Take It Easy: The Roots of Jamaican Rocksteady

Kingston studio legends shifted the rhythmic focus to the bass and drums, where it has remained ever since

By Harry Wise

There were no hiding places on a rocksteady record. Jamaica’s musicians were saying all that needed to be said in two and a half minutes on a 7-inch single. By stripping their music down to the bare necessities, between 1966 and 1968 Kingston’s musicians produced one of the most elegant and refined musical forms of all time.

Ska had promptly transcended its origins as a Jamaican re-creation of rhythm & blues—or shuffle and boogie—performed by jazz, big band and orchestra dance musicians at the behest of the island’s sound system operators. The Skatalites were the first band to solely play a wholly Jamaican musical form, but had broken up in the summer of 1965. Rocksteady first burst the following year when the component members of this stellar aggregation had reformed into smaller studio based ensembles. The rocksteady arrangements signaled the demise of horn sections, but the horn players now played an even more important, albeit background, role as musical arrangers and occasionally as featured players too.

Tommy McCook

As musical arranger and tenor saxophonist for Treasure Isle’s house band, Tommy McCook found himself at the forefront of another Jamaican musical revolution. On leaving The Skatalites he had taken over as arranger for the horn parts for Kes Chin & The Souvenirs orchestra band, but he soon moved on to become musical co-director, alongside alto saxophonist Herman Marquis, at Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle studio. Former Skatalites, Jackie Mittoo and Roland Alphonso, went to Studio One down on Brentford Road to form the nucleus of Coxsone’s resident band The Soul Brothers who would soon become The Soul Vendors.

Nerlyn “Lynn” Taitt

Nerlyn “Lynn” Taitt, guitarist for The Supersonics and often an uncredited Soul Brother and Vendor too, is the acknowledged musical maestro behind the rocksteady revolution, through the music he created with his own band Lynn Taitt & The Jets. Born in San Fernando, Trinidad on June 22nd, 1934 Lynn started his musical career when he was “eight or nine years old” initially as a steel pan player and arranger. But at the age of fifteen, he acquired a guitar. He played guitar in The Dutch Brothers for two years before leaving to form his own group, who were given a contract by Byron Lee to travel to Kingston to play at the Jamaican Independence celebrations in 1962. Lyn liked Jamaica so much he decided to stay and began recording as a guest guitarist with The Skatalites. He joined The Sheiks and then The Cavaliers, who both played at school dances and functions, before forming Lynn Taitt & The Comets who continued to play live dates and also began to record as a band.

Lynn Taitt & The Jets came together in 1966 and were signed to Federal Records on the strength of their leader’s marvellous musical abilities. “Take It Easy” by Hopeton Lewis released on both Federal and Merritone is usually recognized as the first rocksteady record.

“Hopeton Lewis came to the Federal Recording Studio with a song called ‘Take It Easy’ and I find the ska was too fast. Very, very fast. So I told them let’s do this one slow. Very slow,” Lynn Taitt revealed to Dub Catcher magazine in 1992. “And as the music got slower, it had spaces. The slower the music, it have more spaces to do something with, so I put a bass line and I play in unison with the bass and I get a bass line. And the piano, sometimes I strum, sometimes I play a bass line with the bass. That was the first slow song… nothing else was slow at that time. Everything had been ska.”

But Lynn Taitt did much, much more than simply slow down the beat. He later explained how the bass guitar no longer gave equal emphasis to every beat, but instead played a repeated pattern that syncopated the rhythm. The rhythmic focus shifted to the bass and the drums where it has remained ever since. The way in which Lynn arranged the instruments with the constant melodic bass line began to define the music that would become known as reggae throughout the world.

“For that tempo the tempo is very slow with the bass and guitar line playing the same thing. You used to use two guitars. Hux Brown and myself or another guitarist and myself. And it was very slow but with a definite bass line going straight through the song,” Taitt adds. “The guitarists at that time used to strum up first for the beat but I turned it to strum down for the first beat. But before everybody they used to pull the strings up and the music is written in common time. Not in cut time — because calypso is written in cut time — but reggae and rocksteady is written in common time music. It is a simpler form because the phrases are not very fast. Slow phrases.”

“Rocksteady was a great change from the ska. Lynn Taitt… he’s the man who changed Jamaican music right round from ska to rocksteady,” Derrick Morgan told interviewer Noel Hawks in 2003.

“The first set of tunes I did was with Lynn Taitt… the greatest man that came to Jamaica and changed the whole beat from ska to rocksteady was Lynn Taitt. He was from Trinidad, but Byron Lee did bring him come to Jamaica as an organist. He started playing guitar and the rest is history!” Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee revealed in the 2012 biography Reggae Going International 1967 to 1976 : The Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee Story.

Bobby Aitken

The line up of these mighty musical powerhouses—The Supersonics, The Jets and The Soul Vendors—was not necessarily a hard and fast arrangement, and the musicians would play together in any number of variations. Three bands consisting of the island’s most talented musicians were working full time at three separate studios. With Bobby Aitken & The Carib Beats operating on a freelance basis as well, musical creativity in Kingston reached an incredible peak.

Cuban born “calypso singer” and guitarist Bobby, the brother of Laurel Aitken, had started his recording career for King Edwards when the shuffle, boogie and rhythm & blues beat was gradually transforming into ska. His group, The Carib Beats, recorded for a number of up and coming producers including Clancy Eccles, Joel “Joe Gibbs” Gibson, Karl “Sir JJ” Johnson, and Ewan McDermott’s Jolly label. After working together on some his earliest productions, they formed a long standing relationship with Bunny ‘Striker’ Lee. The Carib Beats’ approach to rocksteady might have lacked subtlety, but more than made up this with driving determination that was far more down to earth than some of the symphonic flights of Lynn Taitt’s Jets, Tommy McCook’s Supersonics or Jackie Mittoo’s Soul Vendors. Bobby later recalled in an interview with the superb, but short lived, New Jersey-based Dub Catcher newspaper.

“The ska was getting too monotonous for me. I believed I could change it. Me and Charlie Organaire started to work up on it. And the same Winston Grennan. We wanted to change something… change it up,” Bobby Aitken told Dub Catcher in 1992.

A number of releases from early 1966 had been rocksteady in everything but name and the great Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them” for young producer Joel “Joe Gibbs” Gibson has been called the first rocksteady record. A number of years later, Roy recalled to Carl Gayle that his inspiration for the rhythm of “Hold Them” had come from a Salvation Army marching band.

“So the night me and a soldier bredda stand up out a Orange Street and I see some Salvation Army people a come down. And I know God always in my favour you know. And when I see them I start hum this tune… ‘cause it was some women and men a beat drum and cymbals and the way them march, I say well this look like it. Because I did want a beat that, even when people walk, them feel the music… and the beat just come to me same time,” Roy Shirley revealed in 1976. “So the next day we do a version for Joe Gibbs. It was Gladdy play the piano and, at the rehearsal, I did carry Slim Smith and Ken Boothe fe back it up with me but them couldn’t manage it because is a new style… but when Gladdy catch it the man them say ‘but this really a go, bredda Roy, this a go!’”

After producing and manufacturing some of the first mento records during the 1950s, Federal Records had become Kingston’s premier studio for rent, hiring out their facilities to the many sound system operators turned record producers. Their rocksteady productions with Lynn Taitt & The Jets now placed them firmly at the forefront of this musical revolution. “Hold Me Tight” by Texan Johnny Nash was “Recorded in Federal Record Studio” on one of Lynn Taitt & The Jets’ most captivating rhythms and was a worldwide smash hit in summer of 1968, eventually selling over six million copies.

However, Lynn Taitt & The Jets did not only record for Federal—innumerable producers employed their services on countless records, although only a handful were actually credited to Lynn Taitt & The Jets alone. They were the most in demand session band in Kingston at this time and the records that Lynn and his band played on number in the thousands.

“They may call me for a session at nine in the morning till twelve noon, and another session would start at one and finish at four, with another one at five till eight at night. So maybe four sessions a day, five sessions a day for different promoters,” recalled Taitt.

Credit must also be given to Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson, piano player and musical arranger for The Jets, who had given this new music a name, when commenting on the “rock steady” nature of the rhythm as the band completed the final take of “Take It Easy.”

Rocksteady was a startling new musical direction, but its sociological and political ramifications have often been overlooked. Although Desmond Dekker & The Aces had lifted their “intensified” hook from a radio advertisement for washing powder (it was certainly one way of cleaning up the hit parade with this “music like dirt…”) and The Gaylads incorporated nursery rhymes for “ABC Rocksteady,” there was also a very serious side to this music. Jamaica was now marching to a different beat and, after gaining Independence in 1962, had seemingly thrown off the yoke of Colonialism only to see it replaced with a brand of cultural imperialism based on consumerism. Very little real change was felt downtown in the deprived ghetto areas. During the ska era, music alone had been the driving force.

Ska had previously communicated solidarity but the power of language now became an effective means of defying the forces of oppression, as the space and less frantic pace of rocksteady allowed singers to voice their discontent. The lyrics could carry a message of disaffection that often could only be articulated through the medium of music. Vocalists and vocal groups, influenced by their American counterparts, came into their own.

The many advances in studio technology and the arrival of two track tape recorders in Kingston meant that the same backing track, or rhythm, could be used for any number of vocal and instrumental variations on a theme. The version and its illustrious successor, dub, started here not out of any lack of inspiration, but through an exploration of all the available possibilities of this new direction.

“People fell silent when they came into a room, those shabby men and women granted the awesome gift of song-making; the magistrates of what had happened and what had not. They didn’t even have to sing particularly well. Others would sing the works they made. Neither did it matter that they rarely devised fresh melodies, that they simply used the ancient ones that everyone knew; pouring this year’s blessings into the beautiful bottles of the past. If anything such an approach made them even more admirable. Their wine tasted richer when infused with the spice of antiquity.” 
Joseph O’Connor, 2003

The Melodians sang both the topical “Last Train To Expo ‘67” and the timeless love song, “Last Train To Ecstasy,” over the same superb Supersonics backing track. There are two early DJ outings: Cool Sticky, who had enlivened ska classics “Guns Of Navarone,” “Ball O’ Fire,” “Gun Fever” and “Girls Town Ska” without so much as a credit. He also went unrecognized on his marvellous rendition of “Just Like A River,” in which he advertises “Casino Royale” the 1967 spoof James Bond film. Singer and producer Derrick Morgan talks us through a “Great Musical Battle” on Orange Street between his friend and brother-in-law, Bunny “Striker” Lee and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd over Striker’s reading of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Lee, who had grown up surrounded by the sound of rhythm & blues and ska, was keen to incorporate the horn driven sound of the music that he had loved as a younger man.

“We did over ‘Take Five’,” Bunny revealed. “And we were going to do it in the jazz form, but I said ‘No man. Make we rock it! Any tune can rock and Bobby Aitken and the bass went ‘boom, boom, boom’ and slowed it right down. Winston Grennan was the drummer and we tried it. One cut! There was a comedy film called The Russians Are Coming that was popular at the time and when The Russians Are Coming came out it changed the whole business. It brought back instrumentals and all that because everyone had stopped using wind instruments in the rocksteady. It was only Duke Reid who still used them. They were cutting down the expense and a man would use his guitar to play what the horns used to play. The horns man were getting hungry because they were not getting any work so I called them up now and made them do their own arrangements over the rock steady rhythms so you had plenty of instrumentals up to this day. You understand? I tried to keep instrumentals alive…”

But Lynn Taitt now began to feel the pressure of life as an outsider. Professional envy of his all encompassing success and incredible popularity was inevitable and he was referred to as “a foreigner”. After two years of unprecedented and unparalleled musical creativity, during which he mapped out the future of Jamaican music, he was offered a contract to work as musical arranger for the house band at The West Indian Federated Club in Toronto, Canada. He “jumped at the chance” and left Jamaica in August 1968 never to return. “After a long battle with cancer” this innately modest man died in Toronto, Canada on January 20th, 2010, but Lynn Taitt’s elegant, sophisticated music will live for ever more.

“It was a pleasure to get up and get an idea and put your idea onto a record and to have the public like what you do is a great gift. At the time we were not thinking of it from a business aspect. We were just interested in creating beautiful music… (I’m) just an ordinary guitar player trying to continue the heritage of black music from the West Indies,” said Taitt.

As 1968 drew to a close, the brash new sound of reggae began to emerge. Although the name reggae would remain with the music, the popularity of the faster, upbeat sound soon receded. Rocksteady never, ever went away. The original music’s understated elegance ensured that it was able to accept many radical modifications. Some of the first tentative experiments in dub came on Treasure Isle rocksteady rhythms, while U Roy popularized the art of the DJ over a stunning selection of the same backing tracks.

As the decade progressed DJs and dub took a hold on Jamaican music, but all were driven by the melodies and pace of rhythms whose origins were grounded in the musical revolution of 1966-68. Foundation rocksteady rhythms and the music of Studio One and Treasure Isle would be remorselessly reworked by record producers and musicians including Bunny “Striker” Lee, The Mighty Two (Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson), Augustus Pablo and the Hookims at Channel One.

Deceptively lazy rocksteady was imbued with depth and gravity, despite the relative brevity of its most popular outings. Its instrumentals, love songs, dance celebrations and some of the earliest Jamaican “reality” lyrics are things of beauty that will be a joy forever.

Excerpted from First Class Rocksteady available now from VP Records and 17th North Parade. The 40-track collection highlights the genre’s most timeless hits and chronicles its significant impact in Jamaican music. Listen online via Amazon, iTunes, and other fine retailers.

If you enjoyed reading this, please click the below. This will help to share the story with others.

Follow Cuepoint: Twitter |Facebook

Like what you read? Give Cuepoint Selections a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.