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Sitting in a Reggae bar in Halkidiki, Northern Greece, I got into some pleasant conversation with the Greek barmaid. As 'One Love' played on the sound system she told me, over the top of some very loud bass, that Bob Marley was the King of Reggae.
I paused for an instant before replying because this was a statement I had heard many, many times before. It occurred to me that this statement might not, necessarily, be correct. If it was correct, then it could only be in the sense that Elvis Presley was King of Rock ‘n' Roll. Elvis certainly had the greatest voice of all time but his main achievement was to set the stage for others who came later - as Buddy Holly once said, 'Without Elvis none of us could have made it'.
So where, you might ask, does Marley fit in with Rock ‘n’ Roll? Well, I reckon Marley's greatest achievement was also to set the stage for others and, as with Elvis, there was some pretty deft marketing going on behind the scenes of his success. Sun Records launched Elvis onto the world stage in a blaze of publicity and Island Records launched Bob in a similar manner.
At this point we are in need of some historical background. Unlike Elvis, Bob had been in commercial music for some ten years when, in 1972, Chris Blackwell signed him and the rest of The Wailers for Island. The band had recorded for many studios right through the Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae eras but had a reputation for being, quite simply, loose cannons and thugs.
Now, Bob was a tough guy from the Kingston shanties but he was also thoughtful and even gentle in his own way. His fellow Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, were not. Tosh, in particular, was seen as a vicious rude boy (although he claimed to be a Rastafarian) and we must suspect that Marley was pulled along and overshadowed by Tosh, who considered himself the band's leader.
When Blackwell agreed to sign the Wailers he had already decided that he'd make Marley the front man and that's exactly what happened. Within two years both Tosh and Livingstone had stormed out of the band, leaving Marley and Blackwell with the opportunity to clean up both musically and financially. In any case, Tosh had totally overshadowed the five-foot-nothing Marley on stage - Marley was never to allow this to happen again and, from that time, rigorously discouraged band members from 'showboating'.
The stage was set and Bob Marley, The Legend, was about to take off. The shrewd Blackwell had sensed the direction that popular music was moving (hippy-dom was transforming into rebellious punk-dom) and aimed Bob squarely at this market. The plan worked and The Wailers, following their first Island album release ‘Catch A Fire’ in 1973, were hailed in Jamaica, the UK and even the US. This was something unparalleled in the history of Carribean-style music although Blackwell had previously had some chart success with Millie Small (‘My Boy Lollipop’) and The Spencer Davis Group (‘Keep on Running’).
The follow-up album was ‘Burning’ which included the track ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ that Eric Clapton covered and pushed to No.1 in the US singles’ charts, thereby increasing Marley’s appeal to the Americans. In the UK during 1975 Bob and The Wailers made their famous appearances at the Lyceum Ballroom, two of which were recorded and it was these shows that really introduced Britain to Bob Marley the Rastafarian. The album ‘Live’ was put together from the recordings and the tracks included Marley’s superb rendition of ‘No Woman No Cry’.
Many young people, who previously would never have given Reggae a second look, took to Bob with his dreadlocks, rebellious style and associations with ‘da weed’. He was now the James Dean of popular music, which was a concept nobody could have imagined during the first UK Reggae invasion, in the mod-dominated 1960s. Reggae was now also a big deal in the US and it all seemed like science fiction!
Outside of music, Bob (because of his socialist stance) became involved in Jamaican politics and lent his support to Michael Manley during the elections of 1976. His base was then the Kingston house he’d acquired from Chris Blackwell (I think Blackwell had moved into Ian Fleming’s former home). It was here that Bob was machine-gunned in his kitchen (the bullet holes are still there), probably by the supporters of politician Edward Seaga. Bob fled injured to the US but his personal manager was seriously hurt in the attack.
Marley returned to Jamaica eighteen months later to appear at The Peace Concert, put together in order to bring an end to the chaos of 1970s Jamaica, by uniting the government and opposition sides against political violence. Here Bob gave an electric performance with his renditions of Natty Dread, ‘Jamming’ and ‘Jah Live’. His shamanistic and trance-like appearance for ‘Natty Dread’ had the crowd going wild whilst during ‘Jamming’ he brought warring politicians Manley and Seaga together on stage for the very first time. They next met in 1981 at Marley’s funeral.
What is most interesting about this concert is the fact that Marley did not top the bill – that place went to Jacob Miller singing with the group Inner Circle, who, some might remember, had a UK hit in the 90s with ‘Sweat’. The rotund Miller was very ‘big’ in Jamaica at the time whilst Marley (partly due to his enforced absence) had drifted down the ratings - Jamaica is, after all, the most fickle music market in the world. Miller’s powerful performances at that concert must rank as the best ever seen on a Jamaican stage – ‘Run for Cover: Rasta Taking Over’ being particularly memorable.
For those who are prepared to do a little foraging it should be possible to find a copy of the video recording of this event. In Jamaica it was released as ‘Heartland Reggae’ but the wily old marketing men renamed it ‘Bob Marley: One Love Peace Concert’ for the UK. You won’t find too much Marley on the video but the footage is a good intro to Reggae with Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, U-Roy, Junior Tucker, and Lloyd Parks all making an appearance.
All of the last-mentioned performers were contemporaries of Marley but none were able to break into the mainstream of popular music the way that Bob did. Jacob Miller died in a Kingston car smash in 1980 (whilst getting a pizza for Bob Marley) but the brilliant Dennis Brown never got the recognition he deserved. Peter Tosh could never come to terms with Marley’s success and had to team up with the Rolling Stones to get just a glimmer of limelight.
Those who made the pop charts prior to Marley’s second-coming under Island never managed to cash in on the Rasta’s new success and many ended up languishing in prisons or lunatic asylums. Others died penniless from drugs, rum abuse, or, like Tosh, collected the gangster’s bullet. Even Jimmy ‘Harder They Fall’ Cliff never really made it, nor did Desmond Dekker (of ‘007’ fame) and the members of the band that started it all, The Skatallites, finished their days either as sessions musicians or touring European mod-revival concerts.
The list of ‘nearly men’ is endless but the name Bob Marley remains synonymous with Reggae and success. For many of the hundreds of Reggae singers who walked into Kingston’s studios there never was a pay-day. I would guess that the biggest cheque ever picked up by Prince Buster came after he featured on a jeans advert a few years back. Without the continuing Marley legacy I feel he’d have long been forgotten by the world.
In retrospect, Marley appears to have pocketed all the available cash, leaving little for his contemporaries. In 1981, after Marley’s death from cancer, his estate was valued at $30 million - perhaps $150 million or more in today’s terms. When you remember that Bob was easily parted from his cash by so-called friends, then, this must represent a very small proportion of his total earnings. These earnings had been greatly boosted by Marley’s own record label Tuff Gong.
Marley’s principle contribution to music was to make Reggae acceptable in the mainstream of popular music. The various strands of the genre, Dancehall, Raggamuffin and the rest that followed, all owed their success to Bob’s initial penetration of the pop marketplace. His inventive arrangements and performances on stage, allied with Blackwell’s business acumen, assured success. His voice, I feel, was only ever ‘average’ - Jackie Edwards and Gregory Isaacs had more tone and quality whilst Jacob Miller definitely had the greater power.
So, after all that, was Bob Marley the King of Reggae?
Not a King as such - more a Prince and, moreover, a Prince among Princes.
[Robert Nesta Marley is buried in a mausoleum at his home village of Nine Miles, Ja. where his body is guarded day and night by a band of loyal Rastafarians]