Rocksteady is a style of music that originated in Jamaica around the end of the 60s. Slower than ska, faster than reggae, you’ll recognise rocksteady by its beat – 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and 3 and so on and so on. Alton Ellis. Toots and The Maytals. Hopeton Lewis. The Cables. Names you may not be familiar with (though Toots, surely?), but all are purveyors of the finest rocksteady available. You should seek them out, you’d like them.
Rock Steady is a 1971 single by Aretha Franklin, appearing on her Young, Gifted and Black LP. It‘s a classic piece of call and response Atlantic soul, all hi-hat, one chord chicken-scratch guitar and outrageously funky organ fills. The bit when everything drops out save Aretha’s “Rock!…….Steady!……Rock!…….Steady!” vocals is hairs-on-the-neck material. But you knew that already. That wee section alone has been sampled by every hip-hop act you care to mention, from Afrika Bambaataa to Young Bleed. Public Enemy have sampled the exact same part 3 times! I’ve often thought that Talking Heads based their white boy funk of Burning Down The House on Aretha’s Rock Steady groove, whether consciously or not. EPMD certainly did. Their 1988 single I’m Housin’ is built around the track. Still stands up today, for what it’s worth. You should play it in the car, bass boomin’ as you’re gangster leanin’ out the window. And if you can carry that move off in this particular part of the world, I’ll buy you a pint.
Jamaican artists were heavily influenced by the sounds they could pick up on the airwaves. Being an island, few if any travelling musicians toured there, so Jamaicans were left to come up with their own music. As the sounds of soul drifted across the Caribbean, the musicians would take what they liked and add their own laid back twist to it. Many early ska and rocksteady records are covers of soul tracks. When an artist wrote his own song, it was often in essence a barely disguised soul record with new lyrics on top. The Brentford All-Stars Greedy G is basically a James Brown record with extra keyboard stabs and some dubby drums. Nothing wrong with that, eh? The Marvels heard Aretha’s Rock Steady and as quick as that light bulb could ping in their collective minds they’d re-jigged it into a rocksteady groove, chicken-scratch guitar, ourageously funky organ fills and all. Just a bit slower than the original, but then, the original was made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Marvels cooked up their version in the burning hot temperatures of Jamaica. Sound Dimension were also taken by Rock Steady. Their instrumental Granny Scratch Scratch is clearly based on the Aretha record. Pure rocksteady (count the beat as you listen), it‘s a terrific head-nodder of a track.
Here‘s an alternate mix of Aretha Franklin‘s version. It’s looser and longer than the version you’re familiar with.
Here‘s The Jackson Sisters frantic funk version.
Here‘s Rocksteady by Byron Lee & The Dragonaires. It has nothing to do with any of the above records.
Here‘s People Do Rocksteady by The Bodysnatchers. Again, nthing to do with any of the above records.
Now treat yourself and go and buy the Soul Jazz ‘Dynamite‘ series. 100% Dynamite is the best place to start. At the last count, six volumes to collect. All killer no filler ‘n that.
Effortlessly cool, even with the wee vocal slip at 2.28.