Styles & Forms | Rock Steady | Reggae

Seldom has a style of music been named with greater accuracy than rock steady. Like so many other Jamaican genres, it took its name from a dance, in which participants planted their feet and ‘rocked steady’. When rock steady began to dominate the dancehalls in the mid-1960s, it was the antithesis to ska’s rollicking, big-band, jazz-based, horn-heavy frenzy.

While it presented a silkier, smoother aspect of the music, it also pushed singing and singers to the fore in a way that hadn’t been fashionable in Jamaican music for the previous few years. Rock steady owed a great deal to the soul groups who were doing so well in the US at that time – The Impressions, The Drifters, The Dells. But the undisputed king of rock steady was Duke Reid, sound system owner, record producer and fearsome former policeman.

Slowing It Down

The rock steady style became official, as it were, in 1966, when Alton Ellis’s huge hit ‘Rock Steady’ was the first record to use the term as a title, but his lyric was merely offering instruction for a dance that had already existed for a couple of years. Sound system operators looking for a change of pace amid ska’s relentless vigour had been promoting ‘Midnight Hour’ sessions when, at the appointed time, they’d spin 60 minutes of blues, soul or slow ska to give the dancers a breather, during which time the fashionable cool-down moves were merely to sway in time to the beat.

Naturally, record producers were quick to pick up on this and started to record tracks specifically for it, a move which was responsible for several enormous changes in Jamaican musical style. The slower, more soulful numbers allowed singers to be far more prominent, and it was during this era that so many of Jamaican music’s biggest stars came to prominence: Ken Boothe, Slim Smith, John Holt, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy, Pat Kelly, Alton Ellis, Marcia Griffiths, Hopeton Lewis and Phillis Dillon are all products of rock steady, as is what became known as the classic Jamaican three-part harmony style. Popular US group The Impressions, led by Curtis Mayfield, regularly toured Jamaica in the mid-1960s, and it was their singing structure that became the basis of the Jamaican three-part harmony style: all three voices sharing the lead, often alternating in the same verse (rather than using clearly defined lead and background singers) to create a fabulous depth of harmony and provide continual surprises for the listener. Bob Marley’s Wailers slimmed down to a trio in 1966 and took their place alongside such other brilliant threesomes such as The Melodians, The Paragons, The Jamaicans, The Uniques, The Techniques, The Heptones and The Gaylads.

Defining The Sound

Musically the changes were just as significant, as record producers switched big bands with groups to back these singers, as much an economic measure as it was fear that the vocalists would get lost...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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