If ever there was a talent worthy of recognition that hasn’t had an ounce of it, it’s Hortense Ellis. This is why I feature Hortense Ellis on the cover and devote a lengthy chapter to her in my book Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music which has just been released and is available at skabook.com. I hope you will check it out, as there are dozens of women featured prominently in this book, which was a labor of love for the past two years.
But on to Hortense Ellis. The following are excerpts from this chapter in my book–a chapter I call, “The First Lady of Song.”
“I’m the very first female singer in Jamaica. I’ve been through the R&B, rocksteady, and ska eras. When I began my singing career, there was no Marcia, no Rita, no Judith, there were only singers like Totlyn Jackson and Sheila Rickards, and they were jazz and cabaret singers. I was the first, whose voice was heard on the radio all over the island,” said Hortense Ellis to Jamaica Gleaner reporter Claude Mills in 1997 just three years before her death. She was born on April 18, 1941 in Trench Town. Owen “Blakka” Ellis, Jamaican comedian and Hortense’s nephew remembers, “I lived on first street with my mother’s family but I’d visit my dad who lived on third street.” His dad was Leslie Ellis, Hortense’s brother. There were also Alton Ellis, the successful vocalist; Irving; Mertlyn; Lilieth, who went by the nickname Cherry; Veronica; and Hortense, who went by the nickname Tiny. Their father, Percival, was a railroad worker, and mother, Beatrice, ran a fruit stall. “It was a musical family, but more of a musical community than household,” says Blakka. “Trench Town was designed with very small houses so everything spilled out into the yard and onto the streets. And Hortense was not so much a singer in those times but was more a comedian. She would be going wonderful spectacles imitating people, doing a belly dance, more a humorist than a singer in the early days. Yes.”
When Hortense turned 18, she decided to try her hand at showbiz, not as a comedian, although there would have been room for that in Jamaica’s pantomime and variety show venues, but as the singer we know and love. She got her start through the same means as so many other great musicians and artists, the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour. Blakka says, “She won Vere Johns. It was like a monthly competition and she won one month and Alton won another month, then she won the grand finals over him.” The song that Hortense Ellis wowed the crowds with in 1959, the same crowd that cheered her on the loudest to win her the championship, was “I’m Not Saying No At All,” by Frankie Lymon, and according to writer David Katz, it was Alton Ellis who chose the song for her to sing. She continued to compete at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour and racked up six semi-finals and four finals. “I used to perform at the Majestic Palace, Ambassador, and Odeon Theatres in the 50s at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, but I began singing professionally in 1961,” she said.
Before she recorded a single tune, Hortense had her first child, Christel, in 1960, but she was already singing on the stages of Kingston. “She had me in 1960 and she told me she sang Saturday night and she had me the next morning at five o’clock. She was 19 when she had me,” Christel says. Then in 1961, Hortense Ellis recorded her first three songs for Coxsone Dodd on his Worldisc label—“Eddie My Love” and “Loving Girl” billed as Hortense Ellis and the Blues Blasters, and “All By Ourselves (All By Myself)” billed as Lascelles Perkins and Hortense Ellis. It was her ability that made her desirable. “She had a massive massive range, a very very high pitch and she could come down to a deep baritone,” Blakka says. Christel says, “She was a beautiful singer. Anybody I tell Hortense Ellis was my mother, they say, ‘That girl could sing!’ I remember one time she got an award, the First Lady of Song.” That award, given by the Jamaica Star, came in 1964, but she had been using the moniker on her advertisements a year earlier while performing at the State Theatre with the Mercuries.
You can read more about the life of Hortense Ellis in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, including her struggles of balancing a career and being a mother–she gave birth to nine children (eight girls and one boy)! Hortense Ellis died on October 1, 2000 of a lung ailment from years of smoking. Her funeral was held on November 9, 2000 at the Andrew’s Seventh Day Adventist Church on Hope Road in Kingston. Bunny and Scully, Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole and Alton Ellis gave musical tributes at the service and Desmond Young, president of the Jamaica Federation of Musicians, Marcia Griffiths, and Derrick Morgan were in attendance along with dozens of others. Her legacy lives on in her music and in the spirit of Jamaica.
Enjoy my favorite Hortense Ellis song, “Woman of the Ghetto,” a remake of the Marlena Shaw tune produced by the brilliant Clive Chin.