Roy Shirley was perhaps the most eccentric performer in Jamaican music, mesmerising audiences at various venues, including the Carib Theatre, with some superb, electrifying performances during the 1960s.
Donning a costume that befitted a priest, with headdress and pastor’s gown to match, Roy would kneel, wail and groan on stage while manoeuvring through intricate stage routines, this, he combined with a voice that was truly unique. He aptly acquired the title ‘The Musical High Priest’.
To witness a Roy Shirley performance, which I had the privilege of doing, was to witness high drama.
Singing with deep emotion, he would sometimes be overcome by it and burst into crying while onstage. Roy’s stage antics, his frenetic energy, his interaction with his audience and his ability to rouse and satisfy a crowd, made him a legend. In a radio interview with me a couple years before his passing in 2008, Shirley said “I always like to give people satisfaction for the money they’ve paid, so you’ll always get your money’s worth from me”.
His first recording was his self-penned Shirley With The Diamond Ring, an undistinguished piece done for Leslie Kong’s Beverleys label in 1964. The song, it was said, influenced his stage name.
Shirley was, in fact, born Roy Rushton at 84 North Street in Kingston,Jamaica in 1944, attended Boy’s Town School in the community of Trench Town where he grew up, and was first exposed to music while attending church with his mother.
There he sang on the church choir and played drums as a youngster of nine years old. It was by a stroke of luck that an influential Caucasian woman, upon hearing him singing to himself on the street, got him on to the Lannaman’s talent show which was aired on a popular radio station.
His performance encouraged him to enter the Vere John’s talent show where he won second prize in the early 1960s. This brought him to the attention of then Minister of Culture Edward Seaga and band leader Byron Lee, who included him on shows and tours which they produced around the island.
By early 1966, Roy had in his possession a song he wanted to record, but was having difficulties getting it done. Producers were hesitant to finance it, given its slow beat and style.
Even his close friends, from whom he sought backup vocals, were unable to follow his style. The style even posed problems for him.
“I wanted to fulfil my bass line because it was a slow music, but every time I try to put a bass line over the song, it wouldn’t drop. One night in early 1966, I heard a Salvation Army Band strumming up a beat at Orange and North Street corner and, same time, the drop beat of the tune I wanted come into my head,” said Shirley.
He arranged the recording Hold Them from that experience, and according to him, it became the first ‘one-drop’ recording, providing the cornerstone of the rocksteady beat. By extension, the song revolutionised Jamaican music forever.
Hold Them was a massive No.1 hit in Jamaica in 1967 and Roy Shirley is credited with having brought Joe Gibbs to prominence as a record producer with that recording.
Working for other producers like Ken Lack, J.J., and Bunny Lee, Roy continued to work wonders for the remainder of the decade and into the next, with cuts like Get On The Ball, Who God Bless, Be Good,Dancing Reggae and the masterpiece rocksteady recording Music Field which seemed to have defied musical logic by employing only four musicians – guitarist Lynn Taitt, pianist Gladstone Anderson, bassist Bryan Atkinson, and drummer Joe Isaacs.
Roy Shirley was also credited with bringing Bunny Lee to prominence with Music Field.
The popular Jamaican vocal trio of the late 1960s and ’70s, The Uniques, which in their heyday consisted of Slim Smith, Winston Riley and Lloyd Charmers, was started by Roy Shirley and Smith, both of whom alternated lead on the Bunny Lee-produced recording The Facts Of Life. Roy also played the role of a visionary and added his voice to festival celebrations around that time with the very popular recording Golden Festival, a song way ahead of its time.
The most comedic act to emerge from Jamaica’s popular music, Roy Shirley brought gimmickry to the Jamaican music stage.
This eccentricity, he took with him when he toured the United Kingdom (UK) for the first time in 1972.
Many fans there admitted that his acts were almost impossible to follow. Roy demonstrated the altruistic side of his character when he was instrumental in setting up ‘The UK All Stars Artistic Federation and The British Universal Talent Development Association there in 1976, in order to seek promotion and support for promising performers and in order to avoid the pitfalls that dogged his career.
After travelling to and fro several times, he eventually settled in the UK, making it his home by the mid ’70s.
While there, he produced a number of albums and CDs, among themNice Up The City, The Music Nice and Love Is Forever.
Roy Shirley spent his last five years helping to set up projects aimed at the young and vulnerable and designed to lead them into a world of accomplishment and achievement. Roy Shirley, dubbed ‘The Musical High Priest’ was a one-of-a-kind performer.
He was found dead at his home in Thamesmead, UK, in July 2008, at the age of 63.