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Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor of ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was the dominant style of music in Jamaica for nearly two years, used by all artists recording at the time, many of whom would go on to help establish reggae. For example harmony groups such as The Techniques, The Righteous Flames and The Gaylads; singers such as Delroy Wilson, Phyllis Dylon and Roy Shirley; musicians such as Jackie Mittoo, Tommy McCook and Lynn Taitt. The term rocksteady comes from a popular (slower) dance style that matched the new sound, mentioned in the Alton Ellis song 'Rocksteady'. Some rocksteady songs became hits outside Jamaica, as with ska, helping to secure the international base reggae music has today.
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The Jamaican musicians and producers who created the rocksteady sound out of ska were well-versed in jazz and readily influenced by other genres, most notablyrhythm and blues (R&B), plus African and Latin American drumming. Perhaps the most easily recognizable element and that which could be considered reggae music's gift to the world, as in ska, is an offbeat rhythm; staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the offbeats of the measure. The perceived tempo became slower with the development of rocksteady than it had been in ska. The guitar and piano players began to experiment with occasional accents around the basic offbeat pattern. This can be heard throughout Jamaican recordings in subsequent years.
Rocksteady, even more so the early reggae that followed, was built around the "one drop" drum beat, characterized by a heavy accent on the third beat of every bar. This differs markedly from the drumming styles in R&B and rock and roll, which put the bass drum on the first beat (the downbeat) and almost never on the second and fourth beats).
The slowing that occurred with rocksteady allowed bass players to explore more broken, syncopated figures, playing a counterpoint to the repetitive rhythm of the guitar and keyboards and this new style eventually largely replaced the walking patterns that had been so characteristic of many ska recordings. These new patterns fit very well with the simpler modal chord progressions often used by Jamaican players. The slower tempo and smaller band sizes in turn led to a much larger focus on the bass line in general, which eventually became one of the most recognizable characteristics of Jamaican music. In rocksteady, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line, in the muted picking style created by Lynn Taitt, a technique that continued on into reggae.
Smaller band sizes and slower tempos also led to a number of changes in the way horn parts were written and arranged. Whereas, in ska, the horn section had often spent much of the song playing the offbeats with the guitar and piano, in rocksteady they favored repeated rhythmic patterns or simply sitting out all together until the lead line.
When considering the differences between ska and rocksteady it is worth remembering that the musicians were essentially the same and so were the producers.
Rocksteady and reggae are perhaps best thought of and notated as a half time feel, in which case one would count at twice the tempo. This would mean the guitar-piano offbeats would fall on beats 2 and 4, and the "one drop" of the snare/kick drum would fall on beat 3. This also allows transcribers to use the term "swing 8ths" to help notate hi-hat patterns, for example.
Due in part to the heavy borrowing from US soul songs, many rocksteady songs are love songs; e.g. "Sharing You" by Prince Buster, which is a cover of a Mitty Collier original, and "Queen Majesty" by The Techniques, which is a cover of "Minstrel and Queen" by The Impressions. There are rocksteady songs about religion and the Rastafari movement, though not to the same extent as in reggae. Rocksteady coincided with the rise of rude boys and some rocksteady songs reflect this (usually negatively) such as "Rude Boy Gone A Jail" by The Clarendonians and "No Good Rudie" by Justin Hinds & the Dominoes. Crying was a theme in some rocksteady songs, such as Alton and the Flames' "Cry Tough", which urged Jamaicans in the ghettos to stay tough through the hard times.
As a popular musical style, rocksteady was short-lived; its heyday only lasted about two years, from 1966 until spring 1968. Around this time, young people from the Jamaican countryside were flooding into the urban ghettos of Kingston—in neighborhoods such as Riverton City, Greenwich Town and Trenchtown. Though much of the country was optimistic in the immediate post-independence climate, these poverty-stricken youths did not share this sentiment. Many of them became delinquents who exuded a certain coolness and style. These unruly youths became known as rude boys.
Alton Ellis is sometimes said to be the father of rocksteady for his hit "Girl I've Got a Date", but other candidates for the first rocksteady single include "Take It Easy" by Hopeton Lewis, "Tougher Than Tough" by Derrick Morgan and "Hold Them" by Roy Shirley. In a Jamaican radio interview, pianist Gladstone Anderson said that guitarist and bandleader Lynn Taitt was the man who slowed down the ska beat in 1964 during a "Take It Easy" recording session. Taitt backed this up in a 2002 interview, stating: "I told 'Gladdy to slow the tempo and that's how Take It Easy and rocksteady came about. Rocksteady is really slow ska." The record producer Duke Reid released Alton Ellis' "Girl I've Got a Date" on his Treasure Isle label, as well as recordings by The Techniques, The Silvertones, The Jamaicans and The Paragons. Reid's work with these groups helped establish the vocal sound of rocksteady. Notable solo artists include Delroy Wilson, Ken Boothe and Phyllis Dillon (known as the "Queen of Rocksteady"). Other musicians who were crucial in creating rocksteady included keyboard player Jackie Mittoo, drummer Winston Grennan, bassist Jackie Jackson and saxophonist Tommy McCook.
Despite its short lifespan, rocksteady's influence is great. Many reggae artists began in rocksteady (and/or ska) - most commonly reggae singers grew out of rocksteady groups, e.g., Junior Byles came from The Versatiles, John Holt was in The Paragons, both Pat Kelly and Slim Smith sang with The Techniques (Pat Kelly sings lead on "You Don't Care") and Ronnie Davis was in The Tennors while Winston Jarrett was in The Righteous Flames. The Wailing Wailers were similarly a vocal harmony trio (modelled on The Impressions) who came from ska, through rocksteady (though Bob Marley was working in a car assembly plant in America for most of 1967 - which explains why there are few Wailers' rocksteady songs) and became a reggae band with just the one main vocalist. The short-lived nature of rocksteady, its lauded sound and the somewhat haphazard nature of the Jamaican music industry make original recordings increasingly harder to find than those from the ska and reggae eras.
Transformation into reggae
As well as updated studio technology, bass patterns became more complex and increasingly dominated the arrangements, and the piano gave way to the electric organ. Other developments included horns fading farther into the background; the introduction of a scratchier, more percussive rhythm guitar; the addition of African-style hand drumming, and a more precise, intricate and aggressive drumming style. The use of a vocal-free or lead instrument-free dub or B-side "version" became popular in Jamaica – most notably U-Roy deejaying over Treasure Isle rhythms (made by King Tubby).
By the late 1960s, the Rastafari movement became more popular in Jamaica and rocksteady became less popular. Many reggae songs became focused less on romance and more on black consciousness, politics and protest. The release of the 1972 film The Harder They Come and the rise of Jamaican superstar Bob Marley brought reggae to an international level that rocksteady never reached. Although rocksteady was a short-lived phase of Jamaican popular music, it was hugely influential on reggae, dub and dancehall. Many bass lines originally created for rocksteady songs continue to be used in contemporary Jamaican music, such as the rhythm from "Never Let Go" by Slim Smith (sometimes known as the answer rhythm) and the Hi-Fashion rhythm from "Bobby Bobylon" by Freddie McGregor.
- "Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae". BBC. Retrieved 28 October 2011.
- Johnston, Richard (2004). How to Play Rhythm Guitar, p. 72. ISBN 0-87930-811-7.
- Official website of Lynn Taitt
- Campbell, Howard (2012), "Gladstone Anderson: Key player in rocksteady’s genesis", Jamaica Observer, 1 June 2012.
- Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 352. ISBN 1-904041-96-5.
- Walker, Klive (2005). Dubwise: Reasoning from the Reggae Underground. Insomniac Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-894663-96-0.
- Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae (2009 documentary film)
- The History of Jamaican Music: Rock Steady, ReggaeTrain.com
- The History of Jamaican Music 1959-1973
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