The following was written by Herbie Miller and he can be contacted at [email protected]
It is very important to highlight the effort of historians and commentators who attempt to redress misconceptions perpetuated by clever record company public relations and publicity personnel and other interest parties that distort reggae music’s reality, purposely or innocently.
The case of the original Wailers, who were primarily Bob Marley, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, but at times included Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso, Cherry Green, Rita Marley and Constantine ‘Dream’ Walker, is a paramount and instructive case. It is a case, which, according to a Marley insider, without any apology, seeks to “position Bob in the public consciousness morning, noon and night”. What was implied is that this would be done without much, if any, mention of the others who have been part of the group.
Some time ago, on a Sunday morning, I listened to a popular radio DJ play an extended selection of old Wailers recordings. It was the beginning of the week that would mark Peter Tosh’s birthday. The DJ repeatedly referred to the selections as Bob Marley’s without acknowledging the others, even when Tosh or Livingston was obviously the lead singer. He did so on some selections in spite of the fact that Bob was clearly not present on some songs. After repeatedly doing so, I decided to call the radio station and point this out to the DJ and to also suggest that he dedicate the session to Peter Tosh since Tosh’s birthday was a few days coming in the middle of the week. He, in no uncertain manner, let me know he knew what he was doing and didn’t need my opinion. The DJ went back on the air and said: “A bredda just call and want to talk ’bout Peter Tosh. If him want to hear Peter Tosh, mek him go play him own Peter Tosh”.
This is the kind of mindset that is cultivated if Bob Marley continues to be positioned in the public consciousness at the expense of the other principal members of the original Wailers, the group which, in my opinion, is Jamaica’s finest.
For this treatise, I will concern myself with the importance of the Wailers’ primary three, Bob, Bunny and Peter, with only minimal mention of others.
In the early days of our popular music, Jamaica produced many outstanding harmony groups. Most notable among them were duets such as Higgs and Wilson and Alton and Eddie. Groups such as the Down Beats, Jiving Juniors and the Rhythm Aces paved the way for The Paragons, The Heptones, The Gaylads and The Wailers. All were outstanding groups that copied the styles of their favourite American counterparts, even covering their hits. Some as much as adopted the names of foreign groups or applied to it some slight adjustment. Many dressed in fashions similar to the ‘brothers’ up north and even twanged when they addressed audiences. Though outstanding and well received in the role of clone, many lacked originality – the ability to display any real authenticity or inventiveness. Indeed, the local recording industry began in earnest in order to fill the void caused by the unavailability of the type of doo-wop and rhythm and blues songs that were popular in Jamaica but on the wane in America.
The Wailers could have been just another outstanding group to gain popularity by shadowing an American model, in their case, The Impressions, if they had remained so focused. But with the exception of a number of covers, to which a distinctive Wailers ethos was employed – What’s New Pussycat, Sugar, Sugar, and Go Johnny Go, among them, and a variety of successful songs that resembled the late ’50s and ’60s- R&B and soul variety, it was clear to all with insight that this group’s promise was beyond cloning. In terms of identity, The Wailers were remarkably different from any other group before or after. They made successful hits in the American vein and like too many others, may have retarded their originality and stifled their authenticity had it not been for their individual and collective awareness to retain the individuality that comes with being home-grown.
As a group, they had a sense of mission and were conscious that their immense talent, especially that of their visionary lead singer and principal lyricist, Bob Marley, was too remarkable to waste on being copycats. Unlike the polished sound pursued by most Jamaican groups (The Maytals and Justin Hines are exceptions), The Wailers perfected a style that was both raw and elegant. It was built around Pentecostal shouts, chants, and a crying wail; a fusion of melancholy and hopefulness that was ultimately celebratory; a sound that moved beyond the sentimental and engaged the profound.
In addition to The Skatalites and Don Drummond, for many of my generation, those of us who came of age during the 1960s, The Wailers simply made the most unbelievable and believable music. It was real, it was palpable and The Wailers were the voice of the people. In simple terms, they represented the rebellion against the false values that existed in a generally inequitable and divided society. They provided those of us at odds with the status quo an identity.
Marley was the group’s most adept songwriter, and rather than a sweet singer, he was more of a storyteller, a griot, if you will. His voice was the perfect instrument to convey and emphasize the song’s message, and it blended with Livingston’s and Tosh’s to empathize with the ordinary person’s fears and aspirations. Using related themes, The Wailers linked songs thus creating a grand narrative, a sequence of compositions that connected like the chapters of a well-conceived, richly textured and dramatically nuanced work of literary art. And while few artistes, whose work has been imagined as social and political commentary, were as insightful, perceptive, and successful as The Wailers’, Bob’s writing and the group’s performances displayed neither simplistic notions of heritage nor brayed the sort of protest that was the dogma of lesser talent, most of whom have realized the shallowness of their vision as time passes.
Artistes with ambitions as social commentators had available to them situations in Jamaica that provided an extraordinary and complex range of resources. Inherent in the system were signifier or themes that have always had an impact on great visionaries and leaders for social transformation. Society provided a scope of complex references and ambiguous interactions that revolved around questions of identity, humanity, collective dignity, the responsibility and accountability of the individual, the community and government, the elegant and the obnoxious, flaws and virtues, and the successes and failings of a plantation society system seeking change but in conflict with hegemony, deceptive and often corrupt politicians and law enforcers, pompous Europhiles, ambitious nationalists, and Afro-centric romantics weaved into a tapestry of social interaction weft together by the inevitability of destiny.
Collectively, The Wailers observed and understood these complexities. They wrote and performed songs that definitely were protests in form and meaning. However, sentimentality was unquestionably absent from their interpretation of bygone or present-day life. They effectively sculpted music through which the traditional and the modern were expressed as intricate imagery and meticulous gradations of intent, of color and tone that are symbolic in character. Indeed, they provided a heightened awareness of responsibility, dignity and humanity that is historic, mythic and caustic.
During the decade of the 1960s to the early ’70s and at their sociopolitical best, radio stations, and especially middle-class Jamaicans, snubbed The Wailers. How short-sighted they were! The group, which served notice to the world when Chris Blackwell signed them to his Island label and released their first concept album, Catch a Fire in 1972, always sang protest or ‘culture music’ with an impeccably buoyant beat. They would celebrate, could lament, were melancholy, or, whenever it was appropriate, even sang pure pop, imbued at times by an affable innocence.
They were masterful at projection. With their skilful use of studio and stage, flawless diction, charismatic phrasing and keen ear for melody, plus their ability to impart the meaning of the lyrics in a song, The Wailers, like all great performers, were also able to make each fan feel as if they were the group’s personal focus.
Arguably, they had the most positive effect on reggae during its classic period. The Wailers were key in pioneering the internationalization of the genre, which, since its inception, had assimilated all that had gone before. Studio owners and quasi producers had previously dominated the scene with musicians and singers dependent on their benevolence. By liberating themselves from established local studio identification and establishing their own label, The Wailers delivered the coup de grace that gave singers the independence and significance that were previously exclusive to producers. No longer merely vocalists associated with the stables of the studio owners, The Wailers paved the way for singers to take responsibility for what they record, reducing studio bosses to collaborators, hired producers or consigning them to oblivion. Like the most intense percussive-driven horn music of The Skatalites and its brilliant soloist Don Drummond, the music of The Wailers was/is a music of cathartic experience that somehow spiritually, emotionally and psychologically purified the angst of social degradation.
Marley wrote and achieved hits with Simmer Down, Rude Boy Ska and Jailhouse, while Tosh contributed I’m the Toughest, and Bunny offered I Stand Predominate, a body of work whose sentiments reflected social realities. Marley would further provide the group with substantial hits such as I’m Gonna Put it On, Bus Dem Shut, and Hypocrites in addition to Black Progress and Arise Black man by Tosh, and Rolling Stone by Livingston that extended the theme.
The Wailers’ music characterized life’s myths and reality as art by its passionate enthusiasm and nuanced suggestiveness; excitement that had impact on their followers, by being staggeringly provocative, and because of its heroic impressiveness, which unfolded like the plots and dramatic text that defines theatrical quality. Their music was inspirational, bold, vibrant, and strikingly remarkable in form and effect.
The Wailers were always synthesizing in each composition many different myths, metaphors and realities. They brought out the vulnerability and the agony of the poor with tunes like Hurting Inside, which also communicated the wailing cry of parent and child and also a haunting aura of hopelessness.
On Fussing and Fighting, the group asks, “Why is this fussing and fighting, why is this cheating and lying,” and offers advice: “We should really love each other in peace and harmony instead of fussing and fighting like we ain’t supposed to be.”
Not only are the lyrics and musical arrangements noteworthy of the overall meaning of these kind of songs, but also notable were the forces that brought together these three singers with their unique characteristics, including their haunting melancholy, and sweet and sour quality.
Yet with all its hurt, the music was not about defeat. The opposite also abound. Small Axe expresses the defiance of the little people against the big man: “If you are the big tree, we are the small axe, ready to cut you down”.
The optimism, the hope and the possibilities conveyed by the music they made were also clearly evident. (Both musically and topically), their music (more so than any of their contemporaries,) was both more expansive and expressive than any of their contemporaries’, but that is inevitable, because The Wailers never patterned themselves on metropolitan references. Trench Town Rock, for example, is both lamenting the plight of West Kingston’s inner city and at the same time expressing the “grooving” good times, the humanity and the sense of defiance the marginalized can summon to balance the challenges of their existence. And in its delivery, not only is there a sense of the combative, but also a light-hearted playfulness that captures the dichotomy of ghetto or sufferer life.
The Wailers’ music also demonstrated that some of the meanings and emotions that can be conveyed by being grounded in idiomatic forms could not be conveyed through sensibilities that are copies of another culture, in spite of sharing similar experiences. For instance, the myth of Mr Brown, a song about the sighting of a coffin running around town with two John Crows, one on either end, begins with a holler, perhaps to invoke the presence of spirits or the memory of an ancestor. It is shouted in a kind of yodel that would be out of place for an aggregation whose references are to Broadway or whose style is influenced by the smooth approach of an American soul group. That approach would lose the vernacular meaning of the song. And too many songs with social and political meaning that have become local hits had messages whose impact was lost on listeners because they lacked empathic intimacy. In the case of The Wailers, the energy, the emotional energy that comes from those expressions, is not lost. It captures and communicates the Jamaican capacity for optimism, resilience and vision.
Although best known as artistes whose major works reverberated with sociopolitical imagery, The Wailers were also masters of the romantic ballad. They rendered chestnuts like the Junior Braithwaite lead It Hurts to be Alone, Smokey Robinson’s I Need You, with Bunny Livingston singing lead, and the perennial classic, I’m Still Waiting, which features Marley’s aching voice, all without betraying a hint of sentimentality or over-romanticizing. Later masterpieces would include the poetic brilliance of Sun is Shining, the herb influenced and metaphor-laden Kaya, while the touching mating call inherent in Guava Jelly and the playfully suggestive Stir it Up remains perhaps their most sensual and sexual pieces of creative verse.
The overall oeuvre of The Wailers’ music presents ideas that were unsentimental and complex – Jamaica is paradise but misery for those without the wherewithal; opportunities abound but not for the poor; rude boys are lawless but their benevolence benefits the community; folk culture is rich in metaphors, historic references and mystique but next to European culture it is viewed as quaint; blacks live in hopelessness but with optimism in abundance. The music of The Wailers, therefore, reflects the textural magnificence of life, simultaneously mirroring both sides of a world that inspired the motto ‘Out of Many One People’: the universe of the black, the Jew, the Chinese, Indian, Syrian, the mulatto, the Jamaican, white and the immigrant; the peasant, the farmer, the government and the governed; whether rich or poor, fisherman or preacher man, higgler or merchant, professional or manual labourer, this “out of many one” motley crew shaped this grand narrative that is Jamaican from which the Wailers – Bob, Bunny and Peter- composed a perceptive and insightfully splendid enough epic that makes their best work the kind of classics they have become, and them, the acknowledged masters that they are.
And so, contrary to popular belief as perpetrated by the messages of hired publicists serving the self-interest of his beneficiaries, Marley could not have done it alone. Tosh and Livingston were crucial to Marley’s success. The three were uncannily suited to each other in personality, attitude, talent and philosophy, even in difference.
Herbie Miller is the director/curator of the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica and is a cultural historian with specialised interest in slave culture, Caribbean identity and ethnomusicology. He can be contacted at [email protected]