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Bob Marley & The Wailers

Long before a certain Usain “Lightning” Bolt was breaking records (or even born), Jamaica had another famous record-breaking legend in Rastafarian pop star BOB MARLEY. Transcending his message of peace and love all over the globe, Bob and The Wailers (PETER TOSH, Bunny Livingston, Junior Braithwaite, among them) put reggae and their impoverished country on the map. Singing songs of freedom at a time when prog, glam and folk rock were in vogue, MARLEY gave the world a melting pot of uplifting anthems, from `No Woman No Cry’, `Exodus’ and `Jamming’ to `Is This Love’ and its mellow counterpart `Could You Be Loved’.
Born Robert Nesta Marley, February 6, 1945 in St. Ann’s, Jamaica, the son of a middle-aged white English sea-captain and a black Jamaican lass, he took flight to Kingston when only aged 14, following his idol Joe Higgs (a devout Rastafarian) into the world of music. By the early 60s, in common with most of his other countrymen (save older calypso fans), Bob became influenced by ska and bluebeat, cutting his debut solo single, `Judge Not!’ (credited to Robert Marley & Beverley’s All Stars) with the help of producer Leslie Kong; `One Cup Of Coffee’ (a 45 shared with veteran TOMMY McCOOK) followed in early ‘63, but an argument over payments led to MARLEY breaking away.
The budding star subsequently formed vocal quintet, The Teenagers, who, in turn, became The Wailing Rudeboys, and then of course, The WAILERS. As aforementioned, this crew consisted of singers MARLEY, Tosh, Livingston, Braithwaite, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith, plus instrumental backing from The Soul Brothers, and subsequently The SKATALITES.
Teaming up with legendary producer Coxsone Dodd, their first single `I’m Still Waiting’ saw decent sales. But it was when Braithwaite and Smith bailed out, that second group single `Simmer Down’, became a massive homeland hit in early ’64; the outfit recording a further string of 45s for Dodd’s seminal Studio One and Coxsone imprints until they split in ‘66. MARLEY’s career was put on hold, however, when he married singer Rita Anderson (of The Soulettes) and duly spent a year in America visiting his mother who had moved to Newark, Delaware three years previously.
Bob, having just turned 21, returned to his homeland, setting up his own Wail ‘N’ Soul ‘M label with up-and-coming reggae star JOHNNY NASH; duly re-uniting The WAILERS alongside Tosh and Livingston. Although their releases during this period met with little success outside their Jamaican confines, the trio (plus producer Danny Sims) immersed themselves in the Rastafarian religion which would subsequently influence much of their later work.
The eponymous and rare Jamaican-only LP, THE WAILING WAILERS (1966) {*7}, was one such release that was somewhat overshadowed by a groundswell of 7-inch 45s hitting the import specialists. Early Clement “Coxsone” Dodd productions of `Put It On’, `One Love’, `Simmer Down’ and others, would later surface within the MARLEY solo canon, whereas trio covers of `What’s New Pussycat’ and `Ten Commandments Of Love’ (featuring The Soul Brothers) suggested Bob was groomed as his nation’s answer to SMOKEY ROBINSON.
In 1969, The WAILERS began working with pivotal songwriter/producer, LEE “SCRATCH” PERRY, and over the course of the ensuing three years, developed from a soul/ska/R&B vocal outfit to form one of the cornerstones of reggae. With the addition of Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass and brother Carlton on drums (the former rhythm section of PERRY’s skabeat combo The UPSETTERS), the newly expanded WAILERS cut a further series of singles under the guiding hand of their enigmatic knob-twiddler, including such enduring tracks as `Kaya’, `Trenchtown Rock’ and `Small Axe’, as well as a debut album, SOUL REBELS (1970) {*7}. With their unmistakable rock steady beat and soulful harmonies in tow, MARLEY’s singing could compare to American counterpart MARVIN GAYE on the likes of Motown-esque `Try Me’, although roots-reggae spirited away all the best tunes by way of `My Cup’, `Soul Rebel’ and `Reaction’; Peter Tosh had his say in the mighty `400 Years’.
By 1971, BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS had formed their own label, Tuff Gong, and had begun producing their own material. The following year, after JOHNNY NASH had taken Bob’s `Stir It Up’ into the UK Top 20, the group signed to Island; boss Chris Blackwell having previously distributed their early and rare 45s in independent outlets in London. The entrepreneur provided financial muscle for the outfit to record their major label debut in Jamaica. Their WAILERS’ first release to be promoted and widely available outside their home country, CATCH A FIRE (1973) {*9}, was a scorching, bass-heavy liberation, providing a platform for impassioned, challenging lyrics on the likes of `Concrete Jungle’ and a revision of `400 Years’. While the superior band version of `Stir It Up’ glowed with laid-back positivity, other future live staples were also on show in `Stop That Train’, `Slave Driver’, Kinky Reggae’ and `Baby We’ve Got A Date (Rock It Baby)’; the latter’s beats partly procured by Hamilton Bohannon for uptempo dance hit `Disco Stomp’ in ‘75.
BURNIN’ (1973) {*8} followed soon afterwards, an even firmer set of spiritually and politically motivated songs that featured `Get Up, Stand Up’, a call for individual liberty powered by a knotty, insistent rhythm, as well as the plea for justice, `I Shot The Sheriff’, a US chart-topper for ERIC CLAPTON the following summer. Re-vamps of earlier classics such as `Small Axe, `Duppy Conqueror’ and `Put It On’ sat seamlessly alongside Bob’s dig at JIMMY CLIFF’s `Many Rivers To Cross’ by way of `Burnin’ And Lootin’, while the spiritual healing was found in Jean Watt’s `Hallelujah Time’ and `Pass It On’, Tosh’s `One Foundation’, plus traditional bookend `Rastaman Chant’.
But by the end of the year, however, both Peter and Bunny (the latter renaming himself Bunny Wailer) both departed for individual solo careers, while MARLEY recruited The I-Threes (a female vocal trio consisting of his wife Rita, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths) as a replacement, as well as bringing in extra backing musicians (Bernard “Touter” Harvey on keys and lead guitarist Al Anderson.
Under the revised moniker of BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS, the outfit toured extensively for the first time in Europe, America and Africa, subsequently releasing the exceptional NATTY DREAD (1975) {*8}. A landmark roots reggae album, the set featured a studio version of the subsequent live hit, `No Woman, No Cry’, a sublime love song penned by Vincent “Tata” Ford with the I-Threes providing celestial harmonies, and the singer putting in one of the most moving vocal performances of his career. Elsewhere, `Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)’ and `Revolution’ were as politically charged as ever, while `So Jah Seh’ and the title track were ardent professions of MARLEY’s Rastafarian beliefs. Opener `Lively Up Yourself’ was his uplifting message to his people, a people now that had begun to idolise the man and his music.
Recorded at the Lyceum Ballroom in London, LIVE! {*8} was issued later that year, documenting an electric Wailers performance including foremost renditions of `No Woman, No Cry’ and `I Shot The Sheriff’.
RASTAMAN VIBRATION (1976) {*7} gave MARLEY and Co their biggest commercial success to date, reaching Top 20 in the UK, and Top 10 in the US on the back of minor one-hit-wonder single, `Roots, Rock, Reggae’ (also penned by Ford). As much a group album as Bob’s (who only penned two tracks here, `Night Shift’ and `Cry To Me’), the Barrett’s best contribution was `Who The Cap Fit’, while Rita Marley parted with the excellent `Johnny Was’ and `Rat Race’.
Taking its title from his temporary move from Jamaica to England after an assassination attempt (which saw him wounded) the previous December, EXODUS (1977) {*8} cracked the US Top 20. The album was the final release to make any significant commercial impact Stateside, the group’s most vociferous fans residing in the UK, Europe, Africa and of course, Jamaica, where MARLEY was understandably revered as if he was royalty. In general a more relaxed set than its predecessor, other hit highlights included the gentle `Waiting In Vain’, the celebratory `Jamming’ and the driving and empowering 7-minute+ title track; the latter drawing his Biblical parallels with Moses and his Israelites to the Jah’s movement to free the Rastas. On a lighter note, the hook-laden pop-reggae of `Three Little Birds’ (a belated hit in 1980) and the spiritual `One Love – People Get Ready’ (a posthumous UK Top 5 entry in 1984) and lovers-rock ballad `Turn Your Lights Down Low’, saw a softer side to the man.
KAYA (1978) {*7} carried on in a similar vein with the spliffed-out `Easy Skanking’, a song to balance the romantic and mellow `Is This Love’ and `Satisfy My Soul’ (both UK hits) and the meditative `Time Will Tell’ (later covered by The BLACK CROWES). Uplifting and turned into a Top 3 hit over two decades later, `Sun Is Shining’ (although here there was no sign of collaborator Funkstar De Luxe) was another summery delight, while the title track was simply delicious with its fruity DESMOND DEKKER-like beats.
After live double-set release BABYLON BY BUS (1978) {*7} marked a somewhat mystifying downscale in sales, Top 20 return SURVIVAL (1979) {*6} too, had its knockers. Probably the most overtly political release of his/their career, with MARLEY addressing the plight of his African brethren on `Zimbabwe’ and `Africa Unite’, it boasted only one minor hit, the similarly-themed `So Much Trouble In The World’.
UPRISING (1980) {*7} was released the same year as MARLEY was diagnosed with cancer, lending a new poignancy to tracks like `Redemption Song’, a beautiful, stripped down piece of African folk and arguably the singer’s most spiritually resonant work. Funky and slinky with a certain juicy fluidity (`Could You Be Loved’ was pulled for his biggest hit to date), Bob’s vision to find a cure for the world rather than himself was apparent on `Real Situation’, `Work’ and `Zion Train’.
The record proved to be his epitaph and the final release before his tragic death on May 11, 1981. Later that summer, a Sunsplash Reggae Festival was dedicated to MARLEY and was attended by over 20,000 fans as well as his children, The Melody Makers. The posthumous Rita Marley-produced CONFRONTATION (1983) {*6} gave the great man another Top 5 placing, while it also spawned the equally fruitful hit, `Buffalo Soldier’, definitely one of his most catchy tunes. Mixing politics and lovers rock was always MARLEY’s forte, and songs like `Blackman Redemption’ and its counterpart `Jump Nyabinghi’ were no exceptions.
More post-WAILERS tragedy was to follow in 1987 when Carlton Barrett and PETER TOSH were both murdered in separate incidents, reflecting the inherently violent nature of Jamaican culture. Further controversy followed when Rita was ousted by the remaining Wailers amid calls for an investigation into the MARLEY estate. Nevertheless, the legend of BOB MARLEY remained untarnished, the singer still a hero to countless Rastafarians and ordinary music fans alike. The singer’s massive popularity was further illustrated in 1992 when SONGS OF FREEDOM {*6}, a collection of newly discovered demos, reached the UK Top 10; a single culled from the set, `Iron Zion Lion’, proved equally fruitful; MARLEY had been hitting the charts in one way or another ever since his untimely death.
But yet again, evil reared its ugly head when original Wailers chanter Junior Braithwaite was gunned down (in his hometown of Kingston) by an unknown assailant on June 2, 1999. On a lighter note, and keeping up to date, the acclaimed Kevin MacDonald-director “Marley” movie (complete with soundtrack) was finally premiered in April 2012.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Jan2020

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