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Alton Ellis Interview

Alton Ellis Interview
Alton Ellis Interview

Despite his accolades and numerous hits, Alton Ellis' life was plagued with tragedy.

 

The singer's first wife, Pearl, and his sister, Hortense, both died on October 19, in 2005 and 2000, respectively.

 

Tragedy struck again earlier this year when his sister, Ellis, was brutally murdered along with her teenage grandson.

 

As a tribute to Ellis, who died in London over the weekend, published below are extracts from an interview Overgroundonline conducted with him in 2004.

 

How comes youíre not rich from Sean Paulís hit I'm Still In Love, which you originally wrote?

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 Iím 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 the classic 70s soul tune I'll Take You There by the Staple Singers is originally an Alton Ellis composition?

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 Iíve Got A Date, which was 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 make your first record?

I was on [legendary Studio One founder] 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 Ė where did your 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 thatís when songs like I'm Still In Love and Hurting 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 Doddís rival, Duke Reid Ė why? 

I was unhappy with Coxsone's treatment Ė no money Ė 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 Iíve 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 didnít have a high range, but he was very effective.