Roy Shirley (b. Roy Rushton Shirley, 18 July 1944, Kingston, Jamaica, d. 4 July 2008 in same town), also known as King Roy Shirley and The High Priest was a singer whose career spanned over the ska, rocksteady and reggae eras. His "Hold Them" 1966 is regarded by some in the reggae branch to be maybe the first recorded rocksteady song. He was also one of the original members of The Uniques 1966. Shirley grew up in Trench Town, and began his career performing in talent contests. His debut single, released 1965 by the Chinese-Jamaican music producer Leslie Kong, was "Oh Shirley". The song was co-arranged with Shirley's friend Jimmy Cliff and was a ska hit in Jamaica. Shirley had another hit (reggae) in 1971 with "A Sugar" for Randy's. He toured in the United Kingdom in 1972 with the Jamaican toaster U-Roy and singer Max Romeo, and became based in the UK from 1973. He set up All Stars Artistic Federated Union in 1976, with the aim of helping other artists to avoid some of the pitfalls of the music business.
Shirley was born on July 18, 1944, and grew up in Trench Town, and began his career performing in talent contests. After early recordings for producer Simeon L. Smith went unreleased, he moved on to work with Leslie Kong, who released his debut single "Oh Shirley", co-arranged with his friend Jimmy Cliff, giving him a hit in 1965. Shirley then formed The Leaders along with Ken Boothe, Joe White, and Chuck Josephs. This group was unsuccessful, but Shirley went on to join Slim Smith and Franklyn White in the original line-up of The Uniques. When this line-up folded, Shirley recorded "Hold Them" in 1966, credited as one of the first rocksteady songs, and inspired by the beat from a Salvation Army band. Shirley attempted to perform "Hold Them" to a ska beat, but unable to make it work, slowed down the rhythm. He initially attempted to record the song with Slim Smith and Ken Boothe for producer Joe Gibbs, but it didn't work out, with the other singers struggling to break away from the ska style, and Gladstone Anderson suggested to Gibbs that Shirley perform the song solo. The song became a massive hit in Jamaica, and Shirley recorded several more singles for Gibbs, including "Dance The Arena", "The World Needs Love", and "Music Is The Key", but these failed to match the success of the first single. Shirley moved on to work with Bunny Lee giving the producer his first hit with "Music Field", which was followed by others such as "Get on the Ball". Shirley's style draws heavily from American soul singers such as Solomon Burke. He became renowned for his ecstatic stage performances, often performing wearing a long silver cape with a high collar, and was described by the Jamaica Observer as "perhaps the most comedic performer to evolve out of Jamaican popular music". In late 1968, Shirley set up his own Public label and began self-production, releasing tracks such as "Prophecy Fulfilling", "Flying Reggae", and "On Board".
Shirley had another big hit in 1971 with "A Sugar" for Randy's. He toured the United Kingdom in 1972 with U-Roy and Max Romeo, and became based in the UK from 1973, setting up his All Stars Artistic Federated Union in 1976, with the aim of helping other artists to avoid some of the pitfalls of the music business. He released his first album in 1976, with The Winner. He performed at Reggae Sunsplash in 1982, and was included on the album of performances from the festival. Shirley opened a record shop in Dalston, London, and in his later years he set up the British Universal Talent Development Association, with the aim of supporting talented but underprivileged youngsters. He continued to perform occasionally, and his last show was at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in June 2008.
Roy Shirley died at his home in Thamesmead, London in July 2008, aged 63. A memorial concert was held on 30 August, featuring performances from the likes of Derrick Morgan, Dennis Alcapone, BB Seaton, and Michael Prophet. His body was returned to Jamaica with the assistance of the Jamaican government, where he was buried and where a memorial service was held, attended by musicians including Ken Boothe and Dwight Pinkney and representatives of the government.
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