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Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, and was the precursor to rocksteady and reggae. Ska combined elements of Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues. It is characterized by a walking bass line accented with rhythms on the upbeat. In the early 1960s, ska was the dominant music genre of Jamaica and was popular with British mods. Later it became popular with many skinheads.
Music historians typically divide the history of ska into three periods: the original Jamaican scene of the 1960s (First Wave); the English 2 Tone ska revival of the late 1970s (Second Wave); and the third wave ska movement, which started in the 1980s (Third Wave) and rose to popularity in the US in the 1990s.
After World War II, Jamaicans purchased radios in increasing numbers and were able to hear rhythm and blues music from Southern United States cities such as New Orleans by artists such as Fats Domino and Louis Jordan.
The stationing of American military forces during and after the war meant that Jamaicans could listen to military broadcasts of American music, and there was a constant influx of records from the US. To meet the demand for that music, entrepreneurs such asPrince Buster, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, and Duke Reid formed sound systems. As jump blues and more traditional R&B began to ebb in popularity in the early 1960s, Jamaican artists began recording their own version of the genres. The style was of bars made up of four triplets but was characterized by a guitar chop on the off beat - known as an upstroke or skank - with horns taking the lead and often following the off beat skank and piano emphasizing the bass line and, again, playing the skank. Drums kept 4/4 time and the bass drum was accented on the 3rd beat of each 4-triplet phrase. The snare would play side stick and accent the third beat of each 4-triplet phrase. The upstroke sound can also be found in other Caribbean forms of music, such as mento and calypso.
One theory about the origin of ska is that Prince Buster created it during the inaugural recording session for his new record label Wild Bells. The session was financed by Duke Reid, who was supposed to get half of the songs to release. The guitar began emphasizing the second and fourth beats in the bar, giving rise to the new sound. The drums were taken from traditional Jamaican drumming and marching styles. To create the ska beat, Prince Buster essentially flipped the R&B shuffle beat, stressing the offbeats with the help of the guitar.
Prince Buster has explicitly cited American rhythm & blues as the origin of ska, specifically Willis Jackson's songs "Later for the Gator", "Oh Carolina", and "Hey Hey Mr. Berry".
The first ska recordings were created at facilities such as Studio One and WIRL Records in Kingston, Jamaica with producers such as Dodd, Reid, Prince Buster, and Edward Seaga. The ska sound coincided with the celebratory feelings surrounding Jamaica's independence from the UK in 1962; an event commemorated by songs such as Derrick Morgan's "Forward March" and The Skatalites' "Freedom Sound." Because the newly independent Jamaica didn't ratify the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works until 1994 copyright was not an issue, which created a large number of cover songs and reinterpretations.
Jamaican musicians such as The Skatalites often recorded instrumental ska versions of popular American and British music, such as Beatles songs, Motown and Atlantic soul hits, movie theme songs, or surf rock instrumentals. Bob Marley's band The Wailers covered the Beatles "And I Love Her", and radically reinterpreted Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone". They also created their own versions of Latin-influenced music from the likes of Mongo Santamaria.
Byron Lee & the Dragonaires performed ska with Prince Buster, Eric "Monty" Morris, and Jimmy Cliff at the 1964 New York World's Fair. As music changed in the United States, so did ska. In 1965 and 1966, when American soul music became slower and smoother, ska changed its sound accordingly and evolved into rocksteady. However, rocksteady's heyday was brief, peaking in 1967. By 1968, ska evolved again into reggae.
Rocksteady is a music genre that originated in Jamaica around 1966. A successor to 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 termrocksteady 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.
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 neighborhoods 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 did not 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 sometimes said to be the father of rocksteady for his hit "Girl I've Got a Date", but other 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 bandleaderLynn Taitt was the man who slowed down the ska beat in 1964 during 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' (it's Pat Kelly singing 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 (modeled 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".
Several factors contributed to the evolution of rocksteady into reggae in the late 1960s. The emigration to Canada 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 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.
The "early reggae" era can be traced as starting in roughly 1968. The influence of funk music from American record labels such as Stax began to permeate the music style of studio musicians and the slowing in tempo that occurred with the development of rocksteady had allowed musicians more space to experiment with different rhythmic patterns. One of the developments which separated early reggae from rocksteady was the "bubble" organ pattern, a percussive style of playing that showcased the eighth-note subdivision within the groove.
The guitar "skanks" on the second and fourth beat of the bar began to be replaced by a strumming pattern similar to mento and the so-called double chop that can be heard so audibly in the introduction of Bob Marley's "Stir It Up" was developed during this time. More emphasis was put on the groove of the music, and there was a growing trend of recording a "version" on the B-side of a single. The mass popularity of instrumental music in the ska and rocksteady eras continued in reggae, producing some of the most memorable recordings of the early reggae era. Cover versions of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records soul songs remained popular in early reggae, often helping Jamaican artists gain a foothold in foreign markets such as the UK.
As a testament to its far reaching impact in other markets, this era and sound of reggae is sometimes referred to in retrospect as "skinhead reggae" because of its popularity among the working class skinhead subculture in the UK during the late 1960s and early 1970s. One Caribbean band based in London, The Pyramids, even released an entire album dedicated to the unruly English youth culture under the name Symarip which featured songs such as "Skinhead Moonstomp" and "Skinhead Girl". Eventually the, often experimental, sounds of early reggae gave way to the more refined sound made popular by Bob Marley's most famous recordings. Indeed this era seems fittingly capped off by the 1973 release of "Catch A Fire". Notable artists from this era include John Holt, Toots & the Maytals and The Pioneers.