Roy Shirley – The High Priest Of Reggae

by Apr 17, 2024Articles, Report

Roy Shirley - The High Priest Of Reggae


When: April 2013
Writer: Oliver Albot
Photos: The respective record companies (labels/sleeves)
Copyright:  2024 – Oliver Albot

Here is another legendary character, and obscure, if not eccentric, Roy Shirley, who stayed in the shadow of so many great names of Jamaican music such as Slim Smith, Cornell Campbell and Stranger Cole. Roy Shirley’s path hasn’t been without pitfalls. He was a Jamaican myth; the Europeans only know him thanks to a few tracks published in a few ephemeral compilations. His most famous song is “Hold Them”, released in 1966. It is time we fix this injustice and pay tribute to this friendly and inspired artist.

Roy Shirley – his real name being Ainsworth Roy Rushton Shirley – was born in 1944. He spent his childhood with his mother, a true believer who would regularly take him to church. Little Roy’s voice made an impression on the revivalist choir as well as the Boys Town School he sang in. He liked to be in the limelight in all the concerts and ecumenical congregations he would take part in. That was how he spent his childhood, in the bosom of his family but yet not cut out from influences external to his nest. His background includes Trenchtown, Jonestown and Denhamtown, in other words, the most miserable districts of Western Kingston. Rudies, young and somehow helpless ragamuffins rejected by society, also spread Rastafari’s message, coming with its flow of rites and obscure and confused beliefs to rational minds. The faith in Rasta is certainly sincere and as strong as a rebellious mind, and quite intense at times. Roy Shirley was just a shy choirboy who became a man in a background some would call squalid. At the end of 1962 Jamaica attained full independence from the United Kingdom and discovered trendy Ska music, with amazement. Jamaican Rhythm & Blues disappeared as fast as it had appeared. Mento and Calypso music, so glorious in the 1950s, now were much less popular. Like many Jamaican artists at the time, Roy Shirley started to take part in singing contests.

He won the second prize in Vere John’s Talent Contest thanks to his performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love You” for which he also won two pounds. Just for the anecdote, his mother bought two ducks with the money prize. Now Roy Shirley started to feel very motivated to start a career as a singer and had only one thing in his mind: find a recording studio. A first track recorded for little known producer Simeon L. Smith went unreleased. In 1964, he auditioned for the most prolific producer of the time, Leslie Kong. With Jimmy Cliff’s help, the record was released and “Shirley with the Diamond Ring” became a small local hit in 1965. Roy Shirley soon became famous on Kingston streets. He was always accompanied by gorgeous girls for whom he would endlessly sing his famous “Shirley” song. But fame does not always mean fortune, especially in Kingston. Roy Shirley got very little money from this first work.

Roy Shirley - The High Priest

In 1965, he created a band, The Leaders, along with Ken Boothe, Joe White and Chuck Josephs. Unfortunately, the band didn’t last very long… With two former members of The Techniques, Slim Smith and Franklyn White, he founded another band: The Uniques. The Techniques and The Uniques could actually be seen as one band whose members seemed to be interchangeable. These two bands were like a school that was a springboard for success for its members; Roy Shirley, Slim Smith, Franklyn White, Pat Kelly, Bruce Ruffin and Jimmy Riley.

Roy Shirley and his friend Ken Boothe were introduced to Studio One’s manager, Coxsone Dodd. Roy knew about Coxsone’s reputation not to pay his protégés. The case was settled rapidly after the men exchanged just a few glances and Roy knew he would never record anything for Coxsone. A compromise wouldn’t have been a bad move though. All the artists who had an album released under Coxsone’s prestigious label never regretted it. In 1966, a new producer, Joel Gibson (aka Joe Gibs) gave Roy Shirley the opportunity of recording what many consider as the very first Rock Steady track. It was recorded at Federal studio and became a hit. All of Jamaica sang “Hold Them” and this time Roy Shirley’s career seemed to be on the starting block. “Hold Them” had something special. It was heady, pretty pleasant and difficult to get off your mind. Ken Boothe released “Feel Good”, which he recorded for Coxsone, a few days later, but this was nothing more than his best friend Shirley’s “Hold Them”. Roy felt betrayed. How dare Ken do that to him? He felt they killed his own version just to sell a few copies. Roy was upset and learnt the lesson, both on personal and professional levels, but never hold a grudge against Ken Boothe. Coxsone was very happy with this double hit and so was Joe Gibbs. The latter was never grateful to Roy, neither was Leslie Kong, the original producer. Roy asserted he only received 80 pounds for the four songs he recorded for Gibbs between 1966 and 1968. But Roy’s “Hold Them” was dead as it would become some sort of a “genie in the bottle” a few decades later. In the same period, he wrote and recorded for other young producers such as Bunny Lee, JJ Johnson and Ken Lack. This was a prosperous time for Roy who spent most of his time in recording studios. “Get On The Ball”, “The Winner”, which Roy would sumptuously rearrange years later, “Music Is The Key”, “Evil Love”, “Musical Field”, “Warming Up The Scene” all became classic everyone remembers.

Roy Shirley’s style is simply unique and naturally stands out from all the other talents and musical gems of Rock Steady music and soon, Reggae. With artists such as The Maytals (“54-46”), The Ethiopians (“Reggae Hit The Town”, “Everything Crash”), Desmond Dekker (“Fu-Manchu”, “A It Mek”) or even The Melodians (“Everybody Bawlin”, “Little Nut Tree”) hitting the streets in that year 1968, it was only natural to count with Roy Shirley too. He recorded the catchy song for The Ethiopians’ producer JJ. Johnson, “I Like Your Smile”, which goes “A Dis, A Dis A Dis”. With its rebellious, relaxed and swaying rhythm, this catchy song along with three other tracks written by Roy were included in The Ethiopians’ debut album, “Reggae Power”. Almost all Roy Shirley’s records were released in the UK by several record labels such as Doctor Bird, Island and Trojan but it didn’t mean he made money. Jamaica was far and it was very easy to ignore artists complaining out of Kingston’s ghettos.

Between 1969 and 1972, about ten singles by Roy Shirley were released under his own record label, Public. In 1972, he toured England with Max Romeo and U.Roy. He always delivered great performances on stage. Draped in a long cape, he looked like a whimsical and cheerful preacher, hence his nickname: The High Priest of Reggae. In 1973, Roy became based in the United Kingdom and he was surprised to discover that several of his records had been released here. Some of them had even been released under other names! Yet, he kept recording now and then until the end of the seventies. An album entitled “Hold Them”, completely unknown, was published in 1974 by Florence Records. Don’t even think of finding a copy of it because there are only a few around. I got mine ages ago and it was something of a miracle when I received it from an island called Xamaica in the golden days.

Roy Shirley - Return Of The High Priest

What a funny life this album has had – geographically but also in terms of sounds. The style and production are definitely Shirley’s but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Lee Perry took part in the album, in the making of a few tracks at least. I can’t confirm this, although it doesn’t seem to be the case. David Katz, a journalist well-known in the world of Reggae, once asked Roy about the album. He answered it might have been recorded in the area of Camden Town in London for one of his friends. In other words, the album is even rarer than a dub plate! In my opinion, an album such as “Hold Them”, because of its underground style wouldn’t have been successful. It would probably have disappeared in the London fog, just like the next album did.

In 1976, a new album was finally released: “The Winner”, published by the brand new record label Trenchtown. The horrendous cover for the album spoke for itself but didn’t show the expected results – it showed the caricature of a Rasta man with a stick of dynamite in his hand. Recorded in London, the LP is simply weird, if not outstanding. Among the numerous Roots albums coming from Jamaica at the same time (“Rastaman Vibration”, “Legalize It”, “Night Food” and “Trenchtown Mix Up”), it unfortunately went unnoticed. Personally, I would have bet on “The Winner” and its avant-garde sounds. The sound mixing done London is a foretaste of records Wackies would produce later on in New York. A polished sound, clean but rough too. You can hear Roy Shirley is really enjoying it and his voice is fantastic. In “The Face That You Love”, Roy seems to be in another dimension: dreadlocks look, clenching his fist and feeling the fulfillment of an invincible and divine man, giving out a piece a himself. Then, he performs “You Turn Me On”, which will put you in a trance… You just need to close your eyes. The recipe still works though it is unattainable. Finding this album is a bit like a hunt for a lost treasure that has remained unknown to most of us.

Roy Shirley came back at the end of 1980 with a new album, “Good News”, produced by Alvin Ranglin. “Dis Ya Reggae A De Beast”, is one essential song that sets the tone of the album. But once again, the album was not distributed properly and only the experts listened to it. The A-side is absolutely vitriolic, with scathing guitar riffs, contrasting with a surprising, mellower soul ballad on the B-side. “The Return of The High Priest” in 1982 was Roy Shirley’s fourth and last album, following a long absence. It was recorded at Dynamic Studio, after Roy Shirley’s latest stage appearances at the Reggae Sunsplash festival earlier. The myth was still very much alive but it was the last show. Among the crowd gathered in Mo’Bay, radiant and contagious gleams came and went, twirling away to oblivion. The return of the High Priest was just a reverence.

In the nineties, after 10 years of absence, new songs were released. The world had switched from LPs to CDs, from the ultimate “Roots Reggae” to digital sound. The gap was huge and Roy would take no advantages from it, quite the reverse, in fact. A few collections have been published since 2000, restoring the truth about Roy Shirley. It took 30 years to rediscover this talented artist, amazing mixture between Toots and Slim Smith. I strongly advise to get the two compilations published by Wesa and Trojan, recounting the essential of the singles Roy Shirley released between 1966 and 1975. I’m afraid the albums “Hold Them” and “The Winner” will never be available again… just saying! trying to ward off bad luck!

Roy Shirley died at his home in Thamesmead, Southeast London in July 2008. His body was returned to Jamaica where he was buried. Numerous tribute concerts were held in his memory in London and Kingston. We still can enjoy seeing Roy Shirley in the documentary series Deep Roots shown on the British TV channels.

Hold Them

Music Is The Key



More Roy Shirley Music

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