Like so many of Jamaica's great musical figures, Roy began his life in Trench Town, the hotbed of talent in western Kingston that would later be known to the world as Concrete Jungle after the construction of a notorious housing scheme. Born Ainsworth Roy Rushton Shirley in 1944, he was raised by his mother and stepfather in a community centred on a Revivalist church. Anyone who has had the pleasure of being in Roy's company will immediately know he is a deeply spiritual man, and such convictions radiate throughout his work.
'My mother was in the church, so she grew me in that area also,' the humble man explains, 'and I grow with a lot of talented musical people, a lot of Rasta people. I just come into it through spiritual roots. My mother was a very blessed woman: she would put her hand on people and heal; she heal many sick people like that and people that is mad. I grow and see my mother into a spiritual Revivalist church, but I believe that I was grown into the faith of Rastafari. From I was small I used to go around with her in churches, singing at concerts that they kept and at congregations, and people have always been impressed about my talent, even my school youths when I was going to Boy's Town School.'
Like many of Jamaica's foundation singers, he got his start singing on talent contests. 'Vere Johns was running those talent parade show, and as a little boy, going to watch Owen Gray, Alton Ellis, Jimmy Tucker, Jimmy Cliff, those was big man singers and I admire those people. Then I got a chance there, I went up bravely and sang a tune named 'I Don't Know How To Love You,' and actually came second. I remember I won something like two pounds, and my mother took the money and buy a pair of ducks, and they hatch up nearly three or four dozen ducks, but because I and my mother was so godly, people stole all those ducks. I went on stage at about ten or twelve, quite a very young lad. Then I start to try to get involved with the recording thing, but it was difficult to get into the recording scene, owing to the fact that I didn't have management.'
Early recordings for producer Simeon L. Smith failed to gain release, but 'Oh Shirley,' his debut issue on the Kong Brothers' Beverley's label, was a local hit in 1965. 'I went to Beverley's with a tune named 'Shirley', and Jimmy Cliff helped me to straighten out the lyrics points-I wasn't too sure about measurements, and the guy take his guitar up and play the beat. That's the first man who introduce me to the stage, Jimmy Cliff. 'Shirley' was the tune that really get me known on the street in Jamaica: walking with the guitar, I used to have a bag of girls, everywhere I go. The girls them just round me, saying 'Singer, sing a tune,' and I always sing that one tune, 'Shirley'.'
Unfortunately, the success of the tune gained him little. 'Leslie Kong robbed me, because he only give me ten pounds,' Roy explains. 'I was so glad to make a record, I went and tell everybody about it and show the ten pounds in my pocket that I was paid, I didn't know I was robbed. I remember when the guy was paying me, he called me around the counter, and he kind of looked like he looking somebody to rob him or he's robbing somebody-like he check to see if anybody was coming in and he pay me the money quick-but I didn't know that it's me he was robbing.'
Shirley thus moved on to form the Leaders with Ken Boothe, Joe White and Chuck Josephs (aka Chuck Berry Junior), but recordings for Federal failed to be of much consequence. He subsequently joined the first incarnation of the Uniques with Slim Smith and Franklyn White, a spin-off of the oft-changing Techniques vocal group. 'We are the original Uniques,' Shirley clarifies. 'Out of Techniques or Uniques come the same set of man, them fall out and form different name. Me and the Uniques sang tune for JJ [producer Karl Johnson], but he was always a little guy in the production field.' They also recorded for Caltone, but the material was as unsuccessful as that cut for JJ and the group temporarily disbanded.
Left on his own, Shirley crafted the unique and influential 'Hold Them', named by many as the first rock steady song and a highly problematic tune for its author. As Shirley recalls, 'I could only play two chord on the guitar, so that's how 'Hold Them' start to come up. I said, 'Get in the groove and move those feet,' and everywhere I go, people love the tune, so I just keep singing it, but I couldn't start a beat, neither a bass line to get it going. One day I was standing just opposite Beverley's and I happens to see some Salvation Army people coming down Orange Street; the man was beating the drum and cymbal, and the thing just come into me.'
A mutual friend brought Shirley to Joe Gibbs' attention, and 'Hold Them' was cut at the first session funded by the aspiring producer. 'I used to sing with Slim Smith because we were very close friends. There was a tailor friend of ours who was impressed by how me and Slim Smith sing, and him and Joe Gibbs was friends because they was in Guantanamo Bay together, but Slim Smith's guys never really want to know, because them sing for Duke Reid and them no want fi mash up them group. When I find I couldn't get nobody from Slim Smith's group, I go to Ken Boothe and we go to a rehearsal place at Cross Roads with Drumbago. We start to rehearse the song, but for some reason, Slim Smith and Ken Boothe couldn't manage that part that I am singing; they are still singing the ska, because the ska was stealing everybody-them start to war and quarrel until the producer say 'A good tune that.' Then Gladstone Anderson call the producer and say 'You have to make Roy sing the tune, a him write it. Make him alone sing it,' and from me start go 'pon the mike, everybody start dance. We go to Federal about a week after.'
When Joe Gibbs aired the song at his Amalgamated television repair and record shop on Beeston Street, it was obvious that 'Hold Them' was something special. It turned out to be a massive hit that ushered in the rock steady era. Unfortunately, the financial situation with Gibbs was not so different from that Roy encountered at Beverley's. 'I sing back a thing for him named 'The World Needs Love', 'Dance The Arena' and 'Musical Key.' All them tunes, me don't get nothing. All I get from Joe Gibbs is about £80.'
Moving on again, Roy helped Bunny Lee establish himself as a producer, voicing a hit tune on the aspiring promoter's first session. 'At that stage I did some tunes for Caltone, and 'Get On The ball' went number one also. I said to Bunny Lee 'Make we do a ting,' and Bunny Lee had something like £10 that him borrow from somebody, and Duke Reid said he would give him a couple hours, and I go to the Caltone and him give me £10 too, and we get some musicians and go to Duke Reid's studio and put on 'Music Field'; other singers sang on the day like Derrick Morgan, but 'Music Field' is the one that stand out.'
Roy reveals that sabotage could not stop this song from being the hit that ultimately signalled Bunny Lee's dominance in the early reggae period. 'There was a lot of biasness in the record business in Jamaica, and you used to have some guys that work for Duke Reid, they were mafias. If you are not working for Duke Reid, your stuff can't come out: either your record scratched, or it can't sound good. You used to have a man named Smithy [engineer Byron Smith] who work for them, he's a very clever man. When we rehearse the tune in the studio, everybody say 'This is a hit again Roy; Bunny, you gone!' When we finish recording the tune, the guy say him sorry him never record. Everybody's heart was broken from that cut, so we know it was another one of Duke Reid's skanks again. That was terrible, man; I will never forget that day. We had to do it again, and it was still a hit because it was meant to hit, but the first cut, there was a lot of presence there. I do a series of songs for Bunny Lee, because at that stage we met man like David Betteridge from Island Records who came to WIRL studio looking for material from those people, and then I had a couple songs I did for them too like 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'The Winner'. Bunny Lee come on the scene and Island send down some money, so me and Bunny Lee go into the studio and get a lot of singers, because we advertise it on the radio, say new talents wanted and big ting. We go in the studio and some of the singers that could manage, me and Bunny Lee go back inna the nighttime and put on my voice to straighten them up as harmony. A so Bunny Lee start, and then you find singers like Slim Smith come in; Pat Kelly and the whole island come. We put Bunny Lee on a plane, we snap him picture and put it in the newspaper and from that prestige, he lift right off until this day.' Other numbers Roy cut for Bunny Lee include 'Thank You', 'Move All Day', 'Rolling Rolling', 'Keep Your Eyes On The Road', 'Good Is Better Than Bad', 'Fantastic Lover', 'If I Did Know', 'Good Ambition', 'Girlie' and the medley 'Touch Them (Never Let Them Go)' while 'Dance The Reggae', 'Life' and 'I Like Your Smile' are among the solo efforts he recorded for Sir JJ.
From the late 1960s, Roy Shirley became renowned for his ecstatic stage performances, often appearing in a long silver cape and drawing comparisons to James Brown and Solomon Burke for his dynamic energy. 'Al Green is the man that confess in Jamaica that he has learned his style from Roy Shirley, because I was the only singer first who sing that double voice thing with falsetto; I sound like Slim Smith and nuff man, because I have so much different quality of the vocals. How the cape thing come around, they put me on a show with the Four Tops at the Regal Theatre in Jamaica, and I say 'Them guys are big guys, I have to steal them show. The only way I can make my name known internationally, I have to get in 'pon this scene.' I think 'bout it and I say 'What I need to do is come in with some high collar, 'cause if I come in with the high collar, the people them must check my collar,' so that's what I throw down and I steal nine of them shows straight. I went to America and did a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in 1970 with Delroy Wilson, Skin Flesh and Bones, Derrick Harriott, and I steal up the show there too. When I came back, the manager wrote me a letter and said that I am one of the first local singers who come to a theatre like that and was so impressive to the people.'
By late 1968, Roy's experiences in the music business led him to form his own Public label and venture into self-production. As the work he has done for other producers has been anthologised to a certain degree, it tends to be better known to music fans outside Jamaica than the work Roy produced himself, but the sides we have collected here include some of the finest of his career. Though the music really speaks for itself, Roy offers some words about the creation of certain tracks: 'I form my label after going through them experiences and start to come in the business. I come with song like 'Flying Reggae,' that was a big thing-the only tune up til today that dance reggae in the routine, because we had a dancing group named the Flying Squad, a lot of girls them what step on the television and dance all around. Most people don't know that reggae have a routine about it, but we did formulate it. 'Prophecy Fulfilling' is the B-side of the 'Flying Reggae', that song was the first record Soul Syndicate did also. On the song 'Ethiopians' [aka 'On Board'], the Upsetters was the group because Family Man and Carly used to work for me a lot around places, and I help give them a lot of inspiration, but when I get them big, Bob Marley took them all away, and when I come to England in 1972 with U Roy and Max Romeo, Bob Marley take away my shop-I had a big record shop where Joe Gibbs' record shop used to be at North Parade, right beside Randy's. 'Who God Bless' was supported by a band with a man named Mr. Chambers, a bass player who used to do barbering in Mandeville and had a little band; I always like them country vibes, 'cause my mother is from Manchester, and through I sing every year with Byron Lee around the country, I never miss nothing. I hear the man there rehearsing inside the barber shop and start to sing this tune; we take them to Randy's studio and that tune take off, but Delroy Wilson lick up my tune when him say 'Who God bless no man curse, thank God I'm not the worst, better must come.' There's history about 'A Sugar' also: I wrote the lyrics, and I had a chap [Altyman Reid] that I asked to deejay the tune, but the guy was from the country and him lost a couple of his front teeth, so when we record the song and him say 'A sugar,' it sound like him say 'A toogah'; the people them laugh, so I felt embarrassed, and the brother wouldn't do it over so Miss Pat Chin at Randy's said to me, 'You go sing back the tune'. I take back the rhythm to Sir Coxsone's studio to take off the vocal of the deejay for me to have the pure rhythm to sing on, and in a day or two Coxsone version the tune, put out his version named 'Candy' and ask him people to say 'Sugar no good, but candy a the boss' and lick up my tune. You also have some tune named 'Butter' out there, a big producer produce that, and he used to run up his mouth about 'Sugar' too, so me get Alton Ellis, Errol Dunkley and some of the Melodians and go into the studio; me ask the people them, 'You no like candy?' And them man them say 'No man, candy too sweet for I!' And I say 'Do you want butter?' and they say, 'No mon, butter melt this day,' and me say, 'What do you want?' So them say, 'We want the sugar with I-lee,' so I cut the dub immediately and Coxsone was standing up downstairs. I just go to Miss Randy's and say 'Put on this dub,' and when the man hear the tune, him look 'pon me like him say 'Bwoi, is a smart youth.' 'Jamaican Girls' make out of the same 'A Sugar' rhythm, and all of them songs come out of the same 'Music Field' influence, 'cause it's the same pattern, so I might just mix up the 'Hold Them' and the 'A Sugar' together. 'Heartbreaking Gypsy' by Ben E. King, when I sing that tune people cry, even now they love when I sing that; if I go on any stage and don't sing that tune, I could pick up two gunshots.'
Roy continued to give his inspiring performances well into the 21st Century, but a month after a typically energetic show at the Sierra Nevada Wolrd Music Festival in June 2008, he passed away at his home in Thamesmead, London. Soon after, a memorial concert was held in his adopted city, while soon after, his body was returned to the land of his birth, where he was finally laid to rest.