Byron Lee holds a conflicted place in Jamaican music history. On one hand, he and his band, the Dragonaires, are credited with bringing ska to the outside world. As the backing band at the 1964 New York World's Fair, Lee and his band were most Americans' and Europeans' first introduction the the infectious sounds coming from Jamaica. On the other hand, Lee's contemporaries in the reggae and ska scene looked down upon him as being too uptown and posh, disconnected from the dance hall culture that was the focal point of Jamaican music. In some ways Lee is a Pat Boone figure, someone who brought an underground music form to a larger audience, but is criticized with sanitizing it in the process.
The new two-disc set, The Man and His Music, is a powerful defense of Byron Lee's musical legacy. True, Byron Lee's ska isn't as raw or earthy as the music produced by people like Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, or the Skatalites. However, the uptown gloss that earned him scorn by his contemporaries has aged well. There is a breezy tropicalia feel to Lee's early work. The Dragonaires, while polished, were also talented musicians, and they captured the energy and excitement that makes early ska so timeless. Uptown or no, songs like "Soul Ska" and "Holly Holy" deserve a place among the canon of classic ska tracks.
Ska was only one of Byron Lee's many phases, however. He also experimented with rocksteady, and once he realized that the ska crowd weren't too accepting of him, he began to play calypso. That phase is represented in this collection by songs like "Sandra" and "No Love No Money," both performed by The Mighty Sparrow. Lee dabbled in lounge music, offering island-tinged versions of country western and easy listening songs like "Only A Fool" and "Empty Chair." He also did some convincing reggae, as evidenced by "Sunday Coming" and "Thinking of You." Toots Hibbert turns up to do a version of "54/46 That's My Number" that proves that Byron Lee and his band could do more than passable roots reggae.
In the eighties the band changed directions yet again, this time playing soca, a dancier version of calypso. All of the album covers from this period feature half naked women on tropical beaches. This soca phase is heavily represented here with songs like "Dancehall Soca," "Soca Butterfly," and "Blackman Come Out To Party." The soca phase also reflects a change in production quality and instrumentation.
While his work from the sixties and seventies sounds warm if primitive, the soca music has the precise, coldly digital sound typical of eighties production. Digital instruments begin to replace analog ones, and the drummer is augmented or replaced with a drum machine. Lee had some of his biggest hits in his soca phase, but I found the songs less engaging than his earlier work, and I could have lived with one or two instead of seven or eight. His later easy listening songs would have been better left off the album altogether, and do nothing to support his musical legacy.
This two-disc, forty-eight song set collects the previously released "Essential Byron Lee along with a second disc. The discs aren't arranged chronologically, which would have been helpful for an artist whose career spanned so many decades. Instead, there are sometimes jarring contrasts of musical styles and production quality. Ska songs from the early sixties are sequenced next to glossy soca numbers from the eighties, which are followed by seventies reggae, which in turn are followed by easy listening from the nineties. It doesn't make for the smoothest listening experience. Even with the dubious sequencing, The Man and His Music is a comprehensive introduction to an artist who never quite got the respect he deserved, and a worthwhile listen for any fan of Jamaican ska.