Graded on a Curve:
First Class Rocksteady


The musical history of Jamaica is so immense that it’s sensible for novices to engage with the rewards in digestible chunks; this Record Store Day VP Records’ vintage imprint 17 North Parade offers just that with First Class Rocksteady, its seven 45s celebrating the 50th anniversary of the titular island style. But in a sweet maneuver its contents have been assiduously gathered from the want lists of savvy collectors, forming a selection wide of range and suitable for newbies and experienced heads. Demand will surely exceed supply; additionally, on April 16 two vinyl-only showcases hosted in VP Records’ New York and South Florida retail stores will feature DJ sets from Downbeat the Ruler (NYC) and King Jammy (Miami).

Reportedly taking its name from a ’67 cut by Alton Ellis, rocksteady flourished in the latter half of the 1960s as it served as the bridge between ska and reggae. Succinctly defined by its slowing down of the ska tempo to allow for greater exploration around the constant offbeat, rocksteady thrived for only a couple of years and sometimes gets downgraded as a mere transition on the path to reggae’s world domination, though the case in favor of the style is tidily made through the 14 songs comprising First Class Rocksteady.

Initially issued in ’67 by Amalgamated Records, The Jupiters’ “Return of Ezekial” fills side one of this set’s first 45, wasting no time in locating a brass-spiked groove and then riding it unshakably as the vocalist, cited by numerous sources as Derrick Morgan, expounds upon the return of “rudeboy Ezekial Marascus Sabascus.”

The producer for “Return of Ezekial” is listed as Joe Gibbs, but that’s apparently because he owned and operated the label; much of Amalgamated’s output has subsequently been credited to none other than Lee “Scratch” Perry, who just might be amongst the backing singers on this unrelenting and unusual number.

As on many a rocksteady-era 7-inch the flip belongs to a different group of musicians entirely. On the original promo only 45 The Jupiters were paired with Roy Shirley’s “Music is the Key,” and for this reissue the honors go to Honey Boy Martin & the Voices with Tommy McCook and the Supersonics’ “Dreader than Dread.”

First emerging in ’67 via the Caltone imprint, it’s another rudeboy anthem with multiple similarities to the a-side; specifically, “Dreader than Dread” succeeds through a combination of horns, backing vocals and a rhythmic progression that once established continues unabated until the fadeout. There are differences, with Morgan’s boisterous and theatrical approach on “Return of Ezekial” contrasting with Martin’s considerably more relaxed execution on the flip, but on the whole the cuts are quite complementary.

The second 45 plucks a pair of vocal group-inflected gems from the roster of Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label, the a-side devoted to the debut recording of Carlton Manning. Shortly to join his brothers in Carlton & the Shoes, Manning’s lead singing on “Live and Love” intertwines well with the doo-wop-ish flavor as the band keeps things lively. It’s backed up by The Gaylads’ “ABC Rocksteady,” the noted vocal group’s bright harmonies supported by the assured crispness of Lynn Taitt & the Jets.

In a nutshell, Manning and The Gaylads do a fine job of reinforcing the well-documented influence of US R&B on ‘60s Jamaican musical affairs, but the third 7-inch dives into somewhat surprising waters as the pendulum swings from settings rife with the human voice to an instrumental scenario courtesy of tenor saxophonist Val Bennett.

Delivering a smoldering transformation unto the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s jazz behemoth “Take Five,” Bennett’s “The Russians Are Coming” glides forth with nary a trace of awkwardness in the conversion and provides First Class Rocksteady with a standout. Released by Island in 1968, it’s combined here with “The Great Musical Battle,” wherein “The Russians Are Coming” serves as the sonic bedrock for Derrick Morgan’s extemporized play-by-play of a fantasy boxing match between heavyweight reggae producers Bunny Lee and Clement “Coxsone” Dodd.

It’s hard to deny the good-natured novelty aura, but the tune also adds depth to this collection by avoiding the predictable and electing to outline thematic tangents in rocksteady’s brief reign, and the impulse carries over to the fourth 45, which combines two selections by vocal group The Melodians featuring more adroit backing by Tommy McCook and the Supersonics.

Waxed for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label, it finds The Melodians altering the romantic angle of b-side “Last Train to Ecstasy” to the topical in “Last Train to Expo 67,” a celebration of that year’s World’s Fair in Montreal; both versions utilize the same instrumental track heightened by an affable organ line and the vocal approximation of a locomotive whistle (i.e. choo-choo sounds).

It presents a very likeable whole, though the fifth 7-inch increases the seriousness a smidge with a double dose from Hopeton Lewis. A-side “Take It Easy” unwinds a slinky groove sure to keep the dance floor busy, but the slow-burning flip “Sounds and Pressure,” with its liberal sprinkling of pop-jazz piano, is just as impressive.

As illustrated by The Sensations’ adept vocal group plunge into the dynamic atmosphere of The Temptations’ “Born to Love You”, covers constitute a major thread in the ska-rocksteady fabric. And it remains a rewarding endeavor to appraise this rich and fairly reverent treatment not only next to the Motown source but also in relation to its flipside, the significantly more island-centric yet still soulful “Long Time Me No See You.”

The final disc nabs two from the teenage years of vocalist Errol Dunkley, both for Amalgamated in ’67; “Please Stop Your Lying” and its b-side here “You’re Gonna Need Me” stand as R&B-infused nuggets likely to conjure at least a few thoughts of the Jackson 5 to come, and they add substantially to this concise portrait of a highly appealing genre. Unlike many springtime limited editions, First Class Rocksteady is destined for frequent play.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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