Photo by David Katz

Roy Shirley is one of Jamaica’s most original vocalists, his unique approach and peculiar delivery ensuring a place apart.  Drawing heavily from American soul, he often employs a quavering vibrato and is famed for ecstatic performances given in unusual attire.  He has also been credited as the artist who recorded the first rock steady vocal in the mid-1960s, and has since scored many lasting hits in the reggae idiom, leading to his coronation as “The High Priest of Reggae.”

Like many of Jamaica’s great musical figures, Roy began his life in Trench Town, the hotbed of talent in western Kingston that was home to Bob Marley in the early 1960s.  Roy was raised by his mother and stepfather in a community centred on a Revivalist church and anyone who has had the pleasure of being in Roy’s company will immediately know he is a deeply spiritual man, with such convictions radiating throughout his work.

As with many of Jamaica’s foundation singers, Roy Shirley got his start singing on talent contests in the late 1950s.  Given encouragement by fellow singer Jimmy Cliff, Shirley reached the stage at a young age and although early recordings for producer Simeon L. Smith remain unreleased, a ballad called ‘Shirley,’ his debut issue on the Beverley’s label, was a local hit in 1965.

Shirley then formed vocal group the Leaders with Ken Boothe, Joe White and Chuck Josephs (aka Chuck Berry Junior), but their recordings for Federal failed to be of much consequence.  He subsequently joined the first incarnation of the Uniques with Slim Smith and Franklyn White, recording material for Sir JJ and Caltone.

Left on his own when the group temporarily disbanded, in 1967, Shirley crafted the unique and influential “Hold Them,” named by many as the first rock steady song.  A mutual friend then brought Shirley to the attention of aspiring producer Joe Gibbs, and “Hold Them” was cut at the very first session Gibbs funded.  It turned out to be a massive hit that ushered in the rock steady era and brought Shirley to the attention of audiences outside Jamaica.  Roy then helped Bunny Lee establish himself as a producer, voicing the hit tunes “Get On The Ball” and “Music Field” at Lee’s first-ever session.

As Roy’s fame grew in the late 1960s through further recordings for Lee and other producers, he soon became renowned for ecstatic stage performances, often appearing in a long silver cape and drawing comparisons to James Brown and Solomon Burke for his dynamic energy.  “Al Green is the man that confess in Jamaica that he has learned his style from Roy Shirley,” the singer adds, “because I was the only singer first who sing that double voice thing with falsetto.  I also went to America and did a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem in the early 1970s and when I came back, the manager wrote me a letter and said that I am one of the first local singers who come to the theatre and was so impressive to the people.”

By late 1968, Roy’s experiences in the music business led him to form his own Public label and venture into self-production, issuing tracks such as “Prophecy Fulfilling,” “Flying Reggae,” “A Sugar” and “On Board,” backed on some tracks by members of the Soul Syndicate, and others by members of the Wailers such as Peter Tosh, Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Carly.  Shirley’s version of Ben E. King’s “Heartbreaking Gypsy” has also proven perennially popular, while his hit “I Am The Winner” was arranged by visionary producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Shirley first toured the USA in 1971, when he appeared at the Madison Square Centre in Manhattan.  He enjoyed a weeklong engagement at the Apollo Theatre in 1972, the same year he first toured the UK with U Roy and Max Romeo.  He appeared at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica in 1982 and performed live on a British TV programme called Reggae in Britain, backed by Rico Rodriguez’s band.

Although based in the UK since the late 1970s, Shirley has continued to regularly perform in Jamaica, Canada and select cities in the USA, as well as throughout the UK.  He has also continued to record albums of uplifting material, many of which are available through his website,, while his charitable organisation, the British Universal Talent Development Association, gives direct support to undiscovered musical talent worldwide.

- Bio by David Katz.

Roy Shirley Links:

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