When we would cook cornmeal porridge

Caribbean Beat columnist Garry Steckles is the author of a new biography of Bob Marley. Read an edited excerpt...

Bob at the Dynamic Sounds Studio in Jamaica, 1969. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv/Trax On Wax/Ossie HamiltonBob in Jamaica in the mid-70s. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv/Lee JaffeFrom left, Bob, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv/Trax On Wax/Ossie Hamilton

A new biography of Bob Marley, who died on May 11, 1981, by Caribbean Beat columnist Garry Steckles, is receiving glowing reviews. Rastafarian journalist, broadcaster and author Barbara Makeda Blake Hannah, says, “If you have never heard or read about Bob Marley, this book is the best place to begin.” The book is one of the first two in a series of Caribbean lives being published by Macmillan Caribbean. (The series editor is James Ferguson, another Caribbean Beat columnist.)

In this edited excerpt, Steckles tells how Nesta Robert Marley (he wouldn’t be known as Bob for quite a while), Bunny Livingston (later Bunny Wailer), Peter McIntosh (later Peter Tosh) and the other members of the original Wailers recorded their first hit. It happened at a time when they were down on their luck and scrambling to survive in Kingston’s Trench Town ghetto.

Often, while Nesta and his Trench Town bredren were rehearsing, an older friend, George Robinson, would build a roaring fire and keep it lit while the youngsters worked on their music, boiling up a pot of cornmeal porridge whenever his companions became too hungry to continue practising. It was a scene that would be immortalised, just over a decade later, in the anthem No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley’s first hit outside Jamaica and the song that propelled him, irrevocably, on the road from regional stardom to becoming the Third World’s first superstar.

Master classes in harmonising were also continuing in Joe Higgs’ Third Street yard, where Nesta, Bunny, Peter, Junior Braithwaite and their two backup singers, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Green, waited eagerly for the break they felt must come their way.It took a long time in arriving, but, eventually, they got the chance they were longing for. And it was a big one.

Another Trench Town friend of Nesta’s, Alvin Patterson, master of the Rastafarian burru style of drumming, was a professional musician and he knew Clement “Sir Coxson” Dodd, the sound-system king and pioneering record producer, who held auditions every Sunday. It was called Studio One, and it was to become the most famous of Jamaica’s many legendary recording facilities. Dodd was always on the lookout for new talent, and Patterson, now known to Wailers fans worldwide as Seeco, the group’s percussionist, decided to take Nesta, Peter, Bunny, Junior, Beverley and Cherry to audition.

Although they were now almost veterans of live talent shows, where they’d appeared as the Teenagers and the Wailing Rudeboys, the six youngsters were nervous during the auditions, and Dodd wasn’t wildly impressed with the first four numbers.

Then Peter, always the most assertive member of the group, told Dodd they’d like to do one more song. It was one Nesta had written, a ska scorcher called Simmer Down that spoke directly to an emerging Jamaican phenomenon, the “rude boys,” whose rebellious and frequently violent ways were by now becoming a major force in the island’s ghetto culture.

Dodd liked the song, and a few days later, barely able to contain their excitement, the group—minus Cherry Green, who couldn’t get time off work—returned to Studio One to record it. As usual, Coxson had gathered an ace group of musicians, by then known as The Skatalites.

The line-up for the landmark Simmer Down session, at which four other tracks—I Don’t Need Your Love, I Am Going Home, Do You Remember and Straight and Narrow—were also recorded, was: Nesta Robert Marley, vocals; Junior Braithwaite, vocals and harmony vocals; Bunny Livingston, harmony vocals; Peter McIntosh, harmony vocals; Beverley Kelso, harmony vocals; Lloyd Knibbs, drums; Lloyd Brevett, bass; Jerome “Jah Jerry” Haines, guitar; Jackie Mittoo, piano; Don Drummond, trombone; Roland Alphonso, tenor sax; Tommy McCook, tenor sax; “Dizzy” Johnny Moore, trumpet; Dennis “Ska” Campbell, baritone sax.

From the opening notes, a couple of lightning whiplash whacks on the snare by Lloyd Nibbs accompanied, almost instantly, by full-tilt ensemble ska horns punctuated by Don Drummond’s growling trombone, it was clear that Simmer Down was going to be a monster. It was. In fact, it was so hot, so obviously a winner, that Dodd had it pressed right away, and the ambitious youngsters were ecstatic when they heard it playing that same evening at Coxson’s Down Beat sound system.

Recalls Bunny: “Everything started there. Everything. It’s, you know, you just can’t describe that moment, man, you just sang the song in the morning time and in the night you hear it blasting on the air. You can just imagine the kind of thrill.”
Marley’s intense lead vocal, an urgent plea to rebellious ghetto youth to “control your temper, or the battle will be hotter, and you won’t get no supper, and you know you bound to suffer,” had the sound system posse expressing themselves on the dance floor in a flash—and it sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it must have all those years ago.

There’s been considerable debate as to the actual date of the epoch-making Simmer Down recording session, but Bunny, who was there, is sure it took place in June or July of 1964, and specifically recalls the backing musicians being the Skatalites, rather than a random group of session men. The Skatalites weren’t formed officially until June 1964, and Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography, by the distinguished musicologists and reggae collectors Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson, lists the session’s date—with a question mark—as July 6, 1964.

The original issue of Simmer Down was credited to The Wailers. Within weeks, Simmer Down was No1 in the charts, and it stayed there for the next two months. Coxson’s original pressing sold out, and the labels on the second pressing credited the song to “Bob and the Wailers.”

Nesta Robert Marley had recorded his first hit. He was on top of the charts, he was on the radio, he was becoming a household name with Jamaica’s record-buying public. And all this was happening while he was flat broke, belly-growling hungry and homeless.

He had fame. Fortune was still more than a decade away.

Coxson Dodd, meanwhile, knew he was on to a winner. The shrewd Dodd was a virtual one-man hit-making machine. His Studio One was routinely turning out hit after hit after hit—the studio was so busy it wasn’t unusual for a session musician to play on 100 or more tracks in a week.

So much music with chart potential was bursting out of 13 Brentford Road in the Sixties that local radio DJs got fed up with the barrage of 45s coming their way on the all-too-familiar Coxsone and Studio One labels. The ingenious Dodd simply invented a bunch of new labels, and, during the just over two years they were with him, the Wailers’ work also appeared on the Muzik City, Supreme, Tabernacle and Wincox labels—all, unbeknownst to the radio station DJs, part of the Coxson Dodd empire.

Dodd also played a key role in the early careers of a who’s who of Jamaican music. Dodd’s formula was a simple one: he had to like every single song that came out of Studio One, and what he liked most was music with a distinctive melody, a wicked bass and the very finest of horns, usually courtesy of alumni of Kingston’s fabled Alpha Boys’ School. And, of course, the vocals had to be up to those standards. He also liked making money, and it made no difference to him if a song was an original composition with the most conscious of lyrics, a catchy love song or a cover [version] of an international hit. If he thought it had a chance of making the charts, he’d record it and use his considerable influence to ensure it was played on the radio and at sound system dances.

Over the next couple of years, he’d encourage the Wailers to record a wildly eclectic range of material ranging from ska to doo-wop to rocksteady to straightahead pop. The list of cover songs the group recorded in this era is intriguing. Among them were: Dion and the Belmonts’ Teenager in Love; The Beatles’ And I Love Her (“And I love her, yes siree,” sang Bob, adding a novel lyrical twist to the Lennon and McCartney original); Lord Melody’s ribald calypso classic Shame and Scandal (recorded in raunchy ska tempo at the same session as the first version of One Love, which would eventually be chosen by the BBC as the song to define the 20th century); Tom Jones’ chestnut What’s New Pussycat; Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Bing Crosby’s White Christmas (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, not like the ones I used to know,” sang Bob in that wailing tenor).
Mainly, though, the Wailers recorded rude-boy anthems and plaintive love songs.

Dodd was a frugal and tough man who hated parting with money every bit as much as he loved making it, and legend has it he kept a gun handy at Studio One as the ultimate arbiter in his constant feuds with his artists over royalties.

But he did take pity on his homeless hit-maker, and soon after Simmer Down took the Jamaican charts by storm, Dodd told Nesta he could live in a room in the back of the Studio One complex. For much of 1964 and ‘65, that simple room was home for Nesta Robert Marley, in those days often known to his friends as “Robbie.” It may not have been palatial, but it did have one massive attraction for a teenager determined to make a career in music: he was living in the midst of the most prolific music-making machine in the Caribbean, surrounded by and learning from some of the most brilliant musicians in the world.

Before long, the young Nesta was playing a major role in running Studio One, organising recording sessions and working alongside people like Jackie Mittoo, the great keyboard player, Ernest Ranglin, Jamaica’s supreme guitarist, and horn legends Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lester Sterling and “Dizzy” Johnny Moore.

If Joe Higgs’ Trench Town yard had been Nesta’s first music university, Studio One was his graduate school. As well as learning how a recording studio worked, he was getting a rudimentary apprenticeship in another critical aspect of his chosen profession. He was learning the music business—and he was learning the hard way from the notoriously tight-fisted producer.

 

Bob Marley: A Life is available through Macmillan Caribbean’s website and from leading bookstores and online retailers. ISBN: 978 1405081436