The Evolution of Jamaican Music: From Revivalism to Reggae

Photo: Jamaica Gleaner

Part I: From Revivalism to Reggae: The Evolution of Jamaican Music and Dance



Rocksteady was the Jamaican musical genre that succeeded ska, growing in popularity in the late 1960s.

The late Hopeton Lewis—one of the foremost rocksteady singers in 1968 and whose song “Take it Easy” was one of the more popular hits of the era—had said, “The music and the dance needed to simmer down after the high energy of ska. The replacement was rocksteady, which was cool and easy.”  

The successor to ska and precursor to reggae, rocksteady was performed by several Jamaican vocal harmony groups such as The Gaylads, The Maytals, The Heptones, and The Paragons, as well as individual artists like Lewis and Alton Ellis.

The term rocksteady comes from a dance style that was mentioned in the Alton Ellis song “Rock Steady.” Dances performed to rocksteady were slower, less energetic than the earlier ska dances. But like ska, in the previous years, the genre pulled dancers to nightclubs and house parties across the island.

It didn’t take long for the rocksteady beat to spread from Jamaica and begin to influence foreign artists. In 1968, American soul singer Johnny Nash released the first international rocksteady hit “Hold Me Tight,” which made it to number one on the Canadian charts.

The rocksteady genre used some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, ska, African and Latin American drumming, and other genres. One of the most easily recognizable elements, as in ska, were offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the offbeats of the measure. Rocksteady was loved and cherished across all classes in the Jamaican community, the Jamaican communities, and other global communities. It was fundamentally a part of the Jamaican culture as much as any of the other genres that originated from the island of music. 

Lewis also released another international popular rocksteady hit “Sounds and Pressure,” but his “Take It Easy” stood out as the anthem of the rocksteady era. Both songs were number one hits.

“Sounds and Pressure” topped the Jamaican charts by December 1966, while “Take It Easy” reached the number one position the following month. Wherever Lewis performed, he was hailed as “Mr. Rocksteady.”

Like some of the hits that were released and gained popularity in the ska era, several rocksteady hits like Desmond Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town)” and “Don’t Be a Rude Boy” by the Rulers—a fitting popular song as a trend to indiscipline and crime committed by so-called “rude boys” threatened the society—were social commentaries.

Other popular hits of the era, and which continue to be hits at today’s Jamaican oldies sessions, include Bob Andy’s “I Want To Go Back Home,” Alton Ellis’ “Girl I’ve Got a Date,” Carl Dawkins’ “Baby I Love You,” Delroy Wilson’s “Dancing Mood,” Ken Boothe’s “The Train Is Coming,” Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them,” and The Wailers’ “Bend Down Low.”

In 1967, prior to Johnny Nash’s hit song, rocksteady was exposed overseas. British and Belgian audiences had the opportunity to see another popular Jamaican artist, Prince Buster, perform rocksteady and other hits, backed by a London-based band, The Bees, led by Jamaican guitarist Lyn Taitt.

Also in September 1967, Jamaican producer Clement Dodd arranged for Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis to tour Britain with the Soul Brothers, while Byron Lee brought a troupe of dancers to Toronto with his band Byron Lee and Dragonaires to introduce rocksteady to Canada.

While Byron Lee was directly associated with the production of several ska hits produced by his record company Dynamic Sounds, rocksteady was more associated with the Treasure Isle studio, owned by sound system giant Duke Reid.

Treasure Isle produced a new slate of groups associated with rocksteady. These groups included The Melodians, The Paragons, The Techniques, and The Silvertones that are always remembered, and remain popular, for the smooth harmony in their rocksteady hits.

Unlike ska, which reigned on the Jamaican music and dance scene for some eight years, rocksteady, despite its cool, harmonious beat and popularity didn’t last too long, and by 1970 was being eased out of the spotlight by another new, revolutionary sound—reggae. Yet, a characteristic of the rocksteady era was that it produced a wide collection of hits songs by outstanding artists that have never lost their popularity with Jamaicans old and young.




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