Bob Marley Keyboardist Tyrone Downie Remembered by Musicians Who Knew Him

Tyrone Downie
Courtesy Lee Jaffee

Keyboardist Tyrone Downie, also known affectionately as Jumpy and Organ D, died on Nov. 5 in a Kingston, Jamaica hospital. He was 66.

He touched all of our lives with his magical style, performing on music by Taj Mahal, Steel Pulse, Peter Tosh, The Abyssinians, Beenie Man, Black Uhuru, Buju Banton, Junior Reid, Tom Tom Club, Ian Dury, Burning Spear, Alpha Blondy and Sly & Robbie. 

But it was his time in the Wailers that helped change the sound of modern music by adding otherworldly dimensions and texture to Bob Marley’s brilliant songs.

Tyrone was born and grew up in Kingston where he began hanging out and doing session work in many of the city’s seminal studios. He joined The Wailers in the mid-1970s, making his recording début with the band on Rastaman Vibration. 

“Tyrone and I both grew up in West Kingston but found our way into music with the Barrett Brothers (the Wailers rhythm section) in East Kingston,” says fellow keyboardist Touter Harvey, who also played with Bob Marley’s Wailers. “At the rehearsal of the last Bob Marley and the Wailers tour, I passed through and jammed for awhile. Bob was amazed at the sound that the two of us [Tyrone and I] created.”

The music business was still in its infancy when Tyrone and Touter were coming up — the latter revealing that the two had “recently spoke of how we were taken advantage of by some of the producers and artists with whom we performed due to our lack of knowledge and our enthusiasm.” Still, adds Touter: “Tyrone has laid a solid foundation with his body of work on which future generations of musicians can build.“

Courtesy Lee Jaffee

Al Anderson, who played guitar in the Wailers, recalls those touring days, too. “Tyrone and I were tight for many years and we used to share rooms in the beginning on tour as there was not enough money for our own rooms,” Al says. “Even Family Man Barrett and Carlton Barrett shared rooms.”

He credits Tyrone for the song “Rastaman Vibration.” “We were walking to the rehearsal studio and Tyrone said, ‘Rastaman Vibration’. Bob said ‘Positive,'” says Al. “Tyrone said that sounds like it could be a song. So they went into the the studio and wrote it!”

Lee Jaffe, whose photos can be seen here, worked with Bob Marley and played harmonica with the Wailers. He first met Tyrone in the early 1970s. “I first saw — and heard — Tyrone at an uptown club in a New Kingston hotel,” Lee recalls. “He was 17 years old and playing in the house band. The band was good — playing mostly reggae covers of U.S. songs — but what was amazing was the keyboard player. He was just outstanding — mesmerizing — and with his cherub-looking smile while playing he looked even younger than his 17 years. It was evident to me that he was a prodigy.”

Lee had Marley’s ear and used it. “The next night, I insisted to Bob Marley that he check him out,” he says. “Bob without hesitation went up to him after his gig and offered him a job with the Wailers. His immense talent eventually led to him becoming the band’s musical director.”

Tyrone would later move to France where he performed as a a member of the touring band for Youssou N’Dour.

Adds Junior Marvin, lead guitarist of the Wailers: “Tyrone was a very talented musician and will be greatly missed.”

Rest in peace, oh Great One.