The Great King Roy Shirley, the High Priest of Reggae, has passed away.

On June 22 he graced the Village Stage and enjoyed a very successful performance at the 15th Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. It happened to be his last performance, because a few weeks after he returned from that trip to California, Roy Shirley (born Ainsworth Roy Rushton, 1948, Kingston JA) died of a heart attack at his home in Thamesmead, London UK.


Roy Shirley, the theatrical singer known as the High Priest of Reggae, was a born gifted song writer and multi talented singer and musician. Starting as a singer in the Church choir with his mother, he developed his musical talent by learning the guitar and progressed with the help of Jimmy Cliff, and band leaders Byron Lee and Sonny Bradshaw and the late Drumbago, in the early sixties. Roy Shirley's stage presence, and antics, made history too. He was famous for his colourful outfits, his frenetic energy, his contact with the audience and his ability to move, rouse, and satisfy the crowd.

As with many of Jamaica's foundation singers, Roy Shirley got his start singing on talent contests in the late 1950s. His early recordings for producer Simeon L. Smith remained unreleased, but when he recorded the ballad "Shirley" for producer Leslie Kong in 1964, he finally saw his debut single released on the Beverley’s label. For Leslie Kong he worked in the same territory as luminaries of Ska such as Ken Boothe and Joe White. Roy Shirley then formed vocal group the Leaders with Ken Boothe, Joe White and Chuck Josephs, 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.

However his breakthrough came one night in 1965 after watching a Salvation Army Band parade down Orange Street in Kingston. Their beat, Roy Shirley claimed in an interview, formed the basis of one of the best-known records ever made in Jamaica, and one that many class as the first rock steady song - "Hold Them". Produced by aspiring producer Joe Gibbs -- actually the very first he funded -- "Hold Them" went to an international number one.

Although the record was a huge hit, Roy Shirley was bitter about the treatment he received from Coxsone Dodd, who 'versioned' the tune with Ken Boothe, and named it "Feel Good", the sales seriously damaging those of Shirley's original. Undettered he continued his musical career and 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 the singer'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.

By late 1968, Roy Shirley'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". After having toured the USA in 1971, he first toured the UK with U Roy and Max Romeo in 1972. Many of his latter fans admitted that he was a nearly impossible act to follow. He remained intermittently in the UK ever since, and like many of his contemporaries, developed a cult following in that country.

He was highly regarded, respected and loved because of his love of communication not only with his audience, but also with both unknown and professional artists, whom he always encouraged and gave support with their career development. His love for music had inspired him to spread his talent into the community at large, through his philanthropic works. As founder of the British Universal Talent Development Association he strongly believed in helping, supporting, developing and establishing new young talented artists worldwide. Giving them a strong and supportive foundation, publishing their works and guiding their career development allowed him to provide them with golden opportunities.

Roy Shirley was not only one of one of the true greats of Jamaican music's first golden age, but also a gentleman in every sense of the word and he will be sadly missed by all those who knew him, either personally or through his music.

Sources: "", "", "", "", The Jamaica Gleaner", "The Virgin Encyclopedia Of Reggae", David Katz's Roy Shirley Biography

(Photo: Scotti B)


  • The Winner
  • The Return Of The High Priest
  • Control Them Volume One
  • Black Lion Negus Rastafari
  • Love Is Forever
  • Reggae Nice Them
  • The Music Nice
  • Nice Up The City
  • Versatile Styles 1
  • Versatile Styles 2
  • Music Is The Key (1967-75)
  • Your Musical Priest (1966-72)