Treasure Isle Rocksteady: A Brief History By Chuck Foster
The Echoes of Kingston Concert Series kicks off next week and a big part of it is Queen P of Ocean 11 fame singing the Treasure Isle Songbook. It’s a tribute to an over-looked but highly productive period of Jamaican popular music.
To highlight this style the wonderful blog Dancecrasher has gone as far over the last couple of years to compile the 100 greatest Rocksteady tunes ever with label scans and sound clips. It’s a wonderful primer on the music indeed and well worth checking out HERE.
So just what is Rocksteady and how did it develop? Followers of this blog don’t have to ask of course but if you’re just getting into then here is a nice little piece I posted to the EOK site for the upcoming tour. It was provided by the amazing Chuck Foster – radio host, writer and reggae fan to say the least.
Arguably the most influential sound system operator of the early 60’s, ex-policeman Duke Reid used profits from his and his wife’s Treasure Isle Liquor Store (converting the upstairs back room to one of the island’s early recording studios) to become one of the first and finest Jamaican record producers.
He showcased American R & B on his Treasure Isle Time radio show, often traveling to the United States in search of new records, and his earliest productions like “Duke’s Cookies” (1959) and “Joker” (Duke Reid All-Stars) drew heavily on this sound. Reid’s no-nonsense approach to production (ably aided by engineer Byron Smith) as well as his flamboyant image as a neo-western badman, helped build his out-sized reputation.
Reid’s early ska hits included Don Drummond’s “Eastern Standard Time” (Drummond was named best trombonist in a 1965 Playboy jazz poll), Tommy McCook and the Skatalites’ explosive “Nuclear Weapon,” and Stranger Cole’s “Rough and Tough.” His in-house band boasted jazz-trained guitarist Ernest Ranglin and Skatalites Drummond, McCook and others.
Reid and other producers enlarged the practice of selling their 45s, originally cut as dub plates for their own sound systems, to the public. This was the beginning of the Jamaican record industry.
By 1967 rock steady, a slower-paced style that moved the singer to the fore, emerged with the Duke as one of its main proponents. Alton Ellis and the Flames, Phyllis Dillon, Shenley Duffus, the young Freddy McKay and dozens of vocal groups like the Silvertones, the Maytals, the Jamaicans and Justin Hinds and the Dominoes ruled the dance as recorded by Reid.
Among the Duke’s greatest records are “Willow Tree” by Alton Ellis, John Holt’s evanescent “Ali Baba” and early recordings by the Techniques featuring the unique voice of the late Slim Smith. As the sound began to change again, evolving into what we now call reggae, Reid began another musical revolution when he recorded DJ U Roy over a series of earlier Paragons hits in 1970.
Chuck Foster has been the host of Reggae Central on KPFK 90.7 since 1982, wrote the Reggae Update column for Beat Magazine for two decades and is the author of Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music (Billboard Books, 1999) and The Small Axe Guide to Rocksteady (Muzik Tree, 2009) specifically dealing with Rocksteady of which Treasure Isle was most known for.