By Steven Frank
During the 1970’s, Bob Marley and the Wailers were emissaries who disseminated the Jamaican sound of reggae to the world. Their honors include Best Album of the Century in 1999 by Time Magazine for 1977’s Exodus and BBC chose “One Love” as the song of the millennium. The greatness of Bob Marley’s music and message is without question, but without Marley himself, some may ask, “Who are the Wailers?” The answer is still “the greatest reggae band of all time,” and the reason the Wailers continue to be a vital force is that they have true provenance. Provenance in the world of art refers to a record of ownership that authenticates the quality of the work. The Wailers have provenance. Take Junior Marvin, lead guitarist on the classic Exodus album, and bassist Aston "Familyman" Barrett, who along with his brother Carlton on drums, played with Lee “Scratch” Perry's Upsetters before joining forces with Bob Marley around 1970. The Barrett Brothers rhythm section formed the bedrock of the international reggae sound. The loss of Carlton in 1987 was tragic, but Aston Sr. keeps the rhythm in the family with his son taking over his uncle’s role. Aston Barrett Jr. is proud to have grown up in a family that helped forge a sound that moves the world.
A distant cousin to the Barretts is multi-talented Joshua David Barrett who has aptly assumed the role of lead vocalist. It’s a daunting task, but one he’s taken on with a natural grace that honors Robert Nesta Marley without attempting to play Bob. To Joshua, reaffirming the legacy of Marley and the Wailers is a spiritual mission that respects Jah Rastafari and the legacy of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I with the message of One Love - something the world can certainly benefit from.
You cannot think of the Wailers without the vocals of the I-Three (Judy Mowatt, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths.) This tour includes singers Shema McGregor, daughter of Judy, a member of this iconic vocal group that toured and recorded with Bob Marley and the Wailers for a decade, and the muli-talented Hassanah.
As important as the talent on stage, there is provenance in what you hear, with sound engineer Dennis Thompson operating the board. Thompson has worked with the top reggae talent, including Jimmy Cliff, Dennis Brown, Bunny Wailer, Buju Banton, Burning Spear and Steel Pulse. From 1973 until Marley's last concert in Pittsburgh on September 23, 1980, Thompson has helped to craft the sound, and he continues to as the Wailers tour the world.
Muddy Waters once wrote, “the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll”. Reggae has been called the offspring of ska and rock steady. Just as the Sugarhill Gang's “Rappers Delight” coined the term ‘hip-hop’ and Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” gave birth to ‘heavy metal’, Toots and the Maytals “Do the Reggay” was the first popular song to use the term ‘reggae’.
Ska and rock steady were themselves born of traditional Jamaican mento, rhythm and blues and jazz. Add to the crucible, a desire to reproduce the sound of the delayed frequencies of New Orleans radio stations and one can surmise that that’s how the dub sound may have been born.
These new sounds emanating from Jamaica may have only been heard by locals and adventurous tourists if not for one Anglo-Jamaican named Chris Blackwell, who took his fledgling Blue Mountain/Island Record Company to England, where, it is said he once sold records out of the back of his car directly to record shops. His first artists included Jimmy Cliff, the Skatalites, and a young Bob Marley. Chris would later promote everyone from Roxy Music to the B-52’s and U2, but will be remembered as the most influential person for turning the world onto reggae music and he continues to with young artists like Chronixx.
The reggae diaspora is a worldwide phenomenon and connections between Trenchtown and Toronto are very tight. It should be noted that Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones, Rannie “Bop” Williams, Stranger Cole and Alton Ellis are just a few of the many musicians with first-class pedigrees who lived and recorded in small studios in Toronto and in Kingston in the famed Studio One. Two other notables are Willie Williams and Jackie Mittoo who co-wrote a song that reverberated outside the reggae community when “Armagideon Time” was covered by the Clash. Jackie Mittoo is also remembered as a member of the Skatalites who backed the Wailers hit “Simmer Down” in 1963. Mittoo’s inventive organ and keyboard playing has influenced musicians in many genres.
The organ and keyboards continue to be an essential ingredient to the Wailers sound, with the prodigious Javaughn Bond adding the distinctive counter play to the rhythm and lead guitars. Along with Junior Marvin, American-born guitarist Donald Kinsey, son of Chicago blues legend Big Daddy Kinsey, is laying down those unmistakable leads. Donald has toured and recorded with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Albert King. Rounding out the guitars is Owen "Dreadie" Reid, playing rhythm. Dreadie is someone who knows about bringing the music to the younger generation, as he himself was mentored by Aston "Familyman" Barrett and went on to play a part in the musical careers of Bob Marley's children Ziggy, Stephan and Julian.
Though the original players might be older, this tour is no nostalgia act, and the message of Bob Marley has never been more necessary or relevant.
Close your eyes during Joshua’s Barrett’s rendition of “Redemption Song” and you hear the past, present and future and there is hope, as long we remember that, “none but ourselves can free our minds.” The words of Bob Marley can help us get there, and the Wailers still have the soundtrack.
Since reggae borrowed from other genres, it will continue to morph into other musical forms as well. There is no better example than the “Rhythm Twins”: Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who continue to explore the reggae medium with their dub experiments using elements of jazz, electronica and dancehall, working with the likes of producer Bill Laswell. They have also been champions of bands like Black Uhuru bringing reggae to a new generation. To know that the reggae sound can evolve, be relevant and infuse the irie spirit into other genres is significant, but the timeless music that Bob Marley and the Wailers perfected proves there is “no need to fix what isn’t broke.”
Steven Frank still has the tickets to see Bob Marley and the Wailers October 6th, 1980 at Maple Leaf Gardens and finally experienced them at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto June 15th, 2017.
(edited after initial publication)