Lee larger than carnival
Much has been written and said about the late Byron Lee, concerning his contribution to soca music and the establishment of carnival in Jamaica. But there is much more to the man than just soca and carnival. Lee was an outstanding footballer for St George's College in the Manning Cup and Senior Cup competitions during the early 1950s. It is said that music and sports are somewhat inextricably entangled, and this theory again proved its veracity in Lee's case. It was the after-match celebrations that led him into the music business.
In a 2006 interview with me, he expanded on the topic: "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 vs Kingston College, 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 celebrated in the dressing room after the matches 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.
Lee was born Byron St Elmo Aloysius Ignatius Lee, of mixed parentage, in Christiana, Manchester, on June 27, 1935. He attended the Mt St Josephs Academy in Mandeville, which, most interestingly, was a girl's school. But his parents, perhaps noticing his musical inclinations at an early age, enrolled him in that institution because it was one of the few that offered music lessons. The piano was his first love, and he eventually got his wish to learn it, under very unusual, but perhaps philandering circumstances. He explained to me how that came about:
"From I was in boarding school, Sister Baptiste, from Mt St Josephs in Mandeville, said to me one day, 'What do you want to do, so that I can stop punishing you for playing with the girls?', to which I replied, 'Learning to play the piano.'; and from then on, the girls had a peaceful time. That was my first love and I played the guitar occasionally, just to hold the chords, and gradually I switched to the bass, which was non-electric in those days."
It was at this school that Lee's involvement with music really began. Although born into a fairly wealthy family, initially Lee's ride to the top was not a smooth one. As a youngster, his father, Oscar, made arrangements to relocate his family to China, but the venture was derailed, owing to an upheaval in China at the time. Matters became worse when his parents separated. He soon moved to eastern Kingston, where he attended Campion Preparatory School and, later, St George's College.
Byron Lee's bass-playing skills, which were put to good use in his band - Byron Lee and The Dragonaires - were acquired mainly through his familiarity with the guitar. He explained, "I got a little training from George Harriott, a number-one guitarist at that time, but nobody taught me to play the bass. It just came out of my body."
Lee claimed that his first real headstart as a professional came with an invitation to perform in the first James Bond movie, Dr No, in 1960 (released 1962). It was also in 1960 that Lee did his first recording - the Edward Seaga-produced, Dumplins, originally made popular by pianist Ernie Freeman.
Lee, the tenacious dragon living up to his name, was by the mid-80s, spitting fire with a barrage of soca hits, like Tiny Winey, that infiltrated almost the entire Caribbean. At a time when carnival is in the air, the 'Dragon' will always be remembered as the main catalyst of that event - a man who adopted the insignia of his alma mater - 'Dragon', to prefix 'aires' for music, for the naming of his band, Byron Lee and The Dragonaires.