Alton Ellis - Biography

Alton Ellis, born in Kingston on September 1, 1940,  was one of a handful of artists recording in Jamaica in the late fifties. With his partner Eddie Perkins as Alton and Eddie he made some of the first recordings in the Jamaican R & B style that preceeded ska. Their doo-wop rooted  “Muriel,” recorded in 1957 (produced by C.S. Dodd at Federal Records and recorded on a one-track tape deck backed by the Blues Busters), was a sound system hit and two years later one of the first commercially released singles in Jamaica. It and the records that followed were  massive hits in Jamaica, many copies being purchased by lower and working class fans who did not yet own record players but desired tangible proof of Jamaican music. Their songs for Dodd included “My Heaven” and they also recorded with Vincent Chin of Randy’s Records.

When his partner relocated to the United States, Ellis put together a vocal group called The Flames to back him and began to record for producer Duke Reid with resultant  hits like “The Preacher” and “Dance Crasher” credited to Alton Ellis & the Flames. As ska made the transition to rock steady and the driving horns of Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis and Roland Alphonso faded to the background, the soulful singer with the emotive delivery came into his prime. Rock steady was to Alton Ellis what soul was for Curtis Mayfield and he made some of the greatest records of the rock steady era including “Rock Steady,” as much the defining song of the dance as Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” or Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” were of those.              

Alton Ellis wrote many of the original songs that laid the foundation for the reggae music that was to follow and the rhythmic structures of hits like “Cry Tough,” “Breaking Up,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Going Back To Africa”  and “Black Man’s World” provide the underpinning for literally hundreds of songs to follow. He returned to Studio One and scored major hits with Roscoe Gordon’s “Let Him Try” and originals like “I’m Just A Guy” and “I’m Still In Love With You.” The latter has become one of the most “versioned” songs in musical history. Covered by Marcia Aitken in the mid-seventies as “I’m Still In Love With You Boy” for producer Joe Gibbs, the backing track was stripped of it’s vocal and used for a series of dj releases from Trinity, Dillinger and others before Althea and Donna scored internationally with “Uptown Top Ranking” on the riddim. Decades later it provided the foundation for Sean Paul’s breakthrough hit (“I’m Still In Love With You”) as well. According to Ellis, none of these “versions” of his song have earned him a dime to date.

It’s interesting to compare the work Ellis did at Studio One with that he did for Duke Reid at Treasure Isle as he’s one of the few artists who recorded a good body of work for both. Studio One albums include Alton Ellis Sings Rock and Soul, Best Of, Showcase and Sunday Coming (reissued in 199 by Heartbeat) and work he did for Duke Reid is collected on Mr. Soul of Jamaica reissued as Cry Tough (1993 Heartbeat) . He also recorded over the years for for producers Prince Buster, Lloyd Daley  and Winston Riley among others.

The rich, dulcet tones of his voice and the impassioned concern he expressed stood front and center on solo works like “Play It Cool,” “If I Could Rule This World,” “The Humble Will Stumble” and “African Descendants” and added texture to myriad duets with his sister Hortense, who often covered Alton’s songs. Alton & Hortense Ellis (1990 Heartbeat, reissued as I’m Still In Love With You with four bonus tracks in 2006) contains a nice selection of these done for Studio One. Dozens of other Jamaican artists were directly influenced by his style including Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Bunny Wailer and the singers such as Luciano, Prince Malachi, Bushman and George Nooks who took their influence at one remove by adopting the styles of singers who had already adopted his.

The sheer volume of classic Alton Ellis songs is stunning. Songs like “Why Birds Follow Spring,” “Give Me Your Love,” “Remember That Sunday,” “All My Tears (Come Rolling),” “Girl I’ve Got A Date” and “Lord Deliver Us” are among Jamaica’s finest contributions to what were once known as “standards.” In addition Ellis had the ability to “Jamaicanize” or make a popular tune his own as he did with classic JA versions of songs including “Willow Tree,”  and covers of sixties hits like Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and  Blood Sweet and Tears’ “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” Ellis also found time to  understudy Jimmy Cliff in the movie The Harder They Come, doing the stunts considered too dangerous for Cliff!

Alton Ellis relocated to London in the early seventies, though he continued to return to Jamaica periodically and recorded and had records issued from both countries as well as Canada where he also lived for several years. Albums recorded in Jamaica include Mr. Skabina backed by The Heptones (1980 Cha Cha, also issued with some song changes as Alton Ellis Sings, The Heptones Harmonize on Jet Star). Again with slight variations the same albums was released as Many Moods Of Alton Ellis on Tele-Tech (reissued with bonus tracks on CD 2006 Makkasound). A New Day (Body Music) was self-produced and recorded at Channel One. British releases like Still In Love (1977 Trojan), Love To Share (1979 Third World) with Jackie Mittoo on keys and 25th Silver Jubilee (1984 Sky Note) reprise his early classics and helped to establish the style we now call “lover’s rock.”  Canadian releases include the albums Slummin’ and Changes, both issued by Abraham and featuring the superb “Earth Needs Love.” Wherever he recorded he stuck to the soulful roots and quality productions that first established him, as on Here I Am (1988 Angella). Alton Ellis is truly an international artist as Set A Better Example (1989 Half Way Tree) reveals, with basic tracks recorded in Jamaica and vocals recorded in Houston, Texas.  UK-based producers he worked with include Junior Lincoln, Ephriam Barrett and Phil Pratt.

Just by way of illustration, besides Studio One and Treasure Isle, Alton Ellis issued 7" singles in Jamaica on labels including Giant, Jackpot, Impact, Scorpio, Razor Sound, High Times, Stars, Cash & Carry and FRM, in England on Venture, Gas , Attack, Pama Supreme and Count Shelly and in the U.S. on Clintone, Wimpex, and Joint International. 12" releaeses came out on Channel One, DEB, Jah Life, Specialist, Fashion and many others. One of his own earliest productions was a song he wrote and gave to Dennis Brown, “If I Follow My Heart.” It was recorded at Studio One and eventually came out on that label without crediting Ellis.

Because he had been taken advantage of by producers and labels in the early days, many of his later triumphs rang hollow on payday. Though anyone familiar with reggae music could clearly hear the survival of Alton’s original melodies and songs in later hits the lack of copyright protection up into the seventies in Jamaica meant his contribution to the music was more in the form of a gift than a reciprocal arrangement and attempts to regain rightful ownership of his own creations were mired in legal tangles beyond the scope of mortal men. Nonetheless Alton Ellis persevered, continued to write and sing great songs, perform with class and dignity and record and issue new material. He did become wary, and sometimes made it clear to newcomers he wanted to be paid for interviews and shows, a somewhat novel idea to some of the journalists and promoters who approached him. None of this stopped him from recording an album at the end of the nineties with a producer long thought to have exploited the artists who recorded for him, the (now) late Joe Gibbs. More Alton Ellis (1997 Joe Gibbs) was co-produced by Sydney Crooks and it’s existence is all the more amazing since it is Gibbs who is said to have profited from the international smash “Uptown Top Ranking” based on Ellis’ original “I’m Still In Love.”

In 1994 he was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Distinction for his great contributions. In his later years Alton Ellis moved over to producing though his popularity required that he be the main artist he produced. One of my favorite songs from this time is a 7" single titled “We A Feel It” for which he penned the grim couplet (apropos Bob Marley): “First they honor him/Then they murder him.” Man From Studio One (1995 Alltone) includes a tribute to the late keyboard maestro Jackie Mittoo who featured prominently on many of Ellis’ works and Soul Of A Man (2003, issued on his own Alltone Records label) featured lead guitar from early session player Ernest Ranglin and some great new songs including the possibly tongue-in-cheek love song “Sing Like Gregory.” Perhaps the woman in the song who tells him he sings like The Cool Ruler didn’t know she was talking with the originator of the style.

Alton Ellis also produced songs by his talented children including his son Christopher and daughter Lovella. Family Values (1992 Alltone) included tracks from Hortense Ellis (who sadly passed a few years later), Noel Ellis, Ellis Junior, Steve Ellis and Alton himself. Muriel (2005, Alltone) gathered soul ballads recorded many years earlier with the late great Jackie Mittoo on keyboards, though the title track is a contemporary remake of the original. Classic anthologies, aside from those already mentioned,  include Alton Ellis O.D. in the Jet Star Reggae Max series (1997), .Soul Groover (CD reissue 2003 Trojan), Arise Black Man : 1968-1978 (Moll-Selekta). My Time Is the Right Time: Original Rocksteady and Reggae Classics 1966-1971 (Westside) is a nice period piece  and career-spanning retrospectives include Be True To Yourself 1965-1973 (2004 Trojan). Alton Ellis’ contribution to Jamaican music is among the greatest and the seeds he and a handful of others sowed over fifty years ago have borne fruit around the world.

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