Bob Marley Mysteries, Part 3

The first two posts in this three-part series examined some mysteries surrounding the early career of the Wailers, in the decade before they signed to Island Records. Going in chronological order, this final post looks at the period right before they signed to Island, when they were in England in 1972.

The sole single Bob Marley released on CBS flopped when it came out in 1972.

The sole single Bob Marley released on CBS flopped when it came out in 1972.

The reason for Bob Marley’s relocation to London early that year was straightforward enough. Although it was coming up on its fifth year in early 1972, Bob’s association with manager-of-sorts Danny Sims and his fellow client Johnny Nash hadn’t yielded much in the way of tangible results. Yet for all his problems with them, they remained his only lifeline to the international music business. Now there was a chance Bob could sign with CBS Records’ Epic subsidiary, for whom Nash was now recording. In mid-February, Marley flew to London, not only to play on the album Nash was recording there, but also to do some tracks for CBS under his own name.

Marley went without the other Wailers (or, for that matter, his wife Rita, who was an honorary Wailer of sorts and had sung on quite a few of their records since the mid-1960s). This seems to indicate that Sims and Nash viewed him as the group’s primary asset, and perhaps sole asset in which they were truly interested. They’d signed Bob, Rita, and Peter Tosh to a songwriting/publishing deal back in 1968, but in 1971, Bob was the only one they’d flown to Sweden to work on songs for the soundtrack to an obscure film in which Johnny Nash starred. While in Sweden, Bob didn’t even mention the other Wailers to a Texan keyboardist also working on the soundtrack, Rabbit Bundrick. Maybe he was thinking of a solo career, or at least considering it as an option.

Marley recorded about half an album’s worth of tracks for CBS in London in 1972, but just a couple of them came out on a flop single. Sometime after this, the other Wailers—not just Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, but also bassist Family Man Barrett and drummer Carlton Barrett—were flown over to join Bob. As is typical with the imprecision surrounding many Marley dates, it’s not known exactly when this happened in 1972; some accounts give the impression this occurred in the spring, and others quite a bit later in the year. But they did go over to London, and were definitely there in the latter part of the year, when they approached Island Records.

One of the few surviving early Wailers concert posters, from 1966.

One of the few surviving early Wailers concert posters, from 1966.

It’s unclear, however, why the Wailers were flown over, presumably at Sims’s expense. The logical reason would seem to be that he and the Wailers hoped to build a British following by playing live shows. However, they barely performed at all. There was just one proper Wailers concert, and Marley and Tosh played a benefit at a London school to raise money for a new swimming pool, but that was probably hardly the gig they had in mind when they left Jamaica. Marley did some shows as a support act for Nash without the other Wailers, which couldn’t have been great for team morale, or do much to counteract the impression that Sims was mostly interested in Bob, not Peter or Bunny.

It’s been suggested that the main reason the Wailers were there was to learn stagecraft by observing Johnny Nash’s British shows. This seems yet odder than not having them play much on their own. First, it would have been expensive to fly the Wailers over and give them enough support (if basic in nature) to live in London for an extended period. Doing that so they could watch Johnny Nash seems like a rather frivolous investment. Also, the Wailers had been together since the early 1960s, and performing live concerts for at least some of that time, though timelines as to how many shows they did are about as cloudy as most other aspects of their early career. Even if they didn’t do all that many gigs, after a decade or so, how much more could they learn from Nash, and did they need to follow him around on tour for such an extended period as part of their education?

Maybe Bob asked, or demanded, that the other Wailers be flown over if he was to continue to try and make headway in Britain. Maybe part of the purpose was to record the Wailers in British studios, as Danny Sims did arrange for the Wailers to cut five tracks at CBS (including “Stir It Up” and four other songs that they’d re-record for Catch a Fire). But those weren’t issued, and there’s nothing to make one believe Sims knocked himself out trying to get the Wailers a band deal. Indeed, part of the reason they ended up at Island was because they were frustrated with their management, and took things into their own hands, approaching Island’s Chris Blackwell without the help of Sims.

Itinerary for the Wailers' first proper UK tour in 1973.

Itinerary for the Wailers’ first proper UK tour in 1973.

Blackwell was pretty quick to give the Wailers money to record an album, probably around early fall 1972. He’s gone over his meeting with the Wailers and decision to work with them in numerous interviews. Something that hasn’t come up much in Marley histories, however, is the extent to which the Wailers were known in the UK. The impression’s sometimes given that they were virtually unknown there (and everywhere else except Jamaica), with Island providing the gateway to an international audience. That’s basically true, but were they really unknown in the UK at the time?

If so, two perspectives that sometimes come up in Marley literature don’t compute. One concerns the breakup of their brief if productive relationship with producer Lee Perry in the early 1970s. The reasons for this were primarily financial, not artistic. They thought they had a deal to split royalties 50/50 with the producer, but according to Bunny Livingston, when it came time to dole out the money, Perry only offered ten percent. Straightforward enough, and ample reason to terminate the relationship if that’s how it went down.

Some accounts, however, intimate that part of the reason they were angry at Perry is that the producer made good money they didn’t see by licensing Wailers material for UK release. There was quite a bit available for that purpose, Perry having produced two Wailers’ LPs in the early 1970s, as well as some singles (and an instrumental version of one of the albums, Soul Revolution). If the Wailers sold enough records to the UK market to make enough money to be worth fighting about, shouldn’t they have had an easier time arranging to do shows in Britain, and in summoning label interest before presenting themselves to Blackwell?

One of the LPs of material the Wailers did with producer Lee Perry.

One of the LPs of material the Wailers did with producer Lee Perry.

It’s also sometimes (and by no means universally) been reported that Coxsone Dodd, who produced the Wailers’ 1964-1966 recordings and released them on his own Studio One label, was sent quite a bit of money from sales of their product in the UK that he did not share with the Wailers. Indeed, it’s sometimes reported that the Wailers weren’t even aware of that money until quite a few years later. Again, if true, wouldn’t that indicate the Wailers would already have been known, at least to a modest degree, in the UK?

Chris Blackwell, when remembering how Island’s association with the Wailers began, gives the impression that he really wasn’t all that familiar with their work, in part because the rock side of Island took off so stratospherically in the late 1960s. Blackwell had gained a foothold in the record business by licensing ska for the sizable if niche market of Jamaicans in Britain, but branched into progressive rock in the late 1960s with the success of Traffic, Free, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, and others. It does ring true that he wouldn’t have kept up with reggae as avidly as he did back in the early-to-mid-1960s, though he did have one major reggae act, Jimmy Cliff (whose departure from Island was one reason he was keen to sign the Wailers). It seems like he might have known at least somewhat more about the Wailers than he let on, however, just like there are signs that Brian Epstein wasn’t really wholly unfamiliar with the Beatles when he first went to the Cavern to see them in late 1961.

The Wailers shared the bill with Bruce Springsteen for concerts at Max's Kansas City in mid-1973.

The Wailers shared the bill with Bruce Springsteen for concerts at Max’s Kansas City in mid-1973.

Does it matter if there was some strange, nefarious reason the Wailers were flown over and did hardly any shows, or if they sold a good number of records in the UK before signing to Island, or if Blackwell was much more knowledgeable about the Wailers’ history and records than he’d later recall? Probably not. They did sign to Island, and Island did break them into the international market, though Tosh and Livingston started solo careers after a couple albums, before Bob Marley became a household name as the Wailers’ frontman. It would still be interesting to know the answers to these questions, however—as it would be for so many uncertain and peculiar aspects of the Wailers’ first decade.

My book Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History was released earlier this month (September).

My book Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History was released earlier this month (September).

Bob Marley Mysteries, Part 2

In early 1966, Bob Marley left the Wailers to live with his mother in the United States, although the Wailers had released a string of generally pretty popular (sometimes extremely popular) singles  in Jamaica over the previous year and a half.  His mother had moved to Delaware about three years previously, establishing US residency after marrying in American.

For eight months, he worked at a series of menial jobs in Wilmington. These, in keeping with the inexact details of Marley’s early years, have variously been reported as including stints as a janitor at the Dupont Hotel, a waiter, a dishwasher, a parking lot attendant, a lab assistant at DuPont chemical company, and driving a forklift at a Chrysler auto plant assembly line. He probably didn’t work at all of these jobs (or at least all of them during the same visit), apparently returning to the US on a few other occasions over the next few years to combine visiting his mother with laboring for dollars.

A 1966 single by the Wailers, recorded without Bob Marley, as Marley was in the midst of an eight-month stay with his mother in the US.

A 1966 single by the Wailers, recorded without Bob Marley, as Marley was in the midst of an eight-month stay with his mother in the US.

It says much about the state and size of the Jamaican industry that Marley could make more money finding menial work abroad than he could as one of ska’s hottest stars. It would have been inconceivable, for instance, to find Curtis Mayfield—the Wailers’ biggest influence—quitting the Impressions to work in an auto plant out of economic necessity just as they were tasting the heights of success. But despite their Jamaican hits, they weren’t making much money, subsisting for at least a while on wages of three pounds a week each that were doled out by their producer, Coxsone Dodd. Dodd let Marley sleep in the studio for a time, but even that was in consideration of Bob doing extra work rehearsing other artists on Dodd’s Studio One label.

Ian McCann, editor of the UK monthly magazine Record Collector and co-author of Bob Marley: The Complete Guide to His Music, wonders if the early Wailers were as successful as some accounts would have it, even though surviving charts indicate at least few of their mid-‘60s singles made the Jamaican Top Ten. “It’s worth bearing in mind that if the Wailers were so big, where were all the other producers trying to tempt them away from Studio One, as invariably happens in Jamaica?,” he asks. “If The Wailers were having a string of smashes, someone would have lured them away.”

One also wonders why Dodd didn’t try harder to get Marley to stay in Jamaica if the Wailers were selling so many records—perhaps by increasing his measly wages, for instance, or offering him at least something in the way of royalties. Maybe Dodd thought the Wailers would do well enough without Bob. And, though it’s not often emphasized in Marley biographies, the Wailers did make singles without Bob in 1966 that were very good, like “Dancing Shoes,” “Can’t You See,” and “Sinner Man,” apparently at least sometimes with significant Jamaican sales.

The biggest mystery of Marley’s 1966 Delaware sojourn, however, surrounds its termination. Some accounts have it that he simply tired of the menial work and (during at least in some months of his visit) cold weather, and wanted to get back to making music with the Wailers, using the $700 he had saved to help start the band’s own label. That seems logical enough, but it’s also sometimes been reported that a notice from the Selective Service sealed his determination to leave the US.

That makes for a dramatic story within the story, but there’s confusion about when or even if this happened. Marley was not a US citizen, but young non-US men who resided in the States for more than six months did risk getting drafted into military service. It’s unclear whether the notice was instructing him to register for the draft or actually drafting him. It’s also unclear whether this happened in 1966 or on a subsequent visit to his mother in Delaware in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One Marley biographer wrote that the Selective Service didn’t even have a record of Bob in its system—though given how disorganized the government sometimes was about such matters, that wouldn’t necessarily mean they never contacted him.

Whatever happened or didn’t with the Selective Service, he was back in Jamaica with his wife Rita in late 1966. Not long afterward—January 1968, according to most sources, though a January 1967 date has also been given—he came into contact with American soul singer Johnny Nash, which in turn led to a deal with Nash’s manager, Danny Sims. Sims would pay Bob, Rita (who was in essence taking Bunny Livingston’s place in the Wailers while Bunny served a jail term in 1967-68), and Peter Tosh $100 a week each to write songs. Livingston wasn’t part of the deal, as he was still in prison.

"Hold Me Tight" was Johnny Nash's first big hit in 1968.

“Hold Me Tight” was Johnny Nash’s first big hit in 1968.

It’s not entirely clear what Sims and Nash hoped, or at least hoped most, to gain by the association. Probably they wanted to place some of their songs—especially Marley’s—with American artists, as the publishing royalties for US hits would mean a big payoff. They were also probably considering some of the material for Nash, who would indeed make one of Marley’s songs a big hit, though not for nearly five years. As a longer shot, there was the possibility of getting hits in North America and Europe for records performed by Marley and/or the Wailers themselves, though they were unknown in those territories, and reggae itself was barely known anywhere outside of Jamaica.

Probably starting around early 1968, Bob, Peter, and Rita began making demos for Sims and Nash’s JAD company. It’s not wholly certain whether these were intended to be shopped to other artists to generate possible covers; to get considered for interpretation on Nash’s own releases; to get a deal for the Wailers and/or Marley; or, if the demos were good enough, to even gain overseas release. Their purpose was probably some combination of all of these alternatives. The Wailers certainly had plenty of material to offer for consideration. Many tracks were cut for JAD—211, according to a 2004 Universal Music press release announcing a licensing deal between the two companies.

Here’s my first question about this situation for which I can’t figure out an answer:

If Johnny Nash was so hot on Marley as a songwriter, why didn’t he record any of Marley’s songs in the late 1960s?

Nash, previously a journeyman soul singer without much in the way of either hit records or artistic distinction, made #5 in both the US and UK with a breakthrough hit that drew heavily (and quite skillfully) upon Jamaican rock steady music, “Hold Me Tight.” Bob’s material would have fit in well with his new direction. Why didn’t he put any Marley tunes on his records of the period? And why was the one Wailers song he did cover at the time a Peter Tosh composition (“Love,” on his Hold Me Tight album, marking the first high-profile cover of a Wailers song abroad), not a Marley tune?

Johnny Nash's "Hold Me Tight" album.

Johnny Nash’s “Hold Me Tight” album.

Of course, Nash eventually would have great success with a Marley song when he took “Stir It Up” into the UK and US Top Twenty in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The album Johnny recorded around that time, I Can See Clearly Now, had some other Marley compositions. Why wait so long? Especially since “Stir It Up” had been around for a while, the Wailers recording the original version for a single back in 1967?

Here’s a more sensitive mystery:

If Bob Marley (and Rita) were being paid $100 a week each by JAD for writing songs, why did Bob periodically return to Wilmington to take more of the kind of menial work that he (according to Rita’s memoir) had sworn off for good after a vacuum cleaner exploded at one of his 1966 jobs?

$100 USD won’t even get you a good guitar today, of course, but back in the late 1960s, it went pretty far in Jamaica. A lot farther, at any rate, than the three weekly pounds that had been Bob’s wages from Coxsone Dodd for a while. Even considering that the Marleys had a growing family, it would seem the $100 stipend, along perhaps with some other money they picked up selling records and performing, would be enough to support themselves without Bob having to go back to work in a Delaware auto plant or some such thing.

Was the $100/week salary not in place for the entire period during which Bob was under Sims’s management (until around late 1972/early 1973)? Was it simply still not enough? Or did Bob just want to be able to periodically visit his mother, picking up some work while he was there to help things along?

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Did Bob even want to use those trips as a chance to see whether the Wailers might want to join him in the US to try and make it in the States? A couple accounts (predictably giving different years) have it that Marley actually wrote Livingston asking him and Tosh to come to the US to resume the Wailers’ career in the States. Uninterested in relocating, Bunny didn’t reply.

Whatever the reasons for them taking place, the post-1966 trips Marley took to the US and the jobs he took there—and, according to several sources, there were more than one such trips—don’t add up to me. Why would he have needed the money that badly? And if he didn’t need the money that badly, why would he have spent any weeks or months at such mundane jobs, as it would have taken precious time away from the music that was his main priority? Even if Sims wasn’t paying him and/or Rita $100 per week anymore, wouldn’t Sims have wanted Marley to concentrate on music instead of manual labor, and wanted to have given him some incentive not to make other work his focus? Could his ties to the other Wailers have been looser than is usually assumed, and Bob looking for options that might have involved a career without them?

That leads into the third and final of this series of Marley mysteries posts. The Wailers finally got a big record deal after relocating to the UK, with some bumps on the road. But why did they end up there, and were they really as unknown in the UK as is usually assumed?

Another compilation with material from the recordings the Wailers made for JAD.

Another compilation with material from the recordings the Wailers made for JAD.

Bob Marley Mysteries, Part 1

Bob Marley is now one of the world’s most famous musicians. For a guy who generates the fourth-highest income of any late musician, however, many aspects of his career and life remain murky. That’s particularly true of his first ten years or so as a recording artist, predating the Wailers’ first release on Island Records, the early 1973 album Catch a Fire. From that point until Marley’s death in May 1981, his music and other activities are fairly well if imperfectly documented, as he was constantly in the media spotlight and his records were easily available in Europe and North America.

The Wailers' first LP, mid-1960s.

The Wailers’ first LP, mid-1960s.

But from the time of his 1962 debut single “Judge Not” until he hooked up with Island, Marley’s records (almost all of them recorded as part of the Wailers) were largely unknown outside of Jamaica, as were the Wailers themselves. The Jamaican record business was not exactly big on documentation, and many early ska/rock steady/reggae reissues (including many of those by the Wailers) have frustratingly scant annotation. Such crucial information as recording and release dates often seem to be treated as closely guarded state secrets. As the Wailers weren’t given much attention by the Jamaican media (and virtually none by the non-Jamaican media) at the time, the same holds true for their activities outside the studio. It’s hard to piece together what happened when, and even the most thorough Marley biographies frequently report different dates and sequences for the same events.

This and the next couple posts present some of the Marley mysteries that I find most interesting (and sometimes, considering how confidently wildly varying accounts of these issues are presented as fact in multiple sources, irritating). Let’s start with the very first Wailers single, “Simmer Down,” a hit in Jamaica in – when?

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The liner notes to the 1992 Marley box set Songs of Freedom—probably one of the highest-selling box sets of all time, having gone double platinum—state that “Simmer Down” “was a number one in Jamaica in February, 1964.” Yet according to Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson’s Bob Marley & the Wailers: The Definitive Discography, it wasn’t even recorded until July 1964. The guys who wrote this aren’t just assigning dates on a whim; Steffens is probably the most respected reggae authority in the world.

In this case at least, it seems pretty clear to me that “Simmer Down” probably wasn’t released until the second half of 1964. Take a look at this chart from September 18, 1964 for JBC—Radio Jamaica:

JBC_1964-09-18_1

This shows “Simmer Down” at #5, up from #10 the previous week (and #15 the week before that), which indicates it was probably a relatively recent release still on the rise. It’s doubtful it would be jumping from #15 to #10 to #5 after having been #1 in February. Later in September it got to #2, gradually falling lower in the Top Ten over the next couple months, judging from a few other charts on this website. It’s also doubtful it would have been held from release for a long time after it was recorded, so the July 1964 recording date is likely accurate, even though some accounts have the Wailers starting to record as early as 1963.

This leads into some larger issues not only in accurately assessing the Wailers’ commercial success, but also in the history of ska and early reggae’s popularity in Jamaica in general. There seems to be no source for which chart positions of Jamaican singles in the 1960s and 1970s can be easily consulted. I threw out the question as to whether Jamaican chart positions could be looked up anywhere to a large newsgroup to which I belong of many esteemed UK music journalists (I am from the US but an honorary member of sorts). None of them replied.

There’s not even agreement on what the national chart, or national charts, were. This chart was compiled by “JBC—Radio Jamaica.” JBC was the public radio station the Jamaica Broadcasting Company. Radio Jamaica is the name usually given to RJR, or Real Jamaican Radio. Was this chart a composite of what was most popular on both stations? Were there other charts?

Another cover used on the Wailers' first LP.

Another cover used on the Wailers’ first LP.

It should be noted that charts, in Jamaica and elsewhere (including the US), are not gospel as to what records sold the most, were played the most, or were generally the most popular. Measurements of record sales have always been inexact—more so back in the 1960s and 1970s, before SoundScan made tracking sales at least somewhat more of an exact science. Chart positions, although the industry doesn’t like to discuss the fact, have sometimes been influenced by financial considerations some might view as payola.

Nonetheless, chart positions, for all their flaws, are the best indications we have of how generally popular releases were. Singles throughout the Wailers’ first decade are given different chart positions, or different descriptions as to how popular they were, in various different sources. As a chart that seems like the same one as the JBC-Radio Jamaica chart whose Top Ten was reprinted in Jamaica’s major daily paper (The Gleaner), it seems like someone could or should go through those back issues and compile an actual reference publication or database with the peak positions, at least for Top Ten entries. Not a job anyone’s likely to pay someone for, I admit, but one that would be highly useful to historians in more precisely establishing how successful the Wailers were in their early years.

“Simmer Down” has been reported, by the way, to have sold about 70,000-80,000 copies. As Jamaica had a population of a little less than two million, that would have been the equivalent of selling about five million copies in the US. I have no way of confirming this, but I have the feeling that figure might have been somewhat inflated. If we’re playing the equivalence game, even the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” didn’t sell five million copies in the US that year. Was “Simmer Down” really more popular per capita in Jamaica than “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was in the US?

I know it seems like we’ve been on this chart business for quite a while, but bear with me and take another look at the one from September 18, 1964:

JBC_1964-09-18_1

It’s sometimes stated in Marley/reggae literature that reggae was not played as often as it should have on Jamaican radio, or even that it was seldom played. But early reggae singles occupy most of the places on this chart. There are a few American soul 45s by the Drifters, Solomon Burke, and Ben E. King, and one British Invasion disc—not by the Beatles or a rock group, but by Dusty Springfield. Other charts from the ‘60s and early ‘70s on this Peter Tosh website are dominated by reggae (if not quite as much), with similar sprinklings of American soul and the very occasional UK pop hit. Could reggae really have been played rarely on Jamaican radio? A student of mine who visited the island in the late 1970s said he indeed hardly heard any reggae on the airwaves when he was there; was there that much of a disconnect between the charts and the radio playlists?

Going by the charts (which cover only a very small portion of the years 1964-1972) on the Peter Tosh site, the Wailers did have a good number of Top Ten singles during these years—and probably a good number of others that don’t show up on the scraps of charts the site managed to locate. This didn’t seem to make them rich, though predictably, even accounts as to how poor or well off they were widely vary. Which leads into more Marley mysteries, as continued in the next post.

One of the few surviving posters for an early Wailers concert, from March 3, 1965.

One of the few surviving posters for an early Wailers concert, from March 3, 1965.