Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, Byron Lee presented many sounds to many people. From early on, he and his Dragonaires were tasked with popularizing Caribbean music on an international scale, especially in North America. And for the most part he succeeded. He and the Dragonaires were featured in the James Bond film Dr. No in 1962. Two years later, he was chosen by the Jamaican government to head the Jamaican music contingent at the World’s Fair. Millions of folks may not be as familiar as they are with ska, calypso, or soca, were it not for the efforts of the Jamaican chameleon. Of course, if you’re going to take an artform to the masses, there’s going to be a tradeoff. If Lee’s music was something to many people, it was everything to few.
Yes, he scored some hits and helped kick off some musical trends, but like most indigenous culture that is prepared for mass consumption, his music is largely bland, lacking in character, and disposable. You can’t make an album called Disco Reggae or a song called “Star Wars Soca”, as Lee did, and expect your integrity to come away scot free. You can think of Lee as the musical version of those Geoffrey Holder “Un-cola” 7-Up commercials.
Presumably to help mask the disposability of much of Lee & the Dragonaires’ oeuvre, the folks at VP have sequenced The Man And His Music with no regard for chronology. That’s a big mistake, for a couple reasons. First, though the set has a number of worthwhile songs, at two discs and 50 tracks, you have to work hard to weed them out. Also, just when a keeper has you admiring Lee’s craft, there’s a dud right around the corner to undo the goodwill. The sheer variety of styles and levels of quality, which the compilers apparently viewed as strengths, make for a nearly schizophrenic listening experience. And the lack of recording information in the liner notes means no context or bearing.
You get some straight-up 1950s and ’60s-style R&B, a reminder that ska and reggae themselves began as appropriations of American and British pop and soul. You get ska, and a sampling of tracks that put R&B tunes and vocals to ska rhythms. You get some elevator music-type instrumentals, complete with lush arrangements and stadium organ. You get some calypso. And you get some soca. Actually, lots of soca.
More than anything, that’s what sticks with you, exhausts you, and eventually defeats you and everything that is good about The Man And His Music. As the 1980s dawned and Lee’s ska and calypso were becoming passé, he turned to the energetic, double-time island dance music for new life. He scored some hits, but boy, have they aged poorly. About a third of the compilation is made up of these tracks, made with the same 1980s and ’90s-style drum machine rhythm and shrill synthesizers. Sure, a track like “Dancehall Soca” is catchy, upbeat, and kinda fun. But then there’s “Soca Butterfly” and “Soca Tattie”. And “Give Me Soca”. And “Mambo #12”. Actually, being locked in a room and subjected to a loop of Lou Bega’s “Mambo #5” might just be preferable to Lee’s anodyne sellout parade.
It’s too bad, because the rest of The Man And His Music ranges from inoffensive to very good. You can forgive the world’s cheesiest versions of “Moon River” or Marley’s “Redemption Song” if the upside is a bona-fide ska classic like Toots & the Maytals’ “Bam Bam” or Lee’s own “Jamaica Ska”, or an almost ethereal take on Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy”. Yes, most of the calypso is throwaway, but that’s by design, and vastly preferable to Harry Belafonte doing “Day-O”. In fact, a few of the sets highlights come in the form of a trio of calypso collaborations with singer Slinger Francesco, aka The Mighty Sparrow, on Disc Two. But the Soca…
Lee is an often-overlooked figure who deserves a closer look from anyone interested in Jamaican/Caribbean music and its history. The attempt to cover his broad career in two-disc set is admirable, but VP has botched it. You can focus right on Lee’s strengths with Trojan’s Jamaica Ska compilation and VP’s own issue of Lee and Sparrow’s Only A Fool. And if you actually want the soca, there’s a set for that, too. If you do opt for The Man And His Music, make sure your player is easy to program.