As I recall, just two members of a band called Aswad arrived at the Hammersmith office of Island Records with a cassette tape one day in the summer of 1975. They were Brinsley Forde, the singer and rhythm guitarist, and George Oban, the bass player. There wasn’t much on the tape beyond a few scratchily recorded rhythm tracks. But I liked what I heard and I wanted to know more and to meet the rest of them. We arranged for them to return a few days later, at five o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 15.
The timing was important because one member of the band was still at school. That was Angus Gaye, their drummer, who turned up along with Brinsley, George, Donald Griffiths, the lead guitarist, and Courtney Hemmings, the keyboards player. They were young — Angus was 16 — and they had a nice combination of energy (particularly Angus) and seriousness (particularly George). I liked the fact that they chosen a name that meant “black”.
It was obvious that they worshipped Bob Marley and the Wailers, who would be playing their historic gig at the Lyceum two nights later, on Thursday, July 17. Their song titles would make the influence explicit: “I A Rebel Soul”, “Concrete Slaveship”. I liked the idea of a young British reggae band taking that as their inspiration and doing something of their own with it, infusing their songs with their own experience as the children of immigrants from the Caribbean. There wasn’t yet a Steel Pulse or a Misty in Roots on the scene, while Greyhound and Matumbi were still basically pop rather than roots reggae bands.
A combination of memory and diaries tells me that we gave them some time in the rehearsal room and the studio to make demos, and eventually I played something to Chris Blackwell on one of his visits to London and told him I wanted to sign them. He was fine with that, so we gave them a contract. They went into the studio at the back of our building on St Peter’s Square, with Tony Platt — who had worked with Blackwell on Catch a Fire and Burnin’ — as their engineer and co-producer, and came out with the 16-track tapes that they and Platt mixed at Basing Street into a debut album that was something to be proud of.
By the time it came out they were adopting new names. Angus would become Drummie Zeb. He sang lead on “Back to Africa”, the track that was pulled from the album to make the first single, and eventually he became the group’s main lead singer. I left Island soon after the album was released, just as they were starting what I believe to have been the first experiments by a band using dub techniques in live performance. I was able to watch in admiration from afar as they made great records like “Three Babylon” and “Warrior Charge”, as they backed Burning Spear on his concert dates, as Angus played drums on Marley’s “Punky Reggae Party”, as — much later — they had their No 1 hit with “Don’t Turn Around”, and as they played big gigs like Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at Wembley and Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay.
Angus/Drummie died last Friday, September 2, aged 62. I think of him and his band, and of their youthful enthusiasm on the day they came to see me at St Peter’s Square, with great fondness.
* The portrait of Angus/Drummie was taken by Dennis Morris for the cover of Aswad, the band’s debut album.
When the Wailers visited the US for the first time in October 1973, they were already changing shape from the group that had made the beginnings of a breakthrough to the rock audience earlier in the year with Catch a Fire. Peter Tosh was still alongside Bob Marley, but Bunny Livingston had opted out of the tour in protest against the lure of Babylon. His replacement, for this short expedition only, was Joe Higgs, an older singer who had mentored the group in their earliest days. In fact it was said to have been in Higgs’s Trenchtown yard that Bob, Tosh and Bunny had first met.
Once they’d been relieved of their slot as support act to Sly and the Family Stone, they found themselves in Los Angeles, where the producer Denny Cordell persuaded his friend Chris Blackwell of Island Records, the Wailers’ producer, to allow him to film the group in the studios of Capitol Records on Hollywood and Vine, in front of a small invited audience. Forty-eight years later, the results have finally seen the light of day in a DVD and an album titled Bob Marley and the Wailers:The CapitolSession ’73.
It’s a fascinating document for a number of reasons. The 88-minute film shows what is really a semi-public rehearsal, with lots of stops and starts to make minor adjustments of tempos and feels. Amid clouds of ganja smoke, the grooves are allowed to settle and flourish, permitting a clear sight of the contribution of Earl Lindo on keys, Aston Barrett on bass guitar and Carlton Barrett on drums, with Tosh’s guitar fills spicing Marley’s steady ska-derived strumming. Higgs is a discreet presence in the front line, singing high and low harmonies and adding percussion touches on timbales, cowbell and hand-drum.
Marley, once a member of an equally balanced triumvirate, is clearly moving to centre-stage. Of the dozen songs they play, Tosh sings lead on only two, his own “Can’t Blame the Youth” and “Stop that Train”. The rest, apart from the co-written “Get Up, Stand Up”, are all Bob’s. For me the strongest groove is on “Rastaman Chant”, which drifts and surges like some piece of funk-sodden minimalism from Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, with Tosh, Marley and Higgs all on Rastafarian hand drums, and there’s a stinging poignancy in hearing Bob singing “One bright morning, when my work is over, man will fly away home…”
With a year Tosh would have followed Bunny and the group would be billed as Bob Marley and the Wailers on the cover of Natty Dread. The following year’s Live at the Lyceum would establish once and for all Marley’s position as the sole focal point. The Wailers were now the rhythm section and the harmonies were supplied by three women, the I-Threes. Fans of their earliest music — the mid-’60s singles like “Put It On” and “Sunday Morning” — believed that something had been lost, but there can be no doubt that the emphasis on promoting the charismatic Marley gave reggae its push towards international recognition and success. Watch the DVD and you can see it starting to happen.
It was during the sessions for Catch A Fire in September 1972 that Joe Higgs took me to Trenchtown, at Chris Blackwell’s behest. With Dickie Jobson at the wheel of Blackwell’s Mini Moke, Higgs showed me the shacks for which families paid a government-controlled rent amounting to 60p a week, talked about the iniquities of the Jamaican music business and told me how he was having to work as a dental assistant to supplement his meagre earnings from music. As we stopped and talked, he was mildly berated by a passer-by for bringing a white man into the neighbourhood.
Born in Kingston in 1940, Higgs had made his first records as a teenager in a duo with Roy Wilson, known as Higgs and Wilson. He had spent a little time in the US and when I met him he had just released a fine single, “Let Us Do Something”, on his own Elevation label. As with the Wailers, Blackwell was paying for him to make an album, which eventually came out three years later, not on Island but on Adrian Sherwood’s Pressure Sounds label, which also released a follow-up, Unity Is Power, in 1979. Probably Blackwell felt he had enough on his hands with the Wailers and Burning Spear; maybe, too, he concluded that Higgs, already in his thirties, was unlikely to make a crossover to a wider audience.
Higgs gave me a copy of ‘Let Us Do Something”, which I’ve always cherished for its unusual out of tempo intro — acoustic guitar and bowed double bass — and his lead vocal, which sounds like Richie Havens transported from Washington Square to the government yard on First Street, infused by a characteristic sense of wisdom imparted without rhetorical flourishes. He died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1999, mentioned in all the histories of Marley and the Wailers but with his own work still mostly unrecognised. Apart from the film’s more obvious value as a historical document, it’s nice to have it as a memento of his significance.
* The Capitol Sessions ’73 is released on DVD, CD and vinyl by Universal Music.
It’s 40 years this week since Jamaica came to a halt for the funeral of its most famous son. What follows is an expanded version of the reports I wrote on that extraordinary day for The Times and the French magazine Rock & Folk.
They buried Bob Marley on 21 May 1981 at Nine Mile, the Jamaican hamlet where, 36 years earlier, he had been born. His heavy bronze coffin was carried to the top of the highest hill in the village and placed in a temporary mausoleum which had been painted in the colours of red, green and gold. Alongside Marley’s embalmed corpse, the casket contained his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja placed there by his widow, Rita, at the end of the formal funeral ceremony.
In London 10 days earlier, a few hours after his death was announced, I’d gone to the Island studios in an old church on Basing Street in Notting Hill. I knew the members of Aswad were scheduled to be there, cutting tracks for a new album in the very basement room where Bob had finished off Catch A Fire, his breakthrough album, in 1972. But it was late, and the musicians had gone home after watching the tributes hastily assembled by the British television networks. The only people left in the building were the caretaker and a member of Aswad’s road crew, both Jamaicans.
“A sad day,” I said to them, unable to think of anything more profound or perceptive.
They raised their eyes, and the roadie paused in the middle of rolling a spliff.
“Jah give,” he said, “and Jah take away.”
And that was the mood in Kingston the following week, when Marley’s body arrived on a flight from Miami. There was no reason to grieve, the Rastas told anyone who asked. Death meant nothing. And Bob hadn’t really gone. He was still among us.
Since Jamaica was at that time almost certainly the only country in the world whose prime minister had once tried his hand at the production of pop records, it was perhaps not surprising that the announcement of the country’s national budget was postponed by several days in order to accommodate what amounted to a state funeral. It was necessary to send out invitations, to construct the mausoleum, and to organise the security at the National Arena, where the main ceremony would be held. And the prime minister, Edward Seaga, had to prepare the euology he would deliver during the service.
On the day before the funeral, the coffin was placed in the National Arena, a large gymnasium-like building. The lid was opened and members of the public were allowed to file past, taking a last look and delivering their final homage. Marley’s head was once more covered with dreadlocks; but this was a wig to cover his bald skull, his own locks having been lost during his treatment for cancer in hospitals in New York, Miami and Mexico, and finally in the Bavarian clinic of Dr Josef Issels.
In Jamaica, everyone claimed to have been Bob’s personal friend and everyone wanted to pay their last respects. The cab driver who picked me up at Norman Manley Airport knew immediately why I was there. When I asked him if he’d known Bob, he replied: “Sure I knew him. He smoked the ‘erb of life.” And he passed his spliff over his shoulder to his friend sitting in the back seat, a policeman.
In a single day, an estimated 100,000 people queued up to pass before Marley’s coffin, some of them returning two or three times. Many couldn’t get in and at times, when the crowd threatened to become unruly, the police used tear gas to thin them out.
The day of the funeral began with a service for family and close friends at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Maxfield Street, presided over by His Eminence Abouna Yesehaq, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere, who had baptised Marley into membership of his church in New York the previous November. This was just after his triumphal concerts at Madison Square Garden, when his cancer had already been diagnosed. Bob’s baptismal name was Berhane Selassie — “Light of the Trinity”.
At the end of the hour-long service the coffin was transported to the National Arena, where 6,000 members of the congregation were assembled under the eyes of television cameras and reporters from around the world. Above the entrance to the hall, a huge banner proclaimed: “Funeral Service of the Honourable Robert Nesta Marley, OM”. The Order of Merit had been conferred on him by Seaga a few weeks before his death.
The casket was carried into the hall on the shoulders of a score of white-jacketed guards of the Jamaican Defence Force. Inside as well as out, a public address system blasted out Bob’s records, while in the surrounding avenues the hawkers of badges and posters worked the large crowd who had arrived without invitations and were prepared to listen to the ceremony over the loudspeakers.
“Babylon system is a vampire,” Bob’s voice wailed above the heads of the young soldiers who had rested their rifles against the temporary barriers. The coffin was deposited on a table in the middle of the broad stage and covered with two flags, the green, gold and black of Jamaica and the green, gold and red of Ethiopia. The stage decor was the work of Neville Garrick, the graphic designer who had become the art director of Tuff Gong, Marley’s record label, and the creator of all the Wailers’ sleeve art from Rastaman Vibration to Uprising. The rows of temporary seating on the arena floor were reserved for invited guests, but the balconies were open to the public and filled up quickly. Among the spectators were many small figures in the neat uniforms of Jamaican schoolchildren, given the day off from their lessons. On the floor, the rows were marked with signs: Family, Government, Press, Twelve Tribes of Israel, Musicians.
Photographers swiftly surrounded the seats reserved for the family as Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, took her place, followed by his widow and some of his children, including his sons Ziggy, Stevie, Robert Jr and Julian, and his daughters Cedella and Stephanie. Applause saluted the dignified entry of Michael Manley, the former prime minister, whose pro-Cuba policies had provoked the disastrous enmity of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, and who had been deposed by Seaga at a general election six months earlier. The warmth of the welcome indicated that the Rastafarians, in particular, still saw Manley as the friend of the poor and the oppressed, and the contrast was obvious with the polite but tepid reception accorded to Seaga, who hurried to his seat practically engulfed by a crowd of uniformed guards.
Rumours of the presence of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack turned out to be false. But the governor-general of Jamaica, Sir Florizel Glasspole, ON, GCMG, CD, the Queen of England’s representative, arrived from his official residence, the palatial King’s House, to provide an appropriate symbol of the island’s colonial history, a living reminder of the origins of most of those present, whose ancestors had been brought from Africa four centuries earlier to form the world’s only entirely slavery-based economy.
The formal guard of the Ethiopian Church, elderly men and women in white robes striped with the Rasta colours, took their places around the coffin. The stage was soon filled with the elders of the church, in robes of varied and vivid design. On the right of the platform a riser had been prepared for the church choir and for the United Africa Band, a group comprised of several percussionists, a bass guitarist and an organist, directed by Brother Cedric Brooks, the saxophonist more often found at the head of the band of Count Ossie, known as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. On the left, another riser was covered with amplifiers, keyboards and the drums, all stencilled with the legend “Bob Marley and the Wailers”.
A voice came over the PA. “Brothers and sisters, this is a funeral service for Bob Marley. Please don’t forget that. The selling of all merchandise must stop now.” In the row in front of me, the producer Harry J, accompanied by his protegée, the singer Sheila Hilton, was in the middle of a conversation with a neighbouring Rasta wearing a red, green and gold tam o’shanter. “There has to be revolution to get a solution,” the Rasta said. Harry J, immaculate in his glossy silk suit, didn’t seem to be in agreement. (I had last seen Harry J outside his studio nine years earlier, during the Catch A Fire sessions, when he had taken a silver Smith & Wesson revolver out of the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and tucked it into his shoulder holster before heading inside. I wondered if he was wearing it to the funeral, but didn’t ask.)
A little while after the scheduled hour of 11 o’clock, the service began with a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past”, led by Cedric Brooks and accompanied by his drummers. As the old Anglican melody died away, His Eminence Abouna Yesehaq, standing beneath a parasol held by an acolyte, read passages from the Anaphora of St John, Son of Thunder and from the Anaphora of St Mary in Geez and Amharic, the ancient tongues of Ethiopia. “Jah!” came the answering salutation from some members of the audience, clad in the raiment of the Twelve Tribes. “Rastafari!”
The Governor General stepped forward to read the first lesson, taken from the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 20-38: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” The congregation sang another hymn, coincidentally a favourite of the late Elvis Presley: “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art.” Michael Manley, in his guise as Leader of the Opposition, read from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter three, verses 7-13: “Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith / For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.”
Next, to the delight of the Rastafarians on the floor and in the balcony, it was the turn of Allan “Skill” Cole, Jamaica’s finest footballer and one of the dead man’s closest friends. His appearance barely tolerated by the elders of the Ethiopian Church, Cole had been scheduled to read from Psalm 68, which bears the subtitle “To the chief Musician, a Psalm or Song of David.” Instead, ignoring the text prepared for him by the elders, he announced that he intended to deliver passages from Corinthians and Isaiah particularly dear to Rasta hearts. Mutterings and shufflings among the church dignitaries on the platform were countered by the sounds of delighted approval from those clad, like Cole, in the robes of the Twelve Tribes. Their mood turned to riotous glee as the footballer refused to heed furious requests to leave the platform, instead continuing with his reading and finishing off by returning to his seat in triumph.
The Archbishop recovered himself in time to read the Beatitudes — “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” — and to lead the Lord’s Prayer before Edward Seaga, once a producer of ska records, made his appearance at the lectern to deliver his eulogy, which was memorable only for his closing benediction: “May his soul rest,” said the man in the business suit, “in the arms of Jah Rastafari.” Even the Twelve Tribes, otherwise opposed to Seaga’s worldview in every particular, could scarce forbear to cheer this unusually explicit acknowledgement of their existence within Jamaican society.
When the time came for the Archbishop to deliver his address, he took the opportunity to take his revenge on the seditious “Skill” Cole in the form of a direct message to the Rastas in the hall. Why advocate repatriation to Africa, he said, when it would profit them more to seek a better life in Jamaica? “Jah!” they shouted in defiant response to his words. “Rastafari!”
The most extraordinary moment of the ceremony, the most beautiful and the most African, came when the Wailers mounted the stage. The members of the Marley’s old band took over as Junior Marvin directed the guitarist Al Anderson, the bass and drums duo of Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Carlie, and Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, the veteran percussionist. Ibo, Third World’s keyboards player, took the place of Tyrone Downie, who had arrived that morning wearing the robes of the Twelve Tribes but had been mysteriously denied entrance to the Arena. The I-Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffith) sang “Rastaman Chant” to a ponderous and mournful rhythm, before the Wailers struck up “Natural Mystic”.
It was during this song, while the crowd was getting to its feet and moving towards the edge of the stage to join what had suddenly been transformed from a solemn obsequy to a celebration of the dead man’s spirit, that Ziggy and Stevie Marley could be seen, dancing among the musicians. Respectively aged eight and six, identically dressed in maroon suits and white shoes, they performed joyous imitations of their late father’s skanking stage dance, and the resemblance was such that the crowd gasped at the sight. When the mixing engineer superimposed a recording of Bob’s voice above the band’s heavyweight dub rhythm, accompanied by waves of cheering from a concert audience, the effect was hallucinatory.
It was Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, who closed the performance. Accompanied by two other women singers, she delivered “Amen” — a song first recorded by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, whose music had inspired the Wailers’ earliest efforts — in a powerful gospel voice, the crowd swaying to the rhythm. When she finished, the musicians put down their instruments, lifted the coffin on to their shoulders and carried it from the stage, followed by the family and other mourners through the hall and out into the roadway where, after the crowd had been moved aside, it was placed in a flatbed hearse, ready to begin the 50-mile journey back to where Bob Marley’s life had begun.
As the cortège left Kingston, it passed in front of the house at 56 Hope Road, which Chris Blackwell had given to Marley to be the Wailers’ hometown headquarters. Inside the house, a wall still bore the holes from the bullets that had narrowly failed to kill Bob during what appeared to be a politically motivated attack by a gunman in 1976, while Jamaica was under martial law.
Then the hearse passed the Alpha Catholic Boys’ School on South Camp Road, where many of Jamaica’s finest musicians — Don Drummond, Joe Harriott, Tommy McCook, Vin Gordon, Rico Rodriguez — had learned to play, under the direction of Ruben Delgado, an inspiring teacher. The current generation of pupils now stood outside to sing “No Woman, No Cry” as the procession headed towards Marcus Garvey Drive and out of the city on the road to Spanish Town.
Crossing the parish of St Catherine to the town of Bog Walk, where the road splits right towards Port Maria and left to Ocho Rios, the cars turned north-west through Linstead and Moneague, with the 1,000ft peak of Mount Friendship to the east, taking the left fork past Claremont into the parish of St Ann, skirting the northern foothills of the Dry Harbour Mountains and on through Brown’s Town. As they approached each settlement, the passengers could see that people had come out of their houses and schools and farms and workshops to stand by the roadside. Near Cotton Piece the open-backed hearse broke down and the coffin had to be put into a replacement van. Finally, in mid-afternoon, the dead man and his mourners arrived at Nine Mile, a hamlet set at the end of a single-track road among gentle, verdant red-clay hills.
A helicopter buzzed overhead, carrying a film crew, their cameras trained on slopes covered with white-robed figures. Rastas from all over the island had set off early to be in place when the procession arrived. Policeman cradling machine-guns were prepared for trouble yet, despite the crush as the coffin was removed from the hearse and carried up to the small temporary mausoleum, disorder was minimal.
Nine Mile turned out to be little more than a scattering of shanties, with one or two bars and a small single-storey stone building consecrated, according to a hand-written sign, to the use of the Holy Baptist Church of the Fire of God of the Americas. This was a place where workers in the sugar plantations set in the flatlands towards the sea had been allowed to build their modest homes and cultivate their own subsistence crops. It was here, on 6 February 1945, that Cedella Booker had brought a son into the world and that, only a few paces away from the mausoleum, in a two-room shack measuring about 20ft by 5ft, Bob and Rita Marley had returned for a year or two at the end of the ’60s, and here that they nurtured their own first child.
After a brief ceremony of interment, the convoy departed, followed by the police. Only the Rastas remained, wandering to and fro around the village and across the hills. For the last time, Junior Marvin and Neville Garrick climbed the little mound up to the mausoleum, picking their way through empty Red Stripe cans, the music they had helped to send around the world now throbbing from a dozen portable cassette players.
As the light began to fail, the vendors of ice creams and soft drinks began to pack up. The thump of the helicopter’s rotors receded as it wheeled away and headed south, back to Kingston. The white-robed members of the Twelve Tribes melted into the gathering dusk. Bob had come home.
In 1966 I bought two Wailers singles, issued in the UK on the Island label. The first, WI-268, was the beautiful original up-tempo take of “Put It On”, b/w “Love Won’t Be Mine”. It would be five or six years before I knew that the song and the preaching vocal on the A-side were by a man called Bob Marley. The second, WI-3001, was even better. “Sunday Morning” was the B-side to “He Who Feels It Knows It” but it is one of the loveliest ballads of that whole decade. It was written and sung by Neville Livingston, who became better known as Bunny Wailer.
Marley wasn’t even on this record. It was cut during his time away in the United States, working at factory jobs in Wilmington, Delaware, where his mother had gone to live. His replacement at the session, joining Peter Tosh as one of the harmony voices supporting Bunny’s gentle lead, was Constantine “Vision” Walker, a cousin of Rita Marley, Bob’s wife.
For me, the Wailers were always Bob, Bunny and Tosh. It was obvious why Bob turned into the focal point and became one of the most famous and charismatic singers on the planet. But that leaderless era, from 1962-1973, produced some wonderful music, none of it better than “Sunday Morning”, made by a bunch of Jamaican teenagers and standing alongside the Impressions’ “I Made a Mistake”, “I’ve Been Trying” and “I’m So Proud” as a classic of mid-’60s soul balladry.
History says that Bunny harboured a bitterness about what happened to the group he had helped to form. There are rights and wrongs about that, things to be said on both sides, and no doubt they’ll be analysed in the obituaries that will follow today’s announcement of his death at the age of 73, following a stroke last year. But at the moment I’d rather listen to these three minutes of concentrated, unspoilt, imperishable beauty.
* If you want another dose of Bunny’s exquisite singing from that era, try the Wailers’ version of the Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love”.
It was Chris Blackwell’s idea to get Toots Hibbert to record “Tumbling Dice”. He must have had in mind the way Otis Redding had made such a success of turning “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into a soul stomper. And, as people always said, if Toots resembled anyone in the way he delivered a song, it was Otis.
This was September 1972, and Blackwell was in Jamaica to work on a few projects, including the sessions for the Wailers’ forthcoming album for his Island label. Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston were at Harry J’s studio, on Roosevelt Avenue in Half Way Tree, recording a song called “Slave Driver”, which included the lines: “Slave driver, the tables have turned / Catch a fire, and you will get burned.” A couple of miles across Kingston, just off Spanish Town Road in a featureless area near the docks, lay Dynamic Sounds, where the studio had been booked for an afternoon session with the Maytals, whose Blackwell-produced album Funky Kingston, released in the UK six months earlier, had already stirred interest outside the established market for West Indian music.
Dynamic Sounds was also where, at the start of the year, Paul Simon had recorded “Mother and Child Reunion” with a local rhythm section including the lead guitarist Hux Brown, the bass guitarist Jackie Jackson and the drummer Winston Grennan, drawing the rock world’s attention to reggae. Those three musicians were reassembled for this Maytals session, augmented by Radcliffe Bryan on rhythm guitar, Winston Riley on organ and Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson on piano. As they arrived, I noted Jackie Jackson’s choice of conveyance: a brand new Vauxhall Viva GT covered with tiger-skin vinyl.
Together they were variously known as Gladdy’s All Stars, the Harry J All Stars, Beverley’s All Stars, the Aggrovators and, eventually, the Upsetters. They were a crack band, and on a hot afternoon in Kingston, sitting in a circle, the drums separated only by low sound-baffles, they locked into a groove without a moment’s hesitation. The only problem was that no one — not Toots or his fellow Maytals, Jerry Mathias and Raleigh Gordon, not Blackwell, not even me — knew the words to “Tumbling Dice”, and in those days there was no Google where someone had deciphered Mick Jagger’s faux-southern drawl and decided that he was singing “Honey, got no money / I’m all at sixes and sevens and nines / Say now, baby, I’m the rank outsider / You can be my partner in crime.”
Toots’s solution was to ignore that little difficulty and simply steam ahead, making up words — mostly nonsense syllables — as he went along. If Otis could make sense of “fa-fa-fa-fa” and “got-ta-got-ta”, so could he. And that’s more or less what he’d done with Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, one of the singles taken from Funky Kingston. A few takes of “Tumbling Dice” were committed to tape, but as far as I can discover nothing ever saw the light of day.
For me, it was just a treat to see those musicians — the equivalent of the house bands at Stax in Memphis or Cosimo Matassa’s studio in New Orleans — in their own environment. Particularly Hux Brown, whose stuttering single-note commentary was such a distinctive feature of so many records, including “Mother and Child Reunion”, and Gladdy Anderson, a legend of Jamaican music.
And, of course, Toots, whose death at the age of 77 was announced last week. I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear him recording one of his great original compositions, like “Six and Seven Books of Moses” or “54-46 Was My Number”, but at least I got a chance to spend a few hours watching a force of nature at work.
* The photograph of Toots and his fellow Maytals is from one of the reissues of Funky Kingston. Maybe someone can tell me who took it.
London felt like an oven as I made my way to the South Bank to watch Gary Crosby’s augmented Jazz Jamaica celebrate the 40th anniversary of Catch A Fire last night. It reminded me of the evening of September 20, 1972, when I landed at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, Jamaica and experienced Caribbean heat for the first time, about to discover the way it transports you into a different reality.
Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, whom I had not met before, picked me up at the terminal in a Mini Moke, which also contained the American photographer Lynn Goldsmith. We drove along the Palisadoes, the long spit of land than encloses Kingston Harbour, to Port Royal, the old pirate headquarters — or what was left of it by the earthquakes of 1692 and 1907. It was quiet, and it was hot, and we got out of the Moke by the seafront, where goats were settling down for the night and men were selling fish from glass-fronted wooden cases. Blackwell bought us each a piece of fried snapper and a can of cold Red Stripe from a bar made out of corrugated iron sheets. It seemed like heaven
The following day we went to Dynamic Sound studios, where Toots and the Maytals were trying to record “Tumbling Dice”, a task only marginally impeded by the fact that Toots didn’t know the words and was making them up as he went along. This gave me the chance to witness one of the great rhythm sections at work: Hucks Brown (guitar), Gladstone Anderson (piano), Winston Wright (organ), Jackie Jackson (bass) and Winston Grennan (drums), each of them doing exactly what you hoped he’d do. Particularly Hucks Brown, playing those unique little stuttering, flickering single-string fills that had distinguished Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” a few months earlier.
I was shown around Trenchtown the next morning by Joe Higgs, the singer who had mentored the young Wailers, teaching them how to sing harmony. Joe was an older man, a calm, charming, deep-voiced Rasta. He gave me a copy of his new 45, “Let Us Do Something”, and took me to Bob’s Tuff Gong record shack at 127 King Street, one block across from Orange Street, where I bought copies of the Wailers’ “Trenchtown Rock” and their latest release, “Satisfy My Soul Jah Jah”. That afternoon Blackwell and I went to Half Way Tree, where he had an appointment at the Aquarius record store with Herman Chin Loy, a young producer, who played us some pretty wild acetates on which he wanted to make a deal; they may have been the ones that surfaced the following year on the first of his Aquarian Dub LPs.
That evening we met up with Harry Johnson — the famous Harry J — who removed a Smith & Wesson from the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and placed it in a shoulder holster concealed by his lightweight jacket before ushering took us to his studio on Roosevelt Avenue. I remember it as a bungalow surrounded by lawn and trees. Inside, amid a thick fug of ganja, were Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingstone, Aston Barrett and Carlton Barrett, laying down the track of “Slave Driver”, whose lyric would provide the title for Catch A Fire.
I knew about the Wailers. Back in 1966 I’d bought two of their early singles, “Put It On” and “He Who Feels It Knows It”, on the old Island white label. I loved the songs, the rhythms and, most of all, the harmonies. But this was a quite different sort of experience: thanks to the Barrett brothers (my second great rhythm section in two days), the music had a dark churn of a kind I’d never heard before, somehow lazy and energised at the same time. The vocals were equally stunning: Marley’s lead was mesmerising, the harmony work piercingly gorgeous.
Blackwell had done something unprecedented in the annals of Jamaican music. At a time when musicians sold the rights to their singles for 25 Jamaican dollars, he had advanced the Wailers several thousand pounds in order to make an album, bringing the economics of production and promotion developed in rock music to the world of reggae. And this was his first exposure to the result of what most people in the Jamaican music business saw as an outrageous and hopeless gamble. But Blackwell was always a talented gambler, and almost as soon as he walked through the studio door he knew that this one had come off.
The quickest and simplest way of explaining the effect of all this on me is to say that when I got home, a couple of days later, I sat down to write a piece suggesting that in Bob Marley, Jamaica had a musician whose effect might one day be comparable to that of Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield. Not wrong there. Catch A Fire came out six months later, in its strikingly ingenious (and expensive) Zippo cover, beginning the process that, within three years, turned Marley into an international superstar and cultural symbol and made reggae into an wordwide lingua franca.
That’s a long way of getting round to talking about last night’s gig at the Festival Hall, but it might help to explain why I found it so moving when the 21-member Jazz Jamaica All Stars, the 12-piece Urban Soul string ensemble, the 240-person Voicelab choir, the conductor Kevin Robinson, the choirmaster Mark De Lisser and the singer-guitarist Brinsley Forde launched into “No More Trouble”. In that moment, in that song’s combination of baleful cadences and stare-down optimism, the summoning of musical and spiritual powers was at its most intense: spine-tingling at the start, overwhelming by the finish.
They played the album all the way through, Jason Yarde’s arrangements making use of all the available resources: the strings on Tosh’s “Stop That Train”, an acapella coda for the three female backing singers (Zara MacFarlane, Keisha Downie and Rasiyah) on “Baby, Baby We’ve Got a Date”, the best guitar solo I’ve heard this year from Robin Banerjee on “Concrete Jungle”, a fine Latin piano solo from Ben Burrell on “Midnight Ravers”, a rousing violin duel between Stephen Hussey and Miles Brett on “Stir It Up”, the tenor saxophone of Denys Baptiste and the trumpet of Yazz Ahmed swapping phrases on another Tosh song, “400 Years”. And the other great solo of the night, by the tenorist Patrick Clahar, on “No More Trouble”.
They finished with three songs from Marley’s later repertoire: “One Love”, “Redemption Song” — sung by Brinsley Forde with just the strings for company — and “Lively Up Yourself”. Brinsley deserves the highest praise for a performance in which he evoked the spirit of the great man without exaggeration and without pushing himself forward, becoming just another member of a unique and hugely life-affirming organism. Quite a night.
The title of this blog is taken from my book The Blue Moment, published by Faber & Faber in 2009, in which I tried to look at how Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue had influenced half a century of modern music, from La Monte Young and Terry Riley through James Brown, John Cale and Brian Eno to Arve Henriksen and the Necks.