Right on Time
One of the top rankin’ producers in Jamaican music history, Edward O’Sullivan “Bunny” “Striker” Lee has worked in nearly every major music trend of the island nation for over 40 years. A disciple of pioneer Duke Reid and a peer to the incomparable King Tubby, the Cool Operator, as he was often dubbed, existed between the foundational and groundbreaking with a relaxed and hearty style. Appropriately, The Bunny Lee Rock Steady Years focuses on his work in the eponymous music form that brought a robust subtlety to Jamaican popular music. In a brief period between 1967 and 1968, Lee produced a number of affectionate steady steppers ideal for warm souls and warm bodies. The German boutique label Moll-Selekta has included only one major hit here, the Uniques’ “My Conversation”, but the roster alone highlights the tremendous star-power that Lee cultivated: Slim Smith, Dawn Penn, Alton Ellis, and a number of lesser-known but equally potent artists. The Bunny Lee Rock Steady Years thus arrives at an ideal time of the year (all due respects to parts of the world not as sunshine), and as an important reminder of this crucial (and oft forgotten) period in Jamaican recorded music history.
The collection opens with the Sensations’ “Lonely Lover”, an appropriate track for introducing the then-new style. Based around solid upbeats, a clip clopping melodic bass, and stylized singing, the song still nods heavily to rhythm and blues structure and subject matter while incorporating a distinctly Jamaican form of movement. The group’s sweet harmonies and falsetto leads take from the doo wop tradition, but the solid beat keeps the vocals from sashaying; the song sways to that rock steady beat, bodies bruck in slo-mo. Or, as the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles notes in Hans Peters’ liner notes, “Rock Steady means move steady when you dance.”
Peters also characterizes rock steady as “an absolute extrovert, wearing its heart on its sleeves”, a characteristic heard in Dawn Penn’s “Long Day Short Night”. Best known for “You Don’t Love Me (No No No)”, originally recorded in 1968 when she was only 16, the teenager recorded “Night” around this same time. Appropriately coy and doe-eyed, Penn emboldens the song as pre-adolescent lover’s rock, especially when she pines about the “long day ‘til you marry me”. The cheery idealism is certainly akin to pop bubblegum, but Glen Adams also demonstrates a keen appreciation for maturity and soul on “I Can’t Help It”. After a crackling rockers break starts up the dance, a deep, almost sinister bass plays in-between the off beat guitar licks while Adams rides a dramatic high line, flattening his tone from a whiney “I don’t know why!” to a ghoulishly cautionary “You want me to be…” Although the keyboard player for the Upsetters contributes two cheekier tracks, the breadth is indicative of the genre as a whole.
Fortunately, big tunes are in abundance on The Bunny Lee Rock Steady Years. Pat Kelly (best known for “Little Boy Blue”) goes to Clarence Carter’s side of town with the desperate “The Dark End of the Street”. Singing in long tones over a breezy beat, Kelly brings a gospel flavor to the barrelhouse of jangling piano and skanking bass. The counterpoint is apt, given the subject matter; “living in darkness, where we belong”, goes the love that must sneak around corners, the love that is not allowed, the love that means so much, but will ultimately pay. Similarly, Alton Ellis taps Stax on “Loving Mood”, wailing on his knees through the opening horn fanfare. Even as the steady, chugging rhythm enters, he punctuates phrases with “got to let you know” hooks while the band keeps abreast by throwing in brief guitar licks here and an organ line there.
However exemplary these tracks are, the emotional centerpiece of this compilation is in the falsetto of Keith “Slim” Smith. A standard vocal characteristic of countless rock steady tracks, this tragic singer demonstrates here, in both group and solo form, the importance of infusing it with soul. His gorgeously impassioned vocal floats through “My Conversation” as he eases into each line, kneading his fragrant falsetto into the buttery dough of harmony. On his deep rocking “Build My World Around You”, he rows his vocals down as the bass rocks upstream. Even on the trite solo number, “Let Me Go Girl”, Smith remains inventive in his delivery as he stretches out the end of each chorus line, either yacking the word or adding an uplifting lilt. This attention to detail within open space, this bursting sense of musicality, this sense of drama simply epitomizes music at its finest moment.
The Bunny Lee Rock Steady Years cruises mostly on the overwhelming strength of the individual tracks. Admittedly, for centering on Bunny Lee, the auteur’s voice is present only in spirit. The lack of input is unfortunate considering that he is currently receiving attention for his work. Nevertheless, the mere knowledge that Lee fathered the tracks found here is indication enough of the man’s importance. Subsequently, that Peters’ liner notes are more affectionate and observant than in-depth and informative is understandable; it is a fan’s perspective. This collection is a welcome addition to any music-lover’s library, arriving Right on Time.