Roy Shirley was one of the mainstays of Jamaican music in the 1960s, enjoying a string of hits sung in a highly-mannered, soul-influenced vibrato voice that helped to establish the sound known as rock steady. He moved to Britain in 1973 and continued to record but branched out to open a record shop and to found the British Universal Talent Development Association to help foster promising but under-privileged young musicians.
Ainsworth Roy Rushton Shirley was born in 1944. He grew up in Trench Town, Kingston where he learnt to sing in a local revivalist church. By the late 1950s he was entering talent contests alongside other aspiring young singers such as his friend Jimmy Cliff. His first solo hit came in 1965 with a ska ballad called Shirley produced by Leslie Kong, but he also sung in various vocal groups, including the Leaders (who also included Ken Boothe) and the Uniques, who briefly backed Prince Buster.
Following the break up of the Uniques, in 1966 Shirley cut Hold Them, which probably remains his best-known and most important hit. Widely credited as the first record to showcase a new variant of the ska rhythm that came to be known as “rock steady”, it was also the debut production by Joe Gibbs.
Shirley did not stay with Gibbs to share his success, however, and over the next few years he recorded with numerous other producers, including Bunny Lee, Lee “Scratch” Perry and, a little later, King Tubby. In 1968 he started his own Public label and began producing himself, employing members of the Wailers among his backing musicians.
By the early 1970s his fame had spread outside the island of his birth. Promoting himself as Jamaica’s very own “High Priest of Soul”, he toured America and Britain, where many of his records were released on the Trojan label. In 1973 he moved permanently to Britain. Now that he was cut off from the creative melting-pot of the Kingston studios his popularity declined, but he continued recording. Among his more notable later releases was a 1993 dancehall remake of Hold Them, which he retitled Control Them. He also ran a record shop in Dalston, London and spent much off his time on community projects, working with young British-Jamaicans.