One of Jamaica's most tragic figures, Junior Byles was also one of the island's greatest root stars. His vocals were quite unique, and although his soft, almost husky voice would never ring from the rafters nor give voice to anger, the gentle timbre still expressed deep emotions. His was the voice of the meek and was all the stronger for it. The closest comparison is perhaps with the vulnerable tones of Slim Smith, but while the former Unique made his mark with love songs, Byles would speak not for the lovelorn, but for the oppressed. The two men did share another link, however, both suffered from serious psychological problems that in one case ended one man's career and left the other in ruins. Kerrie "Junior" Byles was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1948. He was still in his teens when he formed the Versatiles with fellow vocalists Earl Dudley and Louis Davis. It was the height of the rocksteady era and vocal trios ruled the land. The Versatiles were just one of many hopefuls at the auditions for the Festival Song Contest in 1967, each desperate to catch the eye of the producers who stalked the contest in search of new talent. The trio was proud of their entry, an upbeat Byles' composed celebration of unity, "The Time Has Come." The infectious song and the trio's obvious enthusiasm caught the attention of Joe Gibbs, who brought the group into the studio. At the time, Lee Perry was working as Gibb's chief engineer, and thus oversaw the Versatiles' first recordings, including their festival entry. Perry left in a huff over production credits soon after, and his assistant, the young Niney Holness, took over. The trio continued to cut singles exclusively for Gibbs over the next two years, but not in the prolific numbers of many of their bigger counterparts. But quality made up for quantity; gorgeous songs like "Just Can't Win," driving religious numbers such as "Trust the Book," and the party piece call and response of "Long Long Time" all cemented their reputation. The group also excelled at writing catchy hooks, as they proved with their debut single and confirmed with "Push It In," one of the most infectious and rudest songs in their repertoire. The Versatiles rode the rocksteady wave into the new reggae era, and as the decade waned, they left Gibbs and linked again with Perry. They cut a handful of singles for him, including such hits as "Children Get Ready" and the harmony drenched "Teardrops Falling." From there, they joined forces with Duke Reid, for whom they recorded the delicate "I Love You Baby." The trio also had a brief encounter with Laurel Aitken before reuniting with both Gibbs and then Perry. The session with Perry was to be their last, and the bandmembers went their separate ways in 1970. Byles joined the Jonestown's fire department, but continued working with Perry. Before the year was out, the pair had cut his debut solo single, "What's the World Coming To," which was given the full orchestral treatment by Tony Hartley in London.
In a way, Byles served the same function for the producer as Max Romeo did for Holness, giving voice to Perry's most radical roots visions. The pair attempted to subvert the 1971 Song Festival with their entry "Rub Up Festival '71," which actually reached one of the final heats. It was only when Jamaican radio complained about the innuendo-laced lyrics that the judges took notice and disqualified the song. The pair got their own back the following year, when they took the less-objectionable "Festival Da Da" to second place in the contest. 1972 was a momentous year in Jamaica's history, an election was scheduled, where for the first time the leftwing opposition People's National Party (PNP) (headed by Michael Manley) looked likely to take control. It was a heady, if difficult, time and many of the island's artists were making their political preferences known, Byles and Perry included. The pair recorded a number of seminal songs across late 1971 and into 1972, all of which spoke directly to the current political clime. The haunting "A Place Called Africa," is one of the loveliest repatriation songs ever recorded; the biting "Pharaoh Hiding," a nursery rhyme taunt aimed at the ruling Jamaican Labour Party's (JLP) leader Hugh Shearer; "Joshua's Desire," putting Manley's vision of a better world into song (his supporters referred to him as Joshua); and the most radical of all, "Beat Down Babylon," a perfect blend of Byles' infectious melody and Perry's production effects, including a cracking whip sound to accompany the chorus' "whip them, whip them Lord." However, in the hothouse of Jamaican politics, the population occasionally wants a breath of fresh air, and it blew in with Byles' "Fever," his biggest hit of the year, and one of Perry's most masterful productions. 1973 brought Byles' debut album, Beat Down Babylon, a dread masterpiece and instant classic. The album remains one the best from the era, notable not just for Byles excellent songwriting and delivery, but for Perry's exceptional production, and it stands to this day as his most coherent album. Byles followed through with a stream of equally powerful singles. His best work was with Perry (although the singer would also record with other producers on occasion), and the pair fired single after single onto the charts, while across the Atlantic, their songs were stirring the attention of British listeners as well. One of the best was "When Will Better Come," an anthemic reminder to Manley that Jamaica was still waiting for him to deliver on the better times he'd promised. There were lighter hearted moments as well, like "Fun and Games," the nursery rhyme of a counting game cum religious instruction of "Auntie Lulu," and the apocalyptic sounding meeting with a comely girl on "Pretty Fe True." The seminal "Curley Locks arrived in 1974, a song that arguably best illustrates Byles' shimmering talent. Addressed by a young rasta to a girl with a very disapproving father, the singer delivers the lyrics with the perfect touch of plaintiveness, whilst never descending into pitifulness. He may love her, but he won't sacrifice his beliefs for her and although that remains unstated, that touch of fatalistic strength is the core of the song: If she walks away, so be it, adding even more poignancy to the song. Perry's muted arrangement and production adds heavily to the evocative mood. The producer was renowned for riding roughshod over his artists, and he often sacrificed both the song and the singer for the sake of his production. But Byles consistently brought out his best, and all of Perry's work with the singer is notable for its more muted, yet still creative style. His sympathy for the singer's compositions is evident. "Curly Locks" cemented Byles' reputation in Britain, and just added to his chart success in Jamaica.
But behind the scenes, all was not well. Perry was as well-known for his volatility as his creativity and was quick to take offense. Byles was the opposite extreme, renowned for his moodiness, and he alarmingly started falling into paroxysms of deep depression. By 1975, the relationship between the two men had sundered. One of their last sessions together resulted in the "Long Way" single. Although ostensibly a moody love song, with hindsight its lyrics accurately sum up the singer and producer's path together. Byles now moved to the Ja-Man label, run by Dudley Swaby and Leroy Hollett, and immediately knocked out three hits for the team in duet with Rupert Reid — "Chant Down Babylon," "Know Where You're Going," and "Remember Me," and a fourth, "Pitchy Patchy," solo. It was obvious that regardless of his emotional problems, the singer was more than capable of continuing to cut excellent material. This was affirmed by further successful singles with Lloyd Campbell ("Buy-O-Boy") and Pete Weston. The latter producer oversaw Byles second album, Jordan, which boasted the pair's two big hits, a splendid cover of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and a spectacular version of "Oh Carolina," amongst other covers and new material, and was almost the equal of Beat Down Babylon. However, virtually everything Byles released that year was to be overwhelmed by the single "Fade Away." Produced by JoJo Hookims, this powerful dread single was a smash not just in Jamaica, but in the Britain as well, where it hit with the strength of a nuclear blast. The singer seemed unstoppable. He was one of Jamaica's biggest stars and had also established a massive following in Britain, an international breakthrough now seemed imminent.
But then, on August 27, 1975, Haile Selassie died. Obviously, all devoted Rastafarians were deeply affected by his death, but Byles, already emotionally fragile, couldn't cope. He attempted suicide, but thankfully didn't succeed and he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. He was released soon after, but wasn't really recovered. Over the next few years, Byles continued to attempt to work, but proved to be able to for only brief periods of time. Having poured singles down on the island like rain, the singer's output slowed down to a few releases a year. He managed to cut only a couple of tracks in 1976, overseen by Holness, a cover of Delroy Wilson's classic "Run Run" and a new version of "King of Babylon." The following year, he rejoined Lloyd Campbell and recorded "Can You Feel It" and "Weeping," a song whose lyrics reflected Byles' own emotional state. The singer also linked with DJ Big Youth for a version of the Archies' "Sugar Sugar (utilizing the rhythm from the Mighty Diamonds' "Right Time"). In 1978, he reunited with his first producer, Joe Gibbs, now working in conjunction with Errol Thompson as the Mighty Two, and cut another pair of singles — "Dreadlocks Time" and "Heart and Soul." Every single one of these songs was masterful and each was a hit, but that didn't change the fact that the singer's life was in shambles and his career equally so. In between these sparse recording sessions, Byles retired to the quiet of the hills or back into the hospital. The sessions with the Mighty Two were to be the last for four years, and the singer disappeared entirely from the music scene. In 1982, Byles returned determined to relaunch his career. He began recording a new album with producer Black Morwell for Bullwackies, it would not be ready for release until 1986. In the interim, the singer's life took further turns for the worse. He and his mother were close, and he was devastated by her death during this period. They say tragedies strike in threes, and this was followed by the loss of his house in a fire; adding to his misery, his wife and two children left Jamaica and emigrated to the U.S. During this sad time, Morwell released two new Byles' singles, "Better Be Careful and "Don't Be Surprised," while the singer also cut "Dance Hall" for Winston Riley. Finally, his new album was released, but after the sheer brilliance of his last two, Rasta No Pickpocket was a disappointment. The title-track was a re-recording of an old single cut back in his days with Perry, and while there were still flashes of genius within, the overwhelming aura of the album is one of talent slipping away. Horrifically, by late 1987, the singer was homeless, penniless, and virtually unrecognizable.
Two years later, Holness took Byles back into the studio and recorded a new single, the superb "Young Girl." In 1992, the pair reunited again and cut the equally good "Little Fleego." After each release, the singer again faded into oblivion. Five years later, Byles took the stage with guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith for a small number of Jamaican shows over 1997 and 1998. Since then, Byles has slipped from view once again. Even with these vast gaps between releases, Byles has not been forgotten, something the burgeoning reissue market has expertly seen to. The singer, both on his own and with the Versatiles, appears on numerous various artists and producer compilations, while the Trojan label has ensured that much of his work with Perry remains available. In response to his live appearances, the Heartbeat label has also released Curly Locks: The Best Of, an excellent compilation of the singer's work. ~ Jo-Ann Greene