Today the influence of reggae is everywhere, and a world without it would be unthinkable. However, until the early seventies, reggae was virtually unknown in most of the world.
Reggae originated in relative isolation in Jamaica in the late 1960s, and when it was first heard in Europe and North America, it sounded truly revolutionary. It was a completely new sound that changed the course of music almost as much as rock ‘n roll had done a decade earlier.
However, reggae might not have caught on like a wildfire around the world had it not been introduced by an extraordinary man, who was both an extremely charismatic performer and one of the greatest singers and songwriters who ever lived. His name was, of course, Bob Marley.
Marley died young, at the age of 36 in 1981, yet over the course of a relatively short career that lasted less than two decades, with only eight years as an internationally charting artist, he became a household name around the world.
So how did such a startlingly original form of music, and such a startingly original musician and performer, emerge at the same time and in the same place—a small Caribbean island roughly the same size as Cyprus or New York City, with a population of less than two million people at the time Marley grew up? And how did this form of music and this performer manage to take the world by storm? These are the questions that we’ll discuss in this blog.
The many music styles in Jamaica from which reggae arose include mento, calypso, jazz, rhythm and blues shuffle, Nyabingi music, and ska. Ska emerged in Jamaica in the late fifties, and is a dance music characterized by a quarter note walking bassline, the instantly recognizable guitar and piano accents on all upbeats, jazz-influenced horn riffs, and a kick drum accent on the third beat of the four-beat bar. It became the popular music amongst young people in Jamaica after the country gained independence from, British rule in 1962.
In the mid-sixties, ska transformed into rocksteady, which slowed down the beat, and laid the accents on two and four. From this, it was a relatively minor step towards reggae, which slows down the beat even more, and keeps the accents on two and four, usually played by guitar and/or keyboard. Unusually, the snare accents the third beat, suggesting half time.
The most common reggae drum rhythm is called ‘one drop,’ because it has only one kick in each bar. In a reversal of the emphasis on the one in funk, the kick on the first beat is left out. Instead, the kick, like the snare, only accents the third beat. As reggae musicians like to put it: play three beats and only suggest the fourth. The ‘steppers’ reggae rhythm is a variation, with a four-on-the-floor kick.
There also is a lot of emphasis in reggae on a heavily syncopated and often very melodic bass, usually played slightly behind the beat. The central place of the bass in reggae was a precursor of the huge bass that would later characterize hip-hop, and that has since become commonplace in pretty much all popular music today.
Bob Marley was at the heart of the birth of reggae. He was born Robert Nesta Marley on February 6th, 1945 in Nine Mile in northern Jamaica. His mother, Cedella Malcolm, was 18-years old when he was born, black, and a descendant from the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, who were abducted to the Americas as slaves.
Bob Marley father, Norvel Sinclair Marley, was 60-years old, white, and of British and Syrian descent. Norvel Marley died in 1955 at the age of 70, when the young Bob was only 10 years old. The fact that Marley was of mixed race meant that he grew up as an outcast in Jamaican society.
Around the time that his father died, Marley’s mother and he moved to Trench Town, slum neighborhood of the capital of Jamaica, Kingston, that has become known as the birthplace of rocksteady and reggae.
Marley and his mother moved in with Thadeus Livingston, and his son, Neville Livingston, who later became known as Bunny Wailer. Neville and Bob spent time listening to the latest R&B on US radio stations and the emerging ska music. The two teenage boys also started to sing together.
FIRST NUMBER ONE
Bob Marley had aspirations of a music career at a very young age. In 1962, still only 17, he recorded four songs in a ska style with local producer Leslie Kong. In 1963, Marley and Livingston started a vocal group, together with Peter McIntosh, Beverly Kelso and Junior Brathwaite. They called themselves The Teenagers, later changed to The Wailing Rudeboys, The Wailing Wailers, and eventually just The Wailers.
Within a year The Wailers had recorded a single, called “Simmer Down,” accompanied by the ska group The Skatalites and produced by producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, also well-known as a sound system DJ in Kingston. Written by Marley, the ska song went to number one in Jamaica in February 1964 and sold an estimated 70.000 copies.
By 1965 the sextet had whittled down to a trio of Marley, Livingston, and Peter McIntosh, now called “Tosh.” An album of their best recordings called The Wailing Wailer, produced by Clement Dodd and recorded at Jamaica Recording Studio in Kingston, was released at the end of 1965. The music was still predominantly in a ska style.
THE RASTAFARI INFLUENCE
In 1966, Marley converted to the Rastafari religion, which had a fundamental impact on him. One influence was musical, and came from the traditional music of Rastafari, nyabingi, which is blend of 19th century gospel music and African drumming, and aims to bring about a state of heightened spirituality.
The ecstatic and trance-like nature of Marley’s later music and performances also were directly related to Rastafari, as were the political and religious nature of many of his lyrics.
Rastafari emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s, as both a religious and a social movement. Famously, the smoking of cannabis is regarded as a religious ritual with healing properties. By the 1950s, Rastafari had become widespread in Jamaica.
By placing his Rastafari beliefs at the heart of his lyrics and music, Bob Marley became the world’s main spokesman for the Rastafari religion, and also for the poor and oppressed in Jamaica and elsewhere.
The protest songs, dreadlocks and cannabis smoking that were related to Rastafari would a few years later help to catapult Marley right in the middle of the Western counter culture. His name spelled revolution and rebellion, and for decades many teenage bedrooms were adorned by two huge posters: one of Che Guevara, the other of Bob Marley.
Pete Tosh and Livingston also became Rastafari in 1966. The three Wailers, founded a label called Wail’n’ Soul’m, and together with The Soul Brothers released a successful rocksteady song called “Bend Down Low.”
In 1967, The Wailers teamed up with American producer Danny Sims and recorded a lot of new material. Sims is credited today with being the first non-Jamaican to recognize Marley’s superstar potential. He signed Marley to his publishing company, Cayman Music, an arrangement that would last until 1977.
When Sims and Nash moved to London in the late sixties, The Wailers sought out top level Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for their next recording project. Together with his house band, The Upsetters, The Wailers and Perry recorded many now classic rocksteady songs, amongst them “Duppy Conqueror,” “Soul Almighty,” and “Small Axe.”
Working with Perry helped Marley and The Wailers to further define the reggae style. In so doing they were also influenced by a reggae song by The Maytals, released in 1968, called “Do the Reggay,” which gave the genre its name. According to songwriter Toots Hibbert, ‘reggay’ is a slang term for someone who is scruffy. It’s assumed to be derived from the word rags or ragged clothes.
“Do The Reggay,” was produced by Leslie Kong, who Marley had recorded Marley’s very first efforts. By May 1970, and still chasing major international success, The Wailers sought out Kong again and recorded an entire album with him as producer at Dynamic Sound Studios in Kingston. It was not released until August 1971 as The Best of the Wailers.
In the 15 months between the recording and release of The Best Of The Wailers, the Wailers went back into the studio with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and The Upsetters. At Randy’s Studio 17 in Kingston they recorded the group’s third album, Soul Rebels. It was released in December 1970, before The Best of the Wailers.
Soul Rebels was a major achievement, and the first album released under the name Bob Marley and the Wailers. It’s also the first album on which Marley’s reggae direction was fully realised.
A year later, in 1971, another album by Bob Marley and the Wailers was released, with music from the same sessions. Called Soul Revolution it also was produced by Perry and released on his Upsetter label.
Marley, Tosh and Livingston now decided to also play their own instruments. Marley played guitar, Tosh guitar and keyboards, and Livingston percussion. They were backed by two musicians from the Upsetters, bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett and his brother and drummer Carlton. This classic line-up of The Wailers was completed by backing singers Marcia Griffiths and Marley’s wife Rita Marley.
By the end of 1971 Danny Sims managed to sign both Johnny Nash and Bob Marley to the CBS label Epic, and in February 1972, Sims, Nash and Marley flew out to London. Marley convinced Sims to also fly over the rest of the Wailers. They met up with the then already legendary producer and label-owner Chris Blackwell, who had co-founded Island Records, in 1959.
Blackwell asked the band how much they needed to record an album, and when they replied 4000 pounds, he simply wrote them a cheque for the amount. When Blackwell flew to Jamaica a few months later and looked up the band, he discovered that they’d used the money to record a master piece, with remarkable songs like “Concrete Jungle,” “Slave Driver,” and “Stir It Up.” Catch A Fire was released on April 13, 1973, and has become widely recognised as one of the best reggae albums ever made.
Eager to capture the momentum of Catch a Fire, a follow up was recorded quickly, and released half a year later. Burnin’ was also recorded in Kingston and mixed in London, and the three core tracks: “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” and “Burnin’ and Lootin,” demonstrated Marley’s amazing talent for writing seriously catchy anthemic songs.
A year later Eric Clapton had a worldwide hit with his cover of “I Shot The Sheriff,” which played a large part in putting Bob Marley’s name on the map for white rock audiences. Clapton’s version was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003.
Pete Tosh and Bunny Livingston left The Wailers, and Marley and a partially new band recorded Natty Dread, which was released in October 1974. The album contains classics like “No Woman, No Cry and “Lively Up Yourself,” and has been called Marley’s “finest album,” and “the ultimate reggae recording of all time.”
Some of Marley and the Wailers’ ecstatic, dance and trance-inducing live performances were documented for posterity on the album Live!, recorded at the Lyceum in London on July 17 and 18, 1975. It was released at the end of 1975, and continues to be regarded as one of the best live albums of all time.
Riding high on the success of Live!, Marley and The Wailers recorded Rastaman Vibration, which was released in April 1976, and their first album entirely produced by the band itself—previous albums released on Island Records had been co-produced by The Wailers and Chris Blackwell.
In recognition of Bob Marley and the Wailer’s extraordinary live achievements, Rolling Stone magazine named them Band of the Year at the end of 1976. Everything seemed to be going well for Marley, but on December 3, gunmen attacked Marley’s home, and his manager, his wife Rita and Marley himself all sustained bullet wounds.
Marley left Jamaica soon afterwards. He spent the whole of 1977 and the beginning of 1978 in the UK. During the first half of 1977 he recorded two albums at Island Studios in London, Exodus and Kaya.
Exodus was released in June of 1977, and contains many classic songs, amongst them “Natural Mystic,” “So Much Things To Say,” “The Heathen,” “Exodus,” “Jamming,” “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” “One Love,” and “Three Little Birds.” In 1999, Time magazine listed Exodus as the best album of the 20th century.
Kaya was released in March 1978 and much more laid-back, to the point that there were accusations of the Wailers having gone soft. But it contained the classic songs “Satisfy My Soul” and “Is This Love,” Marley’s best-selling single and another demonstration of his exceptional gift for melody and writing memorable lyrics.
Another widely lauded live album was released in November 1978, Babylon By Bus, mostly recorded in June that year in Paris. Two more albums followed, both recorded in Jamaica at Marley’s Tuff Gong studios. Survival was released in October 1979, and co-produced by The Wailers with American producer Alex Sadkin. Uprising was co-produced by Marley and Chris Blackwell, and the last studio album released during Marley’s lifetime.
Marley had been diagnosed with malignant melanoma under his toenail in July 1977. Marley failed to have further check-ups, and in September 1980 he collapsed while jogging in Central Park in New York. The diagnosis was that he had only weeks to live. Marley died in Miami on May 11th, 1981, at the age of 36, and received a state funeral in Jamaica on May 21st.
Marley’s legacy continues to live, arguably even more strongly than during his lifetime. Marley’s 13th and final studio album, Confrontation, that collates previously unreleased material, singles and reworked demos, was released in 1983. It contains the now classic song “Buffalo Soldier.”
A year later, in May 1984, the compilation album Legend was released, which became Bob Marley and the Wailers’ best-selling album, and one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Bob Marley was posthumously inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2001, he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2010, his 1973 album Catch A Fire was inducted in the Grammy Hall Of Fame. The BBC named “One Love” Song Of the Millennium. Marley’s music continues to be played and revered around the world, and reggae influences have permeated everywhere.
During the funeral ceremony in May 1981, Edward Seaga, the then Jamaican Prime Minister, summarized Marley’s achievements eloquently. He said, “Marley’s voice was an omnipresent cry in our electronic world. His sharp features, majestic looks, and prancing style a vivid etching on the landscape of our minds. Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”
The only addition to be made is that Marley makes a deep imprint on everyone everywhere, and continues to be part of the collective consciousness of the entire world.
© 2021, Paul Tingen
Watch the video below to learn more about Bob Marley!