Byron Lee: from Ska to Soca

The half-century career of Byron Lee, Jamaican bandleader and businessman, stretched the length of the region and covered many genres of its music too

  • Caribbean icons in the entertainment industry calypsonian Brother Valentino (left) and Byron Lee with the awards they received from the mayor of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photograph by Iossjr

Undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Jamaican music industry, Byron Lee was also a giant of the soca world. In a career that stretched over 50 years, Lee’s spectacular achievements saw him earning over 120 awards. He was instrumental in bringing Jamaican music to the attention of the outside world through the ska delegation he took to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. He went on to establish Dynamic Sounds, one of the largest and best-equipped recording facilities in the Caribbean, where the majority of the reggae hits of the early 1970s were recorded, as well as material by foreign stars such as Roberta Flack, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones and Johnny Nash.

As his Dragonaires band was initially formed to play folk styles such as calypso and mento, as well as dance tunes, Lee was committed to bringing the popular singers of other islands to perform in Jamaica, and later collaborated widely with soca stars. He was also the mastermind behind the Jamaican Carnival, having the foresight to introduce Trinidad’s Carnival culture to one of the only Caribbean islands to lack such an event.

Byron St Elmo Aloysius Lee was born in 1935 in the rural market town of Christiana. Lee’s father hailed from Kowloon and came to Jamaica to teach English to the children of Chinese immigrants, while his mother had a biracial heritage: her father was also Chinese, but her mother was a black Jamaican.

Byron was sent to a convent school and was taught to play the piano by a nun who hoped to keep him away from the female students. After his family moved to Kingston, he attended the elite St George’s College, where he excelled as a footballer, and formed the Dragonaires with fellow students. Their debut recording, an instrumental called “Dumplings”, was produced by Edward Seaga, just before he entered politics in the late 1950s. Seaga introduced Lee to ska music in 1962 and the Dragonaires started playing it to uptown audiences after appearing in the James Bond film Dr No.

Lee formed Lee Enterprises to promote Jamaican concerts by leading calypsonians such as Lord Invader and Lord Superior, and took ska performers to the Cayman Islands. Then he established Dynamic Sounds, the Jamaican studio of choice during the early 1970s, yielding notable material by Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals and countless others, as well as the collaboration between Lee and calypsonian Sparrow that led to the 1969 album Sparrow Meets the Dragon and the 1975 set Again.

When Seaga was elected prime minister in 1980, he offered Lee a post on the Jamaica Cultural Development Committee, which Lee declined. But two years later, Lee was awarded the Order of Distinction for his services to the music industry.

Dancehall music was then on the rise in Jamaica, but Lee didn’t like it, and turned the Dragonaires into a soca band.  His 1984 production “Tiny Winey”, recorded with Montserratian singer Hero, erupted into one of the region’s biggest-ever hits, followed in 1989 by “Nani Wine” with Crazy and Super Blue, and by Super Blue’s “Bacchanal Time” in 1993.

Lee continued a gruelling tour schedule, even after reaching his 70th birthday in 2005, but was diagnosed with bladder cancer the following year. He went public with his experience of the disease with the aim of raising awareness, and subsequently went back on the road until just a few months ago, when the cancer tragically recurred. He died last November 4. He will be remembered as a spirited soul, a gentleman and a shrewd businessman whose ultimate driving force was the uplifting power of music.