By­ron Lee

made an in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to mu­sic

Jamaica Gleaner - - ENTERTAINMENT - broy­al_2008@ya­

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.


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.

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