When Peter Tosh was told of Bob Marley’s untimely death via a transatlantic telephone line there was a long silence before he said, “Well, it just so… At least it leave a little space for all of us to go through now.” It was a cold response even for someone dubbed ‘Stepping Razor’, betraying the bitterness he felt about being eclipsed by the reggae singer years earlier. While Marley’s solo career had shot into the stratosphere, his was still having a bumpy orbit. Bunny Wailer, the third member of the erstwhile Wailers, was more generous but he, like Tosh, never visited Marley on his sickbed.
Rewind 10 years earlier and it was a very different story. The Wailers were an inseparable gang of three from Kingston’s Trench Town ghetto, drawn together by their country boy background, musical ambition and early awakenings of Rasta consciousness. Their first hit, 1963’s Simmer Down, featuring their high pitched teenage vocals in full flow, had turned them into a popular local act. But they remained ‘sufferers’, struggling to keep their heads above water in Jamaica’s prolific music industry that turned out gems every week.
In the early 1970s, they travelled to the US and then England in the hope of an international break. But as historian Colin Grant writes in I & I The Natural Mystics, Marley, Tosh & Wailer, this was easier said and done. Outside of Jamaica, reggae was held in low esteem by the snooty music press, which betrayed its ignorance of it by crowning Texan pop star Johnny Nash the King of Reggae for his 1972 song I Can See Clearly Now.
That was more choirboy than rude boy. So when the Wailers walked through the door of Chris Blackwell’s Notting Hill offices, the adventurous Island Records boss saw stars in his eyes. “They were nobodies but they were like huge stars in their attitude and the vibe they gave off,” he tells Grant. This was the real thing. Throwing caution to the wind, he gave them £4,000 to make an album. The result was the seminal Catch a Fire.
Their second album, Burnin’, propelled the Wailers into superstardom. But within a year they were to go their separate ways as lead vocalist Marley emerged the undisputed front man. As in life, so in death. In the copious literature about Marley, Tosh and Wailer have been reduced to walk on parts. “I & I The Natural Mystics brings them back to the centre stage with their co-creator,” Grant says.
He travels round Jamaica to research his book, a sort of innocent abroad as he interviews a lively cast of characters, ending it in the car park of Gatwick airport where he manages to track down the elusive but likeable Bunny Wailer on a tour bus. Wailer is the only remaining member of the group, Tosh having been shot dead in 1987.
Although it does not match Grant’s highly praised biography of Marcus Garvey, Negro With a Hat, in scholarship, I & I The Natural Mystics is another page-turner, full of interesting asides about Jamaica’s post war history and its music scene before dancehall’s “cultural coup”.
The trio emerge as three kings, their 10 years together as the Wailers a part of reggae’s golden era in which longing for Mother Africa and the trials and tribulations of ghetto living were blended together in wistful poetry, wonderful harmonies and thudding bass beats.
Grant describes how the group unofficially morphed into Bob Marley and the Wailers as Marley managed to square his Rasta ideals with commercial success, Tosh became increasingly belligerent and Wailer withdrew. He suggests that Marley’s light complexion – his father was white – also played an important part in his elevation. He was “the bridge for mainstream listeners to cross over to an edgier but ultimately safe sound,” he writes. Tosh and Wailer were just too black.
Tosh, a self-styled militant, certainly believed Marley had made a Faustian pact with Blackwell, though he himself was not averse to going on tour with the Rolling Stones and singing a cover of the sugary Smokey Robinson song Don’t Look Back in his own quest for success.
The truth is, Marley possessed greater charisma and was also a prodigious song writing talent. The volatile, monosyllabic Tosh was never likely to endear the press from behind his dark glasses, while Wailer, high minded like an Old Testament prophet, hated touring and was happier working on his farm.
Marley’s premature death in 1981 only served to push Tosh and Wailer further into the shadows, though the solo output of the surviving Bunny has turned him into a musical legend in his own right, a link to reggae roots’ halcyon days that Grant manages to so entertainingly evoke.
February 3 2011