Tyrone Downie: No Ordinary Wailer

From Reggae Report, V10 #4 1992

Tyrone Downie is a familiar name and talent to avid followers of Bob Marley and the Wailers. I had always been interested in meeting this renown keyboardist who first played with the Wailers at the ripe “old age” of 13, so I was pleased to hear that he was looking forward to this interview with Reggae Report.

The Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers tour had just finished and Tyrone was in Miami chilling for a while. As a member of Ziggy’s all-star band, memories of Tyrone’s magical keyboards were once again revisited. For the veteran keyboardist, performing with the son of his good friend and mentor was like a page turning in musical history.

His obvious energy and passion for performing was manifested in a warm, engaging smile and the unmistakable twinkle in his eyes that greeted me when he opened the door. Our meeting place was at the home of a friend, complete with a studio where Tyrone could lodge part of his cumbersome collection of keyboards and other musical “toys.” Surrounded by equipment and a big screen television that was tuned to “Video Jukebox,” Tyrone Downie felt comfortable and in the mood to talk.

Tyrone Downie 1992

I went right to the big questions: What was it like being a member of the Wailers during his impressionable teen years? What was it like working with Bob? These answers and more were revealed throughout our two-hour conversation that was as amusing and informative as it was intuitive and insightful.

When Tyrone Downie “officially became a Wailer” in 1975, he already felt like one because he had done studio work with Bob Marley since 1969. It was during this session time, under the tutelage of Aston “Familyman” Barrett, that Tyrone first realized that he was frightened of these Wailers. “They were real tough guys,” he describes, “they were scary.”

He ponders on why for a moment before continuing, “Here I was, this school kid, 13 years old, and here were these guys with this hair, and these red eyes, and an attitude…” Tyrone, who comes from a church background, explains, “There in Trenchtown, it was like a guerrilla camp. It was like, ‘let’s burn the country down!’ Believe me, they were not ordinary at all.” It was the late ‘60s and it was bad news to be tough. But now, these days, according to Tyrone, “it’s stylish to be tough.”

Glossing over the fact that he was pretty tough himself [it comes from growing up in downtown Kingston’s Vineyard Town and Windward Road for 10 years], Tyrone came to Marley with a musical arsenal that suited the master just fine. Tyrone gives credit to schoolmate Augustus Pablo for his inspiration to play piano. “I was in the choir so I could have access to the piano, and it was there I learned to read music and learned about harmony.” Adding, “Even though it was marching music, I joined the cadet band. I played clarinet then and we would just jam at rehearsals.”

The Early Years

It was 1969 when Augustus Pablo introduced Tyrone to Familyman, affectionately referred to as “Fams.” Because Fams had recently returned from England, and since the Hippie Boys and the Upsetters weren’t doing anything, he wanted to start “a little band.” The result: The Youth Professionals…starring at “this sleazy little club called the Green Mist… a little strip joint.”

Tyrone Downie was only 13 years old and just beginning his professional career. Fams got the youngster in on session work, and Tyrone, who remembers never receiving any money, recorded on Delroy Wilson’s “Better Must Come,” Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock,” and for other popular names, including Augustus Pablo and Dennis Brown.

A commitment with Ernest Wilson kept Tyrone from being in Kingston when Bob put a band together to take on tour. He was glad because he was “scared of Bob and afraid to ask him for money.” To stress this point, he tells me, “You know that song “Screwface”? Nobody smiled. Now, how are you going to go up to someone who doesn’t smile and ask for money? I thought, no, that’s gonna be a mistake.” Shaking his head, he adds, “anyway, the band went away and then came back.”

“You know that song “Screwface”? Nobody smiled. Now, how are you going to go up to someone who doesn’t smile and ask for money? I thought, no, that’s gonna be a mistake.”

While working along the North Coast, there were occasions when Tyrone traveled to Kingston to perform with the Wailers. There was a show in 1974 with Michael Jackson, and that same year with Stevie Wonder. Upon returning to work on Monday, after the Stevie Wonder gig, he was told by band leader Jackie Jackson to “go and play with the Rastaman and don’t come back here.” Tyrone’s response was “Alright,” adding with a shrug, “and since that time, [I] stuck with the dreads.”

He soon left the North Coast hotel circuit and returned to Kingston to join his family. “In 1975, I was playing at the Sheridan Hotel [then the Wyndham] when Bob came there with Cindy Breakspeare, she had just won Miss Jamaica. [Bob] came up to me and said, ‘Tyrone, how are you doing? ray ray ray… We’re going on tour and you should come and… da da da.’ He was having fun, dancing and jumping up and down and saying ‘Yeh mon, me like the vibes, you get better, you turn professional now.’” So, with extreme caution, Tyrone went to check it out, and at the urging of guitarist Al Anderson, Tyrone “Organ D” Downie was drawn back into the band. His first live show as a Wailer came with the 1975 Kingston concert starring Marvin Gaye.

The Union with Bob

After his first Wailers’ tour, also in ‘75, 19-year-old Tyrone felt that Bob was serious about this band and the fact that he wanted to keep it together, become strong, and “to be the most powerful thing.” Tyrone affirms, “He always preach that. He said ‘anything you need you ask me. You don’t have to go out there and play with nobody. You don’t have to do nothing. You just stay here.’ He wanted everyone to stay.”

When asked if he could recall one particular moment with Bob that had an impact on him, Tyrone answers, “When I cut my locks [that was 1977, a year after the vicious shooting attempt on Bob’s and Tyrone’s life in Kingston]. I was afraid to go back to the Wailers because I thought they would say, ‘you can’t do this anymore or you’re not a Rasta.’ But instead, Bob said that his interest in me was for my talent as a keyboardist, not for my hair. That was the moment I had the highest respect for him.”

Tyrone and Fams had been session men and were constantly in great demand. After they became exclusive to the Wailers, other artists, like Sly and Robbie, Touter Harvey, and Bubbler Waul became exposed. “Nobody didn’t want to use you if you weren’t big,” says Tyrone, “and those guys became big because they were doing all the songs. That’s how you become big, you don’t just sit in the corner.”

When he cut his locks: “Bob said that his interest in me was for my talent as a keyboardist, not for my hair. That was the moment I had the highest respect for him.”

During those powerful five years that followed, Tyrone became a major force and influence on the Wailer sound. He finally felt that he belonged, that he was a part of something real. He reveals that he co-wrote “Waiting in Vain,” “Jammin,” and “Exodus” with Bob during their stay in England, following the 1976 murder attempt. There was a feeling of family as the members drew closer together. “You spend so much time together, traveling together, affecting the world together,” Tyrone earnestly describes, “we had developed an identity, we had become consistent, and there it was, Bob Marley and the Wailers – movement of Jah people.”

The Time After Bob

For a few years following Bob’s demise in 1981, Tyrone went on tour with Jimmy Cliff, Steel Pulse, the Tom Tom Club, and Talking Heads. He wryly recalls, “The Wailers then invited me to come back to Jamaica. This was after I left the group, and they cut my salary in half and shared it up among themselves. So, when they wanted me to do the Confrontation album now, they offered to give me back my own money, as an advance.” What followed were several attempts at reuniting that were not destined to work out. He recalls, “I tried doing something with the Wailers, the Legend Tour, in 1984; I tried doing something with Rita, but that couldn’t work either, so I started doing studio work.”

Back in touch with his roots, with the source, Tyrone resorted to being Tyrone Downie, session man. He worked closely with such luminaries as producers Mikie Bennett and Sly and Robbie, and in 1990 became involved in “plenty Dancehall stuff.” This alliance resulted in such hits as Shabba Ranks’ “Wicked Inna Bed” and Dennis Brown’s “If You Want Me.”

One must take note of his successful union with Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, producing and playing on their first two albums, Play the Game Right and Hey World, and acting as a musical director on both of these tours. When asked to comment on the different styles of father Bob and son Ziggy, Tyrone is reluctant to answer because he feels this is unfair, yet he responds to the notable cultural differences.

“Bob grew up amongst strife, violence and poverty – a hard life,” Tyrone reminds us, “he was in prison; he was persecuted by the police. Ziggy never went through that. So, Bob’s music and his lyrics actually came from that experience.” Thoughtfully adding, “Ziggy now, he’s writing about stuff that he sees, that he knows, that he’s conscious of – not of what he has experienced. He’s more like an observer, a narrator of what’s going on, where Bob was actually Howard Cosell. He was right there!” He praises Ziggy for being a good songwriter, adding that it was Ziggy who gave him credit for co-writing the hit single “Tumbling Down,” a participant recognition never noted by Bob Marley years before.

“But Steve now,” drawls Tyrone, “Steve is still young as a songwriter, but he’s very good as a performer. He actually expresses himself very strongly and he really gets across. People have been asking for him on the tour like crazy (especially young girls). You can quote me on that.” Nodding and smiling, he adds, “Steve… If people want to write him a postcard, they can just write S T E V E!” Going back to Ziggy, he adds, “Ziggy loves it; his face always lights up because Steve has always been traditionally shy. Ziggy is shy, but Steve is shyer! He has so much fire. Whenever he does break out… you just [now] see the tip. And if the tip can do that, can you imagine when that kid [nodding his head]… he’s tough.”

The State of Reggae in 1992

Tyrone feels that the Wailer collaboration type of feeling died with Bob. He explains, “Look at Third World, Aswad, Steel Pulse. In Jamaica, a band is considered a backing band. Like on Dancehall Night, you have Riddim Kings and Sagittarius – this is the Jamaican concept of a band now. They look at Third World as an old-fashion thing; bands are something from the Bob Marley time. You’re either a singer, DJ, or backing band. So, it’s a different musical culture now from then.”

So, it’s 1992, what about Tyrone Downie now? He turned 36 years young on May 20 and continues to perform and produce some wicked Reggae music. One of Tyrone’s objectives is to get into production more; another is to write more songs. Recently, he penned Junior Reid’s “Long Way” and Judy Mowatt’s “Rock Me.” Leaning forward, as if to let me in on a secret, he says, “What I’d really like to do is to produce an album, and have Gregory [Isaacs] Freddie [McGregor] and Super Cat on it, like a Quincy Jones-type all-star album.”

Tyrone maintains that music is his life. “That is so important. That if you’re going to put all that energy out, you just can’t walk away from it.”

Reggae Report, V10#4 1992

With a career that spans Marley to Marley, and now entering his third decade as a professional musician, Tyrone Downie has earned the respect that he richly deserves. As he says, he was there “stuffing Reggae down people’s throats” with the King; he was there producing and directing for the Prince. And now, he’s resolved to continue, to be an asset, to offer his opinions and ideas… and Jah know, Reggae can use it.

In conclusion, Tyrone says, “I’m happy to see that Reggae has finally been accepted by the world. It’s a good thing because it’s a positive music, the basic foundation is consciousness and world unity.” That heart-warming smile reemerges and the twinkle returns as Tyrone finishes, “As long as people can remember that, and appreciate the music for what it is, then the world will be happy, God will be happy, and Bob will be happy.”

Update: Tyrone Downie, famed musician, keyboardist, and youngest member of the Wailers in the ’70s, sadly passed away on November 5, 2022. The cause of death has not yet been released. For nearly 20 years, Tyrone lived in the Hérault, in Montpellier and Fabrègues area of France, and worked in particular at the Studio de la Loge, in Saussan. He spoke fluent French and raised his children there. He returned to Jamaica a few years ago. The music community – artists and fans – will sorely miss his talent, friendship and musical contributions. Condolences to his beloved family, friends, colleagues, and fans.