Born on 1st September 1938 in Kingston, Jamaica, Alton was raised in the city's Trenchtown district, where he attended Ebenezer Senior School and Boys' Town schools, excelling in both music and sports, particularly cricket, table-tennis and boxing. He also illustrated a natural talent for dancing, frequently placing first at local dance contests, although as time went by, singing gradually took precedence over his fancy footwork, especially after impressing his fellow students at a school concert with a selection of Mario Lanza songs from the motion picture, 'The Student Prince'.
After completing his education in 1955, Alton found work as a labourer on a building site in Stony Hill and encouraged by his workmates, auditioned for 'Vere John's Opportunity Hour', but intimidated by the competition that included Wilfred Jackie Edwards, Owen Gray and Lascelles Perkins, he withdrew from the contest, giving up on any thoughts of making it as a solo act in the process.
After putting all thoughts of becoming a full-time singer behind him for some two years, he was finally talked into reviving the ambition by his friend, Eddie Parkins, the pair forming the aptly named duo, Alton & Eddy.
It was also around this time he composed a plaintive ballad about a girl named 'Muriel' that promptly became a part of Alton & Eddy's repertoire. Soon after the duo auditioned for leading local producer, Clement 'Coxson' Dodd, who wasted no time arranging for the young singers to cut the song at Federal Studios, issuing the subsequent recording on his recently launched Worldisc label. The single swiftly made its way the top of the local charts spurring Dodd to produced further material by the pair, including 'My Heaven', 'Lullaby Angel', 'I Know It All', I'm Never Gonna Cry' and 'Yours'.
After their sojourn with Dodd, Alton & Eddy cut a handful of songs for Vincent Chin of Randy's Records, before Parkins left Jamaica for America after winning first prize in the talent contest, 'A Star Is Born'. Alton remained in Kingston where he began earning regular money working at a local printing works, although the job proved short-lived, the wanna-be singer laid off by his employers after a matter of months. The development sparked Alton into re-launching his singing career and after finding a new partner in the talented young John Holt, he was soon back at Randy's, recording a number of impressive sides for Randy's, most notably the excellent 'Rum Bumper'. His partnership with Holt proved short-lived, but Alton remained determined to remain in the music business, forming a vocal group initially consisting of his brother Leslie and Noel 'Scully' Simms, along with two friends, Baby G and Ronnie - among those to join later were Lloyd Charmers and Winston Jarrett.
Soon after Alton and the newly named 'Flames', commenced what proved to be an extremely fruitful relationship with Arthur 'Duke' Reid, the union spawning a series of Ska and Rocksteady hits commencing with an original composition entitled 'Dance Crasher'. A number of similarly themed anti-Rude Boy songs followed, most notably 'Don't Trouble People', 'Cry Tough', 'Blessings Of Love' and 'The Preacher', all of which had been penned by Alton.
As Rock Steady superseded Ska, Alton and the Flames continued to enjoy major successes, with 'Girl I've Got A Date', topping the national radio charts at the close of 1966. 'Rock Steady', the title of which was adopted as the generic name of the new style, followed in the spring, along with a fine cover of Gene Chandler's 1962 neo-Doo Wop hit, 'Duke Of Earl', 'All My Tears (Come Rolling)', 'Why Birds Follow Spring' and a sublime interpretation of Johnny Taylor's 'Ain't That Lovin' You (For More Reasons Than One)'.
Now firmly established as one of Jamaica's most popular vocalists, Alton suddenly found himself in a tug of war between Reid and his bitter rival, Coxson Dodd. And it was the latter who proved victorious, securing the singer for a UK tour and a series of recordings that included such enduring works as 'I Am Just A Guy', 'Mad, Mad', a wonderful version of Rosco Gordon's 'Let Him Try' and 'I'm Still In Love', the rhythm of which later provided the basis for Althea & Donna's international number one hit, 'Uptown Top Ranking'. Dodd also released Alton's debut album, 'Alton Ellis Sings Rock & Soul', although it was not enough to persuade the singer to stay long-term at Studio One and early the following year, he returned to Treasure Isle and reunited with the Flames.
Alton wasted little time in providing Reid with more hits, cutting a number of fine originals, including 'Oowee Baby, I Love You', 'How Can I' and 'I Can't Stand It', along with a magnificent rendering of Chuck Jackson's 'My Willow Tree'. Reid was also instrumental in also arranging for the singer to perform a number of concerts in New York, although the tour had to be cut-short to the sudden death of his mother in March.
A three week tour of Nassau and Freeport in the Bahamas followed and upon its completion Alton resumed his recording career in earnest. It was around this time he first turned his hand to producing, initially assisted by leading session trumpeter, the late Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore. Among his self-produced sides from this period were 'My Time Is The Right Time' and 'The Message', although the corrupt system of record distribution on the island did nothing to help his cause as an independent record maker.
Another producer with whom Alton worked during 1968 was a Mr C. Bough, who like Reid was a former policeman who had experience as a sound system operator, albeit to a much lesser extent than the Treasure Isle boss. Among the songs cut for the enigmatic producer were 'I Can't Stand It', 'Tonight' (aka 'Feeling Inside') and 'Give Me Your Love' on which Alton was partnered by singer, David Isaacs.
Throughout the remainder of the year, Alton worked primarily with both Dodd and Reid, his popularity unaffected by the developing style of Reggae. For Dodd, he cut a number of superb sides (most notably his seminal version of Tyrone Davis' 'Can I Change My Mind') many of which were included on the singer's second album, 'The Best Of Alton Ellis', issued early in 1969, while his recordings for Reid were equally as accomplished, with 'Breaking Up' the stand-out track from the period. In addition to his studio work, he continued to tour extensively, spending four months performing in clubs around Canada with Jo Jo Bennett & the Fugitives in the spring.
Alton continued to record for both Dodd and Reid well into 1970, with the former releasing the singer's third album, 'Sunday Coming' later that year. Among his output for Reid was a fine duet with Phyllis Dillon, 'Remember That Sunday', and sublime re-workings of Junior Walker &; The All Stars' 'What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)' and the Brenda Holloway classic, 'You've Made Me So Very Happy', a song which also provided major hits for Blood, Sweat &; Tears and Lou Rawls.
Around this time Alton also enjoyed success with a variety of other Kingston-based producers, including Winston Riley, for whom he cut 'I'll Be Waiting', 'It's Your Thing' and 'Soul Groove'. He also worked with Lloyd Daley, who produced the immensely popular 'Back to Africa' and '(Lord) Deliver Us', Prince Buster, Phil Pratt and Sid Bucknor, as well sides for his own All-Tone label.
In 1971, Alton travelled to England, where he cut material for London-based producers Clancy Collins and Sylvan Bryan, while upon his return to Jamaica he continued to produce his own works for All-Tone, using the money from sessions for others to finance the label. Among those with whom he recorded for this purpose were Dodd, Pete Weston, Bunny Lee, Lloyd Charmers, Keith Hudson, Herman Chin-Loy, Joe Gibbs and Randy's.
Alton then returned to England, spending his time there to work with London-based producers, Dave Hadfield and Lloyd Coxsone. Meanwhile, back in Jamaica, Duke Reid took a clutch of the singer's best-known Treasure Isle sides and over-dubbed percussion to up-date the sound, releasing the re-mixed versions on the singer's fourth album, 'Mr Soul Of Jamaica'.
After his spell in the UK, Alton spent time in Jamaica, New York and Canada before returning to Britain where he decided to settle permanently. He remained active throughout the remainder of the decade, proving instrumental in launching Janet Kay's career and the subsequent Lover's Rock scene. In the eighties he launched his own Alltone Record shop in Brixton and continued to record on a regular basis, releasing a series of albums that included 'Mr Skabena', 'A New Day', 'Daydreaming', 'Continuation' and two '25th Jubilee Collections'. During this time he worked with a number of those who led a new wave of Reggae producers, most notably Henry 'Junjo' Lawes, King Jammy and Tapper Zukie.
As time went on, he eased off a little from his studio work, but continued to regularly perform live and was instrumental in the organisation of the popular Rock Steady Gala shows, held annually at the Hammersmith Palais over the Easter Bank Holidays. In 1994, after over thirty years in the business, his considerable contribution to the Jamaican music industry was officially acknowledged by the Jamaican Government, who awarded him the Order of Distinction on National Heroes Day. Few individuals have been more deserving of the honour.
Alton remained actively musically throughout the years that followed and in 2006 was inducted into the International Reggae &; World Music Awards (IRAWMA) Hall of Fame at a ceremony held at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York. But just over a year later, he fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph glands. A course of chemotherapy followed and by the summer, he appeared to have overcome the disease. Sadly it was not the case and on August 10th, after performing half of his set at the Jazz Cafe in central London, he collapsed. He was taken immediately to hospital, but failed to respond to treatment, his condition deteriorating over the ensuing months.
At 4.45am on Saturday 11th October, he finally passed away, leaving behind his large, loving family, many friends and a multitude of fans - and a legacy that few will ever equal. The great Alton Nehemiah Ellis, a man who brought great joy though both is music and his presence, Rest In Peace.