July 8, 1976 – Murray Elias a/k/a “Jah Fish” makes his way through midtown Manhattan from his home in Massapequa, Long Island. His nerves on edge, he trods on. His destination? The New York Island Records office located inside the Carnegie Hall Office Tower at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street. The subject of today’s interview is Peter Tosh, who had recently split from The Wailers to launch his solo career and who is now trying to make a name for himself stateside. His new single, “Legalize It” a deep roots tune calling for the legalization of marijuana, was recently banned in his native Jamaica, and is starting to create some controversy here in the States. His first official US album entitled “Legalize It” was just released on Columbia Records and Peter is in New York to promote his US debut.
I ask Elias what was he thinking and feeling that day.
“I was feeling a little nervous that day. I had only been listening and playing reggae on the radio for about a year or so. I felt like a bit of a novice. I was still on the learning curve.” Elias confesses. “Binghamton was in upstate New York far removed from the nascent reggae scene developing in Brooklyn, Queens & The Bronx. I was pretty far removed from the Jamaican neighborhoods, culture and scene in the city. I remember being worried about understanding Tosh when he spoke. I wasn’t sure if I could cut through the heavy patois. Two years later when I moved back to the city, all that changed. But in 1976 this was like my first real encounter with the new world of reggae and Jamaican culture. So yeah, honestly, I remember being a bit nervous.”
He explains that he’s home on summer break from SUNY Binghamton where in 1975 as ‘Jah Fish’ he launches “Forward Irations” the first and only reggae-themed weekly radio show at the University and now one of the longest continuously running reggae programs in the US. Although he does very well broadcasting to thousands of college students in Binghamton, this will be his first ever one-on-one interview with a certifiable reggae superstar.
“So how did you come up with the name Jah Fish?” I ask Murray as we speak on my bluetooth as I drive from Annapolis, MD to Washington, DC.
“You want to know the truth?” he replies in the most authentic New York accent.
“No, I want you to lie to me!” I say to my new friend.
“I was getting ready to launch my first reggae show on WHRW in late 1974 and I needed a radio name for the show. I thought hosting a Jamaican reggae program using my real name, Murray Elias sounded funny. My friend & I were looking through some British music magazines when I noticed a small piece that said a local British reggae Deejay named ‘Jah Fish’ had died,” he explains. ” So I turn to my buddy and say, ‘I guess he’s not going to need that name anymore. And that’s how Jah Fish was born.’”
I completely lose it. This guy knows how to tell a story.
Murray nervously makes his way up the elevator to the Island Records offices.
“I remember that Island Records press veterans Charlie Comer, Jeff Walker & Lister Hewan-Lowe were handling the press for Peter Tosh’s album which I thought odd as Tosh was signed to Columbia Records. But in 1976 Columbia had no one on staff with any experience in the newly emerging genre of Reggae. They needed to outsource to the experts.”
He is led to Chris Blackwell’s office where Peter Tosh is holding court on this press day. As he opens the door he has no idea that this interview will one day be considered historic – one of the earliest recorded interviews with the rising reggae superstar. As a matter of fact, Elias seemed genuinely surprised when I informed him of that fact.
As he enters Blackwell’s smoke-filled office, he is introduced to Tosh who is seated on a couch smoking on a monster sized spliff. Elias, still nervous and not yet sure about the rules of engagement of Jamaican herbal etiquette watched while Tosh puffed away — desirous of a draw but ultimately satisfied with the contact high.
Elias recalls, “I remember thinking to myself, was Peter chain smoking the herb as part of a show and as a tie in to the album in order to impress all the white college boys like myself who were lining up to meet and reason with him? Or did this man routinely smoke this much herb in such a short span of time? In which case I was pretty impressed.”
Elias had come prepared with a list of questions. He spent the last few weeks furiously researching Peter Tosh, The Wailers, The Wailers’ break-up, the Rastafarian faith, Jamaica and reggae music in general.
Elias recalls, “Remember, in 1976, reggae was brand new and somewhat alien to the American popular culture landscape. Reggae research material was very scarce in those early days. And there was no internet. I remember there was only one book on the subject called Reggae Bloodlines and there were only a few articles in some music press like Rolling Stone or Creem or Melody Maker or NME. I did my homework but I still felt like a novice.”
No amount of research could prepare him for this somewhat surreal life-changing encounter with reggae legend Peter Tosh. As he later said, “There were a handful of events early on that cemented my lifelong relationship with reggae music. At the top of that list was seeing the movie “The Harder They Come” for the first time in 1974, then my first Bob Marley concert in Central Park in 1975, my first trip to Brad’s Record Den in 1975, the Summer Reggae Nights series at My Father’s Place and this Peter Tosh interview.”
Note: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my friend Murray Elias for participating in the telling of this story. While the interview itself is a common find in any collector’s library, the story behind the interview was never known. That is, until now.