Junior Byles takes spotlight

Observer senior writer

Monday, February 04, 2019

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Growing up the youngest of eight children, Janet Byles knew her brother Junior was special, but troubled. She was aware of his popularity as a singer but did not follow his career that much.

On Saturday, she will likely be in the front row at Ranny Williams Entertainment Centre in Kingston, where the Junior Byles Benefit Concert and 71st Birthday Celebration takes place.

The singer, best known for songs like Curly Locks and Fade Away, has health challenges including a psychological illness he has fought for over 40 years. His sister says he lost sight in his left eye after being robbed, and also has an enlarged prostate.

The event is promoted by Big Stone Records, whose principal, Claude Stone, approached the Byles family late last year about staging a fund-raising initiative to help with his expenses.

“He wanted to do something because he grew up on Junior's music. He knows about Junior's situation and that he needs help,” Janet Byles told the Jamaica Observer.

Her brother's struggles have been public for many years. Stories of Junior walking the streets and rummaging through garbage bins for food have been published; he has also had a few short-lived comebacks.

According to Janet, he has not tried to leave home for some time and receives medical treatment once per month from the Bellevue Hospital.

He is the father of five children, and his greatest 'caregiver' was his father, Kenneth Byles Senior, who died last July at age 98. Even at an advanced age, he ensured the son who shared his name was properly taken care of.

“For years, Junior would go in and out of the sickness. Sometimes he would go missing for three days, but we always found him. There wasn't a thing Dad didn't try,” said Janet.

Like his father, Kenneth Byles Junior was a jack of all trades. He followed him into the auto-mechanic trade, but was gainfully employed as a fireman when he launched his music career with harmony group, The Versatiles, in the late 1960s.

Byles' solo career took off during the roots-reggae explosion of the early 1970s. Songs like Beat Down Babylon, Curly Locks and A Place Called Africa, produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry, announced him as a singer/songwriter of substance.

But it is Fade Away, a 1975 song written and produced by session guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, that keeps Junior Byles' name alive with hard-core dancehall fans. It has been covered by Della Manley, while its 'rhythm' has been sampled by countless artistes and producers.

Ken Boothe, Half Pint, Eek-A-Mouse, George Nooks, Mikey General, White Mice, Abijah, Sharon Tucker, and Natty King, are some of the artistes who will perform at the Junior Byles Benefit Concert on Saturday.

“If we get good support it would mean so much to Junior because he needs help. It can also draw attention to all those people who use his music without paying him,” said Janet Byles.

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