Byron Lee

Songs from Shanty Town

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Byron Lee's importance to Jamaican music is immense, although it may not directly show in the record charts. Lee formed his Dragonaires in 1956, initially as a big band calypso unit, but over the years the ever-shifting ensemble has also tackled ska, reggae, soca and even dancehall styles, always smoothing out any rough edges to deliver soothing versions of Caribbean hits that work just this side of Muzak. But there's more to the picture than that. Lee, a bass player, was instrumental behind the scenes in establishing the bottom end as the leading component of Jamaican recordings way back in the '50s, and with his Dynamic Sounds recording studio, he has had a hand in creating some of the greatest music the island has ever produced. Lee's own released music is firmly on the easy listening side of things, and it seldom rankles, excites or gets remotely innovative, but if Lee & His Dragonaires weren't out there doing this kind of popularizing, someone else would, and the results would very likely be even more bland. This set from Dressed to Kill is impressive in a way, since Lee and his group manage to reproduce almost note for note several rocksteady and reggae hits right down to the slightest vocal inflection, but ultimately one has to wonder why the world needs a mirror image of Toots Hibbert singing "54-46 That's My Number" when it already has the real Toots doing it, and several times over at that. Truthfully, this isn't a bad Dragonaires' album; in fact, it's one of the group's most exciting issues, exhibiting a perceptible rough edge at times, but it's still an album of by-the-numbers covers, even if the level of mimicry is first class.

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