I was privileged to see Bob Marley perform twice. The first time was in the late 70’s in Montreal and later in Ottawa, Canada a couple years before he died prematurely in 1981.
The Montreal concert, especially, was one the best concerts I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, including Dylan & The Band, The Who, and George Harrison in Montreal in the early 70’s.
I remember still, being blown away, even at the beginning of the show, with only his rhythm section, the Barrett bothers and his back-up singers, The I-Threes (including wife, Rita) swaying softly on the stage, before Marley himself, came out. Then he suddenly appeared playing rhythm guitar, with the sounds reverberating throughout that packed old hockey stadium, the Montreal Forum, and it made us feel like we were in Jamaica, and soon everyone was up dancing in the aisles. I find it seems hard to really capture the true power of reggae on record, although the 2 LP album set, Babylon By Bus that was the result of that ‘77 tour and the Bob Marley-Live album recorded in England in ‘75 come closest to the experience. I had especially liked then, the very moving song” No Woman, No Cry”, and it remains one of my favorites.
Recently I read two books about Marley, especially about The Wailers’ humble beginnings in the Trench Town ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica, which that song evokes so vividly. Rita Marley’s own book is aptly titled: Rita Marley: No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley (2004) and Jamaican-Brit., Colin Grant’s 2011 book is I &I –The Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh and Wailer. The original Wailers, Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny (Livingston) Wailer started out with Rita, as young teen-agers, practicing their harmonies together. They would later combine the rhythms of ska with American soul music and help create reggae. Grant traces their slow rise to eventually international recognition -but at a cost, often making little money, being ripped off by early Jamaican producers, and tensions within the group, until Tosh and Wailer eventually go their separate ways in 1974. By this time, they had been discovered by Island Records owner, Chris Blackwell, and had moved to England where they had their first real success. Blackwell though decided to market Marley, especially, to a wider, often white audience in which he succeeded. And Marley became the Reggae icon for the world. Tosh had some solo success, even connected with the Rolling Stones at one point, until he was shot and killed in his home in Jamaica in 1987. Jamaica was still a very dangerous place with poverty and politics. Marley himself had left after he had been shot by political rivals there in 1976, but he had survived. Grant finally runs into the hard-to-find Bunny Wailer at the end of his book. His book especially shows the influence of the Rastafarian religion on the Wailers and Marley. He also wrote a book on black pioneer, Marcus Garvey. Rita Marley’s book focuses on her more personal experiences with Marley and those early years. She was still married to him, despite his siring several children by other women, when he died of cancer at only 36. But his legend and music would live on.
I had first been turned on to reggae by my roommate, Joe, in the mid.-70’s. Late one Saturday night, I was awoken in our Ottawa apartment by 5 Jamaican men, whom Joe had invited to crash at our place. It turned out they were Leroy Sibbels and his band, The Heptones, who were well known for their early 70’s album and hit, “Book of Rules”.
Joe later told me about a reggae group, he had seen in Toronto, Ernie Smith and The Roots Revival. I ran a small newspaper at the time, Spectrum, and I was invited down to see and review them the first time they played in Ottawa. And like seeing Marley in Montreal that first time, I’ll never forget the impression they made. It was a cold Canadian winter night outside, but inside the small, packed, hot sweaty club, it felt like we were being transported back to Africa. Ernie had an effect on the audience almost like an ancient shaman. Or perhaps, even as the way people I later met, like Cynthia Lennon and BBC director, Leslie Woodhead, who had shot the only footage of them in the Cavern, described upon first seeing The Beatles.
I went back the next night and there was a line all the way down the street; the word had spread fast, including to several respected Ottawa musicians like Bruce Cockburn. Bruce would later record his reggae–influenced hit, ”Wondering Where The Lions Are” using some of the same musicians as Ernie.
Ernie Smith and The Roots Revival would come back to Ottawa and packed houses a couple months later. I didn’t know that Ernie at one time had been more popular in Jamaica than Marley, having won the Yamaha Music Festival in Japan in ’72. He also wrote the big hit, “Tears on My Pillow” for Johnny Nash. One of my prized possessions is a cassette of that show that Ottawa’s Chez-FM taped. Also in that band was, Jo Jo Bennett, who had played with ska legends, Don Drummond and Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires.
My friend Joe, who was now helping to promote them, and I went to Montreal and Quebecers would stop us in the streets over them. Ernie had moved to Toronto, like a lot of reggae musicians, to avoid the political conflict in Jamaica. They released an EP with amazing extended versions of their songs, “To Behold Jah” and “Don’t Down Me Now” which became a hit in 1979. “Don’t Down Me Now” had special resonance with me because my girlfriend of 8 years had just left me. The band was signed to Canadian icon, Stompin’ Tom Connor’s label, Boot/ Generation Records and were recording their first full album when tensions developed. Supposedly, the other band members felt that their Toronto manager had favored Ernie in order to market them to a wider audience, similar to what had happened to Marley and the other Wailers, and the band split, right at the beginnings of success. So I learned early what can sometimes happen in the music business. Their manager would later put on the Reggae Sun Splash Festivals in Jamaica each year.
Fortunately, another rare tape I have is of their original recording sessions for that
album. The album was released finally, as well on Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong Records, but by that time, the band had broken up and Jo Jo Bennett later went on to form the most successful Canadian reggae band, The Sattalites.
In the 80’s, a woman came into my vinyl store and told me she’d been looking for years for those Ernie Smith songs from that first Canadian EP, as they had been a big hit in Africa where she had worked. She said she had finally tracked down Ernie playing in a lounge back in Jamaica, but he said he didn’t have any copies left. Something I also learned working with musicians over the years-they often don’t keep copies of their own songs. But he suggested trying in Ottawa, as he had been popular there and that’s how she found my store. She was overjoyed when I offered to make copies of those rare live and album sessions, something as I said, probably the band doesn’t even have.
In 1987, when Ernie had been having some hard times, Bob Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, came to his rescue and together they wrote songs for a musical about Marcus Garvey by Perry Henzell, the director of the classic reggae film and soundtrack, The Harder They Come (’72), starring Jimmy Cliff, which along with Bob Marley had first spread reggae music outside Jamaica.
In the 90’s, another musician came into my store and left a CD by a Toronto reggae group, called Freedom Fighters to see if he could sell through my store. After he left, I listened to it and it reminded me very much of the quality of Marley & the Wailers. When I read the liner notes, sure enough, on it playing were the Barrett brothers and other members of Marley’s band, and it was produced by them at Marley’s own studio in Jamaica, Tuff Gong Studios. So it all had come full circle, from my first hearing Marley in Montreal and then Ernie Smith and the Roots Revival that first night in Ottawa: two very special shows I would never forget, although I would see many more over the years.
I was visiting my parents this summer and found a poster of Bob Marley and George Harrison on the same bill in '75 at the Lyceum Ballroom, London. I knew The Beatles liked reggae and Marley (Lennon had said he had trouble getting white session musicians to play it in '73 for his mind games LP and one of the last songs he recorded was the reggae and perhaps fore-seeing, "Living On Borrowed Time"). McCartney had recorded the reggae, "C-Moon" and of course they had recorded his calypso-like "Ob-La-D" back in '68 for the White Album. But I had no idea one of The Beatles had even played on the same bill as Marley.
BELOW:ERNIE SMITH & THE ROOTS REVIVAL’S Original 1997 Cdn. EP
with “To Behold Jah” & “Don’t Down Me Now”