The Natural Mystics : Marley, Tosh, Wailerby: Colin Grant
ON A CHILLY AFTERNOON in the late London fall of 1972, three young men walked down a quiet street in Ladbroke Grove. Their brown skin and lilting diction marked them as West Indians. One of the three, shorter and lighter-skinned than the others, carried himself with an assurance bespeaking his extra days' knowledge of the neighborhood's damp streets. The trio, known as The Wailers, had been making music together since their teens. They had gained fame in Jamaica singing chirpy covers of U.S. pop hits as adolescents, before moving on, in their twenties, to become masters of the slinky, driving rhythm known as reggae. This music — which had ruled the island's airwaves since another group of Kingston strivers had waxed a catchy tune called "Do the Reggay" in 1968 — was still largely unknown beyond its country of origin; The Wailers's trip to England was the result of a break caught by the most ambitious of their number a few years before.
Here's what happened: at a Kingston party where Bob Marley was singing and strumming his guitar, he'd been approached by two American strangers. The pair — a lanky visiting soul singer called Johnny Nash, and his manager, Danny Sims — sensed something they wanted in the local's sound. They hired Marley to help Nash expand his Caribbean-influenced repertoire, and then spirited him away to Europe to help Nash write songs for an album of pop-reggae tunes (I Can See Clearly Now) that made the smooth Texan a short-lived star in the early seventies. In partial exchange for that service, Nash's manager had arranged for Marley to sign a deal with his charge's British label. CBS Records pushed for Marley to release a gimmicky single called "Reggae on Broadway," and then failed to promote it. The ensuing UK tour, which commenced when Marley's group-mates Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston arrived from Jamaica, went quickly south. After playing a series of depressing gigs in suburban school gyms in Dunstable and Croydon, The Wailers informed Nash's manager they were through. How they were going to get back home without their sponsor, let alone eat, was unclear. Their last hope was a meeting with Chris Blackwell, the sandy-haired son of a Jamaican sugar heiress who had founded a record company, a decade before, with the aim of popularizing his home-island's music in the UK.
Striding up Basing Street, the trio entered the offices of Island Records. By 1972, Blackwell's firm had grown out of the boot of his Volkswagen to fill a deconsecrated church on the parade route of the Notting Hill Carnival. His efforts to break Jamaican acts in England had mostly failed — he'd built his business by signing more than a few of the British folk-rock acts on which the look and feel of the late-sixties were based. But he was still convinced that the hirsute fans of Cat Stevens and Fairport Convention could love reggae. When The Wailers walked in, all angry pride and unkempt hair, he felt he'd found the act to make that happen. He gave the group enough cash not only to buy out their CBS contract and fly home, but to make the full-length reggae album he felt English hipsters were ready to buy.
A few weeks later, Blackwell flew to Jamaica. Marley came to his hotel and played him tapes containing a dozen tracks into which, the label head now recalls, "every penny of [his] 4000 pounds had gone." That his hunch was vindicated is no small part of why Blackwell — as his legion of admirers r...read more