Tuesday, September 15, 2009
WOMAN OF THE GHETTO
Hortense Ellis (18 April 1941, Trenchtown, Kingston, Jamaica - 19 October 2000) was a reggae musician, and the younger sister of fellow artist, Alton Ellis.
Her father worked on the railways while her mother ran a fruit stall. Hortense was just 18 years old when she appeared on the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour, then Jamaica's foremost outlet for young undiscovered talent. Her version of Frankie Lymon's "I'm Not Saying No At All" so impressed both audience and panel that she was invited back the following week. Hortense went on to enter many more competitions and showcases and she reached six semi-finals and four finals. In 1964 she was awarded a silver cup as Jamaica's Best Female Vocalist and went on to repeat this feat five years later.
During the sixties, Hortense toured Jamaica with Byron Lee and The Dragonaires and had begun recording with some of the island's top producers like Ken Lack ("I Shall Sing", "Hell And Sorrow" and "Brown Girl In The Ring"), Coxsone Dodd ("Twelve Minutes To Go"), "Ill Come Softly") and Duke Reid. Alton Ellis was also recording with Dodd at this time and the family connection was cleverly exploited by Dodd who produced "female" adaptions of some of Alton's hits (for Hortense to record) including "Why Do Birds" and "I'm Just A Guy". Dodd also paired Alton and Hortense in a run of classic duets such as "I'm In Love" and "Easy Squeeze".
The siblings toured Canada in 1970 but the following year, Hortense was back in Jamaica where she married Mikey "Junior" Saunders with whom she had five children in quick succession. Although her live performances suffered as a result, Hortense remained busy in the studio. Recording under the name Mahalia Saunders for producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, she cut several sides including "Right On The Tip Of My Tongue" and "Piece Of My Heart". Hortenese's biggest success came in the late seventies with a song cut for Gussie Clarke. "Unexpected Places" was a big hit in Jamaica and also in Britain where it appeared on the Hawkeye label.
For producer Bunny "Striker" Lee, Hortense became Queen Tiney for her "Down Town Ting" - an "answer" record to Althea and Donna's big hit "Uptown Top Ranking" which had itself been based on the rhythm of Alton's big hit "I'm Still In Love With You".
Around this time, Hortense recut many of her Coxsone/Studio One sides with Soul Syndicate, The Agrovators and the up and coming team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The rise of the Lovers Rock genre in the late seventies and early eighties led to Hortense cutting cover version of several popular soul classics including "Down The Aisle" (Patti Labelle) and "Young Hearts Run Free" (Candi Staton). Following her divorce from Mikey Saunders, Hortense spent much of the eighties living in New York and Miami. On returning to Jamaica in 1989, she began suffering health problems, but managed to carry on with occasional local live performances. She recovered sufficiently to make a private visit to New York in the summer of 1999 and then to Miami the following year where ill health finally caught up with her.
Hortense Ellis died in her sleep in a Kingston hospital on October 18, 2000 from a stomach infection. Below is her classic version of a soul-funk diva classic, "Woman of the Ghetto." (Biographical information courtesy of Wikipedia.)