Many phases of Jamaican popular music – rub-a-dub, dancehall, bashment – have been driven by sound system patrons wanting music to dance together; hips-to-hips, chest to chest. Another such, perhaps the first, was rock steady. After the frenetic energy of ska, and in the abnormal heat of 1966, dancehall–goers wanted, or responded immediately to, a cooling down of the musical pace. The primary creative force behind Ska, The Skatalites, had split into two camps in the wake of Don Drummond’s departure: The Soul Vendors/Soul Brothers formed the Studio One house band and Tommy McCook and The Supersonics the Treasure Isle house band. It was these peerless musicians marshalled by the arranging talents of the precocious Jackie Mittoo and seasoned jazz-man Tommy McCook, that shaped the Rock Steady sound. Others, not least Bobby Aitken & The Carib Beats and Lyn Tait & The Jets, were not far behind.
Rock Steady, bass heavy and with the accent on the third, or off, beat gave musicians time and space to play and a golden era of vocalists shine. A roster of all-time greats in any genre of music flourished in the languid tempos of rock steady: Alton Ellis, John Holt, Ken Booth, Delroy Wilson, Phyllis Dillon and Slim Smith; and vocal groups with harmonies to match of anything from Motown – The Melodians, The Techniques, The Uniques, The Paragons. The list is seemingly endless. Rock Steady truly was a golden era of Jamaican music and titles from this era are among the most sought after by collectors around the world. Here are three to feast your ears on. Child prodigy Delroy Wilson came of age with the timeless Dancing Mood for Coxsone, a tune whose content chimed with the priorities of dancehall-goers, the tempo of which marks a staging post from ska to rock steady. Girl I’ve Got Date from Alton Ellis for Duke Reid heralds Treasure Isle’s move into the rock steady big time. For the third you are invited to make your own choice from any of the classic instrumental tracks recorded by Tommy McCook & The Supersonics in the rum-box lined studio above Duke Reid’s liquor shop on Bond Street, tunes like Soul For Sale, My Best Dress, Second Fiddle, Mary Poppins, On Bond Street. The quality of the instrumentation, razor-sharp horn arrangements – harking all the way back to Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson – and the bottom-weighted production demanded by Duke Reid, often literally by banging on the ceiling saying it wasn’t heavy enough, add up to a creative peak in recorded Jamaican music.
I associate the sweet sound of Rock Steady especially with the London connoisseurs’ revival scene which keeps the flame of this era burning. A variety of venues in unpromising corners of London have been the moving home to this scene; from Keats Wine Bar and Addictive in Park Royal, to the Heritage Inn in Cricklewood, the former Albertines and The Flower Of Kent in New Cross where you were able to hear vinyl collectors, DJ selectors of this genre in competitions playing against each other in what is referred to as a “clash”.
Sometimes these can get rather heated. Some participants take these competitions quite seriously. In my early playing days, I was asked to do a couple of warm ups at these competitions which was great especially from a female perspective, because these “clashes” are very much male dominated. But recently several female DJs have participated and have won e.g. Renee Levine (aka Rasta Queen) and Sharon Walker (aka Texas Ranger) – (photos to be added with their contributions).