made an invaluable contribution to music
JUST OVER a week ago – November 4, we observed the eighth anniversary of the passing of one of one of the pioneers of soca music, Byron Lee, and in tribute, the Music Diaries looks back at some of Lee’s contribution to popular music.
The Chinese-Jamaican of mixed parentage, born in Christiana, Manchester on June 27, 1935, belonged to a long line of that racial mix that has made invaluable contributions (mainly through their productions), to the development of Jamaican music, and by extension, popular music globally. By the way, we can’t forget others like Ivan Chin from the mento era, Leslie Kong, Randy Chin, Justin Yap, Charlie Moo and The Hoo Kim Brothers of
Channel One Studios. Byron Lee may perhaps be best remembered by the younger generation only for his involvement with Jamaica Carnival and as the soca warrior who gave them hits
like Tiny Winey, Workie Workie, Hot Hot, Ease the
Tension and The Dragon Dance, but Lee’s contribution goes way beyond that, transcending several musical and entrepreneurial boundaries. In 1968, he bought West Indies Recording Limited (WIRL), formerly owned by former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, renamed it Dynamic Sounds, and immediately established a relationship with Ahmet Ertegun, owner of the largerthan-life recording entity, Atlantic Records.
The deal gave Lee exclusive distribution rights to Atlantic’s releases in the Caribbean. The following year, Lee brought into operation a full state-of-the-art recording studio on the premises at 15 Bell Road, Kingston 11. It attracted some of the biggest names in international music, including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon of Mother And Child Reunion fame, and Roberta Flack, who recorded the very popular romantic ballad, Killing Me
Softly, in 1970. Lee had been flexing his muscles in the entrepreneurial field from as early as 1965, when he established Lee’s Enterprise – a concert-booking and promotion agency that gave patrons the opportunity to see mega-stars like The Drifters, Solomon Burke, Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Al Green, and others.
Although born into a fairly wealthy family, Lee’s ride to the top was not exactly a smooth one. Plans by his father to relocate the family to China failed, and to make matters worse, Lee’s parents separated while he was still a pre-teen. The misfortunes apparently led to Lee’s movement to East Kingston where he attended Campion Preparatory School and then St George’s College. It was at the latter institution that Lee began his musical journey that led to the formation of Byron Lee and The Dragonaires, coining the name from ‘dragon’ – the school’s insignia, and ‘aires’ for music. The catalyst was football.
JUST FOR FUN
In a 2006 interview, Lee told me: “I started out in 1956 and it all started as a fun thing. We won so many trophies that year. The battle of the giants - St George’s-KC, and I happen to be a leading goalscorer at the time and a lot of people don’t know that. We won three trophies that year – the Major Cup, the Minor Cup, and the Knockout, and we would celebrate in the dressing room after the match with pots and pans, and since I could play the piano, I brought one from upstairs Emmett Park.”
“Thereafter, we played for some three years just for fun,” he said. After expanding to include a few other instruments with the assistance of old boys, friends and his alma mater, the group began getting engagements from school colleagues who were getting married, or celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and graduations, all done for free.
Then came Lee’s big break with the band’s inclusion in the first James Bond movie – Dr
No, in 1960. Their payday gave them that all-important financial boost that they so desperately needed. Everything suddenly began to fall into place. Lee and the boys became very much in demand and began operating as a professional unit.
Getting into the recording studios was Lee’s next goal. His first recording, done in the studios of Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion (RJR) in 1960, was a Doc Bagby original – a ska instrumental piece, titled
Dumplins, which became the second release on the Blue Beat record label that was contractually established, exclusively for the distribution of Jamaican recordings in the UK. Dumplins (which was instigated and produced by Edward Seaga before he went into politics), was a major success and laid the foundation for the future development of Jamaican music in the UK Lee’s followup, Dragon’s Paradise, cowritten by him and released on his Dragon’s Breath label, was equally popular.
Byron Lee was also credited for taking ska to uptown folks (who hitherto snubbed it), and made them accept it.
In the 2006 interview I had with Lee, he expanded on the topic: “Mr Seaga who was then minister of development and welfare, called me and Carlos Malcolm, who were the leading bands at the time, and he said ‘Byron, go down into Wellington Street, below North Street, and you’ll see where they have a music called ska. It is not a music that is accepted by uptown folks. I want you to take that uptown and popularise it.’ So said, so done. Glass Bucket that night – ska goes uptown, saw 10,000 people outside in the road.”
Lee was again called upon during the island’s transition to Independence to make a recording and create a dance that could be identified with the new nation and its new dance craze. Trinidad had calypso, The Dominican Republic had meringue , Cuba had Cha-cha, Panama had mambo. So Lee cowrote with Ken Lazarus and Keith Lyn, Jamaica Ska, that included instructions about executing the dance:
“Bow your heads, swing your arms Shake your hips Now do a dip Ska, ska, ska, Jamaica ska.”
Byron Lee and The Dragonaires were also sent to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 to promote the genre. Some however, thought that curring favour came into play, insisting that the Skatalites would have been a better choice. Studio 1 boss, Clement Dodd, was adamant: “They send people who know nothing about ska to represent it.”
Calypsonian Mighty Sparrow (right) pays tribute to Byron Lee on the final night of the Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival. Lee was celebrating his 50th year in the music industry.
When RJR’s Band of the Year Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, returned to Kingston on The Jamaica Queen , RJR’s ‘Hound Dog Man’, Charlie Babcock (left) was on hand to welcome them back.
Soca giant Byron Lee.