Byron Lee 1935-2008

Ska pioneer Byron Lee has died from bladder cancer aged 73.

Lee was a crucial figure when it came to spreading ska to the United States and beyond. He formed his first band in 1959 and signed to WIRL Records, then run by the country’s future Prime Minister Edward Seaga. Lee’s outfit quickly became one of the hottest in Jamaica, and was chosen to play during a scene in the first James Bond movie Dr. No which was shot on the island. The film, and the band’s appearances on the accompanying soundtrack album, resulted in world-wide exposure. In 1964, Lee and his band together with Peter Tosh, Eric Morris and Prince Buster appeared at the New York World’s Fair where the new music went down a storm. Earlier in the year, Lee had bought WIRL from Seaga and renamed the label Dynamic Sounds. While in New York, he negotiated a deal with Ahmet Ertegun which gave Atlantic the US rights to his label’s material, while Dynamic Sounds got Jamaican rights for the American company’s output. The first fruit of this relationship was a single by Lee’s own Ska Kings (“Jamaica Ska”).

Lee’s second and final Atlantic single included a great ska version of Herbie Hancock’s jazz classic “Watermelon Man”. An album was released on Atco in 1966 called Jump Up, but Atlantic’s flirtation with the sounds of the Caribbean was fairly short-lived.

Byron Lee’s Dragonaires continued to record prolifically back home in Jamaica. Although many purists now sniff at his material, comparing it unfavourably with the likes of the Maytals and the Skatellites, he enjoyed much commercial success. His Dynamic Sounds studio had a great reputation which spread beyond Jamaica’s shores to the extent that the likes of the Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack and Eric Clapton would record there in the seventies.

In 1989 Lee was instrumental in establishing the annual Jamaica Carnival which has been running successfully ever since. The Dragonaires still performed until recently, although in the last twenty or so years they were mainly associated with soca – the Trinidadian music that blends Indian rhythms with Caribbean calypso.

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