"Rasta No Pickpocket"The sales-driven world of popular music that we currently live with churns out an astonishing amount of uninspired material. Few artists seem to have clarity of vision, taking the time necessary to produce a quality product that is their own. Only a handful of people manage to walk that ever-so-thin line of valid, individual inspiration and all out dedication to purpose and method, blending them to create an exciting musical experience, regardless of how much money it makes. The work of Ray Charles, Jerry Garcia, Fela Kuti, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon, and Duke Ellington immediately jump to mind. Their music is so pure, and during their careers, regardless of how long they lasted, they remained true to themselves and their mission. Similarly, the work of unheralded reggae singer Junior Byles is all of these things and also honest and warm. You can hear his pain, joy and exuberance jump out of the speakers on every single record. He is quite simply one of the most anguished of all Jamaica's singers, which in reggae is comprised of a predominantly impoverished and degraded population of people. And it is from this very environment that Junior suffered and survived, finding that he had something to tell the world in the process.
by Toby Gohn
Born Kerrie Byles Junior in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1948, he was raised in a very religious home, providing him the opportunity early in his life to express himself in a church choir, where his talent did not go unnoticed. His father was teaching him to become a mechanic like himself, but Junior felt drawn to music. He formed a vocal group with friends Dudley Earl and Louie Davis in 1967, calling themselves the Versatiles. They began their careers by recording "The Time Has Come" for producer Joe Gibbs. Further Gibbs-produced songs like "Just Can't Win," "Trust The Book," "Warricka Hill," and "Push It In" didn't yield any hits; they merely became another modest start to one of the dozens of young groups growing out of the Kingston ghettoes. The Versatiles songs, however, are marked by Junior's gift of melody and an emotional outpouring that would only grow more fevered as time moved on.
Despite a lack of hit records, these first sessions were in fact engineered and supervised by the up and coming Lee "Scratch" Perry, who worked under Gibbs at that time and would soon become one of the most creative and revered producers of the next decade (and reggae history, for that matter). Their relationship - amicable both personally and professionally - proved quite fortunate. By the time Perry decided to move on from Gibbs in 1968 to start producing for himself, Junior had decided that a change had to come soon for himself, as well.
When Scratch left to strike out on his own, Gibbs employed another up-and-coming engineer/producer by the name of Winston Holness, aka Niney the Observer, to take control of his sessions. Niney produced a few songs for Gibbs' Amalagated label by Junior and the Versatiles (titles such as "Push It In" and "Lu Lu Belle") which were riddled with sexually suggestive lyrics, tame though they are by today's standard. The group recorded a half a dozen tunes or so for Perry again during this period, released on the Deltone label. Producer Duke Reid even recorded the trio in 1969, though they failed to make a mark, despite the selling power of Reid's prestigious Treasure Isle label.
A lack of compensation for their work up to this point led to great disillusionment with the music industry as a whole, and Junior took a job as a fireman to help put food on the table. In 1970, he decided to embark on his solo career, and immediately hooked back up with the man who had been giving him his early musical tutoring and guidance, Lee Perry. It is from this time that Junior Byles has made his name.
Their first record together, "What's The World Coming To," credited the name King Chubby, a nickname of his. During this period, Junior really started to find himself lyrically and spiritually. The Rasta movement in Jamaica was gaining supporters by the score, and he began to sing about the inspiration of Rastafari in his life and the oppressive odds Rastas faced socially. People with dreadlocks were not allowed in most hotels and restaurants, and quite often couldn't even walk down the street without facing police harassment. It is not an understatement to say that openly displaying a head full of locks in public in Jamaica during the '60's and '70's equated to being considered a social pariah. Coinciding with his religious flowering, Jamaica was undergoing tremendous political change, as well.
In 1972, People's National Party (PNP) leader Michael Manley defeated Prime Minister Hugh Shearer of the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) in general elections. As a socialist, Manley appealed to the poorer classes, who offered them hope of a brighter tomorrow, versus the more conservative views of Shearer. To help cast himself in a positive light with the Jamaican public, Manley portrayed himself as Joshua from the bible, and even carried around the "rod of correction," given to him by Haile Selassie himself on Manley's visit to Ethiopia in 1970. Selassie is the God figurehead in the Rastafarian faith, and Manley knew the appearance of a union between the two would strike a strong chord with the Jamaican majority.
To further persuade the country of his concern and care for the masses, the PNP set up a "musical bandwagon" that toured the island, singing the praises of their democratic socialism. Many talented young youths rode on the wagon, and even more cut records in the studio in support of the PNP. Important songs by Max Romeo, Delroy Wilson, Niney the Observer, and Clancy Eccles helped Manley win in a landslide. Junior Byles also cut songs in support of the man, like "Joshua's Desire," "When Will Better Come," and "Pharaoh Hiding" - songs which combined Junior's obvious biblical focus with political issues of the day.
At the same time Perry and Byles were breaking new ground, Perry had also hooked up with the Wailers, who were refining their sound while poised to break into the international music scene. The Wailers' work with Scratch is often considered the best that they ever did, either as a group or as solo artists. And Junior's work is no less potent; popular songs like "A Place Called Africa," "Fever," the 1972 Jamaican Song Festival entry "Da Da," "Thanks We Get" (which features the voice of Scratch's son Omar), "Auntie Lulu," "Rasta No Pickpocket," "King Of Babylon," "Pretty Fe True," "Coming Home," and one of the biggest hits in reggae history, "Beat Down Babylon," all came from the Perry-Byles collaboration. Considered vintage by reggae enthusiasts, these songs pretty much sum up what Junior is all about, musically and personally. With the exception of "Da Da," they show Junior voicing his disdain for Babylon's treatment of Rasta as he sees it, and the overall state of affairs for the underprivileged. Around this same time, Junior also released music on his own Love Power imprint, such as the little heard "Black Crisis."
In 1973, reggae heavy Trojan released Beat Down Babylon, an album which featured many of his early classics with Scratch, and instantly became a benchmark album in reggae's progression. But Junior and Scratch were not done. The two collaborated again after Perry opened up his classic Black Ark studio in 1974. Masterpieces such as "Long Way" and "Curly Locks" helped further establish the name of both singer and producer. The latter song even penetrated the UK reggae chart in 1975 and is the song which Byles' name is most often associated. A slow, tortured skank of a rhythm laid down by Perry's band the Upsetters, in the song Junior asks Curly Locks to make a choice between him and her father, who doesn't approve of his daughter seeing a Rasta. In fact, Junior is so fed up with the guy, he calls the girl's father a pork chop!
With his growing reputation, Junior was able to start recording for other heavyweight producers, like Jo Jo Hookim of Channel One studios, who recorded the militant "Fade Away," one of Junior's toughest mid-'70's roots anthems. The rock-solid Ja-Man label, run by Dudley Swaby and Bunny Hollett, offered up roots music of the first order from Byles: "Pitchy Patchy," "Know Where You're Going," "Remember Me" and "Chant Down Babylon," the last two credited to both Junior and Rupert Reid. Byles even returned to producer Niney the Observer, who was by this time a major player on the scene, cutting the vintage "Weeping," a version of Delroy's Wilson's "Run Run," and an updating of his own "King Of Babylon." For Lloyd Campbell, Junior recorded "Bur O Boy" and "Can You Feel It," and an album was recorded for producer Pete Weston called Jordan, which included the successfully quirky single "Lorna Banana."
Just when things were starting to hit their stride, however, Junior's career, and life, made a dramatic turn for the worse. In late August of 1975, news reached Jamaica of the death of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, God in the Rastafarian faith. Before this time, there had been rumors of Junior's mental instability. And while many looked on with a curious eye at the resulting events, none could question the faith of Junior Byles. Not long after receiving this news, Junior attempted suicide by overdosing on pills.
While the attempt failed, Junior did spend the next two years in Kingston's Bellevue Hospital. He could not fathom the idea of God dying, and decided it would be best to take his own life, to move onto Zion to be with his Father. Since Haile Selassie is God on earth, the black man's savior, the news of his death sent Junior into a tailspin. While many Rastas considered the news mere Babylonian propaganda, Junior obviously took the news very hard. He was not heard from for two years, as he struggled to pick up the pieces and find some order to his life.
His temporary retirement came to an end in 1978, when he recorded the triumphant "Heart & Soul" for the hottest producer in Jamaica at the time, Joe Gibbs. The song was a massive hit in Jamaica, with Junior earnestly singing, "Your heart and soul, you must give to Jah." Coming from this man, few could doubt the man's integrity or bravery.
Despite this splendid return to form, his mental and financial instability kept him from singing at the same rate as he had previously. One further tune for Joe Gibbs, 1979's "Dreadlocks Time," one song for Blacka Morwell in 1982 called "Don't Be Surprised," a song for New York reggae producer Bullwackie Barnes, and an album recorded that same year for the production team of Niney the Observer and reggaeologist Leroy Jodie Pierson, titled Rasta No Pickpocket, would become the swan song of Byles' career during the Rasta-influenced era of reggae music.
Though little is known of the details, it is around this time in the 1980's that Junior's mother passed away, his house burnt down, and his wife left him, taking their children in tow. By the mid to late '80's, Junior was living on the street, eating out of dumpsters. An all-time low point in the life of a man whose records were played in the dances and selling like hot cakes in the music shops only a few years earlier.
He ended up recording some more in the late '80's and early '90's, cutting "Little Fleego" and "Young Girl," again for Niney. But he has been unable to regain his old form and has yet to have another hit record in over 20 years.
With the public's recently renewed interest in roots reggae of the 1970's, there has been more inquiries into Junior's back catalog, which resulted in his short but vibrant set at the Sierra Nevada Music Festival in June 1998. His voice is certainly not what it used to be - scratchy and broken at times, though every bit as heartfelt as before - but his longtime fans enjoyed the music regardless. Those who know his story and the great music he's created over the last 30-plus years can do nothing but smile at the thought of the down-and-out Junior Byles singing before thousands of people in one of the world's largest annual reggae events.
Despite odds heavily stacked against him, Junior personifies success in every sense of the word. He has the courage to live life the only way he knows how, with a total commitment to what he believes in. And he is willing to die for it. Some would say that very thing has been his downfall, but hindsight can make a clairvoyant out of any fool. The man said it best himself:
"I already foresee the day when I am not going to want. I see it. I know it is just around the corner. Don't care how mystic it might look. I just appreciate because I know that as long as I am living clean and trying to beat to do what is right, my reward is endless, priceless."
There is quite a bit of Junior's work available on CD. The reissue Beat Down Babylon: The Upsetter Years on the Trojan label pumps up that classic album with a dozen extra songs and dubs. Heartbeat's Curly Locks: Best of Junior Byles & the Upsetters 1970-1976 overlaps slightly with the Trojan release, but also offers previously unissued takes, mixes, and versions, along with a pair of deejay outings by Jah T and Dennis Alcapone. Both of these discs concentrate on Junior's work with Lee Perry and are necessary components to any Byles or Perry collection.
129 Beat Street Ja-Man Special 1975-1978 on the Blood & Fire label presents Junior's four songs for Ja-Man, along with half a dozen other crucial songs by other artists on the label, such as Bim Sherman, Pablo Moses, and UBrown. Though it is unclear whether or not the revenue from the Heartbeat or Trojan releases mentioned above will be channeled appropriately, the necessary royalties from the Blood & Fire collection will indeed go to Byles, which gives us even more incentive to pick up this fine disc.
The song "Weeping" can be found on the Niney-produced Observer Station CD on Heartbeat, "Heart & Soul" can most easily be found on the Trojan label's Uptown Top Ranking: Joe Gibbs Reggae Productions 1970-1978, and "Fade Away" is on Heartbeat's Hitbound! The Revolutionary Sound of Channel One. Again, all three discs are recommended well beyond the Junior Byles tracks.
Reggae: The Rough Guide by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton
The Rough Guides; 2001 (Second Edition).
The Virgin Encyclopedia of Reggae by Colin Larkin
Virgin Publishing Limited; 1998.
Reggae on CD: The Essential Guide by Lloyd Bradley
Kyle Cathie Limited; 1996.
"Full Watts" magazine, by Steve Milne
Volume 3, Number 1; 2000.
Curly Locks: Best of Junior Byles & the Upsetters CD release, by Heartbeat Records (HB 208), 1997.
Junior Byles & Friends, 129 Beat Street: Ja-Man Special 1975-1978 CD release, by Blood & Fire Limited (BAFCD 023), 1998.
Beat Down Babylon: The Upsetter Years CD release, by Trojan Records (CDTRL 253), 1997.
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