Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor of ska and a precursor to reggae, rocksteady was performed by Jamaican vocal harmony groups such as The Gaylads, The Maytals, The Heptones 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 a few of the musical elements of rhythm and blues (R&B), jazz, ska, African and Latin American drumming, and additional genres. One of the most easily recognisable 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. 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.
Rocksteady, even more so the early reggae that followed, was built around the "one drop" drum beat, characterised by a heavy accent on the second and fourth beat of every bar (or the third beat if one counts 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). Jamaican musicians at times refer to the second and fourth beats as the "afterbeat". All the Jamaican styles of kit drumming after 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. With the advent of the drum machine and computer in the 1980s, Jamaican popular music i.e. "dancehall" began to draw on additional rhythms such as Kumina and to a lesser extent, American hip-hop so that recent music from Jamaica bears little resemblance to the rhythms and beats of classic ska, rocksteady and reggae.
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 a large number of ska recordings. These new patterns fit quite well with the simpler modal chord progressions often used by Jamaican players. 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 recognisable characteristics of Jamaican music. In rocksteady, the lead guitar often doubles the bass line, in the muted picking style created by Lynn Taitt, a technique that continued on into reggae.
Smaller band sizes and slower tempos additionally 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 favoured 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 additionally allows transcribers to use the term "swing 8ths" to help notate hi-hat patterns, for example.
Due in part to the heavy borrowing from US soul songs, a large number of rocksteady songs are love songs; e.g. "Sharing You" by Prince Buster, which is a cover of a Mitty Collier original, and "Queen Majesty" by The Techniques, which is a cover of "Minstrel and Queen" by The Impressions. There are rocksteady songs about religion and the Rastafari movement, though not to the same extent as in reggae. At the time of rocksteady’s debut, lower-class Jamaicans were struggling to prevail over the shortage of food, shelter and employment. This suffering set the stage for the emergence of a rebellious subculture known as rude boys. Some rocksteady lyrics either celebrated or criticised the violent lifestyle of the rude boys, and spoke out against political injustice. The rude boy phenomenon had existed in the ska period, but was expressed more obviously throughout the rocksteady era in songs such as "Rude Boy Gone A Jail" by The Clarendonians; "No Good Rudie" by Justin Hinds & the Dominoes; "Don't Be A Rude Boy" by The Rulers, and a large number of others. Crying was a theme in a few rocksteady songs, such as Alton and the Flames' "Cry Tough", which urged Jamaicans in the ghettos to stay tough through the hard times.
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 neighbourhoods 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 didn't 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 at times said to be the father of rocksteady for his hit "Girl I've Got a Date", but additional 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 throughout 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 (Pat Kelly sings 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 (modelled 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."
Transformation into reggae
Several factors contributed to the evolution of rocksteady into reggae in the late 1960s. The emigration 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 piano gave 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 1972 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.