Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hortense Ellis: The First Lady Of Songs


Hortense Ellis is embedded in Jamaica's music history as one of greatest female artistes ever. Dubbed, `Jamaica's First Lady of Songs`, she has left an indelible mark on the landscape of Jamaica's cultural heritage in life and in death.

Born in Jamaica' s cultural capital known as Trench Pen, presently known as Trench Town in 1941, Hortense Mahalia Ellis started out singing at school concerts, a common feature of educational system at the time. Competition amongst the folks in the culturally riped community became a past time with many talented youngsters hounding their craft on the corners. `Opportunity Hour`, started by Vere Johns and his wife Lillian Johns in Savannah, Georgia in 1937, and brought to Jamaica in 1939 when the Johns returned to Jamaica, provided the ideal avenue through which aspirants could exhibit their talents. Hortense along with her brother Alton Ellis (a dancer) entered the competition in 1959 and there she made an immediate impression by winning the preliminary rounds and then the semi-final and then the grand final in 1960. Alton who by then had returned to `Opportunity Hour` as a singer/duo with his partner, Eddie Parkins (Alton & Eddie), won third place. For her winnings she also performed on the Vere Johns produced `Opportunity Knocks Show` aired on Radio Jamaica Rediffusion (RJR).
The recording industry at the time was heavily influenced by the Boogie Shuffle and ballads and dominated by male singers, a bias shown by the producers who were at the time doing recordings for their sound systems. The only known female to have recorded then was Enid Cumberland who recorded as a duo with Kieth Stewart, Keith & Enid (Worried Over). While Hortense became a regular act on the popular stage shows produced by the likes of Bim & Bam, Horace Forbes and Stephen Hill, it was not until 1962 when she started recording both as duo as well as a single artiste for Sir Coxsone and Duke Reid. In fact, the male/female type duo era took off with the likes of Derrick & Patsy, Stranger & Patsy, Roy & Millie, Owen & Millie, Roy & Yvonne, Delroy & Paulette, Jackie & Doreen, Creator & Norma, Lascelles & Yvonne, Lascelles & Dimples and later on the likes Derrick & Hortense, Peter & Hortense, John Holt and Hortense, Jackie & Hortense, Johnny Clarke & Hortense and her brother, Alton.
Hortense worked out with Byron Lee & The Dragonaires Band and became a big hit at the popular Christmas Mornings, Easter Spectacular and New Years Shows. Her signature song became the Patti Labelle and the Blues Bells wedding song, `Down The Isle`. Although not recording as much as the male artistes Hortense did a lot of studio backing vocals when the Ska era took prominence. She was highly admired by the other Jamaican females artistes, many of who still holds her as their greatest influence. Paulette Marsh (Delroy & Paulette fame) said of Hortense, "She was my idol and we got on pretty well. She was always at my house and my mother made her dresses". Yvonne Harrison of Roy & Yvonne fame, said "Let me say, Hortense was the best of the bunch in my opinion. She was the nicest person to work with and there was never a dull moment when you were with her but you were always afraid when she went on stage before, because you know the crowd was going to be roaring after her. We got the aftermath and she would bring the house down with a special song called `Down The Isle".
By the end 1960s Hortense was recording mainly cover version for several producers such as Ken Lack/Caltone, Bunny Lee and Lee `Scratch` Perry, taking breaks in between to rear her children. By the start of the 1970s she was touring North America but was never able to take her career to higher heights. Marriage took centre stage for Hortense when she tied the knot with Mikey `Junior` Saunders. In fact, her reputation for having children remains one of the talking points whenever her name comes up for mention. For those who it seem to please, there is always a twisting of the facts in order to make it appears, all Hortense achieved in life was having children, as much as 13. However, according to Michelle, Hortense's fifth child, her Mom was the greatest and best Mother. "She had nine children and she had a love for all the other children around the area. Whenever she was going to perform she would load us and all the other children in a taxi and take us to shows, and if someone should ask her if all those children were hers, she would reply, yes!, all of them". "That was my mother".
Hortense dropped off the music scene for the better part of the 1970s only to return for occasional recordings. During the 1980s into the middle part of the 1990s not much was heard of her while she spent time in the United States battling illness. Hortense resurfaced during the later part of the 1990s, appearing on the great vintage series known as Heineken Startime, promoted Michael Barnett and Keith Brown (MKB Promotions)

If things was tough for the male artistes at the time, it was twice as tough for the females. Many recordings artistes then, will say today, that they recorded songs for the love of singing as well as for the opportunity of hearing their songs being played on the radio, and not for the making of money. Hortense fell in that category and her financial status was well known. The returns from her talent and hard work did not benefit the icon who have the distinctions of recording songs under three different names, Hortense Ellis, Queen Tiney and Mahalia Saunders. In 1965 Hortense was voted the best Female Artistes for 1964 with the feat being one of many awards she received. However, she was not to have received the national award of `Order of Distinction`, afforded singers, musicians and other performers in the entertainment field. After courageously battling illness she passed away on October 19, 2000 at the Kingston Public Hospital.

Some recordings by Hortense Ellis

`Feel So Good` with Derrick Morgan
`Still In Love` `` `` ``
`Let It Be Me`
`Twelve Minutes To Go`
`I'll Come Softly`
`Loving Wine`
`I'm In Love`
`Hell and Sorrow`
`Why Birds Follow Spring`with Alton
`I'm Just A Girl` `` ``
`Brown Girl In The Ring` `I Shall Sing` `Easy Squeeze`
`I ve Been Lonely` `Right On The Tip of My Tongue`` Piece of My Heart` `Down Town Ting` `Unexpected Places` `Down The Aisle` `Young Hearts Run Free`

Compilation: Alton & Hortense At Studio One
`` Hits of Studio One


bkeyo said...

Outstanding piece on Hortense! Great to learn more about her, such as the names she recorded under. Also nice to learn Paulette's surname. Keep up the good works Colby!

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