Born in 1948, in Linstead, St. Catherine, Jamaica; died of cancer on April 15, 2004, in New York City; married and divorced; children: Nigel, Janice.
Hailed as the undisputed Queen of Rocksteady, Phyllis Dillon launched her singing career with Duke Reid of Treasure Isle, releasing her first single in 1966. Dillon gained popular recognition with such hits as "Don't Stay Away," "Perfidia," "Don't Touch Me Tomato," and "It's Rocking Time" ("Rock Steady"). After moving to New York City in 1967, for a time Dillon continued to return twice annually to Jamaica in order to record cuts for Reid. Although Dillon retired from singing in the 1970s, she enjoyed a successful comeback beginning in the 1990s and into the early 2000s. She succumbed to cancer in 2004.
Dillon was born in central Jamaica, in the rural town of Linstead in St. Catherine. While growing up she sang in school, the church choir, and later entered talent parades. In her late teens she sang with the band the Vulcans, playing first in Linstead and eventually at clubs in Kingston, Ocho Rios, and Montego Bay. At 19 Dillon was singing at the well-known Kingston club the Glass Bucket. There she gained the attention of Lynn Taitt, a steel drum player and legendary guitarist whose "chicken picking" sound echoed the mellow pop of steel drums and defined the rocksteady sound. Taitt invited Dillon to Duke Reid's Treasure Isle studio, where she completed a recording session with one of Jamaica's first and most influential music producers. Dillon signed with Reid in 1965, a contractual relationship that lasted throughout her entire career.
Dillon was influenced by a host of American singers, including Patti Page, Sarah Vaughan, Connie Francis, and Dionne Warwick. As the popular sound of Jamaican music moved from the fast beat of ska to slower melodies, Dillon's soulful soprano blended well in ballads that have since become standards of rocksteady, a movement described by one critic as "Jamaica's equivalent of the Motown sound." The rocksteady rhythm is generally regarded as having a significant influence on the dancehall sounds that have come to dominate reggae music. At the forefront of the rocksteady movement, which peaked from 1966 to 1968, Dillon recorded her self-penned solo "Don't Stay Away" for Reid in 1965, and it was released in early 1966. Recorded on the first take, "Don't Stay Away" quickly gained success in Jamaica, rising to the number one spot of the Radio Jamaica Top 40 chart.
At the height of rocksteady's popularity, Dillon recorded numerous hits, including such solos as "Perfidia" and her self-penned song "It's Rockin' Time," which is also known as "Rock Steady." During this time she recorded duets with her friend and professional mentor Alton Ellis ("Right Track" and "Remember That Sunday") and Hopeton Lewis ("Walk through this World with Me" and "Love Was All We Had").
Despite Dillon's popular success, she herself pocketed little of the money from sales and royalties, money that instead went directly to Reid because of a lack of any copyright law in Jamaica. In an interview for Roots Archive with Jim Dooley in 1998, Dillon reflected on her lasting relationship with Reid, commenting, "By the time I realized what was really happening in the recording world in Jamaica, I would not have gone to anybody else. Because they were all the same---nothing was different. I mean, the guys from Beverley's were crying, the guys from Coxsone Dodd was crying, you know, Federal the same thing. So I figure, let me just stay with one thief, you know, this way I don't have to cry for everybody."
In 1967 Dillon left Jamaica for New York City, where she worked a series of temporary jobs. Still in touch with Reid, she returned to Jamaica to record at his studio and play Kingston clubs a couple of times a year. For a time she sang with a Jamaican band, the Buccaneers, in New York. She realized, however, that once again she was not seeing any of the money she should have earned, and retired from singing altogether. She married in New York and had two children. During her two-decade hiatus from singing, Dillon worked in a bank and raised her children.
In the late 1980s Michael Barnett, a director of MKB Productions, which produced the Get Ready Rock Steady tours, approached Dillon about doing a show. At first reluctant to sing again, Barnett eventually convinced her to return to the stage in 1991. Dillon performed for a celebration of rocksteady at the National Arena in Jamaica to a crowd of 5,000. She told Dooley, "Everything just came back, and I realized how much I was in love with that thing. So I started from there." Revitalized by her return to singing, Dillon regularly performed rocksteady shows, including the Heineken Startime concerts. Although she continued to hold her position at the bank, she performed in New York, London, Jamaica, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, and Japan.
Dillon has appeared on countless compilations of reggae and rocksteady CDs. However, she has only two CDs of her own. Midnight Confessions: Classic Rock Steady & Reggae 1967-71 includes her most enduring songs, "Don't Stay Away," "Love Was All I Had," "It's Rocking Time" ("Rock Steady"), and "Perfidia." In a review of the CD for All Music Guide, Andrew Hamilton praised Dillon's singing, declaring that "she possesses an exciting, pretty voice that massages lyrics for the sole purpose of melting your heart." After Dillon's second rise secured her status as a legend of Jamaican music, she was diagnosed with cancer, and died in New York in April of 2004. In November of 2004 a second CD of her work was released, Love Is All I Had: A Tribute to the Queen of Jamaica. Included on this collection are her vintage rocksteady cuts, as well as several reggae songs. Wade Kergan of All Music Guide commended the collection, calling it wide-ranging in its inclusion of "a staggering 29 cuts of vintage rock steady and early reggae," and concluding that "no matter what she's singing ... it's hard not to fall in love with her voice, making even touristy cuts like the randy 'Don't Touch Me Tomato' worth hearing."
by Elizabeth Henry
Phyllis Dillon's Career
Singer in Jamaican band the Vulcans, early 1960s; discovered at the Glass Bucket in Kingston by Lynn Taitt; signed with Duke Reid for Treasure Isle label, 1965; released first song, "Don't Stay Away," 1966; moved to New York City, 1967; briefly sang in New York with Jamaican band the Buccaneers; returned to Jamaica twice yearly to record songs for Reid; emerged from a nearly two-decade hiatus in 1991 to perform in the Get Ready Rock Steady show at Jamaica's National Arena; established successful comeback, touring United States, Europe, Japan, and Jamaica throughout 1990s and early 2000s with other rocksteady artists.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Midnight Confessions: Classic Rock Steady & Reggae 1967-71 Westside Records, 2000.
- Love Is All I Had: A Tribute to the Queen of Jamaica Sanctuary/Trojan, 2004.
- Compilations with others
- Adults Only!, Vol. 1 Trojan, 1992.
- Duke Reid's Treasure Chest Heartbeat, 1992.
- Story of Jamaican Music: Tougher than Tough Mango, 1993.
- From Boogie to Nyahbinghi Lagoon, 1994.
- More Hottest Hits from Treasure Isle Heartbeat, 1994.
- Action: Reggae from Jamaica Lagoon, 1995.
- Treasure Isle Mood Heartbeat, 1995.
- Treasure Isle Time Heartbeat, 1995.
- I Shall Sing, Vol. 2 Trojan, 1997.
- It's Rockin' Time: Duke Reid's Rock Steady 1967-1968 Trojan, 1997.
- Soul of Jamaica/Here Comes the Duke Trojan, 1997.
- Best of Heineken Startime Live, Vol. 1 Sonic Sounds, 1998.
- Greatest Jamaican Beat: Rock Steady BaBa-Boom Time Jet, 1998.
- Rock Steady Beat: Treasure Isle's Greatest Hits Jet, 1998.
- Trojan Box Set: Rock Steady Trojan, 1999.
- Kings & Queens of Rocksteady Music Club, 2000.
- Top Rock Steady Culture Press, 2000.
- By Special Request: 18 Top Rock-Steady and Reggae Classics Heartbeat, 2001.
- Gems from Treasure Isle Artistry/MPS, 2001.
- Nova Classics, Vol. 1 Wagram Records, 2001.
- Rock Steady Soul: Original Cool Sounds of Duke Reid's Treasure Isle Metro Music, 2001.
- Rough Guide to the Music of Jamaica: Roots Music from the Loudest Island on the Planet World Music Network, 2001.
- Trojan Box Set: A Jamaican Story Trojan, 2001.
- Jamaica Observer, April 17, 2004.
- Sun Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL), November 27, 1998, p. 34.
- "Love Was All I Had," Roots Archives, http://incolor.inetnebre.com/cvanpelt/dillon.html (December 7, 2004).
- "Phyllis Dillon," AFIWI, http://www.afiwi.com/people2.asp?id=296&name=Phyllis+Dillon&coun=0&cat=0&options=&keywords=_index=&offset=6 (December 7, 2004).
- "Phyllis Dillon," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 7, 2004).
- "Phyllis Dillon Interview," Django, http://www.hilltop61.freeserve.co.uk/intpdillon.html (December 7, 2004).