In continuance of our celebration of Bob’s 75th birthday, writer Jeremy Shatan picks his faves across all three eras of his tragically truncated career
Bob Marley turned 75 this month, which means he has been dead almost as long as he was alive.
That sobering thought aside, there is no doubt that he made the most of his limited time on earth, becoming a global messianic presence and leaving a massive recorded legacy. That career, running from about 1962 to 1981, has three main phases: the Studio One era (early 60’s), mostly with Coxsone Dodd producing, the Trojan years (late 60’s – early 70’s), a deep partnership with Lee Perry, and his time with Island Records (72-81), with label-head Chris Blackwell often acting as co-producer. Besides switching labels, the biggest change across his career was when the original Wailers – Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and Marley – split up. That was when Marley drafted his wife Rita, Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt in for backing vocals as the I-Threes, leading to a sweeter and sleeker sound.
The resulting discography, encompassing dozens of classic singles and a slew of brilliant albums, is rich with deep cuts, whether b-sides, demos, early versions, or live takes. However, I had some trepidation about assembling the list below, thinking about Legend, the 1984 greatest hits collection bought by nearly 30 million people around the world, many of whom stopped there. That could make any number of songs “deep cuts.” But I decided to assume that our readers have listened a little deeper, if not to all the albums and singles, then at least digging into the Songs Of Freedom box set, a comprehensive overview with hits, rarities, and live cuts. So nothing below will be found there (or on Legend, naturally) and, in one case, I uploaded my own copy of a song because I couldn’t find it anywhere. I hope these ten tracks expand your perspective of a man who both took reggae to unforeseen heights and transcended the genre entirely.
“One Love Version” (1965)
If you’re looking for deep explorations into the world of dub, you’re probably going to have to look beyond Marley, who was too focused on the power of his message, whether political or amorous, to have much truck with this offshoot of reggae. But ska-era “versions” are rare enough that this has become a foundational text. Credited to “Sound Dimensions,” it’s a fascinating listen to the nascent ideas of how tape can be manipulated. I bought my copy, which you will find linked below, from a Jamaican mail order company in 1980.
AUDIO: Bob Marley and The Wailers “One Love Version”
A Clement “Coxsone” Dodd original, this upbeat ska track finds Marley singing his guts out, probably to be heard over the Skatalites, who could create quite a racket. Also notable for Dodd’s interpolation of “Do You Love Me” by The Contours and a complex vocal arrangement that has Tosh and Wailer putting some new spins on classic doo-wop.
“All In One” (1971)
A medley that effectively works as a greatest hits collection in abbreviated form as Marley, Tosh, and Wailer work through “Bend Down Low,” “Nice Time,” “One Love,” “Simmer Down,” and others in just a few minutes while The Upsetters groove away in the background. This was yet another Lee Perry innovation that led to hits for The Heptones and others. Bonus: Marley acting as MC, introducing the single with a gleeful, “It’s All In One and one in all, so swing! And let’s have a ball!”
Trojan-era romance that sounds like a late-night session. Perry keeps his contribution to a minimum, letting the minimalist backing of The Upsetters, then consisting of the Barrett brothers, Aston and Carlton, on bass and drums respectively, Alva Lewis on guitar, and Glen Adams on keys, speak for themselves. When Marley took the Barretts with him to Island, it led to a rift between him and Perry that lasted several years.
AUDIO: Bob Marley and The Wailers “Lovelight”
“Midnight Ravers” (1972/3)
While Catch A Fire, Marley’s first album on Island, has a scintillating version, I prefer the original Tuff Gong single release of this hallucinatory classic for Marley’s vocal, which is nearly unhinged. It’s a touchstone song in Marlon James’s genius novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which creates a universe of imagination around the assassination attempt that almost took Marley’s life in 1976. The organ, whether by Adams or Tosh, adds to the spooky atmosphere and the lyrics defy easy interpretation. I can imagine a few more a novels inspired by lines like: “I see ten thousand chariots/And they’re coming without horses/The riders, they cover their face/So you couldn’t make them out in a smoky place.”
AUDIO: Bob Marley and The Wailers “Midnight Ravers” (Original Tuff Gong version)
An outtake from the sessions for Natty Dread, this song was a revelation when it was finally released on the Talkin’ Blues collection in 1991. As the I-Threes sing “Do it with your bad self,” Marley interjects things like “Are you telling me to do it?” “Thank you, baby!” “Jive me in the mood!” or “Let me feel rude!” sounding more exuberant than he had since the Studio One days. Although slightly undercooked as a song, the results are pure delight.
“Blackman Redemption” (original single version) (1978)
An inspirational anthem with an organic feel, this standalone single was originally released only in Jamaica. Later it was cleaned up for the Confrontation album and the original backing vocals by The Melodians were swapped out for the I-Threes. As wonderful as the three women were, their work here takes some of the guts out of the song.
AUDIO: Bob Marley “Blackman Redemption”
“Get Up, Stand Up/No More Trouble/War” (Live, 1976)
Anyone who left The Roxy before the encore on May 26th, 1976, missed one of the greatest excursions Marley ever took in concert. About 14 minutes in, after BMW has moved through the first two songs, keyboard player Tyrone Downie starts taking the crowd to the dub side of the moon while Marley and the I-Threes engage in some hypnotic call and response, with the crowd soon joining in. After repeated chants of “Don’t give up the fight,” Marley leaves the band on stage for another five minutes of sublime reggae, Downie going further into the mystic. Even after 24 minutes it’s over too soon.
This polished gem from the Exodus era, released as the b-side of “Waiting in Vain,” is Marley claiming his dominance in the field of reggae: “Some are leaves, some are branches, I and I are the roots.” Halfway through his second decade as a recording artist, with nothing but greater success ahead, it was claim that would be tough to dispute.
“Wounded Lion” (1979)
This never-completed song from the Survival sessions is a fascinating window into the tight working relationship between Marley and the Wailers as they spend 20 minutes seeking the magic that will bring it into focus. The Barrett brothers prove yet again why they were one of the best rhythm sections in history as they indefatigably keep the groove rolling. While it’s intriguing to imagine a completed version, “Wounded Lion” is special because Marley was singing about, and to, himself. Already dealing with the cancer that would kill him just a year later, he was the wounded lion in the jungle, seeking healing from the best doctor he knew: music.
AUDIO: Bob Marley “Wounded Lion”