Royalties a pain for Alton Ellis

Music News | Nov 5th, 2006

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Few entertainers were as popular as Alton Ellis in 1969. It had been exactly one decade since the singer recorded the classic ballad Muriel and he had been rarely off the charts since.

But while the hit songs flowed, he said he was far from happy.

“It was pure hit tune an’ Alton live inna a one room inna Trench Town same way,” an angry Ellis told The Sunday Gleaner last week. “Mi all start fi think ’bout pick pocket like dem bwoy pon the bridge ’cause dem have pretty bicycle an’ look clean every day.”

A frustrated Ellis left Jamaica late that year, first settling in Canada before making his way to England. Thirty-seven years later Ellis is still singing the blues.

Now in his mid-60s, Ellis is one of the headliners for the November 11 CVM TV Startime show at the Mas Camp in Kingston.

A Popular Draw

Ellis remains a popular draw on the oldies circuit in Europe, where he says he does club and festival dates annually. The songs he performs, like I’m Still in Love and I’m Just a Guy, are staples, but he says he earns little in terms of royalties. “Right now, there is US$200,000 tie up in a account in England an’ not one of us can touch it,” he said. “Three publishers, including Coxsone (producer Clement Dodd), are claiming it.”

According to Ellis, the funds are royalties from Sean Paul and Sasha’s cover of I’m Still in Love, which was a minor hit in the United States three years ago.

No Financial Benefit

He says he has never benefited financially from the song, which he wrote and recorded in 1967. Dodd produced the song at his Studio One studio. When the Sean Paul/Sasha version took off Ellis said he approached Dodd about the issue of royalties. The matter was not resolved when Dodd died from an heart attack in 2004.

Over the last 15 years of his life Dodd had several well-publicised clashes over royalties with his former artistes, including Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones and Bob Andy. In his defence, he pointed out to the contracts they signed with Studio One as legitimate. Ellis said he and other artistes were ignorant about the business side of the music industry when they signed those contracts. “I did sign some contracts that are against me now, but if I am broke an’ a man come to mi an’ sey, ‘Alton mi a go give yuh a thousand pounds fi do five songs fi mi and sign dis’, I had to sign it, ’cause I never want to go an’ do something illegal,” he explained.

Big Player

The vast Studio One catalogue is a big player in the reissue market. Heartbeat Records, an independent company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is its main distributor.

Although he has taken legal action, Ellis says there is little hope of him ever claiming royalties from the songs he did for Dodd and his great rival, Treasure Isle founder, Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid.

“What can I do about it?” he asked. “These things take money to pay lawyers an’ all they do is sit down an’ write letters then charge yuh a bag a money.”

Alton Ellis was born in Trench Town, which was then an expanse where migrants from rural parishes settled. He started his show business career as a dancer, but switched to music in 1959 when he and neighbour Eddie Parkins teamed to record Muriel for Dodd, then a sound system operator and budding producer.

He went solo after splitting with Dodd in the early 1960s, heading for songs regarded as classics. They include Girl I’ve Got a Date, Breaking Up (Is Hard to Do), Dance Crasher, Ain’t That Loving You and Get Ready Rocksteady.

After a second stint with Dodd that yielded even more hit songs Ellis’ steady renaissance here began when a new generation of fans discovered his music and he returned to the local stage.