Reggae’s Slow Burn in America

In 1963, a fledgling troupe of teenage vocalists from the dirt roads and zinc shanties of Trench Town walked into a studio in Kingston, Jamaica in sharp suits with sharp harmonies to try their luck at stardom. One year earlier, Jamaica had gained its independence from the British monarchy, and though socioeconomic conditions on the island were dire, optimism still ran high. 

The Wailing Wailers, as they were then known, were one of dozens of such acts who lined up every day to audition for producers in the nascent recording industry. The Wailing Wailers, like the others, performed ska, a lively Jamaican genre that blended jazz, American R&B and indigenous mento with a lilting upbeat tempo. Led by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer (formerly Bunny Livingston), they sang of the poverty, violence and racism suffered by their people at the hands of corrupt systems. They offered hope, the promise of justice and the strength for the subjugated to triumph over the powerful. They spoke of sweet love and spiritual connection. 

A decade later and a world away, the reconfigured Wailers entered another studio, this one in Hollywood at the Capitol Records Tower in October 1973 with another musical offspring of Jamaica, a genre new to most Americans called reggae. On the group’s home island, reggae as a genre had been booming in popularity, and in sound, since around 1968, having emerged from rocksteady and ska. 

Audiences in the United Kingdom had embraced reggae since its inception as West Indian immigrants made their homes in Brixton, Bristol and Notting Hill. English and Jamaican youth danced to the Pioneers, the Abyssinians, the Melodians and Dave and Ansell Collins at house parties and clubs. The once-colonized and the once-colonizers shared a love for the same music and culture, just as they shared the pain of unemployment and suffering in the Concrete Jungle. These were the themes of reggae music, the themes of Bob Marley’s songs with which they could identify. 

In fact, what was reggae? Was it white music? Was it Black music?

But in America, where West Indians were considered foreigners instead of neighbors, reggae was something “other.” In fact, what was reggae? Was it white music? Was it Black music? Where would it be placed on a record store shelf or on which radio station should it play? And what the heck was this strange Rasta business? Reggae was too confusing for American promoters and American consumers, but British producer Chris Blackwell of Island Records thought he might just be able to crack that nut. 

Though he was more Johnny Mathis than Johnny Too Bad, American singer Johnny Nash had created the tinder for reggae to catch fire in America. In the late 1960s, Nash had recorded in Jamaica, signed the Wailers to his label, enlisted Marley to write his songs and in 1972 charted with the hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” later recorded by Jimmy Cliff. 

Further tinder came from Paul Simon, whose song “Mother and Child Reunion” was recorded at Dynamic Sounds Studio in Kingston in 1972, as was the Rolling Stones’ “Goats Head Soup” album and Cat Stevens’ “Foreigner” album, both in 1973. And though the movie “The Harder They Come” starring Jimmy Cliff met with little fanfare in the U.S., largely due to the heavy patois that needed to be subtitled, Blackwell still signed Cliff as well as the soundtrack’s main attraction, Toots Hibbert, to Island Records. In 1972, he also signed Marley. 

In an effort to break reggae in America, Blackwell reworked much of the Wailers’ 1973 album, “Catch a Fire.” Session musicians added Moog synthesizer, electric piano and even guitar solos (by Wayne Perkins). Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh began to question Blackwell’s vision for the band, and both ended up quitting the Wailers within a few months of each other. 

With Bunny replaced by Jamaican mainstay Joe Higgs, the 1973 tour of the U.S. was designed to introduce American audiences to Marley’s charisma on 27 dates supporting either Bruce Springsteen or Sly and the Family Stone. But the sound didn’t yet translate. Sly Stone fired the Wailers because, as Sly’s drummer Atlee Yeager stated, “They look like they’re something out of the Old Testament.” Higgs recounts that American audiences didn’t understand the lyrics. 

Perhaps the best proof of this came one year later when Eric Clapton interpreted Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Clapton’s version charted No. 1 in 1974. Marley’s highest position on U.S. charts for any of his songs was No. 51 for “Roots, Rock, Reggae” in 1976. 

Reggae in America was a slow burn. It had to be delivered with three flowing women harmonizing about three little birds rather than machine-gun shaped guitars and hard hats. It had to be less Twelve Tribes and more rock ‘n’ roll. “One Love,” “No Woman, No Cry” and “Jamming” are sing-alongs. They’re easy on the ears if one doesn’t look too deeply. And sure, they may have led to reggae-flavored chart toppers from Blondie, Culture Club and the Police, but they also allowed a door to open to reggae’s harder subjects: slavery, resistance, survival. 

Marley’s songs started to resonate because he spoke to the human condition, no matter what the condition. They acknowledged the suffering and the sufferer. They offered lyrical reasoning and musical enlightenment and allowed listeners to attach their own meaning to the metaphors and messages within. They opened the way for other reggae musicians to be noticed in America. His music became ubiquitous from shared experience, one that translated across continents and generations whether vocalized in a Kingston studio or in a Hollywood film session.

Heather Augustyn is a lecturer at Purdue University Northwest. She has authored seven books on Jamaican music history, including “Ska: An Oral History” with a foreword from Cedella Marley, and “Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist” with a foreword from Delfeayo Marsalis, both published by McFarland Publishing. Two of her books have been optioned for feature film. She has established a collection of archival material including more than 150 interviews at the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University. She has written for DownBeat, Wax Poetics and the Village Voice. She wrote the award-winning documentary “Pick It Up! Ska in the 90s” from PopMotion Pictures and has spoken on Jamaican music history throughout the world, including Jamaica, Vietnam and Spain. She is the proud mother of two boys, Sid, 19, and Frank, 16, and has been married for 25 years to the love of her life, Ron. They live in Northwest Indiana.

Stories like this straight to your inbox

Exclusive video and the best music writing in the world, in your inbox every week. Subscribe today.