A Guide to the Early Work of Bob Marley and the Wailers

Bob Marley with The Wailers (1964). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Handout. Getty Images.

Most listeners became familiar with Bob Marley and the Wailers through the popular albums released internationally by Island Records, which catapulted the group into overseas consciousness and ultimately made Marley the first "third world superstar." The initial inkling of the process became visible via an astonishing appearance on BBC television's Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, yet the Wailers had been recording for nearly a decade before their Island debut and much of the output is simply astounding in its excellence.

Throughout the 1960s and into the early '70s, the Wailers evidenced a lot of concerted evolution that greatly influenced the course of Jamaican popular music itself, from their time as ska kings at Studio One, contrasting with the slim self-produced rock steady they cut for their fledgling Wail 'n Soul 'm label, and on to the revolutionary reggae they recorded with external producers such as Leslie Kong, Danny Sims, and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Here's a brief guide to the various distinctive phases that pre-date the Island breakthrough.


The Wailers at Studio One

The Wailers reached Studio One as an unruly five-piece in late 1963, having been introduced to founder Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd by percussionist Alvin "Seeco" Patterson. The group's lead singer was then Junior Braithwaite, and female backing vocalists Beverley Kelson and Cherry Green were sometime members, but the lineup was soon pared down to the robust core of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Livingstone, their exceptional harmonic skills being equalled by their original songwriting abilities.

From the recording of debut hit "Simmer Down," one of the very first songs to address Kingston's growing phenomenon of "rude boy" street gang violence, the Wailers swiftly became one of the hottest groups of the ska period. Hit followed hit for the next few years, but by the time that the slower and more spacious rock steady style came in, the Wailers ultimately opted for self-reliance, ditching Dodd to take a stab at things on their own.

Clement Dodd productions: "Simmer Down," "It Hurts To Be Alone/I Am Going Home," "Rasta Shook Them Up," The Birth of a Legend, The Wailing Wailers at Studio One

The Wailers - "Simmer Down"

The Wail 'n Soul 'm Phase

Frustrated by monetary arrangements at Studio One, the Wailers tried to gain better control of their financial and artistic destinies in 1966 by forming the Wail 'n Soul 'm label, the name referencing The Wailers and The Soulettes, the latter being the harmony group fronted by Bob's wife, Rita. Ever a grassroots affair, with something of a haphazard feel about it due to a lack of infrastructure, Wail 'n Soul 'm only issued material sporadically for the next few years, yet pretty much everything on it is worth tracking down.

The mellow rock steady of "Nice Time"was something of a local hit in Jamaica, and later recordings, such as Peter Tosh's "Funeral," are far more anti-establishment in theme. There were also some intriguing instrumentals, such as "Lyrical Satirical," which evidenced a keen Rastafari underpinning that hearkens to the ancestral African homeland. Collectively, these Wail 'n Soul 'm nuggets can be seen as crucial stepping stones in the group's long and tumultuous career, bridging the gap by helping them to reach more solid ground as artists and music producers.

Self-produced Wail 'n Soul 'm releases: "Nice Time/Hypocrites," Wail 'n Soul 'm Singles Selecta

Bob Marley and The Wailers - "Nice Time"

JAD Records

The black Texan balladeer Johnny Nash first decamped to Jamaica in 1967 with his shrewd manager, Danny Sims, to record some tracks at Federal recording studio. Returning to the Island the following year, Sims encountered Marley at a Rastafarian "groundation" ceremony and instantly recognised his enormous potential. A songwriting deal was soon struck with the Wailers, who recorded dozens of tracks for the company during a period of flux that saw Bunny Livingstone imprisoned on a marijuana charge (with Rita Marley temporarily taking his place) and Marley spending a long stretch at his mother's home in Delaware.

Precious little surfaced at the time of recording, and despite the commercial nature of tracks like "Reggae On Broadway," the little that did get released failed to hit. Nevertheless, the recordings are compelling to listen to in retrospect, forming another piece of the convoluted Wailers puzzle.

JAD productions: "Chances Are," "Reggae On Broadway," Chances Are, Complete Bob Marley and the Wailers 1967-1972 Part 1, Mellow Mood

Bob Marley - "Reggae on Broadway"

Beverley's Records

The Wailers were hoping for a major breakthrough with JAD, but progress was painfully slow. The company seemed more content to have Nash make regular use of Marley's lyrics, rather than issue the group's own recordings. As the years wore on and nothing much concrete transpired, the Wailers began working for other Jamaican producers and since Marley was always listening out for who was responsible for the most hits, an album's worth of material was cut for Leslie Kong of Beverley's Records, who issued it under the confusing title The Best of the Wailers, much to the group's displeasure.

Nevertheless, the funk and soul-influenced backing of the All Stars house band on tracks like "Soul Shakedown Party" and the Tosh-led "Soon Come" gave the material plenty of appeal. And as with most of the output that originates from Kong's stable, it has all certainly stood the test of time.

Leslie Kong productions: "Soon Come," The Best Of The Wailers, Shakedown, Reggae Revolution Vol 1.

Bob Marley & The Wailers - "Soul Shake Down Party"

The Wailers and Lee "Scratch" Perry

The eccentric and enigmatic producer Lee "Scratch" Perry first began working with the Wailers at Studio One in the early 1960s. Ever on the lookout for the right connection that would facilitate a significant breakthrough, Marley appealed to Perry at the dawning of the 1970s, seeking to record new work for the wily producer at a time when all other avenues were blocked. The combination was simply exceptional and under Perry's guidance, the Wailers totally reconfigured their sound, making it much more raw, honest, and Jamaican, and ultimately preparing them for the international stardom they would achieve upon signing with Island. Marley lived for an extended period in Perry's front room, cementing an unbreakable bond.

Songs like "Duppy Conqueror," "Mr Brown," "Small Axe," and "Kaya"are immortal, as is Tosh's "400 Years" and Bunny's "Dreamland," the collective work remaining among the best that the group recorded for any producer, and the best that Perry produced with any artist too.

Lee Perry productions: "Duppy Conqueror," "Mr Brown," "Small Axe," Soul Rebels, Soul Revolution, Soul Revolution I and II

Bob Marley & The Wailers - "Small Axe"
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