Exit the dragon: remembering Byron Lee

Garry Steckles shares his personal memories of the late musical maestro Byron Lee

Byron Lee tweaking his mobile mixing console at a rehearsal at his Dynamics Sound Recording studio home in Kingston, Jamaica. Photograph by Roysweetland@gmail.com

When I first heard that Byron Lee had left us, the memories came flooding back. And while I was deeply saddened by the passing of a man I’d liked and admired for decades, I’m sure Byron would be glad that those memories were all happy ones. And do they ever go back a long, long way.

The first time I saw Byron Lee and the Dragonaires was in the late 60s, at a big Caribbean dance in Toronto, and the first thing that struck me about the band and the crowd was that nine out of ten people in the hall were up and dancing within about 30 seconds of the first notes, and the dance floor was showing 100 per cent occupancy before the end of the opening number.

It was something of an eye-opener for a 20-something Brit whose previous exposure to Caribbean culture had been limited to Desmond Dekker’s piercing falsetto delivering scorching versions of one of reggae’s first international hits, “Israelites”, on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. And my dancehall experience, such as it was, had consisted of nightclubs and glitzy “ballrooms” in the northeast of England, where uncomfortable young men would spend several hours at the bar trying to pluck up enough courage to ask one of the bored-looking young women standing around in groups if she’d like to dance.

That Toronto experience would be repeated many times over the next few decades. Over the years, I saw Byron lead his ever-changing Dragonaires everywhere from Montreal to Vancouver, from Trinidad to Barbados, from England to Miami. And, of course, in Jamaica.

As I became more and more involved with Caribbean music, as a writer, radio host, concert promoter and fan, I also came to realise that Byron Lee, although often dissed by many in the roots reggae crowd as a lightweight who appealed largely to “society” audiences, was passionate about using his considerable musical arsenal – bandleader, record producer, studio owner and general mover and shaker – to promote Caribbean music internationally.

That was never more obvious, at least to me, than when I thought Byron had taken leave of his senses. The year was 1989, and I was editor of the late and sadly lamented Caribbean Week, a publication out of Barbados that covered and was circulated throughout the entire region. I started getting regular phone calls from Byron (this was in the days before e-mail had been thought of) telling me about his plans to launch a Trinidad-style Carnival in Jamaica in 1990.

Byron, of course, knew all about Carnival. He’d been a regular visitor to the Trinidad version for years, was hugely popular there, and his annual Carnival album, featuring the pick of a given year’s Trinidad hits, had become a staple on soca/calypso fans’ shopping lists.

“Garry, this is going to be huge. Trust me, Jamaica’s ready for Carnival,” was the recurring theme of the calls, and, while his enthusiasm was contagious, I found it hard to believe that the home of reggae music was going to embrace a Trinidad-style fete. But it was an interesting concept, and I duly ran several stories and features in Caribbean Week about Byron’s new venture …and kept my fingers crossed it would somehow, against all odds, work.

No prizes for guessing who was right. Today, Jamaica’s annual Carnival is the island’s biggest single happening, and, in the years to come, it will be an enduring part of Byron Lee’s musical legacy.

But perhaps my fondest memory of Byron goes back to the only time I saw him fail to get an audience up and dancing from the first notes the Dragonaires played.

The venue was an ancient pub in the heart of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, my home town in the north-east of England. The pub, The Bridge, had a basement room that often featured the sort of music you’d rarely hear in that part of the world – African, Caribbean and non-mainstream jazz were the staples – and, by Byron Lee’s standards, it didn’t hold many people. It was also a bitterly cold February evening, and the room itself was chilly, damp and a long, long way, from Kingston, JA.

My wife and I had turned up early, basically so we could spend a little time with Byron before the show, and, after we’d waited around for half an hour or so the band arrived …. the most bedraggled, miserable, cold and wet bunch of Jamaican musicians you could imagine. Byron, spotting a couple of familiar faces, made a beeline for us.

“Garry, Wendy, what’s going on? I haven’t played anywhere this small for 40 years and I’ve never played anywhere so cold. How can they do this to us?”

It looked as though things couldn’t get much worse …. but they did. Come show time, with the small venue still far from full, the Dragonaires started their set with some rip-roaring dancehall soca, and the audience couldn’t have shown less interest. The tiny dance floor was empty, and, for three or four numbers, it stayed that way. So Byron tried some vintage calypso. No dice.

And some middle-of-the-road reggae. Still no dice. By now, Byron, who was at the mixing board, was clearly having one of the worst evenings of his long career, but, proud professional that he was, he wasn’t about to throw in the musical towel.

Eventually, he cued the band to hit the crowd with some of the music that had launched the Dragonaires’ career decades earlier: ska.

And, within seconds, the dance floor was jammed. The audience, it turned out, consisted largely of local skinheads – and ska was what they’d come to hear.

For another 90 minutes of so, ska, and only ska, was what Byron Lee gave them. And, as usual when Byron Lee and the Dragonaires played, a good time was had by all.

Which, come to think of it, is what The Dragon set out to achieve every time he took the band on the road or into the studio.