From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor to ska, and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was performed by Jamaican vocal harmony groups such as The Gaylads, The Maytals and The Paragons. The term rocksteady comes from a dance style that was mentioned in the Alton Ellis song "Rock Steady". Dances performed to rocksteady were slower and less energetic than the earlier ska dances.
Rocksteady uses some of the sound elements of rhythm and blues and ska. One element is offbeat rhythms; two or three major chords played by a guitar, creating create a clear, vibrant and typically high-pitched sound. Rocksteady is slower and more relaxed than ska. Snare drums have an essential role in timekeeping, characterised by one heavy beat on the third beat of every bar. The bass is heavier and more prominent than in ska, and the bass lines replace the walking style of ska in favor of more broken, syncopated figures. Rocksteady reduced (but did not eliminate) the use of horns; instead, the electric guitar, bass, and piano became more prominent. The electric guitar plays the main melody, also mimicing the bass line, in the picking style perfected by Lynn Taitt. The electric bass is the main rhythmic instrument, helping create a fuller more percussive sound. Guitar and piano integrate accents into the music.
At the time of rocksteady’s debut, lower-class Jamaicans were struggling daily to prevail over the shortage of food, shelter and employment. This suffering allowed for the emergeence of a rebellious group know as rude boys. Rocksteady lyrics either celebrated or criticized the violent lifestyle of the rude boys, and spoke out against political injustice. The rude boy phenomenon had existed in the ska period, but was expressed more obviously during the rocksteady era in songs such as "Rude Boy Gone A Jail" by The Clarendonians; '"No Good Rudie" by Justin Hinds & the Dominoes; and "Don't Be A Rude Boy" by The Rulers. 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 though the hard times.
Due in part to the heavy borrowing from US soul songs, many many rocksteady songs are love songs with appropriate lyrics; eg 'Sharing You' by Prince Buster which is a cover of a Mitty Collier US original. There are rocksteady songs about religion / rasta, though nothing like the same amount as reggae. Some rocksteady songs described God as an invisible caretaker, and pled him to ease the pain of earthy sufferings.
Rocksteady arose at a time when 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 bandleader Lynn Taitt was the man who slowed down the ska beat in 1964 during a "Take It Easy" recording session. 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").
As a popular musical style, rocksteady was short-lived, and existed only for about two years - summer 1966 till spring 1968. However, its influence is great. Many reggae artists began in rocksteady (and/or ska) - most commonly reggae singers grew out of rocksteady groups eg: Junior Byles came from 'The Versatiles', John Holt was in 'The Paragons', both Pat Kelly and Slim Smith sang with 'The Techniques' (it's Pat Kelly singing lead on 'You Don't Care') and Ronnie Davis was in 'The Tennors' while Winston Jarrett was in The Righteous Flames. Some groups reggae-fied themselves: 'Carlton and The Shoes' became 'The Abyssinians'. 'The Wailing Wailers' were similarly a vocal harmony trio (modeled 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. It would not be untrue to say that for many connoisseurs rocksteady represents the highpoint of Jamaican music, without in any way wanting to detract from the warranted global influence of reggae. 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
Several factors contributed to the evolution of rocksteady into reggae in the late 1960s. The emigration to Canada of key musical arrangers Jackie Mittoo and Lynn Taitt — and the upgrading of Jamaican studio technology — had a marked effect on the sound and style of the recordings. 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 and intricate 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 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 Babylon" by Freddie McGregor.