread,” also appears on First Class Rock Steady, right next to the lesser known aforementioned tune from The Jupiters.
Rocksteady’s slower rhythm and lesser dependence on horn arrangements also gave vocal groups a greater opportunity to be more expressive and front and center on compositions. Included in this collection are hits from some of the most popular groups of the rocksteady era, including The Heptones, The Uniques, The Jamaicans, The Gaylads, and my favorite of these harmony combos, The Techniques, who are represented on First Class Rock Steady with their hit for producer Duke Reid in ’67, “You Don’t Care.” For those who want to hear from the more prominent solo vocalists who recorded between 1966 and 1968, have no fear as the compilation also contains Jamaican Hit Parade entries like Dobby Dobson’s “Loving Pauper,” Errol Dunkley’s “You’re Gonna Need Me,” and “Hold Them,” a superb 1966 cut, which some attest is the first hit of the rocksteady rhythm from the soon to be named “High Priest Of Reggae,” Roy Shirley.
I only have a few issues with First Class Rock Steady. First, as far as the judging the compilation as a definitive representation of rocksteady, is the omission of anything produced by Coxsone Dodd of Studio One, arguably the most important label of the era next to Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle imprint. As Coxsone productions are usually missing from most compilations due to what are probably licensing issues and not thoughtless omissions, I can let this one slide, but the real issue I found is that a few of the cuts that are included here are not actually rocksteadys. Even though 1968 began with rocksteady, that year also saw the beginning of the reggae rhythm, and The Paragons’ “Got To Get Away,” along with their cover of The Four Tops’ “Left With A Broken Heart,” though beautifully performed, are more indicative of the faster reggae rhythm that became popular from 1968-1970 and really does not belong on a compilation of honoring rocksteady as these may confuse the listeners who are trying to understand the rhythm. One frequent question that we have been asked over the twenty years of the radio program is the classification of a certain song by rhythm, and admittedly rocksteady might be the toughest one to nail down, so any further confusion here just makes it tougher for us, and for that, I have to point this out. Sorry about that VP.
Regardless of the few cuts that were added that are outside of the rhythm, First Class Rock Steady is an excellent collection of rocksteadys matched with a beautiful presentation that should stimulate the same need to possess more of the that same sweet and soulful, albeit short-lived, sound that thrilled Jamaica in the mid-1960s and can still thrill listeners fifty years later.