Rocksteady Legend Pat Kelly Hits Southern California

Pat Kelly (YouTube)

One of the finest voices from Jamaica’s rocksteady era will perform two shows in Southern California this week, offering a display of the sounds that would later morph into reggae.

Singer Pat Kelly, who rose to fame as a member of vocal group The Techniques before putting out multiple hit singles as a solo artist, will headline Skamania at San Diego’s The Merrow on Aug. 24 and at Los Globos in LA on Aug. 25 backed by locals The Steady 45s. Known for his smooth falsetto, Kelly will be Skamania’s first performer after a year-plus hiatus.

After Kelly replaced singer Keith “Slim” Smith in The Techniques in 1967, the group delivered some of its biggest hits including “You Don’t Care” and “Queen Majesty,” both repurposed Curtis Mayfield tunes. With The Techniques, Kelly was featured on “My Girl,” “Love Is Not a Gamble,” and “Run Come Celebrate,” the group’s entry to the Jamaican Festival competition in 1968.

“Kelly was one of the most amazing new voices on the scene in ‘67, the whole world was paying attention,” said Junor Francis, a promoter and host of The Reggae Show on KXLU 88.9 FM and another show on Inland Empire station KSPC. Francis will emcee both performances. “All my life, my No. 1 rocksteady song was ‘You Don’t Care,’ which I heard as a young man growing up in Jamaica.”  

Rocksteady — which debuted in 1966 and spent a short but glorious time dominating Jamaican radio, dances and sound systems —  is defined by slower tempos, smaller groups, and heavy emphasis on piano and bass. Many rocksteady tunes were love songs by harmonic groups such as The Paragons, The Melodians, and The Silvertones, as well as sweet singers such as Phyllis Dillon and Alton Ellis. Many groups took melodies and lyrics from popular American R&B groups and flipped those songs into a rocksteady style.

Motown was all the radio played, and almost of the disc jockeys in the clubs played Curtis Mayfield, The Temptations, The Impression and Ben E. King. But I think we have to take credit for a lot of the music we copied from that time,” Kelly said from his home in New Jersey. “American music had two sides of the record – the fast side and slower side. We gravitate to the slower side, which wasn’t a hit, and made them a hit. I think that’s what fitted our sort of music in the Caribbean.  

“People like myself, Slim [Smith] or whoever choose the slower side because it fit our mood at the time,” Kelly continued. “I’m not gonna put it down to any genius thing of choosing songs; it just came out right.”

Kelly recorded a handful of songs with The Techniques before going solo and releasing a slew of singles and albums, many of which would become heavy hitters among non-racist skinhead reggae collectors and fans. With producer Bunny “Striker” Lee, Kelly released another Mayfield composition called “Little Boy Blue” and would follow with his own “How Long Will It Take,” which would become the largest-selling Jamaican single in 1969. Kelly would also record with producers Duke Reid, Rainford Hugh Perry, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Phil Pratt, which netted the ever-pertinent “Talk About Love” in 1972.

“Some songs you don’t expect do magic. ‘How Long Will It Take’ started out as a poem, I have a lot of poems. I travel with my poetry book,” Kelly said. “I still write poetry, but more writing in a song fashion and finding the melody for it as I’m going along.”

Now 74, Kelly said he never expected his songs to find fans outside of Jamaica or last for generations. “Living in Kingston, Jamaica, I didn’t know there was another world out there with people who would be gravitating to the work. Singing for me was an accident; I didn’t intend to be a singer,” he said, adding that he studied engineering as a young man and his father was a preacher.

The singer arrives in Southern California after a European show and will also perform in Mexico. The European show was packed with an audience of mixed age, Kelly said. “I think energy will be same in Los Angeles. I’m looking forward to seeing all my fans, and those who are not yet my fans becoming my fans.”

Kelly added that he is working on a new project with a New Jersey-based producer “in rocksteady style, but a more uptempo beat for the younger folks.” He believes rocksteady music will say popular among all age groups because “music is music, and if it’s good it’s gonna be good. It’s like good food.”

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