Alton Ellis, R.I.P.

Jess Harvell | October 13, 2008 9:30 am
Jamaican singer Alton Ellis, whose languorous, soulful vocal style and old-school grace added a romantic sway to ska and gave the world the sound of rocksteady, died Friday in London. Born in 1938 and recording by age 21, Ellis’ lover-not-a-fighter attitude and made him kin as much to the American R&B and soul singers he idolized (and frequently covered) as his dance-crazed Jamaican contemporaries. (Over heavenly backing harmonies and a sweet little trumpet break, his 1965 hit “Dance Crasher” cautions rambunctious rude boys to be “gentlemen” rather than juvenile delinquents, wagging his finger with some of the sweetest wordless hooks of his career.) Like many workhorse pioneers of Jamaican music, Ellis continued to play live to enthusiastic expatriate audiences well past reggae’s commercial heyday, even through treatments for the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2007. Sadly, I never had the chance to see him on stage, but reports of 21st-century Ellis shows verged on the ecstatic, even among less than starry-eyed attendees. Still, a great number of Ellis’ songs, most of the best recorded for labels like Studio One and Treasure Isle, in the ’60s, still abound with swoon-worthy moments (the echo-tinged sighs closing out “Cry Tough,” the longing vibrating through one drawn-out “you” in the chorus of “I’ll Be Waiting”) captured forever on crackling and hissing 45s. Ellis was 70. [BBC]