Bob Marley left his body behind 35 years ago, but his music is still with us. His spirit comforting us and lifting our spirits. His former backing band, The Wailers, have been his voice since his death in 1981. Marley’s message was harmony and unity, but the events that transpired as a result of his music were often anything but.
By 1973, with the release of “Catch A Fire,” their first album marketed outside Jamaica, and the band’s first American tour, The Wailers were getting international attention. “Burnin’,” also released in ’73, portrayed Marley as a pot-smokin’ rebel, a musical revolutionary and a disciple of Rastafarianism.
Marley lashed out at would-be oppressors on songs such as “Small Axe.”
“If you are the big tree,
We are the small axe
Sharpened to cut you down.”
On “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” he encouraged fellow Jamaicans to rise up against political persecution.
But Marley’s political exhortations got him some unwanted attention. In 1976, just before Christmas, Marley was scheduled to do a concert in Jamaica called Smile Jamaica. He wanted to do it for the public, but the politicians made it look like it was a political event.
“A bunch of thugs were hired to go kill Bob Marley and the band,” Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin said last week by phone from his Alexandria, Va., home. “He was lucky, his manager got four or five bullets, and Bob had a bullet graze his chest, and one went through the fleshy part of his left hand and came out the other side.”
That caused Marley to relocate temporarily to England, and was enough to send The Wailers’ guitarist Donald Kinsey back to his home in Chicago, leaving Marley without a lead guitarist.
Marvin came to the band in a roundabout way. Born in Jamaica, raised in London, Marvin lived right around the corner from Island Studios. Phil Collins’ producer was a friend, and introduced Marvin to Island owner Chris Blackwell. Marvin had grown up in show business as a child actor and singer, picking up guitar because he wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix. He befriended Traffic founder Steve Winwood and his band, who in turn, introduced Marvin to a slew of prominent musicians on the label including U2 and Cat Stevens and got him session work. Marvin got into reggae when Blackwell was looking for a different guitar sound for Toots Hibbert’s “Reggae Got Soul.”
“I played, rock, blues, jazz, classical, traveled a lot, had the opportunity to work with a lot of American artists,” Marvin says. “My first real big gig was with (“Stormy Monday Blues” composer/guitarist) T-Bone Walker, toured with him for a year, and I learned the blues care of him.”
Blackwell liked Marvin’s playing and suggested him to Marley, setting up a meeting without telling Marvin who he was going to meet.
“He was coming about lunchtime, and about 10 in the morning, I got a call from the U.S., and the person said they were Stevie Wonder. I thought it was a joke.” But Wonder convinced him it was real. “Stevie said, ‘My guitarist recommended you. I would sign you up for 10 years. After 10 years, you’d be a household name.’”
But the 10-year part bothered Marvin. So he told Wonder he’d get back to him. As he was on the phone, Blackwell showed up at the door and told Marvin to bring his guitar.
“I walked in the door, saw this big dreadlocks man with his back to me … had this big aura around him. I thought, ‘It’s gotta be Marley.’ We jammed three songs. Each song lasted about 45 minutes … played ‘Exodus,’ ‘Waiting in Vain,’ and ‘Jammin.’ At the end of almost three hours, he said, ‘Welcome to The Wailers.’”
That job lasted until Marley’s death in 1981. After Marley passed, Marvin and bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett were the band’s co-leaders. But the songs about harmony and respect for your fellow man turned out to be more about profit for the Marley estate, who refused to pay royalties to the band after Marley’s death. Marvin and the rest of the band members have always maintained that songwriting and arranging was a collaborative process in The Wailers.
“When Bob started out, he made a big mistake,” Marvin says. “(He) signed his publishing to Danny Sims (producer who signed Marley to his first contract in 1968) for life. For life!”
When Marley got to Island records, Blackwell advised him to put songs in other people’s names, so he could get some of his publishing money. Scared of signing any more agreements, Marley told the band, “’Listen. I’m not gonna rip you off, but I’ve made some mistakes, and I’m really scared about signing papers, and I don’t want to make the same mistake again.’ So we did it with a handshake.” Marvin says.
A lawyer for the estate disputed that claim, and threatened to tie them up in court for years.
“It frustrated everyone and fragmented the band. And we were real disappointed, ’cause here we are singing about one love, God, Rastafari, and we’re fighting to get our money,” Marvin says. “It hurt a lot of the musicians to have this spiritual vibe with Bob, and now you’re in a battle with the system. It just went on and on, and we got more and more frustrated, and eventually we just said, ‘You keep it, we’re not gonna fight the rest of our lives.’”
The group stayed together until 1997, until money got in the way once again.
“There was a little bit of a Yoko Ono incident going on,” Marvin says. “Originally, I was the manager of the band, but from ’81 to ’97, I was co-leader and manager of the band. Then Family Man’s girlfriend wanted my position, and he gave it to her, not in a nice way. I did forgive him eventually, but she basically said, ‘Let me do what Junior does and you will make more money. You don’t really need Junior.’ It wasn’t done in nice way, so I left the band which left it open for her. She became the Yoko Ono of The Wailers.”
The group split off into The Original Wailers with Al Anderson and Marvin, and The Wailers with Family Man. But in 2015, the two groups started negotiations and got back together this year, without Anderson, but with keyboardists Tyrone Downie and Earl “Wya” Lindo back onboard.
Marley and The Wailers made their message clear with “Pass It On,” in 1973:
“Be not selfish into your doing
Pass it on …
Live for yourself, and you will live in vain
Live for others, you will live again.”
“If you were there with Bob, you were there because you felt the same way as he did,” Marvin says. “He wouldn’t have you around if you were thinking differently. We sat down and talked about it, and we’d always say, ‘What can we put into this song for the people that would inspire them to be better people and not be evil with each other?’ It wasn’t something that happened by accident. It was planned; it was crafted in a positive way. There would always be something in the songs to inspire or motivate people — in all of his songs you always hear a message in there.”
Like Marley, Marvin strives for unity through his music.
“We’re like many rivers going into one ocean. I believe we are all one people, but we’re still learning how to not be afraid of each other,” Marvin says. “I believe we can all live together, no matter what color or creed, or whatever you perceive God to be. I would like to put in my 10 cents worth to create peace and harmony and a better life for everyone.”