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 Capitol Session ’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.