Hortense Ellis

b. 18 April 1941, Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies, d. 19 October 2000, Kingston, Jamaica, West Indies. Ellis began her career performing on Vere Johns’ Opportunity Hour, where she appeared in six semi-finals and four finals demonstrating her vocal skills. Unfortunately, her later career was often overshadowed by her brother Alton Ellis, the man regularly referred to as the godfather of reggae. In 1962, Byron Lee enrolled her services to perform with his band the Dragonaires, and two years later she was awarded the honour of Jamaica’s best female vocalist. She also recorded with Ken Lack, enjoying hits with ‘I Shall Sing’ and ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ (later a massive international hit for Boney M. ), and with Coxsone Dodd, recording ‘I’ll Come Softly’ and ‘I’m Just A Girl’, an interpretation of Alton’s hit, ‘I’m Just A Guy’. In 1969 she was again awarded the silver cup as the island’s top female vocalist.

Ellis continued to record throughout the 70s. Much of her output was with Bunny Lee and in response to Althea And Donna’s international hit ‘Up Town Top Ranking’, he recorded her as Queen Tiney for ‘Down Town Ting’, followed by the popular ‘Natty Dread Time’. She recorded a cover version of another song that her brother had recorded at Studio One, ‘Sitting In The Park’, and the popular ‘Mark My Words’. A duet with her brother, ‘Since I Fell For You’, and ‘Superstar’ maintained her profile. She recorded several popular cuts for Lee Perry as Mahalia Saunders, the name she adopted after marrying Mikey ‘Junior’ Saunders in 1971. The marriage broke down five years later, and Ellis spent much of the late 70s raising her children. She found the time to record ‘Unexpected Places’ with Gussie Clarke, a classic cut that demonstrated her extensive vocal range. In combination with Jackie Edwards she had a hit with ‘Let It Be Me’, while as a soloist she released ‘Got To Make It’ and ‘Time After Time’.

Ellis proved an on/off performer who had to balance a career while raising her family. She lived in Miami, Florida for much of the 80s, but subsequently returned to Jamaica. In 1993 she appeared with Bunny Lee in the television documentary Stir It Up, where she complained that slackness and gun lyrics were detrimental to the music and were a bad influence on young people. Throat cancer severely curtailed her performances during the rest of the decade.

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