Whether measured on a per capita or square mile basis, the island of Jamaica may be the music capital of the world. It infuses the lives of the people, and constitutes its best known import (with due respect to Usain Bolt). However, the music has not always been reggae, and certainly not always the reggae of Bob Marley. In the 50s, calypso and mento were the most popular music forms. Then the usually faster paced, horn dominated sound of ska took over. In the latter half of the 60s ska gave way to the forms known as rocksteady and reggae. These forms were characterized by a slower beat, less reliance on horns and more emphasis on bass. Vocally, the forms parallelled the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis. While socially conscious lyrics began to creep in to the music scene, the lyrical content more often was similar to the content in U.S. R&B.
The base for the music was provided by the producers, such as Coxsone Dodd (Studio One), Duke Reid (Treasure Island), Prince Buster (a former professional boxer and "protection" guy for Dodd), Leslie Kong and the Chin family (which still controls VP Records, in Queens, NY). Originally, the producers were operators of "sound systems" that would set up outdoor dancehalls and play their music. They often would sell the music as well, and the selling gradually became more important. The producers generally hired and provided the instrumental talent, while solo artists or groups sang the songs. The groups tended to form, break up and reform. And they jumped from producer to producer and back again. Few artists made real money under this system. In that sense (as well as many others), The Harder They Come illustrated real life in the Jamaican music world. The producers would own the music, so they often would recycle the instrumental pieces to keep the costs down. Over the years, "versioning" different songs off of the same instrumental, sometimes with portions of the original vocals as background, has become a distinct part of the music scene; but more on that another day.
The short rocksteady era (about 1966-1968) was dominated by two studios: Coxsone Dodd's now legendary Studio One, and Duke Reid's Treasure Island. Treasure Island became a studio after Duke terminated his career as a policeman and took over the family grocery store. He entered the businesses of sound systems and recording. He was a tough man, keeping a loaded gun and hired muscle (often his former police compatriots) at his side as he negotiated. Apparently, the gun was discharged into the ceiling for emphasis from time to time. Dodd's business lagged Reid's for a while, but Duke ran into several problems: Failing health; refusal to embrace the rastas and their form of reggae; and the fact that even though Dodd was a tough character who didn't always make his artists happy, he was considered better to work with than Reid.
Here are a few examples of the rocksteady/reggae music of the mid to late 60s. By the way, unlike R&B and rock, the vocal groups of rocksteady and reggae generally were comprised of three members.
The Cables had an early rocksteady hit with Baby Why:
Despite their talent, The Cables were underrecorded, and you are likely to find their works only on quality compilations.
Here is Rougher Yet by Slim Smith, which also is a Studio One recording:
Smith started recording at age 17, displaying a voice like his hero, Curtis Mayfield. He had success as a solo artist, as well as with The Techniques and The Uniques. He recorded for Dodd, Reid, and for Bunny "Striker" Lee. Sadly, he bled to death alone at age 25, and it is uncertain whether his death was accidental or a suicide.
Here is an early Rocksteady hit produced at Duke Reid's Treasure Island studio, Dobby Dobson singing Loving Pauper:
The American R&B influence is readily apparent in this Studio One hit, Love Me Forever by Carlton and the Shoes:
You may also note in this early Rocksteady hit echos of the recently passed Ska period, as the producer made ample use of horns.
And it is fitting to end this post with the Duke Reid produced song, Rock Steady, which may well have been the source of the name for the period, sung by Alton Ellis who probably was the artist most identified with rocksteady regardless of whether that song provided the label.