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Alton Ellis Interview: RIP Reggae Legend

Despite the numerous hits to his credit and accolades he received, Alton Ellis‘ life was plagued by tragedy, writes Orantes Moore.

The singer’s first wife Pearle died 19 October 2005, and his sister Hortense died on the same day five years later.

Moreover, during an interview with Overground in 2004, Ellis – who passed away in London on 10 October – claimed unscrupulous music producers conned him out of millions.

As a tribute to the legendary reggae vocalist, below are extracts from that conversation.

How comes you’re not rich from Sean Paul’s hit I’m Still In Love, which you wrote in 1967?

I might not get a penny off that song because of the legal wrangling and contracts I signed years ago when I was young and broke. Instead of getting involved robbery or theft, I signed away my rights not knowing that 15 years later this would happen. I might get some money and I might get none, but the bottom line is I’m still proud and happy. All these things just keep highlighting my career and teaching people who I am and where I’m coming from.

Is it true that I’ll Take You There by the Staple Singers is another of your compositions?

Yes, and I can prove it. The Staple Singers based their song off Liquidator, a reggae track by Harry J, which reached number nine in the British charts in 1969. Liquidator is an instrumental version of Girl I’ve Got a Date, released in 1965. Play Girl I’ve Got a Date together with I’ll Take You There and you’ll hear they are the same.

When did you record your first song?

I was on [producer] Coxsone Dodd’s first recording session in 1957. That night he made three hit songs: Muriel [by Alton], Theophilus Beckford’s Easy Snapping [recently used in a Sainsbury's TV commercial] and an instrumental by the Skatalites.

You’ve written some extraordinary love songs – where did the inspiration come from?

My first wife. That is a part of my life I hate to talk about but it’s important. There’s an LP called Best of Alton Ellis (Studio One); that whole album is about her. That woman drove me to a point that was musically productive although emotionally draining. She had four kids for me, but 18 months ago I found out that one of the boys I’ve taken care of for 33 years is not my son. That’s the type of person she was and I lived with it. Mr Dodd was never happy that me and her had problems, but he used to enjoy it indirectly because that’s when songs like I’m Still In Love and Hurting Me came in his studio. All that heartache, pain and stress moulded me into Alton Ellis, one of Jamaica’s greatest recording artists. It’s all part and parcel of my life story.

You left Studio One to record for Dodd’s rival, Duke Reid – why?

I was unhappy with Coxsone’s treatment – no money – so I didn’t go back to him. I made the group Alton and the Flames and went to record for Duke’s label, Treasure Isle. My first tune for Duke, Dance Crasher, went straight to number one. After that it was history because I had a string of hits like Cry Tough, Willow Tree, Girl I’ve Got a Date and Rocksteady. But Duke Reid gave me the same treatment as Coxsone.

What was Dodd’s reaction to your Treasure Isle recordings?

Years later Coxsone and I were reasoning and he said: ‘Boss, the hurtfullest thing you ever did to me was when you sang Girl I’ve Got a Date for Duke. That mashed down my business.’

Why did producers treat artists so badly back in the day?

These producers were all poor people trying to get a buck. Do you think if you make him a buck he’s going to turn around and give it back? This is what we didn’t realise. All the artists got was money for food. We would go back to Trenchtown and if you wanted a next money, you came back to sing another tune. But royalties and dem ting deh; forget that.

Who are your favourite singers?

Sam Cooke, Beres Hammond, an Italian classical singer called Mario Lanzo and Frank Sinatra. I admire Bob Marley too; he was kinda mystical to me. He didn’t have a high range, but he was very effective.

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Tags reggae, Alton Ellis, Sean Paul
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