Hortense Sings the Blues

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Okay, so maybe this blog title is clickbait, but it’s only done to bring attention to the challenges that women in early Jamaican music, like Hortense Ellis, experienced in the 1960s and beyond. This is a topic I have addressed in my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music, and Hortense Ellis was an artist who was perhaps most vocal about being treated unwell. Over the years we have heard plenty about artists not feeling that they were paid their due, but Hortense Ellis was frequently not paid at all! And she had nine children and so her work, her labors and talent, were of even more importance. Her recordings put food on her table, so she had to fight for what was hers.

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One of my good friends recently shared this Star Newspaper article with me. He knew I had long championed the career of Hortense Ellis and was further frustrated this past February when attending the Trenchtown Music Festival after hearing Alton Ellis’s son, Christopher Ellis, give a roll call of the musicians who came from Trenchtown, yet he omitted his own aunt!

I have previously written about Hortense Ellis HERE so you can have a read.

But here is the text transcribed from that Star Newspaper article from September 2, 1966:

Singing in the bath tub usually leads to nothing but shouts of protest from the neighbours or starts the dog howling in the backyard. But for Hortense Ellis, it has led to a very successful singing career. Now known as Jamaica’s first lady of song, Hortense has gone just about as far as a girl can in local entertainment circles and now she wants to go abroad.

Brother Alton Ellis, himself a popular vocalist, was the one who first got Hortense into the show business world ,by introducing her to the ten popular Vere Johns Opportunity Hour Shows.”

I pause here to note that though she may have been introduced to the talent show by her brother, animosity was created in the family when she beat him! That’s right, in the grand championships, Hortense took first place and Alton took second! And her oldest daughter told me that this rivalry continued throughout her life. Alton never seemed to get over it, according to her daughter. That story is in Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaica Music.

Back to the article:

“And it was through these shows that bandleader Byron Lee heard her sing and signed her up for some stage shows that really got her career going. The stage show fans really took to Hortense and when she recorded ‘I’ll Come Softly’ it was at the top of the hit parade for a month.

Since then, Hortense has been on nearly every local stage show and has been among the supporting artistes at shows starring the most famous names in show business–names like Ben E. King, Doris Troy, Patty [sic] LaBelle and the Blue Bells, Mamie Harvey, Solomon Burke and Dionne Warwick.

Patty [sic] LaBelle had for a long time been a favourite of Hortense and when Patti heard her sing, she gave her considerable encouragement. But Solomon Burke was even more enthusiastic about Hortense’s talent. He said that she only needed a little more experience to be a big hit. He advised her to go to the United States and ‘try to make the big time.’

‘But I’m weak to help myself,’ she confesses sadly. ‘I need a manager to help me.’ Hortense loves show business. But hates the way the artistes are often treated by some of the promoters.

‘I have a special love for my fans,’ she told me. ‘And I love the excitement of stage shows. I usually have to have six songs ready when I go on because they always want an encore. So although I want to leave Jamaica now to get some experience I would never leave here forever.’

I asked her if she thought she could make a living here without having to go abroad.

Don’t want to pay

You can make a living here, but we are not treated fairly by some of the promoters. They don’t want to pay us. We see a full house at a show and then they tell us that they didn’t make enough at the gate to meet expenses. They say that most of the people crashed the gate and got in free. Maybe the Government could do something for us instead of letting us suffer under local promoters.’

I reminded her of the Tops in Local show, which was put on by the artistes and backed by a loan from the Ministry of Development and Welfare.

‘Yes,’ said the young vocalist, ‘but we had to pay back the money and there wasn’t anything left. They should have helped us with more shows.’

Promptness at rehearsals was something promoters were always claiming the artistes ignored, and I asked Hortense about this.

‘When you are not paid for a job and not given a proper contract and no one seems interested in you, you don’t have any impetus to turn up.’

And this is why Hortense is now looking for someone to help her as a manager or promoter.

Speaking for herself and her fellow artistes she said: ‘If we know there is someone interested in us, we will be prompt and turn up for every rehearsal and do anything he wants, as long as we get a fair deal. What they are giving us now is not even taxi fare. We are being trampled.’