Remembering the life of a pioneer in Jamaican music, gone at 79
Jamaican popular music of the postwar era, commonly known and referred to around the world as reggae, has always been primarily a producer’s medium and functioned by its own unique rules and timetable, differently from how the record business functioned virtually everywhere else.
To really get to the heart of the matter often requires jettisoning the traditional model of “I like this artist and have this handful of albums which are my favorites.” That often works as well but because the average artist cranked out dozens of singles and up to five or six albums in any given year it has its shortcomings.
The reason for this is due to the producers. Artists would make the rounds of Kingston’s recording studios and cut tracks for a plethora of different producers on a daily basis. The producers were individuals who had studios and in-house bands, a distinctive sound, and record-label imprints on which they would press up what they recorded, sometimes the very same day.
One of the greatest and most legendary of these producers was Edward O’Brien “Bunny” Lee, whose career started in 1962 as a record plugger and all-around gofer for producer Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label, one of the island’s most important alongside Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One setup. By 1967 he was ready to take the plunge into production himself despite not owning his own studio facilities (something he wouldn’t correct until he purchased rival producer Joe Gibbs’ old studio in the early 80s), scored quickly by catching the rock steady wave that was transforming Jamaican music in 1966-67 and landing a big hit with Roy Shirley’s “Hold Them.”
From that point Bunny was off and running, immediately producing a slew of influential all-time classics by the Uniques featuring Slim Smith on lead vocals (a tragic hero with whom Bunny forged a prolific working relationship over the next five years), as well as the likes of Pat Kelly, the Sensations, Stranger Cole, Lester Sterling, Val Bennett, Ken Parker and many others. As rock steady transformed into reggae in 1968-69, Bunny kept right on the cutting edge, adding more and more emerging new stars to his client roster as a new decade dawned. These included John Holt, Delroy Wilson, Eric Donaldson (Bunny produced “Cherry Oh Baby”), Cornell Campbell and Johnny Clarke, all of whom Bunny produced hit after hit for. Bunny also established a close relationship with dub overlord Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock that resulted in pioneering work in that field that continues to exert a vast influence all his own.
Bunny’s regular backing band, known as the Aggrovators, also came up with a new sonic signature known as the “flying cymbal sound” that dominated reggae during the 1974-75 period. Even as Bunny’s prominence began to recede slightly in the late 70s he continued to issue a staggering amount of great records by the increasingly popular toasters (or rappers) on the scene including Dennis Alcapone, U-Roy, Prince Jazzbo, I-Roy, U Brown, Dr. Alimantado, Jah Stitch, Tapper Zukie, and Trinity. This presence on the burgeoning dancehall scene allowed him to be responsible for the start of one of modern reggae’s most illustrious careers when, in 1983, he produced the debut album by a precocious (to say the least) 10-year-old named Moses “Beenie Man” Davis.
His workload decreased in subsequent years though he remained active mentoring younger artists and producers, administering his voluminous back catalog and serving as a jovial, friendly and accessible walking history of the genre and culture he made such a huge mark on.
Bunny “Striker” Lee’s passing on October 6, 2020 at the age of 79 definitely marks the end of a legendary era.