Gordon Robinson | That’s not my recollection
The history of Bob Marley and the Wailers has become so distorted over time as every music industry yearner stakes a claim to a piece of his legacy that I’m compelled to set the record straight insofar as I can.
An August 12 article from online publication South China Morning Post ( scmp.com) is what has me running hotter than a PNP leadership contest. It’s basically an advertorial for the upcoming 40th anniversary celebrations of an independent record label called VP Records. The label was founded by Vincent (‘Randy’) and Patricia Chin, owners and operators of Randy’s Record Mart in Jamaica at 17 North Parade in the 1960s and ’70s. The family bolted to New York circa 1976, formed VP Records (1977), and remained in the music business ever since.
VP Records has genuine claims to a contribution to the distribution of Jamaican music internationally, but why try to add credit for Bob’s success to that? The article, written by Bernice Chen, is headlined ‘From Bob Marley to Peter Tosh: the reggae empire built by a Chinese-Jamaican family’.
Seriously? A subtitle asserts: ‘ Marley and Tosh used to record in the Chins’ studio in Jamaica when they were teens’. Oh, dear. What studios? Record what? Randy’s was a record store. The Chins had an adjacent building they called ‘Studio 17’, which Patricia now says was meant to be a recording studio.
It opened in 1962 but was dormant until about 1968, since which time it is claimed important recordings were done there (for other producers), including the Catch a Fire original raw taping by Bob that he gave to Chris Blackwell for production and marketing. I’m not sure how this, if true, means any released records by Bob or Peter were recorded there or justifies that expansive headline.
Anyhoo, the article claims: “While Chin, nicknamed ‘Miss Pat’, was behind the counter selling records at Randy’s, she briefly met some of the artists Vincent brought to the studio to record with him.
‘ Bob Marley; he was very shy. He would come in with a producer. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Peter Tosh were young, they were around 16 or 17 years old,’ she says, referring to Marley and Tosh.
“But a recording didn’t mean instant success. ‘ In Jamaica, everyone is a singer, so they [Marley and Tosh] didn’t sell any records at all at first,’ Chin recalls. She adds that it wasn’t until Britain-born, Jamaica-raised producer and founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, discovered the likes of (Marley and Tosh) in the 1970s that they become world famous.”
Really? Let’s start at the beginning, ignoring the cloudy recollections of an 82-year-old lady anxious to grab on to Bob’s and Peter’s coat-tails. Apparently, Bunny didn’t wear a coat.
The Wailers were formed around 1963. There were SIX Wailers: Robert Nesta Marley, Peter McIntosh (Peter Tosh), Neville Livingstone (Bunny Wailer), Junior Braithwaite, Ermine Ortense Bramwell (Cherry Smith or Cherry Green), and Beverley Kelso.
In 1962, when he was 17 years old, Bob recorded two solo singles for Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s records at Federal studios. The songs were Judge Not and One Cup of Coffee. These are NOT Wailers songs. For trivia buffs, the brilliant saxophonist on those recordings was ‘Deadly’ Headley Bennett, yet another Alpha Boys alumnus who also featured on Jimmy Cliff’s first recording, Hurricane Hattie.
Headley got his nickname in the studio one day when he held a note so long, band members and engineers alike were literally blown away, and as Headley said to me, “I nearly died.” When it was over, one band member said to Headley, “Bwoy, yu deadly, though.” It stuck.
In 1963, percussionist and long-time Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd associate, Alvin ‘Seeco’ Patterson, seeing the group’s potential, arranged an audition for the great Coxsone. It was hard in those days just to get an audition, much less an offer to produce a record. Coxsone recognised their immense potential and his legendary ear told him that Junior Braithwaite was the best pure singer in the group. So the Wailing Wailers were formed, with Braithwaite as lead singer for most of the early recordings like It Hurts To Be Alone (probably his best effort) and Don’t Ever Leave Me.
Bob was assigned to guitar, Tosh to keyboard, Bunny Wailer to percussion, Cherry and Bev to background vocals. But the first single released (strategic reasons) was Simmer Down, a harmony-driven song in which Bob sang lead.
As usual, Wikipedia has Simmer Down’s genesis all wrong: “ The song was directed to the ‘rude boys’ of the ghettos of Jamaica at the time, sending them a message to cool down, or ‘simmer down’ with all the violence and crime going on in Kingston.” But Coxsone told me a different story. He says the violence the song targeted was more specific, being that which was on the rise among sound system operators who would send emissaries to ‘break up’ rival dances.
Long-time people dem used to say
what sweet nanny goat a go run ’im belly, so
Simmer down, oh, control your temper;
Simmer down, or the battle will be hotter.
‘The battle’ was the battle of the sound system operators. Coxsone was warning his rivals that he could retaliate more harshly but preferred peace.
Chicken merry, hawk de near
and, when ’im de near, you must beware, so
Simmer down, oh, control your temper;
Simmer down, or the battle will be hotter;
Simmer down, and you won’t get no supper;
Simmer down, and yu know yu bound to suffer;
Simmer down, simmer, simmer, simmer right down.
Coxsone, who was the ‘hawk’, said that the first time Simmer Down was played on his sound system, the crowd wouldn’t allow the selector to play anything else. It became a monster hit and pushed Bob to the head of the line as the Wailers’ vocalist. Braithwaite migrated in 1964 and returned in 1984 hoping for a Wailers reunion. But Tosh was murdered in 1987 and Braithwaite himself gunned down in 1999. A great voice was silenced.
Cherry stayed with the group for three years before migrating to Florida. Some sources say she was replaced by Kelso, but my Alzheimered brain has Bev there from the start until 1965. Eventually, the group boiled down to Bob, Peter and Bunny until Chris Blackwell came along. Blackwell produced and marketed the humongous talent already there, turning Bob Marley and the Wailers into international legends. He deserves every credit, but I’m convinced he was simply in the right place at the right time and prepared to take a risk. Had he passed, someone else would’ve done the job. It’s NOT TRUE to say Blackwell ‘discovered’ Marley or Tosh.
As I understand it, Bob discovered Blackwell and nagged him to come on board until he decided to take a chance. Bob was already a household name in Jamaica. In 1972, American rhythm and blues singer Johnny Nash released a cover of Stir it Up that became a massive UK hit a year before Catch a Fire was released.
Again, my memory regarding the Wailers break-up differs from Wikipedia’s which reports that it was due to Peter and Bunny’s aversion to ‘freaky music’. My creaky brain (subject to any contradiction from Bunny) remembers that when the group had to go to Europe to promote Catch a Fire (1974?), Bunny refused to ‘fly ‘pon iron bird’. Peter left for ‘creative differences’ long before the ‘freaky music’ issue arose.
Regarding ‘freaky’ music, what I do know, because I have it from the horses’ mouths, is that Bob visited an English nightclub one night and was fascinated by the punk rock craze of the time. Out of that experience, he wrote Kinky Reggae. When the song was presented to the band, bassist Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett refused to play on the track because it “wasn’t rockers”. The record still credits Family Man as bass guitar player, but my information is that a substitute had to be hired for that track.
Apart from their early work with Coxsone, the Wailers worked with Leslie Kong, and their very best early work was produced by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. I know of no record by Bob, Peter or the Wailers from ‘Studio 17’. On this, I’ll accept contradictions only from Coxsone, Winston ‘King Stitt’ Sparks (deceased encyclopaedias of Jamaican music history) or Bunny ‘Mighty Burner’ Goodison (still with us).
Bob Marley was supremely talented, worked diligently around the clock and with an unrelenting discipline to hone his talent, and was prepared to do what was required to become an international star. Had he been as lazy or unfocused as some of his peers, reggae wouldn’t have the international appeal it now enjoys and some of the minor talents now prospering off reggae’s success wouldn’t even be a footnote in music history.
Peace and love.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.