Vintage Voices | Bob Marley and the Wailers – From ‘Scratch’ to Coxsone to Island
Bob Marley and The Wailers came to real international prominence in the early 1970s through the release of eight albums – Catch a Fire, Burning, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Kaya, Survival, and Uprising – produced by music mogul Chris Blackwell’s Island Records between 1973 and 1980. Marley was already a household name in Jamaica from the late 1960s when he did some of his best early works for producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Duppy Conqueror, Small Axe, and African Herbsman are among the popular cuts that Perry produced for The Wailers. The early Tuff Gong years, which followed shortly after with popular songs like Trench Town Rock, Screw Face, Lick Samba, and Lively Up Yourself, complemented the Scratch productions, and they became more like the template and foundation on which Marley’s future career was built.
From the very outset, however, Marley’s greatest ambition was to be a group singer. Being a solo artiste was furthest from his mind. According to Bunny Wailer, the other founding member of the Wailers, and with whom Bob shares a sister, “Bob’s first recordings – solo cuts Judge Not, One Cup of Coffee, and Terror in the early 1960s for the Beverley’s label, under the name Bobby Martel – were not Bob’s real vision and desire for pursuing or establishing a musical performing career. He had often requested that we both should unite our talents and recruit other members so as to form a group of our own.” This, Bunny disclosed in his CD-Box set, Musically Speaking.
The commitment came to fruition with the recruiting of Peter Tosh, Junior Braithwaite, and Beverley Kelso. Including Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, it was this quintet that entered the gates of Studio 1 at 13 Brentford Road (as it was known then) for the first time in late 1963 to do their debut recordings – I Don’t Need Your Love, Straight and Narrow Way, How Many Times, and Simmer Down. Beverley Kelso was in a pensive mood as she spoke to me in 2012 about that memorable day. “After we rehearsed, under this big mango tree on Second Street in Trench Town, the next morning, I think it was in late 1963, we went to Studio 1 and recorded Simmer Down and some other songs. It was Peter, Bunny, Junior, Bob, and me. I will never forget. Syd Bucknor was the engineer, and Coxsone was also there along with Roland and Jackie Mittoo. We recorded Simmer Down about 10 times, probably because Dodd wanted to get the best cut,” she said.
After registering two No.1 hits with Simmer Down, led by Bob Marley, and It Hurts To Be Alone, led by Braithwaite, the group faced its first challenges when Braithwaite migrated to the United States of America in 1964, and Beverley signalled her intention to leave the group about the same time. According to Bunny, “Bratty was to be a very important loss to the group, which made it difficult to cope with, especially Bev, as her voice blended with Bratty, both being high pitched. Also, there were times when Bev wasn’t performing as positive as expected, and after a few more recording sessions, we decided to adopt Cherry, who had expressed an interest in becoming a member since the departure of Junior.”
The next session, which included Cherry Smith and the Mighty Vikings band replacing the Skatalites on musical backing, revolutionised the Wailers’ ska sound. The inclusion of a shuffling organ created a paradigm shift in the ska beat as the group sang along to the heartbreaking love song Lonesome Feeling:
“Have you ever had a lonesome feeling?
Don’t you hear me, it’s that lonesome feeling.
Does a little bit of heartache
Got to hurt so much, so bad?
Said I feel terrible since my woman left me
I feel, I feel, so sad, so sad”
Lonesome Feeling topped the Jamaican charts, and despite its popularity, the group, and even Smith herself, realised that she was not the ideal replacement, and after a few more sessions, she, understandably, resigned.
The trio, Bob, Peter, and Bunny, inevitably, was born by mid-to-late 1964, and an endless flow of ska hits followed for Studio 1. Meager remunerations, however, forced Marley to seek ‘greener pastures’ in Delaware, USA, shortly after marrying Alpharita Anderson on February 10, 1966. In the meantime, Bunny, Peter, and Constantine Walker maintained the Wailers’ legacy with Dancing Shoes and What Am I To Do for Studio 1. They soon withdrew their services, amid a call from Bob to join him in the US. They refused. Bob relented and eventually returned to the island in late 1966, with new ideas, some of which Peter and Bunny were also contemplating – going on their own as independent producers with their own record label.
That label turned out to be Wail ‘N’ Soul ‘M, which later gave birth to Tuff Gong Records Limited. It produced the hits Bend Down Low, Nice Time, Hypocrites, Thank You Lord, Mellow Mood, Bus Them Shut, and Stir It Up. Bunny underlined the success of this venture as he quipped, “We had made enough money from Bend Down Low alone to open a savings and a current account.”
The back end of the Jamaica leg of Bob’s career (1969-1970) saw him working with producers Lee Perry and Leslie Kong while encountering a controversial stint with Johnny Nash’s JAD Records, which takes us full cycle back into the ‘Island Years’, where we began.