46 YEARS OF THE DRAGON
Foresight, professionalism, vigour, and commitment are a just a few of the principles that govern the life of a man many call the Dragon. The name Byron Lee to those in the business means a man who can take an idea and market it with a sales force as competent as any major corporation. He is undoubtedly one of Jamaica’s finest musical ambassadors and with 46 years of experience and over 150 awards he continues to command respect and admiration world-wide.
“From the onset, I was determined that my band would be a band of well dressed, clean professionals. I am pleased to say that in all my years of touring we have never had any incident involving a member of my band whilst on tour,” he states. He attributes the success of Byron Lee and the Dragonaires to the image and reputation of a band, comprising of slick-looking members, which would take minimum breaks, play good music and ensure that patrons got their monies worth.
For persons who know Byron Lee one comment is repeated over and over – that the Dragon demands respect and discipline from any person who he has to deal with. But it had to be hard work, discipline and commitment that made a band this successful.
Even though Byron Lee may have been able to read music in school, he had no pretensions to being a musician. Football was his first love, and scoring goals was what he did best. However, in a moment of wild abandon after the game, Byron and some of the boys – Carl Brady, Ronnie Nasralla, Alty East and Ronald Peralto - got together and, with some crude instruments, consisting of a door, a box for their drum, spoons, a grater for percussion, and Byron Lee with an antique guitar, harmonised.
"From my mother - who was of African descent - I received the soul, rhythm and love of music and from my father - who was Chinese - I received my shrewd business sense."
Enthused and encouraged by old boys and friends, Byron and company approached their Alma Mater, St. George’s College for their first gig - a brief stint on the Bandstand at an Old Boys’ Dance for which they were paid the princely sum of £5. The year was 1956. In 1957 the band officially formed under the name Byron Lee and the Dragonaires and life would never be the same again.
Ronnie Nasralla can remember Byron always splitting the money in two, and putting half to instruments and uniforms, the other half to pay the band. A trait he maintains to this day.
Byron brought to his band the same intensity that made him a soccer star, and made it distinctive. There have been more popular and more talented bands than Byron’s at one time or another, but to be able to hold a band together for 43 years is no easy feat. He was one of the first who understood that music is a business and from his group he demanded respect and discipline and got it. "From my mother, who was of African descent, I received the soul, rhythm and love of music and from my father – who was Chinese – I received my shrewd business sense.” He in turn tried to give the crowd that followed him, a slick-looking band that would take minimum breaks, play good music and give your money’s worth.
The Dragon’s “no bull” attitude helped shape the current industry. He was against musicians being slighted by management be it clubs or individual. Byron, along with other major players in the music industry revitalised the Jamaica Federation of Musicians, enlarging its membership with a band-registration drive, and giving its president Sonny Bradshaw the clout he needed to operate.
Spreading his wings, in 1965, Byron along with Ronnie Nasralla and Victor Sampson created Lee Enterprises, which over a period of time produced hit shows which included mega stars such as The Drifters, Jerry Butler, Chuck Jackson, Billy Stewart, King Curtis, Sammy Davis, James Brown and Al Green.
In 1968 he bought West Indies Records Limited (WIRL) and renamed it Dynamic Sounds. The company became a pioneer in the field of distributing foreign records for the major North American and European labels. During the 70's major international artistes frequented the company, including the Rolling Stones, Roberta Flack and the fledgling Bob Marley and the Wailers.
At a time of life when most successful professionals would be slowing down, the Dragon continues to break new grounds. In 1990, he was to see his long time dream become a reality with the launching of Jamaica Carnival. In 1989 Byron Lee, along with a small band of believers, came together to plan what has since grown to become the biggest event in Jamaica.
At a stage in most people’s life when they are beginning to slow down, and take it easy, Byron Lee was to embark on the most risky venture in his life.
He defied the odds, cast-off doomsday predictions of failure by “established” critics, and embarked upon his most ambitious project ever in his 30 odd years in the music business.
Byron explained in an interview, “This is a dream I have nurtured for years and the right time is now. I wouldn’t be a Jamaican if I didn’t try to bring to my country, some of that happiness I see Carnival brings to other people.
Twelve years later he still plays a very active role although the event has grown to encompass a National Committee.
What’s ahead for Byron Lee? "Well," he admits, “it is about time that I slow down and begin to take things a little easier. Now that my brain child (Jamaica Carnival) can stand on her own two feet, I feel comfortable now to sit back and watch it mature.” He made a half-hearted attempt in 1998 when he semi-retired from the organisation of Carnival. However, due to the special occasion of the Tenth Anniversary celebration, Byron decided to return from retirement in 1999 to once again lead the organisation of a Parade the likes of which has never been seen in the history of Jamaica Carnival. He was recently inducted into his College’s Hall of Fame for his contribution to the development and growth of the music industry.
During Trinidad Carnival 2001, Byron was honoured by the Caribbean Brass Festival Organization for his contribution to the music industry. ȁThis has just fanned the flames and made me want to continue for a while longer,” he boasts.
© The Byron Lee Group - 2000
Excerpts of this article were taken from a previous article written by the late Entertainment Journalist, G. Fitz-Bartly.