R.I.P. Byron Lee

R.I.P. Byron Lee
Byron Lee, one of the towering figures in Jamaican music in the last 50 years, has died at the age of 73 in Kingston. He had been diagnosed with stage three cancer in late 2006 and had been seriously ill for the past several weeks. Lee had just been awarded Jamaica’s highest honour, the Order of Jamaica, while in the hospital on October 26.

Lee’s music was beloved throughout the Caribbean and in its diaspora around the world. He was best known as a soca and calypso performer, though his long-running band, the Dragonaires, also played reggae.

The band came together under bassist Lee’s leadership around 1950 before any commercial recording industry existed in Jamaica. They became one of the most sought after hotel bands on the tourist-centric north coast of Jamaica. In the studio of future Prime Minister Edward Seaga, they cut their first single in 1959, then soon fell in with the emerging ska sound of the island. After having a few ska hits in Jamaica and the UK, they appeared in the Jamaican-shot Dr. No in 1962. By 1964, the band were also known as Byron Lee and the Ska Kings, and were chosen to represent Jamaica at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 along with Jimmy Cliff.

Turning to calypso, Lee became a successful touring artist who also possessed the best quality recording studio in Jamaica, Dynamic Sounds (which hosted Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones).

He recorded prolifically for his Dynamic label but generally wasn’t a part of the reggae-centric coterie of "downtown” producers. As a result, his work is sometimes lightly regarded by connoisseurs of Jamaican music. His music more often was a result of polish, adaptability to current international trends and dedication to live performance. The Dragonaires employed top notch musicians and continued to record steadily into the '80s and '90s, touring frequently.

Despite his illness, Lee continued to work. He had just completed a tour of Canada this past August, playing no less than five shows in the Toronto area alone. Lee is survived by his wife and six children.

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires (live)