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S.O.S. for fallen entertainers


Junior Byles

Balford Henry, Senior Staff Reporter

Will Jamaica's music industry ever be able to take care of its destitute veterans? Take for example Junior Byles, he is the perfect example of the industry's inability to help those who have been brought down by drugs. One of the biggest stars of the rocksteady era, Byles now roams the streets of East Central, St. Andrew begging passers-by.

Byles's biggest hits included Beat Down Babylon, Curly Locks, Fade Away and Nebuchadnezzar Despite those huge successes, however, he was never able to live off his talent, even though he wrote all his major hits. At one stage, he had to become a driver with the Jamaica Omnibus Company (JOS) in order to survive.

Close friends say that it was this inability to earn from his music which drove him to a dependence on ganja. The dependence on the drug eventually destroyed him.

Barry Brown is hardly remembered now, but in the 1970s and early 1980s he was one of the local kings of dancehall music. People still remember him as 'The Far East Man', because of his huge dancehall hit of the seventies, Far East.

Brown's other hits include, A Little Love Light, Every Eyes Shall See, Step Up Natty Roots, Money and Money, Rich Man Poor Man. He has had three CDs released in Europe, including one produced by Bunny "Striker" Lee in the 1970s, considered a classic by European lovers-rock enthusiasts.

One of the original members of Sugar Minott's Youth Promotions Crew, with Tristan Palmer and Tony Tough Brown, he went to England in the late 1970s. By the time he returned home for good, a decade later, he was ill.

Today, Brown travels from studio to studio in the Cross Roads/Half-Way Tree area from his home in McDonald Lane, hoping that producers who recall his past will offer him the chance of doing a sound system special 'for a food.' But, most people dismiss him as a wasted 'crack head.'

Harold Butler may be the most tragic of this trio however. Born into one of Jamaica's best known musical families, Butler was Jamaica's brightest young keyboard player of the '80s. A contemporary answer to Studio One's irreplaceable arranger/producer of the late '60s and '70s, Jackie Mittoo, he was on his way to greatness when he became 'ill'.

Both Butler's and Byles' families have done their best to accommodate them and their problems, but without much success.

The two often refuse their treatment and fall back into their addiction and the symptoms as a result. Byles usually becomes boisterous without medication, a situation which his family is unable to control and just leave him on his own to roam.

Butler's family says that whenever he doesn't get his injections his nerves are frayed and he becomes irritable.

There are others who have not become victims of drugs, but who are just as much in need as these three. Numbered among these are Jackie Bernard, former lead singer of the Kingstonians and his brother Lloyd 'Footy' Bernard; Ernest Wilson, one-half of the famous singing duo, the Clarendonians and Reggie Lewis, former guitarist with the Upsetters, the band which played a major role in launching reggae music in Europe in the 1970s.

Bernard actually wrote the song Singer Man, which was covered by British platinum-selling reggae group, UB40, on their Labour of Love album. The album sold so many copies, Bernard should be able to relax from the royalties like his colleagues Bob Andy and Lord Creator. However, he still walks the streets seeking help.

The other two members of the Kingstonians suffered even worse. 'Footy,' his brother, is a street person in Mount Salem, St. James, and is considered unemployable. The third member of the group, which started in St. James in the mid-sixties, Lloyd Kerr, is currently in prison.

'Footy' and Kerr returned to MoBay after becoming frustrated with the industry in 1978, resulting in the break-up of the group after numerous hits including Winey Winey, Singer Man, Sufferer and Another Scorcher.

Career

Wilson's close associates admit that drugs have a lot to do with his situation, but they try to keep it hush-hush, because they think that there is still a chance that he can resurrect himself and resume his career.

Veteran songwriter/singer Delroy Willis recently released a gospel single, God's Love is Burning, the proceeds of which he says he will donate to Lewis, who after a tremendous contribution as a member of the Upsetters, at one stage Bob Marley's backing band, is now desperately in need of support.

"The concern is always there but there is a problem," admitted Jamaica Federation of Musicians (JFM) president Desmond Young.

Of Byles he said: "We used to assist him, but his father always said, 'don't give him money, he uses it to do the wrong things'. We always make an effort, but it is tedious to look after them. The ones who are involved in drugs are the hardest to deal with. The concern is always there and we do look forward to the stage where we can offer more. The question is how do we reach there?"

Donations

Artiste/producer/retailer Derrick Harriott says that people like himself have been forced to make donations, daily, to artistes and musicians who turn up at their shops seeking help.

"I've had to help a lot of them. It costs me thousands of dollars," he said.

The fact that people in the business have had to contribute daily to needy artistes/musicians motivated us to suggest the formation of an organisation similar to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in the United States to help these veterans in many ways.

Harriott said he would welcome the idea "If something could be set up, to which everybody could donate even a few hundred dollars every month, that would be great."

Veteran singer, Bunny Diamond of the Mighty Diamonds, believes that if an organisation like the R&B Foundation was set up, the artistes and musicians themselves, could contribute by offering their services on fundraising concerts: "But, most people just chase them 'way as crack heads," he admitted.

Michael Barnett, whose MKB Promotions has probably done more than anybody else to revive the careers of veteran singers, says that when he made the call for support for the artistes in 1997 only Desnoes & Geddes made any contribution. Most of it went to "Skully" Simms.

Barnett said that apart from Desnoes and Geddes, nobody else showed any interest in the Jamaica Performing Artistes Foundation which he proposed in 1997. He said, however, that MKB would continue with a fund from profits it earns from the Heineken Startime series to help those artistes it can help.

But, Barnett blames some greedy managers who want to make a profit off the artistes instead of helping them.

"We tried to get Byles for a Heineken Startime show and two managers turned up and demanded $50,000. We offered $30,000 and they rejected that and left him to go back to the streets. The other day I saw him on Maxfield Avenue, begging," he said.

The problem with many of these artistes is that they are unable to deal with business matters professionally, some can't even string two sentences together. When we asked Barry Brown what he did at the studios daily, all we could get from him was: "Me look pon a car, man." Eventually, he admitted, "me go look a food." He thinks that he should really have things for himself, but can't explain why he is in such dire straits.

Young says the foundation is a good idea, but that problem is one of funding.

"In terms of a pension, it is something that they would have to contribute to and it has to be structured around the contributions, but how do you collect? Our people are employed seasonally and some have been out of work for ages," he said.

In 1997, during the September Heineken Startime show, MKB Promotions collected $20,000 from patrons towards a fund to aid singer/percussionist "Skully" Simms, who needed an operation to improve his sight.

Simms needed $50,000 in all for the operation and achieved it with the aid of colleagues, including Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and the JFM. But, he still needs financial help with fewer sessions using percussionists and only a few oldies shows left to employ him.

Yet, although Simms and his singing partner Bunny (Robinson) relied on covering Shirley and Lee R&B hits to make a name in the 1950s and 1960s, Byles, Brown and Butler were songwriters whose music continues to sell and should be earning royalties.

Butler has had three albums released, including My Life: Part One, 1976, The Butler Did It, 1977, and The Butler is Back, 1997. However, he is best known for his music from the Lennie Little-White film, Children of Babylon, including the track, I Was Born A Woman, sung by Pam Hall. His family has enlisted the aid of lawyers to recover some of his royalties since 1998, without much success.

A motor car accident in 1997 was a major setback for him. When he returned to the stage in 1998, his fans felt he was really back. A later appearance at the Grog Shoppe at Devon House seemed to confirm this. But, his career has not taken off as it suggested.

"We used to assist personally in helping him. We had people who would take him to get his treatment, but we used to have to change the personnel frequently because, if he knew who was coming, he would hide him out," Young said.

"We are not on the same level as the developed countries. To have an organisation like the R&B Foundation in a country the size of Jamaica, is not easy. You need contributions from the big earners in the industry and you have to sustain the donations. Someone might give a good donation at the beginning but what happens when their business dips and they may not be able to afford it.?

Young said that the total commitment was, evidently, not there and suggested that the media help to encourage the formation of a foundation which could be funded by, example, show promoters.

He said, too, that it was an important point which should hold the interest of the proposed entertainment industry board, which is expected to advise the Ministry of Tourism and Sport on how best to assist the industry.

NOTE: See Monday's Gleaner for Balford Henry's commentary on veteran entertainers and a sidebar on Ronald Hunter who still wants to be a star at age 50.

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