Can’t Fight The Youth: Bob Marley’s Early Years

Many who read this blog may already know this, but today is Bob’s birthday.  Marley was born at 2:30 am on February 6, 1945 to Ms. Cedella Booker (Marley) in St. Ann, Jamaica.  Marley would go on to become the most celebrated musician of the second half of the 20th century, and is worshipped as a deity in many parts of the world (including my house ; ).  Today, I share an article written by noted author and Marley biographer Chris Salewicz and published in the March 1995 issue of Mojo magazine.  The article describes Marley’s early years and his introduction to the music business in Kingston, Jamaica.

“Feb 6 1945 st. Ann , Jamaica , daddy was born . i remember us celebrating one of his birthdays in jamaica at 56 hope road with him, no big superstar party just us kids, mommy some cake few laughs and that was it. even if he wasn’t known to the world on feb 6th i would still think of him and in my heart say happy birthday daddy. love.”

David “Ziggy” Marley, February 6, 2012

“Happy Earthstrong Dad. We are blessed you touched this world with your love and hope. CHO!”

Cedella Marley, February 6, 2012

Can’t Fight The Youth: Bob Marley’s Early Years
Chris Salewicz, Mojo, March 1995

Click here to read on Issuu

1945. THE PREGNANCY WAS PROBLEM-FREE. On the first Sunday of February, 1945, Cedella Marley went to church as usual. The next day she hoped to fast, rejoice, and give testimony in church in the evening, as Elder Thomas encouraged his flock to do each Monday. But Cedella’s pregnancy seemed to have run its alloted time-span and, feeling the first twinges of labour, she stayed behind at one of the properties of her father, a vacant shop where she had set up her bedroom. The baby boy was born at around 2.30 on the Wednesday morning of February 6, 1945. He weighed seven pounds four ounces, and he was given the name Nesta Robert Marley.

1949. NESTA WAS A HEALTHY CHILD, BROUGHT up on a country diet of fresh vegetables and fruit. They would always say that Bob loved to eat, and the boy was especially fond of his uncle Titus, who always had plenty of surplus banana leaf or calaloo cooking on his stove. For a long time Nesta’s eyes were bigger than his stomach: it became a joke in the area how he would take up a piece of yam, swallow his first piece and almost immediately fall asleep: one piece just fill up his belly straightaway.

Early on there were signs that the child had been born with a poet’s understanding of life, an asset in a land like Jamaica where a kind of magic realism seemed the norm. When he was around four or five, Cedella would hear stories from relatives and neighbours that Nesta had claimed to read their palm. But she took it for a joke. How could this little boy of hers possibly do something like that? Though she felt slightly shaken when she first heard that what Nesta told people about their futures had come true. There was District Constable Black from Stern Hill, for example: he told Cedella how the child had read his hand and everything he said had come to pass. Then a woman who had also had her palm looked at by Nesta confirmed this.

Bob, Cedella, and Pearl, Trenchtown

If Nesta had perceived what was to be the pattern of his own life, he never told his mother. When he was almost five, Omeriah Malcolm, Cedella’s father, received a visit from Captain Norval Marley, Nesta’s 51-year-old white Jamaican father who had married the 17-year-old Cedella and left her the day after her pregnancy was confirmed. What Cedella should do, he suggested, was to give the boy up for adoption by Norval’s brother, Robert, after whom Bob had been named. What was more, Cedella should guarantee that she would not attempt to see the boy anymore. “It’s like he wouldn’t be my child no more! I said, No way”.

But then Norval came out on another visit. He’d had another idea: what if Bob was to come and stay with his father in Kingston for a time? He would pay for his education and let him benefit from all the opportunities offered by his own large, affluent family, the heads of Marley And Co, Jamaica’s largest plant hire company Cedella could see the advantages for her son in this. She felt she could go along with the plan, so Nesta was duly delivered to her husband in Kingston. Hardly had the boy arrived, however, than he was taken downtown, to the house of a woman called Miss Grey Norval Marley left his son with her, promising to return shortly He never did.

Young Marley

1960. THE FIRST TWO DANCES AT WHICH THE Sir Coxsone Downbeat sound system played were in Trench Town; and the first of these was an event put on by Jimmy Tucker, a leading Jamaican vocalist.

The cauldron of Trench Town epitomised one of the great cultural truths about Jamaica: how those who have nothing – and therefore nothing to lose – have no fear of expressing their God-given talents. The pace of life in Jamaica, moreover, follows the laws of nature: rising with the sun, people are active early in the day until the sun goes down.

So it was for Nesta Robert Marley. In the cool of first daylight or long after sunset he would be found, with or without his spar Bunny (Neville Livingston), strumming his sardine-can guitar and trying out melodies and harmonies. Apart from football it was his only solace, the only space where he could feel comfortable within his head.

For often he would feel alienated and ostracised in the city. With his mixed-race origins clearly visible he was considered a white boy and was taunted for this. His complexion could bring out the worst in people: after all, why was this boy from ‘country’ living down in the ghetto and not uptown with all the other light skin people? Being so consistently and miserably tested can bring out the worst in someone, or it can assiduously and resolutely build their character. In young Nesta it ultimately created his iron will, his overpowering self-confidence and self-esteem.

The still air of Trench Town was barely ever disturbed by traffic noise; from those rare yards with a tenant sufficiently fortunate to possess a radio would sail the favourite new songs of the United States, fading in and out as they drifted down the Caribbean from New Orleans or Miami. Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Larry Williams, Louis Jordan and white iconoclasts like Elvis Presley and the milder Ricky Nelson all made a strong impression on Nesta; he also absorbed the omnipresent Trinidadian calypso and steel band music that had been adopted by Jamaica almost as its own.

It was in Trench Town that Nesta Robert Marley was exposed for the first time to bebop and modern jazz. At first, however, “me couldn’t understand it,” he later admitted. But in 1960 he began to take part in the evening music sessions held in his Third Street yard by Joe Higgs, one of the area’s most famous residents, due to his role as one of Jamaica’s first indigenous recording artists: as part of the Higgs & Wilson duo, he had cut a number of hit jumping boogies, starting with Manny-O in 1960, for WIRL (West Indies Records Ltd); the producer of these tunes was the owner of the label, Edward Seaga, who became Prime Minister for the Jamaica Labour Party in 1980.

Joe Higgs was as conscious in his actions as in his lyrics; these included the unmentionable, radical subject of Rastafari, which was growing by quantum leaps among the ghetto sufferahs, and for which he had been beaten up by the police and imprisoned during political riots in Trench Town in May 1959. This only strengthened him in his resolve. Higgs had himself learnt music from his mother, who sang in a church choir. Having gained from the spiritual aspect of her teaching, Joe Higgs took particular care to play the part of both musical and moral tutor to those youth of the area with the ears to hear.

The musical seminars Higgs conducted could be rigorous affairs: much emphasis would be placed on breath control and melody, and in addition to guitar lessons he would instruct his students in the art of writing lyrics that could carry clear ideas to the people. It was not all work: sometimes entire classes would travel the short distance to the end of Marcus Garvey Drive, to swim at the beach known as Hot And Cold – because of the effect created on the water by an electrical power generator.

It was in Higgs’s yard, on one of these occasions, that Nesta Marley had his first encounter with that natural Jamaican resource with which he was to become associated in the public mind, and allowed him to empathise with the lateral processes of jazz: “After a while I smoke some ganja, some herb, and get to understand it. Me try to get into de mood whar de moon is blue and see de feelin’ expressed. Joe Higgs ‘elped me understands that music. ‘E taught me many t’ings.”

Another of the male role models who appeared consistently through the course of the fatherless Nesta’s life, Joe Higgs assiduously coached the 15-year-old and his spar Bunny in the art of harmonising: he would advise Bob to sing all the time, to strengthen his voice. At one of these sessions Bob and Bunny met Peter McIntosh, another youth wanting to mek a try as a vocalist, who lived in nearby West Road.

The tall, gangly and arrogant Tosh was older than Bob. Unlike Bob and Bunny, whose guitar-playing had only developed perfunctorily as they concentrated on their vocal skills, Peter McIntosh was a competent guitarist, having his own cheap acoustic model. The older boy’s skill on the instrument inspired Nesta to pay serious attention to mastering the guitar.

Having quit school as soon as he reached the minimum school-leaving age of 14, Nesta was by now working. He had no idea of what to do for a living, and readily accepted a suggestion of his mother’s.

“I knew men who were doing welding for a livin’, and I suggested that he go down to the shop and make himself an apprentice,” remembered Cedella. “He hated it. One day he was welding some steel and a piece of metal flew off and got stuck right in the white of his eye, and he had to go to the hospital to have it taken out. It caused him terrible pain; it even hurt for him to cry.”

1961. THIS ROGUE SLIVER OF METAL HAD A greater significance. From now on, Nesta told his older friend Tartar, there would be no more welding: only the guitar. Bob convinced his mother he could make a better living singing. By now Bunny also had made a ghetto guitar, similar to the ones that Nesta constructed, from a bamboo staff, electric cable wire and a large sardine-can. Then Peter Tosh, as the McIntosh boy was more readily known, brought along his battered acoustic guitar to play with them. “1961,” remembered Peter Tosh, “the group came together.”

At the urging of Joe Higgs, they formed into a musical unit, coached by Higgs: The Teenagers contained the three youths, as well as Bob and Tartar’s old friend, local singer Junior Braithwaite, and two girls who sang backing vocals, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith.

“It was kinda difficult,” said Joe Higgs later, “to get the group precise – and their sound – and to get the harmony structures. It took a couple years to get that perfect. I wanted each person to be a leader in his own right. I wanted them to be able to wail in their own rights.”

1963. A CLOSE BRETHren of Higgs, Alvin ‘Franseeco’ Patterson, later known simply as Seeco, instructed The Wailers in the philosophy of rhythm. Originally from St Ann’s, Seeco was another professional musician now living in Trench Town. An accomplished hand drummer, he had worked with various of Jamaica’s calypso groups. The burru style of drumming he played was an African rhythm of liberation welcoming the return of released prisoners from war; it had been co-opted into Rastafari’s Nyabinghi style of inspirational chanting and drum rhythms. And it was this blend of devotion and rebellious fervour that formed the basis of The Wailers’ understanding of rhythm.

Then, unexpectedly, a turning point was reached. Alvin Patterson, Seeco the rhythm master, was acquainted with Clement Dodd, the sound system man who had begun his own record label. He knew of the auditions that Coxsone would regularly hold on Sundays at Studio One, his new one-track studio on Brentford Road, to the North of Trench Town. Shortly before Christmas 1963 at the urging of Joe Higgs, Seeco took Bob and the rest of the group, including Beverley Kelso and Cherry Green, over there on a Sunday.

It was to these new premises, which would form the base and basis of Clement Dodd’s Studio One label, that Seeco took The Wailers. Listening to them in his studio’s dusty yard, beneath the mango tree that was the location of these weekly auditions, Coxsone liked their sound and several of the songs they had written. He noted that Bob Marley was particularly influenced by US groups like The Impressions, The Moonglows and The Tams. “I was very impressed with them the first time, because I was open to really get a kind of group with that team feel, young voices and thing like that.” They were offered his standard deal: a five-year contract for exclusive recording rights and management, and a guarantee of £20 a side.

The first session took place within days. The sides chosen were ‘I’m Still Waiting’ and ‘It Hurts To Be Alone’. The first song was a beautiful Bob Marley original, even though the preamble of the vocal harmonies owed much to The Impressions. But when Bob delivered his breathtakingly sweet vocal solo, it bled from a tearful heart; suspended in a void of echoing pain, his voice felt as though it was recorded at a different, slowed-down speed from the rest of the track. ‘It Hurts To Be Alone’ was a Junior Braithwaite number on which he sang lead. As Coxsone’s house arranger, Ernest Ranglin oversaw the production of the pair of sides.

The instrumentation was basic: Lloyd Knibbs on drums, Lloyd Brevett on bass, and Jah Jerry Haines on guitar. Bob, noted Jah Jerry, was “a nice boy a nice young feller: not a rough guy a polite guy”.

For once Ranglin didn’t have to spice up the song with guitar overdubs. “You could see they had something in them. They were all very nice guys, but they seemed very young. And little too.” Braithwaite, in particular, was very short, while both Bob and Bunny stood not much more than five foot eight inches in height; by comparison Peter Tosh, at just over six feet, seemed to tower over the rest of the group. After Coxsone had pressed up 300 copies of the two tunes, they were distributed to sound systems; the word came back that ‘It Hurts To Be Alone’ was going down well.

As soon as Coxsone heard this, he called the group back to the studio. But there had been changes of which no-one had notified him. Junior Braithwaite wasn’t with them: to Coxsone’s surprise and initial chagrin he learned that Braithwaite was in the final stages of preparing to leave Jamaica for Chicago with his family.

If he was to continue working with the group, Coxsone insisted, The Wailers required a clearly-defined lead vocalist. After some discussion, it was decided that the task should fall to Bob; Bunny and Peter were promised they would also get their share of lead vocals. Coxsone was encouraged in this decision by ‘Simmer Down’, a song Bob had brought to the session that served a dual purpose: a warning to the newly-emergent rude boys, a tribal grouping of cool, disaffected and desperate youth, not to bring down the wrath of the law upon themselves; and a frustrated response to a letter from his mother in the United States, fearful that her only son was becoming involved with bad company.

The full panoply of his label’s finest ska musicians was summoned by Coxsone for the session. Yet again Ernest Ranglin arranged the tune, while Don Drummond, Jamaica’s master of the trombone, added his deeply creative jazz parts. Drummond was the virtuoso of a group of musicians who shortly were to be working together under the name of The Skatalites. As well as Drummond, the group included Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook, the group’s leader, on tenor sax, Lester Sterling on alto sax, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore on trumpet, Jah Jerry on guitar, Lloyd Nibbs on drums, Lloyd Brevitt on bass, Jackie Mittoo on keyboards, and occasionally Leonard Dillon on trumpet. Other musicians who worked Studio One’s ska sessions included Theophilus Beckford and Clue-J Johnson.

Being part of this elite team was far more financially remunerative than to be one of the named artists on the record label. Coxsone paid £2 a tune per musician, and frequently they would record 20 songs in a day. One bonanza day Jah Jerry worked on 50 songs in an epic session at Beverley’s. This kind of money would have made you considered rich in the United Kingdom, let alone in impoverished Jamaica. Notwithstanding the financial imbalance between Studio One session musicians and The Wailers, Jah Jerry could not but help being struck by their extreme confidence on the ‘Simmer Down’ session. This was a mark, he was sure, of their regular, rigorous rehearsals.

The Wailers, noted trumpeter Johnny Moore, had first come along to Studio One “more or less as The Impressions: they were dissuaded from going along that line, and influenced to go inside themselves, however silly or simple they feared what they found there might sound like. They were simply urged to try and cultivate their own thing. And it worked. Even at that age they knew what they wanted. From the time that they realised that trying to be The Impressions was not what they should be doing, they really checked themselves and got into it. You can hear it in the music.

“At the time they were young and vibrant, and you could see they were very good friends: they were very very close to one another. They really did care about each other. I guess that’s why they made a success of it as it was.

“Bob didn’t necessarily seem like the leader. The thing was so closely-knit, the sound, whatever they were trying to get at: that was the objective, the Force of what they were trying to accomplish. Rather than worrying about you lead or me lead: everyone would put their shoulder and heave-ho. They seemed to realise that it’s much easier to get things done that way.”

In rehearsal, ‘Simmer Down’ had seemed like some tough Jamaican variant of the protest ‘message’ songs newly popular in the United States. In the recording studio, however; it became positively transcendent. Popular songs with lines about the running bellies of nanny-goats? This song was not only very unusual, but also tied together by an extremely commercial set of hooks. “Control your temper/Simmer down/The battle will get hotter/Simmer down,” declared Bob. In the style unique to Coxsone’s label, the voices are buried back in the mix, fighting to get out with the same ferocity with which they had tried to liberate themselves from the dead-end of the ghetto.

Before the record’s instant popularity had time to truly translate into sales, Bob found himself onstage as lead singer for the first time at a Kingston show. At the helm of The Wailers he steered the group to a performance that stole the show, assisted in great part by the crisp and clear sound that Count Matchouki, who had started as a DJ with Coxsone’s sound system, obtained for him at the mixing desk. The audience response was overwhelming, but the other artists on the show were vexed: both these acts recorded for Coxsone – did they sense a conspiracy?

No matter: released just before Christmas 1963, the record was Number 1 on the Jamaican charts by the beginning of February 1964. This tune’s subject of teenage crime served notice that The Wailers were the musical front of the island’s rebels, the rude boys. Although the three male members of the group were not, strictly speaking, rude boys themselves, this identifying with a tribal youth sect was and still is a useful bridge to building an audience in popular music. Yet The Wailers were never able to compete with the colossal popularity enjoyed by another three-piece male vocal trio, The Maytals, fronted by Toots Hibbert.

The subject matter of ‘Simmer Down’ made The Wailers stand out among their contemporaries. Up until now no-one in Jamaican music had been expressing ghetto thinking. Even the seasoned ska musicians down at Studio One were impressed. “The uniqueness of the sound they projected,” said Johnny Moore, “was specifically local and really good. The subject matter was clean, and the lyrics were really educative. The statements might be a bit serious, but the way they projected it you could absorb what they were saying. There were some good lessons, we had to admit that.”

BOB WAS ALSO LEARNING SOME GOOD LESSONS HIMSELF. A number of the musicians he now began playing with at Studio One –Johnny Moore himself, for example – were dedicated and devout Rastafarians. For years Bob’s Bible had rarely been out of his sight. Now he began to be offered new interpretations that would make his jaw drop with disbelief. Sometimes he would wander away from Studio One after a day’s sessions in a pure daze as he struggled to process the Biblical information and interpolations to which he had been made privy.

Bob’s soul was being nourished. In addition, he now had sufficient to pay for the nutrition of his body: as well as having ordered gold lame collarless suits – a Beatle jacket version of the famous ensemble worn by Elvis Presley on the sleeve of Elvis Gold Discs Volume 2 – for the three men in the group, Coxsone had also put them each on a weekly wage of £3.

“We all used to go to church to search, and knowing that we found reality and righteousness we relaxed,” recalled Peter Tosh. “So when you saw us in the slick suits, we were just in the thing that was looked on as the thing at the time. So we just adjusted ourselves materially.”

‘Simmer Down’ was followed up by ‘It Hurts To Be Alone’, another hit; curiously, even though the song had been written and sung by Junior Braithwaite, the title could definitely sum up Bob’s feelings about substantial chunks of his life. For the rest of 1964. The Wailing Wailers were rarely out of the Jamaican charts, with a string of tunes recorded at 13 Brentford Road: ‘Lonesome Feeling’. ‘Mr Talkative’, ‘I Don’t Need Your Love’, ‘Donna’, ‘Wings Of A Dove’.

“Mr Dodd” was not unhappy: “They need a lot of polishing but Bob had a gift; he was willing just to get his steps together. He had the makings.”

Coxsone became another father figure to Bob, and, to a lesser extent, to Bunny and Peter. When he learned that Bob didn’t have a home, he did a deal with the youth. He would turn new artists over to Bob to find songs for them; Bob could then sit down with his guitar with them – with Delroy Wilson or Hortense Ellis, for example – and rehearse the tune. In return, Clement Dodd would let Bob live at the studio and sleep in a back room they’d use for auditions or rehearsals. Bob was unable to put his head down, however, until the sessions had ended, often late-late in the night.

1965. THE WAILING WAILERS HAD BECOME THE roughneck archetype of the three-piece harmony group, a specifically Jamaican form of high popular art that was more usually burnished to a shining gloss. By such members of their peer group as the estimable Alton Ellis, the group was considered to be very strong indeed. “They have a different sense of music than us, and we all love it. It wasn’t so much dancehall. Bob’s sound was always different: it mesmerised me from those times. His music always have a roots sense of direction. Not even just the words – I’m talking about the sound, the melody that him sing, the feel of the rhythm. Always a bit different.”

Hellshire Beach 1972

© Esther Anderson

This sense was complemented onstage. “Bob was always this ragamuffin onstage. We – myself, people like John Holt in The Paragons – were more polished and act like the Americans. Him was a rebel: jump up and throw himself about onstage. The Wailers them just mad and free: just threw themselves in and out of the music, carefree and careless.”

Miming to their records, The Wailers would appear all over Jamaica at dances at which the Downbeat sound system would play. This was a regular Coxsone strategy. “That’s how we got them launched. With several other of my artists, we used to tour the country parts.” Prior to this The Wailers had played live mainly at Vere Johns’s Opportunity Hour, a variety talent show modelled on American TV programmes that would tour the island; although The Wailers would find themelves performing back-to-back with conjurors and ventriloquists, the show always had a musical bias.

The Wailing Wailers made more hits: ‘I Need You'; ‘Dance With Me’, a rewrite of The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway'; ‘Another Dance'; and the ‘Ten Commandments Of Love’, an extraordinary interpretation of the Aaron Neville song. And there were more tunes that seemed like messages direct from Rude Boy Central: ‘Rude Boy’ itself, late in 1965; ‘Rule Dem Rudie'; ‘Jailhouse’, another paean to rude boys, containing the lines “Can’t fight against the youth now/cause it’s wrong/Can’t fight against the youth now! Cause they’re strong.” Small wonder that such tunes took off with Jamaica’s teenagers of whatever social origin.

In 1965 The Wailers – as they’d become known by now – delivered the spiritual counterbalance to such rude boy militancy. ‘One Love’ was a distillation of the Rastafarian sentiments Bob had absorbed in his years in Trench Town; it contained the anthem-like essence of the message and philosophy of Rastafari: “Let’s join together and feel all right.”

© Chris Salewicz, 1995

Click here to read on Issuu

For photos of Bob circa 1966-1973, click here.

3 thoughts on “Can’t Fight The Youth: Bob Marley’s Early Years

  1. Reblogged this on A World of Reggae and commented:
    If there is something to know about Mr. Robert Nesta Marley you don’t know then maybe you should check out this blog. Today would have been and was Bob Marley’s birthday. Unfortunately he passed away at the age of 36 (one tenth of a circle).
    Here are some of my favorite Marley tunes.
    Perfect love and R.I.P!

  2. Pingback: movimento terra a grosseto, servizi agricoltura conto terzi a grosseto

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