Giving rocksteady its due, New book focuses on often overlooked genre of Jamaican music

Published: Sunday | December 13, 2009

Howard Campbell, Gleaner Writer

Despite its pitch-perfect harmonies and rocking bass lines, rocksteady is the perennial third-place finisher behind reggae and ska in the Jamaican popular music race.

The sound does have its share of admirers, including American Chuck Foster whose book, Small Axe Guide To Rock Steady, was recently released in the United States.

The book looks at the uptempo sound which preceded ska and was the forerunner to reggae.

Foster, who hosts the 'Reggae Central' programme on KPFK radio station in Los Angeles, California, believes rocksteady has never really been given its due.

I've always felt rock steady was given short shrift by fans of ska and reggae. To me it is the greatest era, besides the conscious roots music of the seventies," Foster told Arts and Education.

"I love the natural three-part harmonies, simple melodic structure and great playing and singing of this era," he added.

Many musicologists agree that rock steady lasted from 1967 to 1969. It produced soulful singers like Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe and Delroy Wilson and formidable singer/songwriters in Bob Andy and Desmond Dekker.

The rocksteady period also produced a solid cast of harmony groups like the Heptones, Melodians and Paragons. Foster said most of the information for Small Axe Guide came from interviews he did with Ellis, Boothe, Dekker, Eric 'Monty' Morris and ska legend Derrick Morgan.

hippie movement

Bob Andy and Ken Boothe.

Since the book's release in August, he has made several publicity appearances, mainly in southern California where he was born in 1948. Foster said he was strongly attracted to the region's eclectic music scene during the 1960s when the hippie movement was in full cry, but knew little of Jamaican popular culture.

"Outside of Millie Small's My Boy Lollipop and Desmond Dekker and the Aces' Israelites, I discovered reggae in the early seventies while working in a record store," Foster recalled.

"I loved a cover I heard of Many Rivers To Cross, so I went to see Jimmy Cliff live on the Harder They Come tour in the mid-seventies. I then went out and bought every reggae record available, including Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, U Roy, Big Youth and of course the Wailers."

It is not the first time Foster has written on rocksteady and Jamaican pop music. His first book, Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music, was released by Billboard Books in 1999.

Rock steady enjoyed a second wind in the 1990s when there was a local revival led by popular live shows such as Heineken Startime. A new generation of fans was introduced to the songs of Ellis, the Heptones and John Holt, former lead singer of the Paragons.

This year, Get Ready To Rock Steady, a documentary by Canadian Moss Raxlen and Stascha Bader of Switzerland, was released.

Chuck Foster and Alton Ellis.

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