An Appreciation Of Edward O’Sullivan Lee (a/k/a Bunny Lee)
October 11, 2020
If you consult Google and enter the name Edward O'Sullivan Lee, you would more than likely be confronted with something like this:
Edward O'Sullivan Lee OD, better known by the name Bunny "Striker" Lee, was a Jamaican record producer. (Wikipedia)
The Wikipedia information while quite correct, just goes to show you why you should not take as gospel, all that you read in newspapers, digital or otherwise, or even books.
I could see Bunny laughing that booming laugh of his at that description if I was there with him at the time it was being read out to us. He would say to me: "But Aggro, why you ah screw up you face, dem nuh right? Ah nah dat wheh mi ah do? Ah nuh praduce mih ah praduce all dis time? All dem tune wha mash up de place?” And I would say yes Bunny but not only dat.
Everybody who knows anything vaguely about Reggae Music could say those words, that you are a producer. You are not only that, but the best damn one at that. Your memory and choice of great songs, songwriters, musicians and singers knows no equal in the history of Jamaican music. Your ability to make the good and the bad around you feel comfortable with a smile, a joke or a gesture, mark you out as an irreplaceable asset in the world of Jamaican culture forever.
He might faintly and absently nod his capped head in recognition of this inalienable truth but would not utter a word, one way or another. There is just something, to my mind, that Bunny Lee alone, of all the "music producers" of Jamaica music, ever, is endowed with, that removes him from the ambit of all others. With all the machismo, arrogance, greed and sometimes violent behaviour that has plagued the music and political landscape which from time to time, seemed to be inseparably linked, this giant of a man was at all times, able to navigate Jamaica in its entirety with a childlike manner, making friends and influencing people. I am sure that much of Jamaican music that has become internationally loved, can be laid at the feet of Bunny Lee. How many record executives he has toured around the parishes of Jamaica visiting artists and other upcoming producers etc. I can only imagine, but I know them to be many.
I came into contact with Bunny Lee upon what must have been one of his earliest visits to London. It would have been the late 60's, swinging London and all that. I was still a member of the Pop Group named The Equals but I'd gotten seriously interested in what was called Blue Beat music there in the early 60's and we had just gotten used to calling it Ska, when Prince Buster turned up to tour the UK, engaging the services of a South London band named The Bees, which included a North Londoner and friend of mine named Roy Knight. The first show if I remember right was in Bromley and it was there that I was introduced to the word Rock Steady, as Prince Buster kept repeating it all through his performance but did not seem to be doing anything different song after song. What did intrigue me though, was the lead guitarist and the parts he played over the Ska being played by the local band. This guy had the look of a wiry gunslinger out of some western movie and was plucking some seriously dappled, calypso-tinted guitar licks. I knew in my heart that he was like me, (NOT JAMAICAN) but with a serious love for what was Ska and now being touted as Rock Steady by Buster and the guitar playing gunslinger was none other than the great Nerlin “Lyn” Taitt, a Trinidadian. He had changed Jamaican music from Ska to Rock Steady and that change is indelible; it's there till today. So it was obvious that upon meeting and speaking with with such an honest spirit such as my new best buddy Bunny Lee, I would want to know as much as possible about the music scene in Jamaica.
I had made my own adventures into the soundscape of Ska and Rock Steady by the time we'd met. I'd written some songs, hired my friend's band, gone into Regent Sound Studio in Denmark Street in the West End of London and made what were meant to be an experiment in Ska and Rock Steady. Long story short, I couldn't afford to pay the band who insisted on being paid (friend or no friend) as well as for the studio time. So I called my record company boss who came over to the studio at the end of the session, paid the band and since the studio belonged to him, settled the nerves of the engineer as well as the bill, which was not much, but when you're a schoolboy in London in 1966, a shilling is a lot of money, let alone hundreds of pounds Sterling..... a fortune.
Well the record company boss asked me to name the songs and to give each artist a different name since I had given everyone who could utter a note something to sing or say. There were too many for my poor brain at the time so I left it up to him to complete after I'd done a couple. I didn't think he would release them but he did and by the time I would meet and befriend Bunny, I realised that I'd made what would become two of the most recognized Ska/Rock Steady records and the first totally British Ska recording to make the Music Week national chart. Both of these, by the way, had also been covered and claimed by Prince Buster, as was his custom, but this time he lost in court.
Now Bunny was really surprised to hear that last piece of information as he and the whole world thought that they were Buster songs. In typical Bunny Lee style, he would take me around his Jamaican posse, he would enlighten all the boys and girls of the fact that the originals of these Buster Records and songs belonged to his new friend "AGGRO."
He had the whole of Jamaica, it seemed, calling me Aggro. He even told me that when he gets back in the studio in Jamaica he's going to name his recording band after me. I never believed him of course. Then, bloody hell! would you believe it, out comes one of his records, then another, then another, bloomin' "AGGRAVATORS" and Bunny laughing his head off telling everyone how the name of his band came about. Okay, so you want to know why I love this guy Bunny "Striker" Lee so much? It's simple, he loved his artists. It didn't matter how bad things got, he'd always find a little something for one, two, or all of them.
He carried John Holt for a long time and produced his greatest set of songs. Yes songs; Bunny could really recognize great songs. Not to put too fine a point on it, as it's neither the time or the place to discuss in depth, but there are many great Bunny Lee produced recordings, Albums and singles attributed to other people calling themselves producers out there and all he would say to me is:
"Aggro, evrybody have fi live, na true?
Well he certainly made that possible, over a very long career, for many of the young underprivileged artists, who can still work to earn a crust, many years after throwing their hat in with Bunny.
It's strange, but maybe it's because I was so young at the time, that he and all his compatriots would not listen to me, when I tried to advise them about the vagaries of the real record business that I was experiencing as a pop artist and some of the pitfalls that were out there. I remember inviting Bunny, Clancy Eccles, Clement “Coxone” Dodd, who Bunny referred to as Jack or Jackson, and a number of other producers to my home. It was the first time that I allowed alcohol to be imbibed in that house and it was because Coxone would drink nothing else. It was the last time too.
I spent a long time telling them about music publishing and the various kinds of deals they could force distributors to give them, if they stuck together as a cohesive unit. But although Bunny would agree with me, none of the rest seemed to be paying too much attention and thus continued in the same mould as before. I didn't give up though and kept on bugging the living daylights out of Bunny on each occasion. Sometimes we would meet at a house in Ealing where Pat Kelly lived when he came to London. It's the first place that Bunny and his wife at the time, Marva, introduced me to "Irish Moss" which is a popular Jamaican drink which can be made with or without alcohol. I tried the non-alcoholic version and have never stopped till today, so many years later.
Thanks "Striker," but why did you of all my friends not listen to lickle Aggro? Over the years of friendship, as I've pointed out earlier, Bunny introduced me to the artists, some of whom he'd worked or were working with. On one of my visits to Kingston, I met Sly and Robbie who were laying tracks at Neville Lee's studio. I met Ken Boothe at his home which seemed to be very close to Bunny's home. In fact, I think we walked to Ken’s home, where Ken was dealing with a damaged foot that was being washed and treated with some topical application and Ken complaining to Bunny as only a good friend would that he had shows to do. Yea, we made the rounds alright. He introduced me to his great friend and artist Bob Marley along with Johnny Nash who was about to find out how great a performer the legendary Jimmy Cliff was, at the Sundown in Edmonton, in the north of London.
Bob who was not yet as good onstage as he became after the American tour with Sly and the Family Stone, also felt the pressure from Jimmy Cliff that day. Upon one of my subsequent visits to see him, Bunny also introduced me to his lifelong friend Niney Holness. I knew how close they were as he was the only other person in Jamaica to call me Aggro upon first meeting me. I bonded with him right away. When Niney disappeared to go about his daily business Bunny innocently took me to see Tivoli Gardens. He was warned by a soldier-boy that there had been some trouble there but Bunny took me there anyway, just like Lloyd Charmers, another old friend had some years before. Then before I could blink, it was time to visit his little studio where he wove his magic and entertained so many information seekers, because as everyone would have realised by now, all those books about Jamaica music consisted mostly of information gleaned from the memory bank of this very giving man who is not afraid of telling it like it was, or still is.
I asked him why there were so many reels of tapes on the floor of the studio at that time. He said "bwoy Aggro mih ah jus' saat out dem ting now, cause yuh never know how tings can goh," Oh I knew he used to suffer from some serious stomach issues years before, but then he started to put on what I considered to be an excessive amount of weight and I asked him about it. Of course the answer was one of his by now patented laughs. Possibly more important to him at the time was the fact that he had completed and released the book I'd been begging him to write, instead of making other less knowledgeable people look like the fountain of all Jamaican culture. He then said he was going to write the second installment, to bring the information up to date, and I was excited at the prospect as I'd bought the first and found it to be wholly satisfying; a good book to have if you're interested in the history of Reggae.
Right now I am really sad. I mean losing Toots is bad enough but in Bunny Lee, we have lost a great producer of Reggae Music, the lexicon of most of the events and players of this music we all love that's called Reggae but most of all we've all lost a very special and friendly man, "Bunny Striker Lee.”
Rest In Peace.
Ringbang For Life.