Bob Marley's Musical Genius and the Sounds of Jamaica

Bob Marley would have been 74 were he alive today, yet the iconic singer died from cancer on May 11, 1981. Marley – who survived an assassination attempt just five years prior to his death – was placed in a mausoleum atop a hill in his birth village of Nine Mile, his coffin painted and containing his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened to Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja. His resting place followed a public and private funeral (the former drew 100,000 people) – a testament to the man whose music and ideology united a fractious Jamaica and brought the deeply rooted politics of reggae to the world.

Most of the world celebrates Bob Marley for spearheading reggae into the pantheon of mainstream music through albums like Exodus, Catch a Fire, and African Herbsman — not to mention historic performances at the Smile Jamaica Concert and London’s Lyceum Theater in 1975, among many, many others — and as one of the roots of modern weed culture (you would be hard pressed to find a college dorm without at least one poster of Bob smoking a joint). I, too, found Bob Marley through this confluence of posthumous idolization and marketing. And while his Greatest Hits no doubt soundtracked multiple trips to the beach, and a massive poster of the man in profile puffing on some fine Rasta holy herb most definitely graced my apartment in college (I’ll blame my roommate for that one), I find Marley’s earlier work most resonant.

This is ska, the less-heralded precursor to reggae that blossomed from the spirit of Jamaican independence from Britain in 1962 and flourished until the late ‘60s. Ska is immediately infectious — an upbeat, horn-forward mix of big band, jazz, soul music, and Jamaica’s calypso, mento, and blue beat sounds with emphasis on the second and fourth beats. Ska rocketed out of Jamaica, where colonial authorities attempted to suppress it, around the world, and even to the 1964 World’s Fair (where the lighter-skinned Bryon Lee and the Dragonaires provided a more “sanitized” version of Jamaican pop music), though it made the greatest impact on the rapidly changing Caribbean island. Ska was for the people, and early groups such as The Skatalites would evolve into ska and reggae supergroups, providing a flowering family tree from which the sounds of young Jamaica would blossom. Bob Marley came directly from this movement.

A teenaged Marley, and also legendary Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh, created the vocal group The Wailers in 1963, emerging from the foundational recording studio belonging to Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, Studio One, and backed by The Skatalites. Although Jamaican music culture was based on the release of singles rather than albums (both of which are now sought-after collector’s items and “dance floor crushers” among DJs), The Wailers’ 1965 compilation The Wailing Wailers is among the most enduring sounds in Jamaican music. Its 12 tracks capture the vibrancy and complexity of 1960s Jamaica — excitement, emergent youth culture, promise, and violence.

“The loose vocal harmonies of The Wailers perfectly combined with the shimmy-shack, Bourbon Street stylings of The Skatalites to create a sound that just makes you want to dance in the sunny, dusty streets of Kingston Town, while some entrepreneurial DJ or other wears out his newest dub pressings by cranking his sound system just a little, no, a lot louder than the speakers are supposed to go,” a New York Public Library review noted.

The Wailing Wailers is a shining example of the multiregional influences that created ska, and of the potency of 1960s pop music.

The record offers ballads that would fit just as easily on American R&B radio in the early ‘60s (“I Need You So”), skaful covers (“What’s New Pussycat”) and retoolings of pop songs (Junior Walker and the All-Stars’ Motown hit “Shotgun” becomes the locomotive “Ska Jerk”), as well as originals like “Put it On,” which highlighted the remarkable harmonic capabilities of Marley, Tosh, and Wailer as well as Bob’s songwriting capabilities. The album is also notable for being the first LP to feature “One Love;” Marley would release a slowed-down, immensely popular reggae version of the song on his 1977 album, Exodus. “Put it On” would also be re-released in a reggae riddim in 1973.

Viewed through a political lens, the album’s most fascinating tracks are “Simmer Down” and “Rude Boy,” both of which address a Jamaican youth subculture known for their sharp dress, attitude, and violent tendencies. Rude boys “marked out the acquisition of a new self-confidence and sense of self-reinvention among the young and disaffected that was related somehow to Jamaican independence in 1962,” author Paul Gilroy told The Guardian. “The rude boy was a recognizable, if culturally complex take, on an archetypal bad-boy figure."

Rude boys “struck fear into the hearts of respectable Jamaicans, but attained a level of respect in the ghettoes (sic)” such as Kingston’s Trench Town, The Guardian continued. Rudies fancied themselves “rougher than rough, tougher than tough” as they defended their turf from rival gangs, and acted as hired protection or simply as hooligans at soundsystem dances (the legendary singer Alton Ellis immortalized rude boy hooligans in 1965's swinging “Dance Crasher,” recorded for rival label Treasure Isle).

On the cover of The Wailing Wailers, a sharply dressed Bob Marley looks like an archetypal rudie. First released as a single in 1963 to placate Marley’s worried mother, “Simmer Down” opens with a revelry of horns (led by trombonist Don Drummond alongside sax men Lester Sterling, Tommy McCook, and Roland Alphonso). The song may be the fastest and most upbeat on The Wailing Wailers, but it also offered a message to youth who were fussing and fighting in the streets.

“Simmer down, you lickin' too hot, so

Simmer down, soon you'll get dropped, so

Simmer down, can you hear what I say ….

Simmer down, oh control your temper

Simmer down, for the battle will be hotter

Simmer down, and you won't get no supper

Simmer down, and you know you bound to suffer”

Of course, this “big chune” became extremely popular among rude boys past and well into the present. Bob Marley sang in praise of and against the rude boy throughout his career, though by the time he became the singular superstar of reggae, he was more interested in chanting down Babylon than teen angst.

Even as ska evolved into the slower, groovier rocksteady and then into the reggae Bob Marley is best known for, The Wailing Wailers remains an enduring record of the excitement and complexity around Jamaican independence, and the birth of the island’s freedom sounds.

The sounds Bob Marley and The Wailers created in the early to mid ‘60s, as well as those of their contemporaries, are also seeing a revival as a so-called “fourth wave” of ska groups dig deep to pay homage to and iterate on traditional Jamaican ska. In Los Angeles, New York and throughout Mexico, living legends from this era perform to massive crowds, often backed by younger musicians from bands like The Steady 45s and Crazy Baldhead, while original members of The Skatalites continue to tour. Radio DJs such as Adam Tadesse, whose show “Wake The Town” airs weekly on San Francisco’s KPOO 89.5 FM, and Junor Francis’ “The Reggae Show” on KXLU 88.9 FM in Southern California pay tribute to the sounds Bob Marley first popularized and play their records for dancers and ska fans at dance nights.

Bob Marley’s contributions to the forebearer of reggae – ska – should not go unnoticed by his fans or chroniclers of musical history. Only through the sound of ska, as showcased on The Wailing Wailers but also by many other artists, does the worldwide power of reggae exist. Bob Marley may not have known it at the time, but the early Wailers would put it on for generations of Caribbean music lovers.

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline, and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories, and also writes on the business of music.