Soul Jazz Records’ latest compilation Studio One Rocksteady, which was released on 3rd February 2014, sees compiler Lloyd Bradley return to the vaults of Studio One Records. Previous visits to the Studio One vaults have resulted in rich pickings for Soul Jazz Records. No wonder. Studio One Records was one of reggae legendary labels. Comparisons have been drawn with both Motown and Stax. Indeed, Studio One Records was once described as the Motown of Jamaica. That’s why Soul Jazz Records have released a string of compilations of music released by Studio One Records. 

This includes everything from ska, dub, lovers rock and roots reggae. However, Studio One Records is still a veritable gold mine awaiting discovery. Proof of this is Studio One Rocksteady. It features not just some of the biggest names in rocksteady, but reggae. This includes The Heptones, Dennis Brown, Marcia Griffiths, John Holt, Jackie Mittoo and Ken Boothe. Each of these artists feature on Studio One Rocksteady.

Studio One Rocksteady is described as not a compilation or rocksteady. No. It’s much more than that. It’s described as: “a compilation of rocksteady, soul and early reggae recorded at Studio One.” That’s apparent from the first time you listen to Studio One Rocksteady. Compiler Lloyd Bradley, the author of Dub Culture, which is the ultimate history of reggae, has chosen well. You’ll realise that when I tell you about Studio One Rocksteady. Before that, I’lll tell you about Studio One Records and rocksteady.

Although Studio One was founded in 1954, it wasn’t until October 1963 that Coxsone Dodd recorded his first single. This took place at the Jamaica Recording and Publishing Studio, at 13 Brentford Road, Kingston. What was a former jazz club The End, would become a one-stop musical shop. Musicians could head to what became known as Studio One, to write and record music. 

Soon, Studio One Records would become a meeting place for musicians and songwriters from all over Jamaica. They could meet with other songwriters and musicians, and work on songs. Soon, some of the biggest names in Jamaican music were meeting at Studio One Records. They could write and then record a song at Studio One. Essentially, it was a one stop musical shop. This lead to comparisons with American soul labels like Motown. At Studio One, some of the best reggae music to come out of Jamaica was recorded. Part of the Studio One success story was the house band, The Skalites.

In the early days, the artists that recorded at Studio One Records were accompanied by one of reggae’s legendary studio bands The Skalites. It was during May 1964 that The Skalites were formed by Coxsone Dodd. His idea, was to bring the best musicians together to play on his own recordings. The man given the job of putting together this group of top musicians was Tommy McCook. He turned down this chance, but eventually, agreed to join what became The Skalites. 

Eventually, the lineup of The Skalites was like a who’s who of reggae. This includes the rhythm section of bassist Lloyd Brevett, drummer Lloyd Knibbs and guitarist Jah Jerry Hinds. They were augmented by pianist Jackie Mittoo and a horn section of tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, trumpeter Johnny Moore, alto saxophonist Lester Sterling. This was the lineup of The Skalites that played on some of the best music recorded at Studio One Records. This includes some of the tracks on Studio One Rocksteady. However, what’s rocksteady?

Rocksteady was born around 1966. It picked up the baton from ska, which had dominated reggae since the fifties. The name rocksteady came from an Alton Ellis track Rock Steady. However, Rock Steady may not have been the first rocksteady single. That could either be Derrick Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough, Roy Shirley’s Hold Them or Hopeton Lewis’ Take It Easy. One of these singles resulted in the birth of of rocksteady. Soon, rocksteady was being popularised by Jamaican vocal harmony groups. This includes The Heptones and The Gaylads. They both feature on Studio One Rocksteady. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that rocksteady became popular overseas.

This was when American soul sing Johnny Nash enjoyed a hit single with Hold Me Tight. Johnny Nash then headed to Jamaica to record reggae music. He became the first non-Jamaican singer to record reggae music. After this, Johnny Nash became synonymous with reggae music, especially. No wonder. There are several similarities between soul and rocksteady.

Everything from soul, R&B, jazz and ska influenced rocksteady. So did African and Latin drumming. Just like its predecessor ska and its successor reggae, was built around what’s known as the one drop drum beat. However, what makes rocksteady so instantly recognisable is the offbeat rhythms and staccato chords. They’re usually played by a guitar and piano on the second and fourth beat of the bar. Then there’s the tempo of rocksteady. It’s usually between 80 and 100 beats per minute. This was much slower than ska. For two years, rocksteady provided the soundtrack to Jamaican life.

It was around the spring of 1968 that rocksteady was usurped in popularity by an early version of reggae. This was a reaction to the social problems that were affecting Jamaica. Many people from rural Jamaica were flooding into Kingston’s ghettoes. Although people were still optimistic after the country’s independence, poverty was rife. Especially in areas like Trenchtown and Greenwich Town.

Within these areas the younger generation were angry and disaffected. These young men were referred to as rude boys. They couldn’t relate to rocksteady. What they wanted was music that spoke to, and for them. This was the beginning of an important part of youth culture. However, it was the end of the line for one of the first genres of modern Jamaican music, rocksteady. Rocksteady had replaced ska as the most popular musical genre in Jamaica. Over forty years later, and rocksteady is just as popular. Proof of this is Studio One Rocksteady, a compilation of seventeen rocksteady tracks, which I’ll pick the highlights of.

My first choice from Studio One Rocksteady is The Eternals’ Stars. It was released in 1969. By this time, rocksteady was no longer as popular. Maybe that’s why this was the only single The Eternals released for Studio One? Mind you if you’re only going to release one single for Studio One, make it one as good as Stars. Stars was written by Cornell Campbell, who takes charge of lead vocals. Horns drive along the languid, light, bright meandering arrangement. That sets the scene for Cornell’s tender, heartfelt vocal. Accompanied by harmonies

John Holt enjoyed a long and successful career and is one of the best known artists on Studio One Rocksteady. He enjoyed a string of hit singles and released the classic album 1,000 Volts of Holt in 1973.  His contribution to Studio One Rocksteady is Fancy Make Up, which he wrote and Coxsone Dodd produced. With a vocal full of frustration, he delivers a vocal full of frustration and bitterness. He’s angry at the women who’ve “robbed and cheated” him. This he does against a horn driven arrangement which epitomises what rocksteady is all about.

The Heptones feature twice on Studio One Rocksteady. That’s only fair, given how important a part they played in Jamaican musical history. They spent five years signed to Studio One, releasing their eponymous debut album in 1967. Some of the best music The Heptones recorded was produced by Coxsone Dodd. Proof of this is Party Time and Love Won’t Come Easy, which was released in 1973. It was penned and produced by Coxsone Dodd.  Party Time was written by The Heptones and produced by Coxsone Dodd. Released in 1974, just like Love Won’t Come Easy it’s slow, sensual and quite beautiful.

It was in 1968  that The Gaylads released Joy in the Morning on Coxsone Records. Rocksteady was about to be usurped in popularity by reggae. However, the group formerly known as Bibby and The Astronauts had something up their sleeve. This was Joy in the Morning. Magical, melodic and mesmeric, this was  musical perfection. Whether it was the vocal, cascading harmonies or the chugging rhythm section, this is a beautiful and flawless example of rocksteady.

Marcia Griffiths career began in 1964, when she was a vocalist for Byron Lee and The Dragonaires. Not long after this, Marcia started working with Coxsone Dodd. This was the start of a long and successful career for one of Jamaica’s most talented and underrated female vocalists. On My Ambition, Marcia delivers a soulful masterclass. She mixes elements of soul, jazz and gospel, bringing the lyrics to life. This is the perfect introduction to one of Jamaican music’s best kept secrets…Marcia Griffiths.

Not only was Jackie Mittoo was The Skalites’ pianist, but he enjoyed a successful solo career. During his career, he worked with a number of producers. However, Coxsone Dodd played an important role in Jackie’s career. After being a member of The Skalites, he embarked on a solo career. His debut album was 1967s In London. Two years later, Jackie released the Coxsone Dodd produced Our Thing. Featuring a soulful, vampish vocal, the horn driven arrangement skanks along. Throughout the track Jackie is forever the showman vamping his way through the lyrics mixing power, drama and soulfulness.

Dennis Brown is yet another legend of Jamaican music that features on Studio One Rocksteady. Throughout his career, Dennis’ music constantly evolved. In 1972, when he released Take It Easy as a single, his music is best described as roots reggae. Later, his music took on a more militant and then spiritual sound. For some, Dennis Brown was the voice of a generation. He gave a voice to those who had none. Take It Easy has a much more mellow, laid-back vibe, that shows another side to Dennis Brown.

Ken Boothe features twice on Studio One Rocksteady. He contributes Home, Home, Home and Moving Away. Home, Home, Home was released in 1967, and features a soul-baring vocal. Tired and missing home, Ken pictures the sights and sounds. This homecoming comes to life thanks to Ken’s delivery of the lyrics. Moving Away was released a year later in 1968. Soulful, heartfelt and full of sadness describes Ken’s vocal. That’s because his partner is “Moving Away.” His voice is needy and emotive as Ken sings the lyrics as if he’s lived, loved and survived them.

Whist I’ve only mentioned ten of the seventeen tracks on Studio One Rocksteady, I was totally spoiled for choice. Really, I could just about have picked any of the seventeen tracks. That reflects the quality of music on Studio One Rocksteady. The best way to describe Studio One Rocksteady is all killer, no filler. That’s no surprise. After all, look at that the man behind Studio One Records. Coxsone Dodd was a producer and songwriter with exacting standards. Quality control was important to Coxsone.  Inferior music didn’t get to bare the Studio One logo. No chance. He only worked with the creme de la creme of Jamaican music. This includes The Heptones, Dennis Brown, Marcia Griffiths, John Holt, Jackie Mittoo and Ken Boothe. Each of these artists feature on Studio One Rocksteady, which was released by Soul Jazz Records on 3rd February 2014.

Ever since they released their first compilation, Soul Jazz Records have concentrated on quality over quantity. They’re like Analog Africa, another of my favourite labels. Neither label churn out compilations. No. They leave that to inferior labels. Instead, Soul Jazz Records almost ration themselves. Each of their releases must meet their exacting standards. That’s why it’s so fitting that Soul Jazz Records are the keeper of the flame for Studio One Records. Both companies have the same standards. Neither would dare release second rate music. Instead, it’s got to be the creme de la creme. That’s no bad thing.

That’s why if you’re a newcomer to rocksteady, then Studio One Rocksteady is the perfect place to start. Indeed, for anyone wanting to discover the music Studio One Records released, the Soul Jazz Records’ series of compilations is a perfect starting place. Just like Analog Africa’s compilations, you can risk buying Soul Jazz Records’ Studio One compilations blind. You can be rest assured they ooze quality. That’s the case with Studio One Rocksteady, which is another lovingly compiled, quality compilation from Soul Jazz Records. Standout Tracks: The Eternals Stars, The Heptones Love Won’t Come Easy, Marcia Griffiths My Ambition and Dennis Brown Take It Easy.


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