After gaining vocal experience in church, Junior tuned into local stars such as the Maytals, the Wailers, and the Techniques. He was inspired by American artists such as Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, and Johnny Cash. In 1967 Junior formed a group, the Versatiles, to break into music as a career. With the Versatiles Junior sang lead, with harmony backing from childhood friend Louis Davis and an East Indian youth, Dudley Earl.
In 1966, the Jamaica inaugurated the Festival Song Competition. Toots took the trophy that year. By 1967 Junior had his eyes on the prize. In anticipation of the Competition, he composed the optimistic "The Time Has Come." He then had to convince an established label to record the song, and release it as an official Festival entry. Junior (with the Versatiles) met up with a short, feisty, and extremely talented live wire by the name of Lee "Scratch" Perry, who was producing for TV technician Joel Gibson (AKA Joe Gibbs)'s Amalgamated label. Perry, a former gofer and studio hand for Coxsone Dodd's Studio One label, was sufficiently impressed by the Versatiles' offering that he recorded "The Time Has Come" along with two other titles. Although "Time" did not place in the top three, it whet Junior's musical appetite and gave him much needed musical experience and exposure.
The Versatiles became Amalgamated stable mates for a period of approximately a year, releasing "Trust the Book," "Push It In," and "Lulu Bell." Although fine songs, the financial rewards were not overwhelming and Junior began working as a fireman.
By 1970 Lee Perry had broken away from Gibbs and established himself as one of Jamaica's top genius producers. In the same year, Byles, desirous of climbing his way up the reggae ladder, came to Scratch, who immediately began recording Junior.
As Perry, ever the recognizer of truly original talent, put it, "Junior Byles is a good singer, a humble guy, irie, very humble. A man must be a special artist for me to put my name amongst his name, because my name Scratch!" Within a year, they had a hit that would put Junior on the Jamaican musical map. Byles' childhood friend Harold Meikle wrote and collaborated with Perry, and the three "Beat Down Babylon" by producing a single (and an album) of the same name. "Beat Down Babylon" was used by Michael Manley and his People's National Party as one of many songs used in their efforts to oust the ruling hegemony of the conservative, largely anti-Rasta, Jamaica Labour Party.
Junior's profound experience with Scratch lent him the skills and the confidence to begin producing himself in 1972, releasing 7" singles on his own Love Power label. In the same year, Trojan Records released his first LP, the Scratch-produced "Beat Down Babylon". One of the tracks from the album, "Da Da" was a runner up in the 1972 Jamaica Song Festival. In 1974, Junior scored with possibly his biggest hit ever, "Curly Locks." In this sparse, tender offering, Junior contrasts the idyllic possibility of romance with a young woman with the unfortunate fact that her father forbids her from associating with Rastafarians. "Curly Locks" sold at least 60,000 copies worldwide.
1975 saw the death of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, and Junior attempted suicide, prompting a stay in Kingston's Bellevue Mental Hospital. Says Junior: "It was all based on the fact that I wanted to die with His Imperial Majesty.They was tellin' me that He could die, and I was sayin' that He couldn't die. So at that moment I told them , it would be best if they could take my life then, because I would be in a better position. They couldn't understand it. So, I got caught up with tablets by the score, pills that you take."
Despite bouts of depression and mental illness, Junior continued to record flawless, lucid and visionary recordings, such as another famous and sublime work - "Fade Away." Written and produced by Earl "Chinna" Smith, this song beautifully argues the insignificance those overly pre-occupied with material wealth.
Throughout the 1970s, Junior recorded further excellent material not only for Perry but for a score of producers such as Niney, Lloyd Campbell, Leroy Hollet and Dudley Swaby, Errol T, and Pete Weston.
Unfortunately, the 1980s saw increasingly hard times for Junior. Despite the Nighthak records release, "Rasta No Pickpocket" in 1982, and the odd single, Junior's descent into poverty became more and more profound.
However, 1998 brings new light for Junior. Heartbeart Records has released the definitive Junior Byles anthology to date, the critically acclaimed Curly Locks: Best of Junior Byles and the Upsetters 1970-1976.
Junior performed again recently in Jamaica with Chinna Smith to excellent note, and Chinna will support Junior again at the 5th annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. This will be his debut performance abroad.
Special thanks to Leroy Pierson for his biographical work on Junior.