When a release called ‘Greatest Hits: Mr Soul of Jamaica’ by Nehemiah Ellis OD (1 September 1938 – 10 October 2008) drops into the drive you do tend to go into cruise control just at the thought. The Godfather of Rocksteady, who started out as an R&B singer in 1960, became such a force in Reggae music. By the mid-’60s, Ska started to slow down to the much cooler sounds of Rocksteady and Alton led the way with hit after hit and most of those classic songs are on this release; ‘I’m Just a Guy’, ‘Girl I’ve Got a Date’ and of course ‘Rocksteady’. All of these songs have longevity and some 60 years later selectors of the finest Reggae will still be dropping them in dances, house parties and on radio shows.
Alton Ellis is a Jamaican institution, a soulful integral part of Jamaican contemporary culture. It’s good to have all these songs in one collection, every one is a winner, each one a crisp tune that graces with that characteristic voice who sang on Studio One and Treasure Isle and worked with so many producers and labels. However, ’nuff said about the legend, the compilation itself lacks a lot as well. It must be hard being tasked with compiling an Alton Ellis ‘Greatest Hits’ but how could certain tracks be left out? ‘Mad Mad Mad’ for example, one of the most sampled Reggae songs of all time, morphed from the original to ‘Diseases’ by Michigan and Smiley then to ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’ by Yellowman (along with a few thousand other versions) and beyond, sampled by a plethora of Hip Hop artists from KRS-One to Biggie and Tupac. Additionally, the ultimate in sublime ‘Play It Cool’, a tune that just melts from the first notes he sings, sadly left out but definitely in my record box every time I play out. Obviously this rant is reading beyond the release too much as the title ‘Mr Soul of Jamaica’ effectively limits his vast body of work to the mid-late 60s but I really wish the LP was a more comprehensive as Alton travelled far and wide, worked with so many people in so many countries, and just kept making music decade after decade. There are around 15 Alton Ellis Greatest Hits compilations, many of which feature a body of similar work. This one does have some previously unreleased/alternate takes which is good, such as the soul version of ‘Girl I’ve Got a Date’, which could pass for a rare groove if selected right. However, it would be nice and valuable for the historical record if there was a diachronic Alton Ellis compilation of songs and collaborations, from the 1960s until his passing in 2008.