Hortense Mahalia Ellis was born in Trench Town, an impoverished area of Kingston, Jamaica, on April 18, 1941. She recorded several duets with her brother, Alton Ellis, who became a superstar in Jamaican music. She worked with several important producers including Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Lee "Scratch" Perry, but raising her children took precedence over her career. Ellis died in Kingston on October 18, 2000.
Hortense Ellis was born in Kingston, Jamaica on April 18, 1941, to a railway worker and a housewife who sold fruit at the market. One of seven children, Ellis began performing in local talent shows at an early age. In 1959, at age 18, she made a splash with her version of Frankie Lyman's hit, "I'm Not Saying No At All," winning a prize in the process. Her brother Alton was already enjoying success as half of the duo Alton & Eddie, who had their first hit with the song "Muriel."
By 1962, Ellis was touring the Bahamas and Trinidad with producer Byron Lee and his band, the Dragonaires. They became quite popular at local Caribbean holiday shows, including "Christmas Mornings," "Easter Spectacular" and a New Year's show. She was awarded the Silver Cup as "Jamaica's Best Female Vocalist" in 1964, an award she won again five years later.
Ellis also recorded with some of Jamaica's most prolific producers of the time, including Ken Lack, Arthur "Duke" Reid, Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and Lee "Scratch" Perry. Inspired by Alton's success, Dodd paired the brother and sister for several duets that became classics, such as "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do." Dodd also produced several "female" versions of Alton's hits for Hortense to record.
In 1971, Ellis married Mikey "Junior" Saunders and worked on new recordings under the name Mahalia Saunders. She had five children in rapid succession, and her priority began to shift from her career to raising her family. While touring was a challenge, she continued to record periodically, working with producer Gussie Clark in the late 1970s on one of her biggest hits, "Unexpected Places."
After divorcing Saunders and living in Miami in the 1980s, Ellis returned to her beloved Jamaica, where she was diagnosed with throat cancer. She died of stomach complications on October 18, 2000, in Kingston, Jamaica, and was survived by eight children.
Following Ellis's death, Michael Barnett of MKB Productions—who promoted Heineken Startime shows, on which Ellis appeared later in her career—spoke about her in an interview with the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper: "She was a very good singer, and she always sought to put her total energy into her performances."
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