Bob Marley’s music transcends politics, language, and cultures. His songs resound on every continent and are especially embraced by the oppressed and those seeking spiritual fulfillment. As esteemed author Charles Shaar Murray noted in his book Crosstown Traffic, “Marley developed into possibly the most extraordinary figure in the history of Western pop culture: not only the acknowledged leader of his chosen musical idiom, but the world’s most prominent spokesman for a religion previously unknown to almost all but its practitioners, and finally the most politically influential recording artist of the 20th century.” Thirty years after his death, he’s still revered as a national hero to his countrymen in Jamaica.
Marley has influenced countless musicians. His first notable disciple, Eric Clapton, turned a cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” into an international hit in 1974. “Bob Marley was a wonderful songwriter and a great rhythm guitarist,” Clapton said. “He was just an amazing musician.” Others drew from Marley’s heartbeat reggae – Paul Simon, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, The Clash, and Joe Jackson among them. Stevie Wonder wrote “Master Blaster” as a tribute to the man. The Police likewise came under his spell. “Bob Marley’s singing had a great effect on me,” Sting said, “and I would cite Bob as a major influence on the Police. Bob Marley was the touchstone between my interest in black American music and jazz.”
For Carlos Santana, Marley’s imprint is as much spiritual as musical: “Bob Marley was a champion liberator, because his songs liberate us from our own personal demons, and you thank God that you have ears and a heart to take it in. It’s so precious. Marley is supremely important for his divine message of one love, which is the equivalent of the message of Martin Luther King and John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme.’ ‘One love’ means no popes, no pimps, no gurus, no swamis, no government, no church or anything like that. One love is all of us being spiritual enough to complement life. We all heal each other. We all mend a broken heart. We all lift up somebody who falls. Bob Marley shows the supreme balance of being so close to God and so human at the same time.”
Nesta Robert Marley was born on February 6, 1945, in Nine Miles, a district in St. Ann’s Parish on the north end of Jamaica. He spent his early childhood with his mother, Cedella Marley, sharing a tiny shack made of corrugated metal and wood in the mountainous countryside. “He was my first-born and very precious to the family and friends,” Cedella reported in Jim Henke’s essential sourcebook, Marley Legend: An Illustrated Life of Bob Marley. “He was always a jolly, happy little man. He loved to make friends, loved to play. I never had no trouble with him going to school and things like that. He was very obedient.”
Bob spent little time around his father, Captain Norval Marley, a white Jamaican who supervised land for the British government and essentially abandoned the family soon after his son was born. Bob once said of his mixed heritage: “I don’t have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.”
In grade school, Bob loved to sing. “I don’t really know how I got started,” Marley remembered in 1975, “but I know me mother was a singer. Me mother is spiritual, like a gospel singer. She writes songs. I hear her singing first and then I just love music, love it, grow with it.” A cousin gave him a homemade guitar fashioned of bamboo and goatskin. Bob became “like a brother,” in Cedella’s words, with another Nine Miles youth who shared his interest in music, Neville “Bunny” Livingston. When Bob was still in grade school, his mother left him in the care of his maternal grandfather, Omeriah Malcolm, while she went to work in Kingston.
Around 1955, Bob Marley joined his mother in Kingston. They lived at various addresses on Berry Street, Oxford Street, and Regent Street, and then in 1958 settled into a three-year stay at 19 Second Street in Trench Town. Years later, Bob immortalized his experience living there in his beloved song “No Woman, No Cry”:
“Said, I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trench Town
Observing the hypocrites
As they would mingle with the good people we meet
Good friends we’ve had
Oh, good friends we lost along the way . . .”
In her book Bob Marley: My Son, Cedella Marley Booker remembered Bob singing the Christian hymn “In the Garden” one day after school. “I was stunned at how well he sang. Nesta has always been a singing child, but this is the first time I can remember being struck by his beautiful singing voice.” He made his first public appearance singing in a talent show at a local theater. “Me saw dem have a little t’ing down at Queens,” Marley remembered in 1976. “So one night me go in and sing a tune. Me nuh remember what it was, but me win a pound. The man must tell me me must start sing. And me did.”
Bob reunited with his childhood friend when Bunny and his father, Thaddeus Livingston, moved to Trench Town. Cedella and Thaddeus shared living quarters and had a daughter together, Pearl. Their sons immersed themselves in American radio broadcasts from Miami and New Orleans, dialing in the Drifters, Moonglows, Impressions, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and even country musicians such as Jim Reeves and Lloyd Price. While living on Second Street, Bob said, he also started “listening to jazz, except me couldn’t understand it. After a while me get to understand it and me meet Joe Higgs and Seeco Patterson, who schooled me. After a while I smoke some ganja, some herb, and then I understood jazz. I tried to get into the mood where the moon is blue and understand the feelings expressed.”
Bob and Bunny were also drawn to a ska, a new sound emerging right in their own neighborhood. Ska typically featured a fast rhythm accented by horns riffing on the off-beat. The style was deeply influenced by R&B, especially the sound of New Orleans, with its horns, boogie piano, and strong bass. Most ska music was instrumental, with the after-beat played on rhythm guitar or piano. Bunny crafted a homemade guitar using copper wire, a sardine can, and a bamboo neck, and the two friends began singing calypso, ska, and American R&B. Asked about his influences in those days, Bob said, “My greatest influence was the Drifters – ‘Magic Moment,’ ‘Please Stay,’ those things. So I figured I should get a group together.”
By 15, Bob had dropped out of school to concentrate on singing. His mother arranged for him to work as an apprentice welder. One of the workers Bob sang with around the welding yard, Desmond Dekker, encouraged him to pursue his dream of making records. “Me did sing in school and love singing,” Marley explained, “but what really made me take it seriously is when I go and learn a trade name welding. Desmond Dekker used to learn trade [at the] same place, and we used to sing and him write songs. . . . Him go check out Beverly’s [a record label] and him do a thing named ‘Honour Your Mother and Father,’ which was a big hit in Jamaica. After that, him say, ‘Come, man,’ and me go down there and meet Jimmy Cliff, and him get me audition and me record a song for Beverly’s. It never really do nothing, but it was a good song still. Name ‘Judge Not.’” In his 1973 interview with journalist Carl Gayle, Marley added, “Jimmy was big then because he already had a hit name ‘Hurrican Hattie’ and later ‘Miss Jamaica,’ another big one. I really love Jimmy ’cause he always tries to help people.”
The label’s producer, Leslie Kong, liked Bob’s ska-influenced songs, and in 1962 he recorded Marley’s first singles at Federal Studio. The first release, the original song “Judge Not” backed with “Do You Still Love Me?,” was credited to Robert Marley. For his second single, Marley covered a recent C&W song by Claude Gray, “One Cup of Coffee,” backed with “Terror.” On the 45’s label, the record was credited to “Bobby Martell.” Neither of these 45s sold well, but they launched Marley’s recording career, and today they can be heard on the Bob Marley – Songs of Freedom box set.
Back in the government yard in Trench Town, Bob and Bunny were spending time with Joe Higgs, who’d been part of the famous pre-ska singing duo Higgs & Wilson. Higgs owned a guitar and coached Bob and Bunny as they worked on singing close harmonies. Higgs also wrote songs about smoking marijuana and the Rastafari religion, and in Marley, he found a willing disciple for these too. A decade later, Bob told Carl Gayle, “My greatest influence is a Rasta guy called Joe Higgs.” Bob and Bunny soon were joined by another young musician, Peter “Tosh” McIntosh, who also owned a guitar and could sing baritone. With Bunny singing the high parts, Bob handling tenor, and Tosh providing baritone, they practiced Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” and “Wonderful World,” Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack,” the Impressions’ “Gypsy Woman,” and tunes by the Drifters. Peter Tosh explained, “Me and Bunny together had a kind of voice that could decorate Bob’s music and make it beautiful, so we just did that wholeheartedly.”
Peter Tosh also reported that soon after he joined Marley and Livingston, a youth loaned Bob an acoustic guitar: “We hold onto that guitar for a good period of time until I teach Bob to play it, and show Bunny some chords.” Joe Higgs also taught Bob some easy guitar chords and showed him how to write simple tunes. “When I started singing, I couldn’t play an instrument,” Marley explained. “How I learn to play guitar? I teach myself. Well, it grow together. The first time me try to write a song is the first time me try to play the guitar. So it really grow together. Me really like to stay with my guitar, but me never really take the guitar playing seriously.” Eventually singers Beverly Kelso and Junior Braithwaite began working with them. The group tried a series of names – the Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys, the Wailing Wailers – before finally settling on the Wailers. “Name ‘Wailers’ come from the Bible,” Marley told an interviewer in 1974. “There’s plenty places you meet up with weeping and wailing. Children always wail, y’know, cryin’ out for justice and all that.” Bunny Livingston changed his name to Bunny Wailer.
Late in 1963, Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, a masterful Rastafarian percussionist who later played drums in the Wailers, took the singers to meet Clement Dodd, who owned several labels and a recording facility. He was known locally as “Sir Coxsone.” As author Stephen Davis explained in his seminal 1983 biography, Bob Marley (revised edition), by then they were the Jamaican equivalent of England’s Rolling Stones: “Like the English band, the Wailers had to claw their way from the bottom, and succeeded by taking a tough stance on tenderness and a tender stance on toughness. The Wailers’ music always seemed more dangerous than the bubbly, almost carefree ska of their contemporaries. Like the Stones, the Wailers were lustful, contemptuous, insolent, and rude.”
Impressed, Dodd invited the Wailers to record in his Studio One facility. Bob wrote both sides of the first Wailers single, the fast, jumping ska tune “Simmer Down” backed with “I Don’t Need Your Love.” The 45 was issued in Jamaica on the Coxsone label and in the UK on Ska Beat. In February 1964, the same month the Beatles’ “She Loves You” topped the U.S. record charts, “Simmer Down” became the #1 record in Jamaica. Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who’d become Bob’s longtime bassist and arranger, recently described to me the effect that this single had on him: “The first song I hear with the Wailers was ‘Simmer Down.’ I hear that tune in a club we were one evening. No other tune play in that jukebox but ‘Simmer Down.’ Yeah, man, I went into like a trance to that music, like I was involved with the music.” Part of record’s appeal, Jim Henke noted in Marley Legend, was that its lyrics “served as a message to Jamaica’s Rude Boys – ghetto gangs that roamed the streets of Kingston – urging them to curtail their violent ways. Expressing such tough-love honesty through music was something new, and the authenticity of the messengers didn’t go unnoticed. Though Bob had for the most part stayed out of trouble, he had long lived deep within the violence of Trench Town, and even had a street name, ‘Tuff Gong.’”
By month’s end, the Wailers had performed on at least a dozen more recordings, variously credited to the Wailers, Peter Touch & The Wailers, Lord Bryner, and Lee Perry. In August 1964 the Wailers recorded several more 45s. The Bob Marley-credited “Dance With Me” drew from the recent Drifters hit “On Broadway,” and “Teenager in Love” was based on the Dion and the Belmonts song. Bob’s “It Hurts to Be Alone” became a local hit, as did “Lonesome Feeling,” recorded in October with Joe Higgs adding harmony vocals. “That was the first serious song I wrote,” Marley told Carl Gayle of “Lonesome Feeling.” “It took a long time to find the words to say what I wanted to say. That was recorded at the same session with the same musicians as ‘There’s a Reward for Me,’ which was a big hit for Joe Higgs.” Lyn Taitt and/or Ernest Ranglin played guitar at most of the Wailers’ sessions with Clement Dodd. As 1964 progressed, Junior Braithwaite left the lineup and moved to the United States with his parents.
Between sessions, Bob hung around Studio One, practicing on guitar and listening to Coxsone’s large collection of American R&B and soul records. He also met the woman he’d marry: Rita Anderson, an aspiring teenage singer. In her book No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley, Rita described being smitten with Bob at first glance: “I looked at him and thought, uh-oh, such a nice guy. And I got weak in the knees.” He asked her to go to the movies, and she accepted. “And though I didn’t expect this,” Rita continued, “I became his. As in, okay now guys, this is my girl. I think I got involved with Robbie [Bob] because he was so clearly a strong young man. He was very straightforward and strong-headed, in terms of ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I’m going to do.’ And he was very serious about his family and life. His spirit was there, too. The strength of his spirit showed.”
In January 1965, Rita Anderson launched her recording career at Studio One, cutting a single with Bunny Livingston as “Bonny & Rita” and recording for the first time alongside Bob on the Soulette’s “One More Chance,” which Clement Dodd claimed Bob and Rita co-wrote. The Wailers recorded several songs that month as well, notably “Hooligans” and “Jumbie Jubilee,” which were inspired by a riot that broke out during the group’s recent performance at Kingston’s Palace Theatre. Around April 1965, the Wailers covered the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” According to Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson’s insightful book Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography, “People in Kingston were calling the Wailers ‘The Jamaican Beatles’ because of the Wailers’ knack for topping the local charts, and the group may have cut ‘And I Love Her’ to reinforce this flattering identification.” In 1975, Marley spoke of his fondness for the Beatles: “I really like to meet them and sit down and chat with them. They are bredrens. Jah just love roots. Those guys are roots.” That July, the Wailers cut another cover of a British pop tune, Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat,” as well as an early version of “One Love.” In September, their “Rude Boy,” a fast ska full of mysterious slogans drawn from the Jamaican mento tradition, became a Jamaican hit.
Around this time, Jamaican music was beginning to undergo a change. A new form, rock steady, was on the rise. Relaxed and sensual, rock steady de-emphasized horns and changed ska’s rhythmic emphasis from a straight 4/4 to the drummer accentuating the second and fourth beat – one, boop, three, boop. The bass and guitar became more prominent. While rock steady was essentially dance music, its lyrics often expressed the rage of the Jamaican ghetto dwellers. The Wailers were drawn to the style, which Marley referred to as the “one-drop.”
Cedella Marley, hoping to escape a life of numbing poverty, left Jamaica to join her sister in Delaware. She soon married a man named Edward Booker. Bob missed his mother, wrote her often, and occasionally sent her money. Cedella said that in one letter, Bob wrote that “when he sang, he felt a spirit moving him just as it moved me in church, with the same joy and lightness in his soul.” While his recordings had improved Bob’s musical foundation, they did little to alleviate his desperate poverty. After his mother left Kingston, he had to sleep in the back room at Studio One, and he and the other Wailers were suspicious Dodd was cheating them out of royalties. When Cedella wrote to Bob that fall and suggested he join her in Delaware, he agreed to come early the following year. First, though, the Wailers had to do more recordings, and Bob wanted to wed Rita Anderson.
In October, the Wailers recorded Bob’s original song “I’m Still Waiting,” a reworking of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Another Dance,” the old gospel-folk favorite “This Train,” and “Ska Jerk,” which had a melody reminiscent of Junior Walker’s “Shotgun.” By month’s end, Rita Anderson was singing harmony vocals on some Wailers sessions. In November, the Wailers cut “Lonesome Track,” “Jerk All Night Long,” “I’m Gonna Put It On,” and the spiritual songs “I Left My Sins” and “Just in Time,” which came out on the Tabernacle label. In December, Bob participated in his final sessions produced by Clement Dodd, singing lead vocals on “Cry to Me” and “Good Good Rudie.” His next stop: The United States. “[In] one year,” Bob explained, “we make hits like ‘Put It On,’ ‘Rude Boy,’ ‘Rule Them Rudie,’ ‘I’m Still Waiting.’ And we expect to get some money, for this is Christmas. Then the guy [Dodd] give me £60 after we mek so much hits. So me just leggo and go live with me mother in America.”
The official who oversaw Marley’s passport application changed the order of his name to Robert Nesta Marley. Two days before his departure on February 12, 1966, Bob, who was raised a Christian, married Rita in a formal ceremony. At the time, both were attracted to Rastafarianism. Upon his arrival in Delaware, Bob was shocked by the frigid weather and sped-up pace of life. He briefly worked on a freight dock – perhaps the inspiration for his song “Night Shift – but, as Cedella wrote, “his Jamaican blood just couldn’t cope with the icebox called Delaware.” He tried desperately to find other work, and eventually landed a janitorial job. He spent much of his free time writing songs on an acoustic guitar, a practice he’d follow for the rest of his life. “Over there [in Delaware] me find the music still in me,” Bob said in 1975, “singing and writing some good tune like ‘Bend Down Low.’” After nine months in the United States, Bob had had enough. “If I stay here,” he wrote to Rita, “this is gonna kill me. It will give me all kinds of sickness! I’m a singer. I’m not this. I’m coming home.” In later interviews, Bob very seldom discussed his time in Delaware.
In October 1966 Bob Marley returned home to Kingston and rejoined the Wailers, who’d continued recording without him at Studio One. In his absence, Rita had fully converted to Rastafarianism, as had many of his associates. Bob too embraced the faith, and the Wailers became the first popular Jamaican vocal group to adopt the Rastafarian lifestyle of strict dietary observances, daily Bible readings, wearing dreadlocks, speaking in the dread dialect, and smoking large quantities of marijuana. Asked by an interviewer what it means to practice Rastafarianism, Marley responded, “I would say to the people: Be still, and know that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, is the Almighty. Now, the Bible seh so, Babylon newspaper seh so, and I and I the children seh so. Yunno? So I don’t see how much more reveal our people want. Wha’ dem want? A white God? Well, God come black. True, true.” Asked in 1973 how long he’d been a Rasta, Marley replied, “From creation.”
Bob spent his hard-earned savings from America on creating a new label, Wail ’N Soul ’M, and opening a small record store in the front room of Rita’s aunt’s house. In November, Marley and the Wailers cut “Bend Down Low” and “Freedom Time” for the new label. According to Roger Steffans and Leroy Jodie Pierson, “All three Wailers were unhappy with their previous relationship with Clement Dodd, but Bob wanted to give the relationship one more chance. Thus, they recorded their first self-produced single at Studio One and agreed to let Dodd distribute the disc. ‘Bend Down Low’ was a major hit in Jamaica and the Wailers did well on the copies they personally sold, but their distribution deal with Dodd only resulted in more arguments over money. This was their last recording session at Studio One.” In his 1973 interview with Carl Gayle, Marley confided, “Even now we haven’t got what we should have. Take a record we did with him called ‘Bend Down Low.’ It was the best-selling record through the year, and he said we weren’t selling nothing. We gave him four #1 tunes in ’66, and all we got was £20 each.”
The Wailers’ recording output diminished in 1967. In June, they held three self-produced sessions at West Indies Studio, releasing the rock steady “Nice Time” on Wail ’N Soul ’M, followed by “Hypocrites,” “Mellow Mood,” and “Thank You Lord.” They also recorded another version of “This Train” and an early version of “Stir It Up.” In July 1967 Bunny Wailer began serving a fourteen-month jail term for possession of ganja. Bob and Peter carried on the Wailers without him, recording the Joe Higgs-composed “Stepping Razor” with Rita Marley adding harmony vocals, as well as “Chances Are” and “Don’t Rock My Boat.” But the Wail ’N Soul ’M label soon folded.
Frustrated, Bob retreated to Nine Miles, his wife Rita and stepdaughter Sharon in tow. There they stayed in Cedella’s old house and lived off the land, growing their own food. “We began to live happily in that land,” Rita wrote in her memoir. “We could scream and be happy and be free!” Bob’s near-constant companions during this idyllic time were his acoustic guitar and a pet donkey named Nimble. “Me is a planter by heart,” Bob said near the end of his life. “Me grow up in it, y’know. That’s the first thing me ever do – farming. Me grow up inna it and it is me really love. But the farming I used to do, it was slave farming with the machete and a hoe. Or we dig it by hand. We didn’t have dem t’ing that you drive and plow it up.”
A recharged Bob Marley returned to Kingston in the fall of 1969. By now, the first rumblings of reggae were echoing through the sound systems of Trench Town. At the time, teenaged Stephen “Cat” Coore, who’d become the guitarist for the reggae band Third World, lived two blocks from Bob Marley, whom he occasionally visited. “The difference between rock steady and reggae,” Coore told me in 1985, “is there is no upstroke on the guitar strum in rock steady. It’s just a straight cha, cha. But in reggae, it’s cha-cha, cha-cha, down-up, down-up – although sometimes it’s down, down. It’s very rarely just upstokes. You can almost play a reggae guitar riff on top of a rock-steady feel; the two of them can go hand-in-hand. But in rock steady, the bass drum is on two and four in a four-beat bar – one, boop, three, boop. Now we call that standard ‘one-drop’ reggae. What makes up a good reggae guitar part is the feel for the rhythm and the sound of the instrument – that’s very important. It should have a clear top-end, but it should not be too brittle. That Fender Jaguar sound on the two pickups is one of the greatest reggae rhythm sounds. It has a bright top end, but also a nice middle and bottom end. In Jamaica, that was one of the most famous reggae guitars for years. If you didn’t own a Fender Jaguar, you didn’t own a guitar. That was the tradition.”
Asked about the earliest reggae guitarists, Coore responded, “There are a number of Jamaican reggae guitarists you should try to listen to. If you can find any records by a guy named Lyn Taitt – he set a trend in the early days. He started this thing called ‘the chip,’ where you hold a chord on the top two, three, or four strings and use your pick to cause a quick upstroke. He would voice it up in the higher register of the guitar. Say you are playing a Gm: Maybe he would hold the top two strings, the B and the E, up in the higher octave at the 15th fret. You wait for a spot where there’s a little space, and you bring the pick up sharply on the two notes you’re holding. It comes as sort of a ‘chip’ in the music. Lyn Taitt really had it down; his timing was great. He’d be playing in the low register, just pop in two chips, and get right back quickly to what he was doing down low. He was playing from 1967 until 1970 with his own orchestra, Lyn Taitt and the Jets, and also played for a while with Carlos Malcolm, who’s a famous Jamaican band leader. And Ernest Ranglin is the ultimate Caribbean guitarist as far as jazz goes. He’s fantastic, man, the daddy of Jamaican guitar.” Bob Marley readily adapted the reggae rhythm guitar style.
Three others figured prominently in the birth of reggae: producer Lee “Scratch” Perry and his rhythm section, bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his younger brother, drummer Carlton “Carly” Barrett. During the mid 1960s Perry had worked alongside Clement Dodd at Studio One, but he eventually felt stifled in his efforts to push the music’s boundaries. He found success on his own with the hit singles “Run for Cover” and “The Upsetter.” He hired the Barrett brothers to work as his studio band, which he named the Upsetters. According to Jim Henke, “In 1969 the Upsetters recorded ‘Return of Django,’ an international hit considered by many historians to be the first example of a new style of Jamaican music called ‘reggae.’ The previous year, another Jamaican group, Toots and the Maytals, had scored a hit with ‘Do the Reggay.’ But not everyone agrees that the Maytals’ song was responsible for giving this new music – which put the bass guitar in a dominant role – its name.”
I recently asked Family Man if his brother Carly had, in fact, invented the one-drop. “Accurate,” Barrett responded. “That’s da man.” Asked how he came up with it, Barrett elaborated: “Well, you know, we always think of music, like the height of music. Robert said, ‘What is the heights of music?’ Some people said soul music, some say classical, you know. We did a lot of research, and we realized that jazz is the heights of music. Jazz. So we decided to check out what jazz is all about, and we found out that it’s just a free-form music. So we decided to free-up ourselves [laughs], you know, encourage ourselves. And, of course, drums are the first instrument in music. You know, they used to use it a lot in Africa to send messages across the village and valley and city, everywhere. So what we do, we in-graft that kind of Nyabinghi communal and mix it with the Jamaica mento and then we decide to create that beat and feel it on the one-drop. And it become the heartbeat of the people. This is reggae. I and I are the architect of reggae.” [Here’s the complete Family Man interview: http://jasobrecht.com/aston-family-man-barrett-interview-bob-marley-peter-tosh-wailers/ .]
The Wailers rapidly embraced the new sound, coupling its unstoppable vibrancy with a fortified spiritual content drawn from the Rastafarian faith. “Yeah!” Bob Marley said, “that’s where reggae comes from – the Rastafaris. ‘Reggae’ kind of come from a Spanish, Latin word, and it mean ‘King Music.’ You get a three-in-one music. You get a happy rhythm with a sad sound with a good vibration. It’s roots music. Reggae is what you call international music, complete music. Any music you want to play inside of reggae, you can put it in there. But it’s the rhythm now that’s reggae. It’s proud rhythm, man – that rhythm can’t end. It have a different touch. It’s earth rhythm, roots! So you can find it can’t stop. It’s like from the beginning of time, from creation.” (In an interesting parallel, my friend Tom Wheeler once asked Muddy Waters where the blues had come from. Muddy closed his eyes, thought for a moment, and said, “The groove was here – before time!”)
Reggae, Rastafarianism, and reefer have seemed inseparable from the beginning, but not always for the reasons people assume. “There is a purpose behind our music,” Cat Coore clarified. “People think that Rasta reggae is very religious, but it’s not so much religion as it is social. Jamaican music has always commented socially on what’s happening. So when times get bad and the music comments on it, people pick it up as religion or being political, but it’s a social music that encompasses all those things in it – religion, politics, fighting against wickedness. It has a big scope. A lot of people in Jamaica describe reggae music as ‘the people’s newspaper,’ because when anything happens in the country, a song always comes out commenting on the whole thing.
“Ganja has in a way always been tied to reggae music, because the musicians and Rasta come out of the poorest of Jamaicans. The people who were wealthy or in the middle class weren’t really into music; they never thought of a band as a viable way for a young person to make a living. Ganja is the thing that the poor people smoke, so that’s how it got connected to the music. It was around the studios and the sound systems. The philosophy of Rasta came out of the same social area. Plus, Bob Marley, who was one of our first reggae ambassadors in terms of really getting acclaim, was very outspoken in the smoking of herb. As far as he was concerned, it was quite normal for anyone to do it. People just accepted that that was how it was.”
In 1976, Bob told a journalist, “Herb like fruit. Keep you healthy, mind clear.” In 1978, he said, “Maybe you could meditate without herb if you’re somewhere that’s quiet, but even if you go into the woods, there’s still the birds. But if you smoke herb the birds might sound sweeter and help you to meditate.” Two years later, he revealed an even deeper benefit: “When you smoke herb, it reveals you to yourself. All the wickedness you do is revealed by herb – it’s you conscience and gives you an honest picture of yourself.”
In May 1970, the Wailers commenced recording again with producer Leslie Kong. In quick order, the original three – Bob, Peter, and Bunny – laid down “Soul Shake Down Party,” “Stop the Train,” “Cheer Up,” “Caution,” and other singles issued by the Beverly’s label. Their arrangements put a new emphasis on the electric guitar and socially conscious lyrics, but the singles were met with a lukewarm response. The Wailers began searching for another producer. In the Carl Gayle interview, Marley said, “Well, I don’t know what to say about Leslie Kong because he didn’t really know anything about music. He used to just sit down and listen and if the music was good he would say, ‘Yes, it’s nice.’ If not, he’d make you play it over again. He was just a lucky guy because he had the money.” Time was ripe, Bob figured, to start a new label: Tuff Gong. “That was the greatest thing we ever did,” he told Gayle. “The first label [Wail ’N Soul ’M] went down, but we had some big hits on Tuff Gong. The big boys didn’t like it, but it meant we didn’t have to go to a guy knowing he was gonna rob us. And win or lose, we just dug having our own business. We didn’t have to hustle a guy for our money.”
Well aware that the Barrett brothers had become reggae’s foremost rhythm section, Bob Marley asked them to join the Wailers. Lee Perry, naturally, was ferociously opposed to losing his prized musicians. A crisis was averted when Marley and Perry struck a deal: Perry would serve as the new lineup’s producer. In August 1970, with Perry producing and the Barretts onboard, the Wailers recorded “My Cup” and “Try Me,” both issued on the Upsetter label. In September, they hit their stride with “Small Axe,” “Axe Man,” “More Axe,” and others. When I asked Family Man if he had any favorites among the songs Bob Marley composed, he began by invoking “Small Axe” imagery: “‘These are the words of my master: That know weak heart shall prosper. And whosoever diggeth the pit shall fall in it. Because if you are the big tree, we are the small axe. Ready to cut ya down.’ But it’s not like violence, you know. We are a soul rebel. Soul adventurers, you know? [Laughs.] We’re not like rebels without a cause – terrorists. We’re not into that crap. All we do is smoke herb and give praise to the Almighty.”
When Carl Gayle asked Marley about “Small Axe,” Bob responded, “‘Small Axe’ was about righteousness against sin. It says, ‘Why boastest thyself oh evil men/playing smart and not being clever.’ It didn’t encourage violence, it didn’t mean you should go out and cut a man down. It was a power, a world power. It’s a victory. It’s a small axe.”
Under Perry’s direction, Marley’s voice took on a new urgency, and the group’s doo-wop harmonies gave way to terse backup vocals. Perry encouraged Marley to play his own rhythm guitar on record: “Most times I just take up the guitar and I just play,” Marley explained, “but I never really used it to do no recording [in the early days] – until the [Jamaican studio] musicians that was really playing the music at that time, they got so ripped off that they wouldn’t play no more. And so was getting no good music again. So we started playing it ourselves.” Oftentimes Family Man’s bass served as the lead instrument, offset by the metronome-like “cuffs” of Marley’s rhythm guitar.
The first Wailers album issued by Lee Perry, a collection of singles called Soul Rebels, came out in 1970. The band’s 1971 follow-up, Soul Revolution, included the singles versions of such stellar songs as “Don’t Rock My Boat,” “Kaya,” “Sun Is Shining,” “Duppy Conqueror,” and “Keep on Moving.” Journalist Rob Partridge, who later served as Marley’s publicist, wrote that during this period “the Perry/Wailers combination resulted in some of the finest music the band ever made. Such tracks as ‘Soul Rebel,’ ‘Duppy Conqueror,’ ‘400 Years,’ and ‘Small Axe’ were not only classics, but they defined the future direction of reggae.”
Since the late 1960s, Bob, Peter, and Bunny had been writing songs on the side for Johnny Nash and his manager, Danny Sims. They’d met in 1968, when Nash, who was from Texas and had hits in the 1950s, came to Jamaica to record. In late 1970, Sims convinced Bob to help write the score for an upcoming Swedish film, Vill så gärna tro (a.k.a. Want So Much to Believe) in which Nash had a small role. Marley flew to Sweden to work on the soundtrack with a crew of musicians. He hated the cold, though, and as the only Rasta, felt discomfort around the others. According to Rita, Bob mostly hid out in the basement of the band’s house, smoking ganja and writing songs: “He was going through a hard time, having no friends there and no one to talk to.” None of Bob’s songs made it into the film, but Sims arranged for Bob and the Wailers to travel to London in hopes of securing a tour with Nash.
Peter, Bunny, and the Barrett brothers flew in from Jamaica. While a full tour never materialized, the Wailers played a few gigs and performed on a few tracks of what would become Johnny Nash’s biggest album, I Can See Clearly Now. Three Marley-penned songs made it onto the record, including “Stir It Up.” The London-based branch of CBS Records took an interest in the Wailers and recorded a single, “Reggae on Broadway,” but this sold poorly. Plans for a tour with Nash fell through. Things were not going well.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage something from their London sojourn, the Wailers made a pilgrimage to Island Records’ studio facility in a converted chapel on Basing Street. There they met the man who would profoundly change their lives and fortunes: Chris Blackwell. A wealthy white man who’d been raised in Jamaica, Blackwell had launched Island Records in 1959, and then moved to company to London three years later. The label had distributed many Jamaican singles over the years, including several Wailers 45s. More recently, Blackwell had made serious inroads into the rock market with acts such as Traffic, Roxy Music, Free, and Cat Stevens. In time, Island would become the largest indie label on earth. The visionary Blackwell liked what he saw and offered the Wailers a deal. In exchange for an advance of £4000, the Wailers would return to Jamaica and cut him an album. This was virtually unheard of in the singles-driven world of reggae, but the Wailers accepted the offer.
The Wailers returned to Kingston and got to work. During October 1972, the basic tracks for Catch a Fire were recorded at three Kingston locations – Dyanmic Sound Studios, Harry J. Studios, and Randy’s Studios. Bunny Wailer explained the Wailers’ approach: “It was a total discipline. Between myself, Bob, and Peter, we had to find a formula that would be acceptable. So what we did was lay down a hard, driving rhythm that suggests basic reggae principles, and then we would put little bits and coloring here and there that would not take away from the basic principle but would attract the international marketplace.” In all, they recorded nine of Bob’s original songs – “Concrete Jungle,” “Slave Driver,” “High Tide Or Low Tide,” “Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby),” “Stir It Up,” “All Day All Night,” “Kinky Reggae,” “No More Trouble,” and “Midnight Ravers” – as well as Peter’s “400 Years” and “Stop That Train.” (The two-CD Catch A Fire (Deluxe Edition) contains both the original Jamaican masters and the remixed nine-song official release.)
Asked by Carl Gayle to describe the music on Catch a Fire, Marley responded, “Well, we just got together and did our thing, yuh know! There wasn’t really an influence. It was just that this time we got the money from Chris Blackwell to go in the studio and spend as much time as we needed. You see, musicians in Jamaica have to work to a time limit, so they have to come out of the studio when their time runs out, whether they are satisfied or not.” Chris Blackwell paid the Wailers a visit on the night they recorded “Slave Driver.” He recalled his reaction in the liners for the Deluxe Edition: “Complete elation! It was like something coming through exactly as you dreamed it could be. The music was fantastic, but there was something more than that – there was simply the fact that it had been done, when many people had doubted it.”
Marley brought the completed eight-track tapes to London. He and Blackwell then spent several months mixing and overdubbing. John “Rabbit” Bundrick, a Texan who’d worked with Johnny Nash, added synthesizer, clavinet, and organ. American guitarist Wayne Perkins dubbed the lead guitar solos, some played with a slide, in “Baby We’ve Got a Date (Rock It Baby),” “Stir It Up,” and “Concrete Jungle.” Robbie Shakespeare redid the bass on “Concrete Jungle.” Tyrone Downie, who years earlier had played in an early lineup with the Barrett brothers, added organ to “Concrete Jungle” and “Stir It Up.” In Jim Henke’s Marley Legend, Chris Blackwell described his role: “Bob would record everything, record all the tracks, and I would basically mix them. I would put them together in an arrangement and compile the album in terms of a running order. Somebody said to him once, was I the producer? And he said no. He said I was his translator. I was very happy with that. I think that was what I was doing.”
Chris Blackwell brought the Wailers to London for the album’s release in the spring of 1973. It was here, Family Man told me, that things began taking off for Bob Marley and the Wailers: “We know we got a vibe, we know we got a message, and we have that integrity fa carry it through. We getting that inspiration from the Most High. And religion is all about running around all type of music, vibration of sound, because it’s word, sound, and power, you know. And we decide to take it to the next step from the late-’60s inspiration, so we’re gonna move it up now. An’ when we move off is right when we first started the first tour. I recall playing at a place in England called The Speakeasy, where we did two shows a night for two weeks. And when we finish the mission, the write-up in the papers – because that club named The Speakeasy, they say that’s where all the media people them hang out – journalists, critics, radio, newspaper, magazine. So we play for them two shows a night for two weeks, and most of the time I’m seeing the same faces and some new faces. Some don’t miss it – two shows fa two weeks. They write up in the paper that the first song what we play, it cast a spell upon them. And after that, it was like magic.”
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.