Bunny Lee, one of the top record producers of the golden age of ska, rocksteady and early reggae music, celebrates 50 years in the entertainment business this year. When he released the Harris ‘Bibi’ Seaton-penned Let Me Go Girl, sung by Slim Smith and the Uniques in 1967, Lee announced to the world that he was on a mission to draw alongside other greats in the business like Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, Arthur ‘Duke’ Reid, Prince Buster and King Edward ‘The Giant’. And that he did, with a plethora of hits that stretch from here to eternity. Let Me Go Girl – a rocksteady piece of sheer class, became the biggest hit in Jamaica in 1967. With Slim Smith on lead and Lloyd Charmers and Seaton in attendance, the recording was literally unstoppable as the lyrics rang out:
“Girl you hold me trying to control me
Let me go girl, let me go tour the world
I want to be free from all misery
Being with you is like being with the bee
Girl go your way and let me go my way
I want to be somebody else’s fool.”
‘Striker’ is the name that he was affectionately called. And no wonder, as be became a top striker in scoring hits, similar to a footballer who becomes a top striker in scoring goals. Lee’s first set of recordings, however, did not include Let Me Go Girl, as he placed Lloyd and the Groovers’ Do It To Me Baby and Roy Shirley’s Music Field, also in 1967, at the top of his debut list. It was a shaky start as the strapped-for-cash producer had only enough money to pay the musicians – £20. Luck was however, on his side, as Duke Reid, a man of generous ways, allowed Lee to use his Treasure Isle Studio free of cost.
Music Field, although not as massive a hit as Let Me Go Girl, was good enough to launch Striker into the music production business. He took off instantly, although using only four musicians – Lyn Taitt on guitar, Brian Atkinson on bass, Joe Isaacs on drums and Gladstone Anderson on piano. At about this time, Lee put together his first group, which consisted of Slim Smith, Ken Boothe and Derrick Morgan who later became his brother-in-law and his main cornerstone. Lee called them The Uniques because he thought they were just that. Performing the unheralded gem, People’s Rocksteady in 1967, the trio declared the rocksteady era opened. Producer Lee sat comfortably in the producer’s chair as he concurred with: “It was done before even Alton’s songs. Is really a rudeboy dancer named Buzz B – him and a guy named Zackie the High Priest, used to come inna the dance and just rock steady to the beat, and so the name was born,” Lee told me in an interview.
Beginning his career as a record plugger for producers Reid, Sir Coxsone, Leslie Kong and Prince Buster, Lee used the opportunity to acquaint himself with some of the top performers, while still being employed to Uni-Motors. His obsession with the music cost him his job, but it worked like a blessing in disguise as it gave him more time to devote to what he loved most.
In his pursuit for excellence, Striker Lee has produced, with distinction, almost every early, successful Jamaican recording artist and recording. They include My Conversation by the Uniques – perhaps the most versioned song in Jamaica’s music history; Better Must Come – a 1972 recording by Delroy Wilson that helped the Peoples National Party win the general election that year; John Holt’s Stick By Me – perhaps Holt’s most popular song. A Shep and the Limelites original, it was first covered in Jamaica by Delroy Wilson. Bunny Lee also produced Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby in 1971 – perhaps the most popular and best remembered Jamaican Festival Song. And how could we ever forget Bangarang by Stranger Cole and Lester Sterling, which laid a claim to being the first reggae recording. With one swipe, Lee transformed Derrick Morgan into a DJ and created saxophonist Roland Alphonso’s biggest hit with 1,000 tons of Megaton.
In addition to those already mentioned, Lee also had under his wings Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Cornel Campbell, Horace Andy, Lee Perry, Max Romeo, Pat Kelly, Johnny Clarke, Ernest Wilson, Leroy Smart, Errol Dunkley, Judy Mowatt, Sugar Minott, I-Roy, U-Roy and others.
A recuperation session put on by King Jammy, following Lee’s illness late last year, kicked off his 50th-anniversary celebrations at his home in Meadowbrook Estate recently.
In England, Lee along with Derrick Morgan and artists who worked with him, will be honored at an annual reggae festival in September.
In an interview with Lee last Monday, he told me more: “Every year, the Jamaican High Commission in England make arrangements when I come there in July, to put on something for my birthday in August. Since I took the music to England, most English people, both black and white, know of me more than people here in Jamaica. My son, ‘Little Striker’, is also planning something here in Jamaica,” he concluded. Lee will be 76 on August 23.