Rock Steady

Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1962.[1] A successor to ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was performed by Jamaican vocal harmony groups such as The GayladsThe 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 less energetic than the earlier ska dances. The first international rocksteady hit was “Hold Me Tight” (1968) by the American soul singer Johnny Nash; it reached #5 in the United Kingdom and United States.[citation needed]

Skank” guitar rhythm[2]About this sound Play .

Ska/rocksteady rhythm[3] About this sound Play .

Rocksteady uses some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), ska, African and Cuban drumming, and other genres. A primary element is offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the second and fourth beats of the measure. Rocksteady, more so than its musical cousins ska and early reggae, often accentuates the “one drop” drum beat, characterized by a heavy accent on the third beat of every measure, played by the bass drum and the snare together.
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 third. Jamaican musicians sometimes refer to this third beat as the “afterbeat”. Rocksteady drumming has a mixture of influences, including African “burru” percussion, American R&B, and Latin rhythms. The snare drum almost always plays a side stick “click” rather that a full snare hit; an influence from Cuban clave rhythms.
In rocksteady, 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, playing a counterpoint to the repetitive rhythm of the guitar and keyboards. Rocksteady reduced (but did not eliminate) the use of horns; instead, the electric guitar, bass, and piano became more prominent, and there was generally less harmonic complexity in the arrangements than in ska. In rocksteady, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line, in the picking style perfected by Lynn Taitt, a technique that continued on into reggae. The guitar and piano also add occasional accents that help to keep the beat from becoming too monotonous.


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. At the time of rocksteady’s debut, lower-class Jamaicans were struggling to prevail over the shortage of food, shelter and employment. This suffering set the stage for the emergence of a rebellious subculture known as rude boys. Some 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.


As a popular musical style, rocksteady was short-lived; its heyday only lasted about two years, from 1966 until spring 1968.[4] 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 bandleaderLynn Taitt was the man who slowed down the ska beat in 1964 during a “Take It Easy” recording session.[5] 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 TechniquesThe SilvertonesThe Jamaicans and The Paragons. Reid’s work with these groups helped establish the vocal sound of rocksteady. Notable solo artists include Delroy WilsonKen 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’ (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’. ‘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.

[edit]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.[6] 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.