History | 22 November 2017The Beginning of Bob Marley and the Wailers Share article facebook twitter google pinterest When Bob Marley was born, no one would have predicted that a boy of his background could become a musical revolutionary. His race, nationality, and modest family assets all seemed to work against the likelihood of his even rising out of poverty. Yet those same factors may well have fueled his burning desire to better not just himself, but the lot of millions of others with similar disadvantages. Staffordshire, England, June 22, 1978. Photo: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photos One of those disadvantages was his color. Economic and political power in Jamaica was almost exclusively concentrated in a small white minority, often descendants of the British, who were still running Jamaica as a colony in which the gap between the ruling elite and a large black underclass was huge. Although his father was white, Marley was considered part of that underclass. It had been part of Jamaican life since slaves were forced to move to the country from their African homes starting in the early sixteenth century, though Jamaica finally abolished slavery in 1838. Nesta Robert Marley was born on February 6, 1945. For much of his early youth, the future Bob Marley would be known as Nesta. He seldom saw his father, Norval Marley, and he was raised almost entirely by his mother, Cedella Marley. Marley’s mother, Cedella Malcolm, was from the village of Nine Mile, where her father ran small businesses and owned some property. Marley’s boyhood home there is now a museum. Photo: A Media Press/Alamy Stock Photo As a single mother in a small town, Cedella found it hard to support herself and her son, taking domestic work in Kingston and leaving Bob in the care of relatives in Nine Mile for spells. Shortly before Bob’s teens, the two moved to Kingston, by far the largest city in Jamaica. There she took up with Toddy Livingston, who ran a bar and often visited her and Bob in Trench Town, a large ghetto even more impoverished than its counterparts in the United States. Marley’s former home on First Street in Trench Town as seen in 2000. Collin Reid/AP Photo Here Bob became reacquainted with Livingston’s slightly younger son, Neville, known as Bunny since his birth on April 10, 1947. The pair had first become friends when Bunny and his father lived in Nine Mile several years earlier. Their friendship grew as they discovered a mutual interest in music and as their parents’ affair intensified, resulting in a daughter, Pearl, born in 1962. With a half-sister in common, Bob and Bunny were not just friends; they were family, cementing a bond that would help in the formation of their own singing group. FORMING THE WAILERS Even for bright boys like Bob, educational opportunities for the overwhelmingly black and poor population of Trench Town were limited. Around the age of fifteen, he left school with no qualifications and, apparently, little to expect in terms of economic advancement. He at least had plenty of time to sing and play rudimentary guitar with Bunny. Their chief inspirations were not the calypso music popular in Jamaica and throughout much of the Caribbean, nor mento, its somewhat similar Jamaican variation. Their real passion was for American rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues, which made their way into the poorest neighborhoods of Jamaica via radio and records. As Bob confirmed in interview footage used in Rebel Music: The Bob Marley Story, “We couldn’t afford to buy records, so we listened to the radio.” In particular, they were inspired by the young, black American harmonizing vocal groups—sometimes called doo-wop acts, in honor of the frequent nonsense syllables they employed—that were merging pop and R & B into a style that would lay a foundation for 1960s soul music. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had been one of the first such groups to score a big rock ’n’ roll hit in the mid-1950s with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” The more polished Platters updated the kind of smooth arrangements used by pre-rock acts like the Ink Spots. And the Drifters, with ever-shifting members, added more elaborate, sometimes orchestrated production as the 1950s turned into the 1960s. All were cited by Bunny Livingston (in the Marley documentary) as key early influences on the group that, with the addition of a third member, evolved into the Wailers. As teens in Trench Town, Marley and Bunny Livingston were inspired not by the local calypso music, but by black American vocal groups like (clockwise from top left) Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, and the Drifters. The third teenager was Peter Tosh, born Winston Hubert McIntosh on October 19, 1944. Peter spent his early years in the coastal town of Savanna-la-Mar before moving at a young age to Kingston, living with an uncle in Trench Town when he entered his teens. A more accomplished instrumentalist, Tosh ran into the pair while playing and singing in Trench Town. By the early 1960s, they formed a trio, naming themselves the Teenagers, in honor of Frankie Lymon’s group. After briefly working as a welder, Bob’s resolve to make music his living was stiffened when a piece of metal flew into his eye at work. Although the debris was removed without complications, Marley quit welding to focus on music. The accident gave Tosh an excuse to give up his welding job as well. Giving up a trade to sing, in a town with high unemployment among black youth, must have seemed foolhardy to much of their family and friends, especially considering there wasn’t yet much of a Jamaican music industry. Yet at precisely this time, opportunities to make a living at music—and even to make records—were opening up for young Jamaicans. The Jamaican artists, however, couldn’t quite replicate the American R & B they craved. Instead, what came out was something of a hybrid of American rock/R & B and indigenous Jamaican sounds. The rhythm accentuated insistent, jerking offbeats; the brass and guitar, often played by musicians older than the singers, betrayed their backgrounds in jazzier pre-rock; and the vocals, though approximating the feel of American soul singers, couldn’t help but be infused with Jamaican dialect. On top of everything was the fervor of a post–World War II generation boasting a new pride and self-determination after Jamaica declared independence from the United Kingdom on August 6, 1962. The result was ska, the direct predecessor of the reggae with which Bob Marley and his group would become so strongly associated. After changing their name first to the Wailing Rudeboys and then to the Wailing Wailers, they settled on the Wailers (though perhaps unbeknownst to them, a Tacoma, Washington, rock band with the same name had already scored an American instrumental hit with “Tall Cool One” in 1959). Marley, Livingston, and Tosh were not among the very first wave of ska artists to make records, however. They were still in their mid-teens and in need of some refinement and experience, even as they were already beginning to toy with writing their own material. The young Wailers fell under the tutelage of Joe Higgs, often called the “Father of Reggae,” who had begun recording in the 1950s. Seen here circa 1980, he would join the Wailers for a time in the 1970s. Photo: Lee Jaffe/Getty Images Before they changed their name to the Wailers, they began rehearsing under the tutelage of Joe Higgs. Already a national star in the pre-reggae style, Higgs had been recording since the late 1950s and would, for a brief time, sing with the Wailers onstage more than a decade later, when they were on the cusp of international stardom. Marley, noted Higgs in Stephen Davis’s Bob Marley, “was the leader of the group, but the lead singer of the group in those days was Junior Braithwaite,” who joined the Wailers before they made their first record. “But person to person, they were each capable of leading at any given time because I wanted each person to be a leader in his own right, able to lead anyone, or to be able to wail.” Famous promotional photo of the Wailing Wailers depicts, from left, Livingston, Marley, and Tosh. However large Higgs’s role in shaping their harmonies, the Wailers were, with his help, hitting on a distinctive and effective blend. Tosh, who at six foot five towered over the others, had the grittiest and deepest voice; Livingston had the sweetest and highest. Marley combined qualities of both, as if he were the earthy mix of Tosh’s toughness and Livingston’s airiness. Many feel their vocal differences reflected differences in their personalities and, a few years down the line, their songwriting, Peter affecting the most militant tone, Bunny the most spiritual, and Marley something of a more commercial midpoint. There were exceptions to these categorizations, of course, but even at this early stage, it was clear that they had more of an impact together than as soloists. “Me and Bunny together had a kind of voice that could decorate Bob’s music and make it beautiful,” declared Tosh in the documentary Rebel Music. “So we just did that wholeheartedly.” RECORDING DEBUT It was as a soloist, however, that Marley would make his recording debut. Around early 1962, he was recommended to budding producer Leslie Kong, who’d started his Beverley’s label as an outgrowth of his combination restaurant/ice cream parlor—itself an indication of how primitive the Jamaican music business was at ska’s inception. Two early ska stars, Desmond Dekker (who’d have one of the first big international reggae hits in the late 1960s with “The Israelites”) and Derrick Morgan (who was also a talent scout for Kong), have been credited with making Marley aware of an opportunity to cut a single with Kong. Also on the scene was a teenage Jimmy Cliff, later to become one of reggae’s most popular singers. As Cliff later remarked to the Experience Music Project, “Desmond Dekker went back to Bob and said, ‘I’ve found this guy, Jimmy Cliff, and I got my songs passed, and I’m going to record, so you should go and see him.’” When Marley met Cliff, Cliff added, Marley “sang some of his songs, and among the songs that he sang, three of them I chose, and then when Derrick [Morgan] come, he liked those as well, which was ‘One Cup of Coffee,’ ‘Judge Not,’ and ‘Terror.’ And at Leslie Kong’s next session, he recorded those three songs. And that was the start of Bob Marley.” Released when Bob was just sixteen, “Judge Not” was credited to Robert Marley when it was issued as his debut single. A quite respectably infectious and catchy slice of early-1960s ska, with a wheezing flute, it also bore a trace of the moral compass that would feature in many of his later compositions, urging others not to judge him before they judged themselves. As Cliff observed in the documentary Marley (2012), “Judge Not” was “[an] evolutionary song defending his rights as an individual. It occurred to me, well, this guy’s really a good poet.” It sold little at the time, however, and nor did its follow-up, “One Cup of Coffee” (on which Bob was billed as “Bobby Martell”), based on a recent American country hit by Claude Gray. Marley was likely more comfortable as part of the Wailers and also likely realized that his prospects were greater as part of a group with two talented friends. Not long after his pair of singles with Kong, however, came a turn of events that could have short-circuited the band’s career almost as soon as it had started. Her relationship with Toddy Livingston (who’d been married to another woman during their affair) having soured, Bob’s mother, Cedella, went to stay with relatives in Delaware. Intending to move to the US permanently if she could, she likely would have wanted her son to come with her. But Bob remained behind in Jamaica, determined to make it with the group even though he lacked a permanent residence and slept for a while on a kitchen table in a friend’s place. Bob would eventually join his mother in Delaware. In the three years or so before that extended visit, however, the Wailers—sometimes embellished by one, two, or even three other members—became one of the biggest acts in Jamaica. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: AU: Illustrated with photos and memorabilia from all phases of their journey, Bob Marley and the Wailers illuminates the lives and times of the man and his collaborators. Well over three decades after Marley’s death, he and his bandmates remain the most famous reggae artists of all time. Indeed, the Wailers are one of the most famous bands of all time, period. Their evolution from early-60s Jamaican ska act to international superstars was not just improbable, but unprecedented for an act from a third-world nation. The entire, incredible journey of Marley and the Wailers is covered in this visual history. You will see the crucial role they played in establishing reggae as a globally popular form of music, and the influence that the Rastafari movement had on their lives and sound. Plus, how Marley’s socially conscious lyrics and actions made him a universal symbol of pride and justice. This tribute takes you through the entire story, right up to Marley’s untimely death in 1981, and his enduring legacy beyond. Richie Unterberger is the author of numerous rock history books. The first of these, Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll (1998), profiles underappreciated cult rock artists of all styles and eras; the next, Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries Of ’60s Rock (2000); also available as revised/updated 2013 ebook edition), features in-depth surveys of 20 underrated greats of the era. Turn! Turn! Turn!: The Folk-Rock Revolution (2002) and its sequel, Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock’s Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock (2003) cover the history of the 1960s folk-rock movement. Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High have been combined into the ebook Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk-Rock in the 1960s, which adds new and updated material. The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film won a 2007 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in the “Best Discography” division of the “Best Research in Recorded Rock Music” category. His most recent books are White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day (2009) and Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia (2011). His most recent book is Fleetwood Mac: The Ultimate Illustrated History (2016), published by Voyageur Press. Unterberger is also author of The Rough Guide to Music USA, a guidebook to the evolution of regional popular music styles throughout America in the 20th century, and The Rough Guide to Jimi Hendrix. He is a frequent contributor to MOJO and Record Collector, and has written hundreds of liner notes for CD reissues. He teaches courses on rock music history at the College of Marin, the University of San Francisco, and City College of San Francisco. He lives in San Francisco. Share article facebook twitter google pinterest If you have any comments on this article please contact us or get in touch via social media.