The men behind the reggae machine: Neville Garrick and many more

Garry Steckles celebrates the work of artist Neville Garrick - designer of most of Bob Marley's album covers - and the other behind-the-scenes reggae greats

Neville Garrick, right, with the late Charles Comer at the 50th birthday party for Bob Marley at the Tuff Gong headquarters in Kingston, 1995. Photograph by Wendy Steckles

Many of the people who have contributed to the turbulent story of reggae music haven’t made their impact as singers, songwriters or players of instruments.

I’ve been privileged to know dozens of these unsung heroes of Jamaican music in the course of more than three decades of following reggae. People like the late and sorely missed Charles B. Comer, the extraordinary publicist whose showbiz CV included working with a couple of moderately successful groups called the Beatles and the Rolling Stones but whose greatest achievement was masterminding the publicity machine that helped propel Bob Marley from regional hit maker to international superstar.

People like Tommy Cowan, legendary producer, manager and promoter, and perhaps best known to the public as the emcee voice of Reggae Sunsplash. (Tommy, I can’t wait for you to write the book.)

People like the late Tony Johnson, one of the founders of Sunsplash and a genuine global reggae ambassador as the exec who took the festival’s road show around the world in the 80s and early 90s. The list could go on and on.

And I know that Neville Garrick, the man who this column’s really about, won’t mind my dedicating it to Charles, Tommy, Tony and the scores of others who’ve worked tirelessly over the decades behind the reggae scenes.

Neville, perhaps more than any single person, has been a backstage giant in the world of reggae.

You may not know his name, but, if you own a Bob Marley CD or album, odds are you have a piece of his work in your home. (And if you haven’t you should have but that’s another story). Neville Garrick is the artistic genius — and it’s a phrase I don’t use lightly — who designed most of the covers for the albums Bob made for Island Records during the seventies. The memorable images he created for the jackets are as much a part of the story of historic albums like Rastaman Vibration, Exodus, Survival, Uprising, Kaya and Confrontation, as the reggae masterpieces Bob Marley and the Wailers created on the vinyl inside them. And that, in my books, makes him a significant part of the most important musical story of the 20th century.

Neville’s involvement with the Marley music machine (and that’s what it was in the heady days of the 70s) wasn’t limited to designing album covers that were to become icons of popular culture. Far from it. He was part of Bob Marley’s inner circle, one of the tiny handful of people Marley trusted, ate with, travelled the world with, smoked with and played his beloved soccer with.

It was Neville Garrick who designed the famous Marley stage show backdrops of Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie — backdrops that were used in concerts that still hold attendance records in several European cities. It was Neville Garrick who flew out of Jamaica on a chartered Lear jet and into exile with Bob when the singer left the island for 18 months after surviving an assassination attempt in 1976. It was Neville Garrick who shared a room with Bob when the Wailers played at Zimbabwe’s historic independence celebrations in 1980. For seven heady, exhilarating years, from 1974 until Bob’s death in 1981, Garrick was an integral part of the Bob Marley story, a key player in the behind-the-scenes team that helped propel Marley to international superstardom.

For Garrick, the challenge was to make sure the record-buying and concert-going public were left in no doubt that there was a serious message behind the music they were dancing to. As he put it in a recent interview with EYE magazine: “Bob’s audience was predominantly young white kids, and I didn’t want the message to get lost in the beat. I think I was channelling them mentally into what the music was reflecting.”

Marley wasn’t the only reggae star who recognised Garrick’s design genius. To this day, Garrick has no idea how many jackets he designed. “I’ve never kept a portfolio,” he told me the other day. “And I can’t remember all of them.”

Okay, Neville, let’s jog your memory. Among the classic reggae covers you designed for people other than Bob were Peter Tosh’s Wanted, Dread or Alive and No Nuclear War; Steel Pulse’s Earth Crisis; Bunny Wailer’s Blackheart Man and Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers; Judy Mowatt’s Mellow Mood and Ras Michael’s Rastafari.

After Marley’s death, Garrick spent many years as head of the Jamaica-based Bob Marley Foundation. He returned to Los Angeles (where he’d studied at UCLA for four years during the late Sixties and early Seventies) almost five years ago to work on a major film biography of Marley. At the time of writing, that project remained in financial limbo, and Garrick was seriously considering returning to Jamaica to renew his working relationship with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records.

Like the surviving members of the legendary Wailers band, Garrick doesn’t get a cent from the ongoing sales of Marley CDs — still far and away the best-selling reggae music in the world. “Bob never really left a will taking care of that sort of thing and we’re still struggling on our own,” he says simply and without a trace of rancour. “It’s sad, but it’s the reality.” Sad indeed. And with the millions still rolling in from their work, I can only admire the fortitude and perseverance of Neville Garrick and of the Wailers band, who continue to eke out a living playing the club and festival circuit.

As for the record czars who can’t bring themselves to do the right thing by the artists who’ve made them rich, I can only suggest they take a break from counting the cash and listen a little more closely to some of Bob Marley’s lyrics.