Rocksteady, a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966, played a significant role in shaping the sound of modern reggae music. This short-lived yet impactful genre evolved from its predecessor, Ska, and laid the foundation for reggae and other Jamaican music styles that followed. In this article, we will explore the origins, characteristics, and influences of Rocksteady and its transformation into reggae.
Origin and development of Rocksteady
Rocksteady emerged in Jamaica as a successor to Ska and a precursor to reggae. Its development can be attributed to the fusion of various music styles, including Jamaican mento, American rhythm and blues, jazz, and calypso. The name “rocksteady” is believed to have been derived from the popular dance song “The Rock Steady” by Alton Ellis.
Several notable artists, musicians, and producers contributed to the creation and popularisation of the rocksteady sound, including harmony groups such as The Techniques, The Paragons, The Heptones, and The Gaylads, soulful singers like Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Bob Andy, Ken Boothe, and Phyllis Dillon, and renowned musicians like Jackie Mittoo, Lynn Taitt, and Tommy McCook.
Key players in Rocksteady’s emergence
Some of the key players in the emergence of Rocksteady include record producers Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd, who played a significant role in fostering the genre’s growth. Duke Reid released numerous Rocksteady hits on his Treasure Isle label, while Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One label provided an essential platform for rocksteady artists.
Despite its significant influence on Jamaican music, Rocksteady’s popularity was short-lived, with its heyday lasting only around two years, from the summer of 1966 until the spring of 1968. However, the impact of this genre on reggae, dub, and dancehall music is undeniable.
Characteristics of Rocksteady music
Rocksteady music is characterised by its slower tempo compared to Ska, which allowed for more relaxed dancing and a greater focus on the bass line. This shift in tempo led to several key changes in the genre’s musical structure and instrumentation.
Instrumentation and rhythm
The rocksteady sound is defined by its strong electric bass line, which typically dominates the arrangements. Additionally, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line in a muted picking style, as pioneered by Lynn Taitt. The electric organ gradually replaced the piano in rocksteady music, and the horn section often took a backseat, fading into the background.
The rhythm section in rocksteady music also underwent a transformation, with guitar and piano accents being placed around the basic offbeat pattern. This rhythmic experimentation contributed to the genre’s unique sound and paved the way for reggae music.
Lyrics and themes
Rocksteady lyrics often revolved around themes of love and romance, with many songs borrowing heavily from American soul music. However, the genre also touched upon subjects such as religion, the Rastafari movement, and the rise of Jamaica’s “rude boy” subculture.
Impact of Rocksteady on Reggae music
Rocksteady laid the groundwork for the emergence of reggae music, which became the dominant music genre in Jamaica after Rocksteady’s popularity waned. Many reggae artists began their careers in Rocksteady as part of harmony groups or solo performers. Several factors, including the increasing popularity of the Rastafari movement and the growing focus on black consciousness, politics, and protest in Jamaican music, marked the evolution of Rocksteady into reggae.
Influence on reggae music structure
The rocksteady genre introduced several elements that became integral to reggae music, such as the emphasis on the bass line and the use of electric organs. The transformation of Rocksteady into reggae also saw the introduction of more complex bass patterns, African-style hand drumming, and a more aggressive drumming style.
Contribution to reggae artists’ careers
Many reggae artists began their careers during the rocksteady era, including Junior Byles, John Holt, Pat Kelly, Slim Smith, Ronnie Davis, and Winston Jarrett. Rocksteady bands such as The Wailers also transitioned from being a vocal harmony trio to a reggae band with a single lead vocalist.
Rocksteady’s legacy in modern Jamaican music
Although Rocksteady was a short-lived genre, its influence on modern Jamaican music is evident in contemporary Ska, reggae, dub, and dancehall music. Many bass lines originally created for rocksteady songs continue to be used in today’s Jamaican music, providing a lasting connection to the genre’s roots.
Timeless Rocksteady hits
Several rocksteady hits have stood the test of time and continue to be celebrated today. Some essential rocksteady songs include “One Love”, “Stir It Up”, and “Bend Down Low” by The Wailers, “Cry Tough” by Alton Ellis and The Flames, and “Take It Easy” by Hopeton Lewis.
Essential Rocksteady recordings
For those interested in exploring the rich history of rocksteady music, the following albums are essential listening:
- Alton Ellis – Be True to Yourself: Anthology 1965-1973
- The Gaylads – Over the Rainbow’s End
- The Melodians – Rivers of Babylon
These recordings provide a comprehensive insight into the genre’s development, impact, and legacy in Jamaican music.
Rocksteady music has left an indelible mark on Jamaican music history. Its influence on reggae, dub, and dancehall music is evident in the sounds and rhythms of modern Jamaican music. Despite its brief popularity, Rocksteady’s legacy continues to be celebrated and enjoyed by music enthusiasts worldwide.