The story of Uptown Top Ranking is actually a story about 3, actually 4 (or possibly even 5!) records and a roll call of some of the greats of Jamaican music.
A 1978 hit in the UK, Jamaica, and even the US, this story actually starts 11 years earlier with a man called Alton Ellis, a man known as ‘The King Of Rocksteady’, and his 1967 hit “I’m Still In Love” (see below) which was produced at the legendary Studio One by it’s legendary owner Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd…
Now whilst this was a reasonable sized hit in Jamaica at the time, and one of the signature records of Ellis’ career, that it should turn up as the basis for three consecutive records some 10 years later might seem quite remarkable. In reality, reggae artists and producers of this time often re-used extant songs and ‘riddims’, whether their own or someone else’s. And such was the case when in 1977 Marcia Aitken turned up with “I’m Still In Love With You”…
A hit record in both the UK and US, as well as being a number 1 at home, it was the biggest hit of Aitken’s career, and was produced at Excelsior studios by another legendary Jamaican producer, Joe Gibbs. Some time shortly after Gibbs recorded a fellow producer and deejay Trinity toasting over the backing track, using braggadocio lyrics about his clothes and himself….
‘Three Piece Suit’ was in terms of attitude a stark contrast to the more socially and politically conscious lyrics of many reggae acts of the day. It may even have been considered a bit of a joke, and it would seem that the teenager singers Althea, 17, and her friend Donna, 18, clearly weren’t taking it that seriously when they decided to create an ‘answer’ record with Joe Gibbs after they started ad-libbing over the backing track for ‘Three Piece Suit’ one night. The girls quickly worked out a full set of lyrics which at once make fun of Trinity whilst adding their own street sass and style.
However, both they and Gibbs considered the record a joke, and it was only when John Peel (another legendary figure!) played it on his BBC radio 1 show and received a flurry of requests for him to play it again did they maybe start to take it seriously. Released towards the end of 1977 it spent 11 weeks in the UK charts peaking at number 1 for a single week in February of the following year.
And let’s be clear, this is a supremely sassy record, full of fun and attitude. When they sing lines like “love is all I bring, inna me khaki suit an’ ting, nah pop no style, I strictly roots” or “give me likkle bass, let me wine up me waist” this sounds every bit like one of the coolest most streetwise records you’ve ever heard. It’s attitude is undeniable; it’s appeal, timeless.
As for Althea & Donna, they released several more singles as well as an album also called Uptown Top Ranking, on which they showed a more serious side on songs like ‘No More Fighting’ and ‘Make A Truce’, as well as others which were heavily concerned with their Rastafarian faith. It also features a re-recorded version of the song itself (record number 5) which lacks the bite of the original. Further success eluded them though, and by the early 80’s they had retired from the music business and re-located to New York. Information on what they’re doing now is scant but what we can be certain of is that they still probably get some pretty nice royalties from a song that still gets plenty of airplay, has popped up on countless compilations, and is almost universally popular amongst both serious music fans and more casual listeners.
And there’s a good reason for that. This is, ultimately, imperishable pop music, three-and-a-bit pretty flawless minutes of music. This is a one hit wonder so good that they didn’t need another one. This one is better, more danceable, and just waaay cooler than many artist’s whole careers. Althea and Donna, wherever you are now, whatever you’re doing, we salute you.