Byron Lee, who has died of cancer, aged 73, was a major figure of Caribbean popular music. As leader of the Dragonaires, one of Jamaica’s top show bands, he helped to build the careers of dozens of the island’s most talented vocalists. He was also instrumental in raising the profile of Jamaican music and boosted the popularity of calypso on the island by collaborating with other leading stars. He went on to establish Dynamic Sounds, one of the largest and best-equipped recording facilities in the Caribbean, where much of the most popular reggae was recorded, and later concentrated on producing soca, the up-tempo successor to calypso.
The eldest of three sons, Lee was born in Christiana in the parish of Manchester. His father was an immigrant from Kowloon, China, while his mother was black. The family moved to Kingston when Lee was eight, and he attended Mount St Joseph’s, an elite Catholic boarding school. He later attended Campion college, an uptown Jesuit school, and graduated from St George’s college, the capital’s most prominent Jesuit institution.
Lee discovered music at Mount St Joseph’s, where a nun taught him to play the piano as a means of keeping him away from the girls. At St George’s, he created an impromptu band with fellow students Carl Brady, Ronnie Nasralla, Alty East and Ronald Peralto to perform at a school dance. The following year, the Dragonaires were formed, with Nasralla as manager and Lee as bassist and bandleader. Although his first bass was homemade, he soon switched to a Fender Precision and claimed to have been the first musician in the Caribbean to play electric bass.
Performing mainly at elite uptown venues and theatres on the north coast frequented by overseas visitors, the Dragonaires quickly emerged as one of the island’s most popular show bands. In 1959, Lee’s first single, Dumplings, was produced by Edward Seaga, a Harvard-educated anthropologist and businessman who later served as prime minister from 1980 to 1989.
Seaga later told Lee about ska, the hybrid of R&B and calypso that sprang up in the west Kingston ghettos in the early 1960s as the Jamaican independence movement gathered steam. After the band had appeared in the James Bond film Dr No (1962), Lee launched a crusade to widen ska’s popularity uptown by backing the leading ska vocalists of the day, including Higgs and Wilson, Owen Gray, Jimmy Cliff, the Blues Busters, Millie Small and Toots and the Maytals. In 1964, Seaga arranged for Lee to bring a ska delegation to World’s Fair in New York with Cliff, Prince Buster, Monty Morris and Lloyd Willis of the Charmers, but ska failed to catch on in the US, despite recordings Lee made for the Atlantic and Columbia labels.
In 1965, he formed Lee Enterprises with the concert promoter Victor Samson, putting on Jamaican concerts by noted American acts such as the Drifters, James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr, and in 1968 took over the West Indies Records Limited studio, relaunching it as Dynamic Sounds in 1969. Under Lee’s direction, Dynamics became the best-equipped recording facility in the Caribbean, used by, among others, Bob Marley, Johnny Nash, Paul Simon, Roberta Flack and the Rolling Stones.
In 1982, he was awarded the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government for his services to music. He later concentrated on soca, the electric successor to calypso, scoring a hit with Tiny Winey in 1985. He also launched the annual Jamaica Carnival in 1990, and continued touring widely, backing the leading soca stars of various islands and scoring another hit with Super Blue’s anthem, Bacchanal Time, in 1993.
Despite his cancer, Lee continued to tour until very recently and was awarded the Order of Jamaica at a ceremony at his hospital bed on October 24. He is survived by Sheila, his wife of 41 years, two sons and four daughters.