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 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 number one in Canada.
Rocksteady uses some of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, ska, African and Latin American drumming, and other genres. One of the most easily recognizable elements, as in ska, are offbeat rhythms; staccato chords played by a guitar and piano on the offbeats of the measure. This offbeat can be counted so that it falls between each count as an “and”. Example: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and etc. The perceived tempo became slower with the development of rocksteady than it had been in ska and this led to a number of changes in the music. The guitar and piano players began to experiment with occasional accents around the basic offbeat pattern. This can be heard throughout Jamaican recordings in subsequent years.
The fact that chording instruments (instruments that play chords) in ska, rocksteady, and reggae often play so infrequently in the bar and play repeated rhythmic patterns led Jamaican musicians to explore simple modal chord progressions such as I – VII or I – IV. The latter here being essentially a Plagal cadence that serves to outline the key. The fact that jazz played an influence in the musical developments in Jamaican music is evidenced by the frequent covers and interpolations of popular jazz songs throughout Jamaica’s recorded history. It could be argued that the development of modal jazz in the late 1950s and early 1960s also influenced the choice of Jamaican players to explore simpler modal chord patterns. Either way, simple chord progressions became a characteristic of Jamaican music. It is important to note that while much of what is internationally popular in Jamaican music uses simpler chord progressions, Jamaican musicians have continued to use every kind of cadence and progression that can be found in other modern popular genres.
Rocksteady, even more so than its predecessor ska and the early reggae that followed, was built around the “one drop” drum beat, characterized by a heavy accent on the second and fourth beat of every bar (or the third beat if you count in double time), played by the bass drum and the snare together. The snare drum often plays a side stick “click” rather that a full snare hit; an influence from Latin music. 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 second and fourth beats (the weak beats in a bar). Jamaican musicians sometimes refer to the second and fourth beats as the “afterbeat”. All the Jamaican styles of kit drumming since ska have incorporated a mixture of influences, including African “burru” percussion, American jazz and R&B, and Latin rhythms. The slowing in perceived tempo that occurred with rocksteady opened the door for drummers to explore these influences more, eventually leading to all the patterns used in modern Jamaican music and reggae as it is recorded throughout the world.
This slowing that occurred with rocksteady allowed bass players to explore more broken, syncopated figures, playing a counterpoint to the repetitive rhythm of the guitar and keyboards and this new style eventually largely replaced the walking patterns that had been so characteristic of many ska recordings. These new patterns fit very well with the simpler modal chord progressions often used by Jamaican players. CBS bought Fender Musical Instruments in 1965, this led to cheaper electric basses being available to Jamaican musicians. Byron Lee was the first ska band leader to have a full-time electric bass. By 1966, the advantages of recording and performing with electric bass had meant most players made the switch to electric. A number of factors led to smaller band sizes and this in turn led to changes in the way the music was composed and arranged. The slower tempo and smaller band sizes in turn led to a much larger focus on the bass line in general, which eventually became one of the most recognizable characteristics of Jamaican music. In rocksteady, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line, in the muted picking style perfected by Lynn Taitt, a technique that continued on into reggae.
Smaller band sizes and slower tempos also led to a number of changes in the way horn parts were written and arranged. Whereas, in ska, the horn section had often spent much of the song playing the offbeats with the guitar and piano, in rocksteady they favored repeated rhythmic patterns or simply sitting out all together until the lead line.
Rocksteady and reggae are perhaps best thought of and notated as a half time feel, in which case one would count at twice the tempo. This would mean the guitar/piano offbeats would fall on beats 2 and 4. And the “one drop” of the snare/kick drum would fall on beat 3. This also allows us, when transcribing the music, to use the term “swing 8ths” to help notate hi-hat patterns, for example.
As a popular musical style, rocksteady was short-lived; its heyday only lasted about two years, from 1966 until spring 1968. 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 bandleader Lynn Taitt was the man who slowed down the ska beat in 1964 during a “Take It Easy” recording session. Taitt backed this up in a 2002 interview, stating “I told ‘Gladdy to slow the tempo and that’s how Take It Easy and rocksteady came about. Rocksteady is really slow ska.” 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”). 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. 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.
Derrick Harriott patriotically noted, “Ask any Jamaican musician and they’ll tell you the rocksteady days were the best days of Jamaican music”
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 pianogave 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, intricate and aggressive 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 Bobylon” by Freddie McGregor.