It was on a bright fate-deciding Monday evening in late 1963, that five youngsters – Robert Nester Marley, Neville Livingstone, Winston McIntosh, Junior Brathwaite and a lone female named Beverley Kelso – strolled through the gates of 13 Brentford Road in Kingston 5 (later to be known as Studio1), with a dream of becoming musical heroes.
Calling themselves The Wailing Wailers, they recorded four vocal cuts – Simmer Down, I Don’t Need Your Love, How Many Times, and Straight and Narrow Way. The first three were led by Marley, as he gradually assumed the role as leader of the group. But unknown to many, those weren’t Marley’s first recordings. Almost a year earlier, he had debuted with three solo pieces – Judge Not, One Cup of Coffee and Terror, for producer Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label.
Initially, they didn’t make much of an impact. It was really Marley’s association with producer Clement Dodd’s Studio 1 that provided the springboard that led to his and the group’s initial success.
Simmer Down, backed by the incomparable Skatalites band, was particularly important, as it was on the back of this recording that Marley began his journey to stardom. It was a colossal slice of Jamaican nursery rhyme that urged the unruly youths to “simmer down, control your temper” because “chicken merry, hawk de near/and when him de near, you must beware”.
The song not only went to number one and became one of the most popular Jamaican recordings in 1964, but it brought Bob Marley to public attention. Several Wailers hits for Studio 1 followed, with Marley up front, many of which rode the top of the charts.
Sometime in 1966, after marrying Rita Anderson, Marley temporarily left the group to join his mother in Delaware in the United States. Some say it was in search of greener pastures, as things were getting a bit tough for him and the group in the face of low financial returns for their work. He however, returned to the island towards the latter part of the year and forged a new-found stance that involved the group’s own production on their Wail ‘n Soul record label.
Those productions, which began with the late 1967 smash, Bend Down Low, proved to be, perhaps, the brightest period of Marley’s musical association with the group, which by now had been reduced to the trio of Peter, Bunny and Bob. The endeavor also produced the rocksteady-influenced recordings Nice Time, Hypocrites, Mellow Mood, Thank You Lord, Stir It Up and Bus Them Shut, which musicologists have numbered among their finest works.
The Tuff Gong years represent the next important stage of Marley’s career, which saw footballer Alan ‘Skill’ Cole in the producer’s role which resulted in the hit songs, Lively Up Yourself, Screw Face, Hurtin’ Inside and Trench Town Rock (which was number one for eight weeks in 1971).
Marley and The Wailers also performed briefly for producer Leslie Kong in 1969, before working for Lee Perry’s Upsetter label, for which he produced the gems Small Axe, Duppy Conqueror, African Herbsman, and others. This body of work proved extremely crucial to Marley’s future development, as they represented something like a blueprint of what was to come.
In December 1971, Bob Marley struck a recording deal with Island Records boss and music mogul, Chris Blackwell, and by 1972, a contract was signed and the group was on its way with its first album, Catch A Fire, published that same year. He followed up with seven other albums for Blackwell, showing publishing dates from the albums as – Burning (1973), Natty Dread (1974), Rastaman Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977), Kaya (1978), Survival (1979), and Uprising (1980).
Marley’s association with Blackwell proved to be the most important step in his life, as the albums produced by Blackwell, the majority of which were million sellers, placed Marley firmly on the pinnacle of reggae internationally. A whole new style of Jamaican music was on the horizon and was taking the world by storm. With the inclusion of rock elements to the music, the lyrics conveyed a message of hope for black people. Using biblical passages and Jamaican proverbs, Marley was able to convey his message more forcefully. It was a time when his huge popularity prompted the unrestrained Marley fans to lobby for him to be a national hero. One Love, Three Little Birds, Jammin’, Exodus, Coming in from the Cold, Redemption Song, Bad Card, Crazy Baldhead and Rastaman Vibration were on the lips of music lovers worldwide.
But in the midst of all the success stories came explosions at Marley’s Hope Road residence on the evening of December 3, 1976 that nearly ended the superstar’s life and career. It all unfolded while Marley and his band were rehearsing for a stage concert, labelled ‘Smile Jamaica’, slated for the National Heroes Park in Kingston two days later. History has it that the concert was called by then president of the People’s National Party, Michael Manley, during the height of a general election campaign to help ease tensions between opposing factions, and Marley, being the force that he suddenly became, apparently led the organizers to draw on him to help with quelling the tension. During the shooting incident, which was thought to be politically motivated, Marley was shot in the arm, but was resilient and brave enough to appear at the concert.
Shortly after the assassination attempt on his life, Bob Marley left Jamaica on a self imposed exile in the United Kingdom.
When ordinary men would have vowed not to be associated with any such future event that could endanger their lives, Marley was back in Jamaica in 1978 for a similar concert, dubbed the ‘One Love Peace Concert’ at the National Stadium on April 22. The highlight of the concert saw Marley calling on stage and joining the hands of opposing leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga as a symbolic truce and example to be embraced by their followers.
The February-born singer, whose heroics have impacted people worldwide must have been a main influence in the establishment of February as Reggae Month.