Chris Salewicz: The Coda Collection Interview

Chris Salewicz: The Coda Collection Interview

The Wailers, led by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, had been scoring hits in Jamaica for a decade before they began performing in the U.K. and U.S. Veteran journalist Chris Salewicz describes what those early performances were like.

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The Wailers’ Historic Swan Song

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If there were a hall of fame for pivotal 20th century moments in music, the recently unearthed documentary “The Capitol Session ‘73” should be inducted. The film captures Bob Marley at a career crossroads, a period when he was transitioning into an international star from his decade-long first-among-equals era in the Wailers. In addition, it provides a rare glimpse of three founding fathers of reggae — Marley, Peter Tosh and Joe Higgs (filling in for a fourth Jamaican giant, Bunny Wailer) — sharing the stage for one of the last times as the art form they helped create was starting to break through worldwide. The original Wailers were on the verge of breaking up, but reggae’s next, biggest chapter was just beginning.

Marley, who died in 1981 at age 36 of cancer, spent the first decade of his career during the ‘60s building his chops as a songwriter, musician and vocalist with the Wailers in Jamaica, then emerged in the ‘70s as the dreadlocked ambassador of reggae, the voice of the oppressed who spoke to and for shanty towns from South Africa to Los Angeles. His story has been told in countless films and books. Lesser known are Higgs and Tosh, the giants with whom he stands shoulder to shoulder in “The Capitol Session ’73,” filmed at a semi-private performance in Hollywood in 1973. 

It could be argued that without the influence and guidance of Higgs, Marley’s career wouldn’t have been the same. Even as a young man, Higgs carried himself like an elder statesman in the burgeoning ska scene emerging out of Kingston’s Trench Town in early ‘60s Jamaica. Besides his evident skills as a songwriter and a singer with an ear for harmony vocals, Higgs brought a philosopher’s perspective to everything he did. He was an activist voice for Trench Town’s downtrodden, and paid a price: he was beaten by police and spent time in jail. But he could not be silenced. Gifted with a pliant, mellifluous voice, informed by American R&B, doo-wop and jazz as well as the island’s mento tradition, he partnered with another gifted singer, Roy Wilson. Higgs authored a number of hits for the duo after their 1960 single, “Manny, Oh,” which sold 50,000 copies and turned Higgs and Wilson into stars. 

The pair continued to enjoy hits throughout the ‘60s, and Higgs expanded his influence as a songwriter and solo artist with classics such as “I Am the Song,” which brought a social consciousness to the Jamaican charts, underlined by the singer’s Rasta spirituality. Higgs’ protest bent had a profound effect on some of the “rude boys” scuffling for record deals and recognition in the burgeoning Trench Town scene. These included a trio calling themselves the Wailing Wailers — Marley, Tosh and Wailer — who looked to Higgs for guidance.

Higgs appreciated the group’s work ethic and began coaching it on the intricacies of harmony singing. Though Higgs was only five years older than the teenage Marley, his words carried weight and helped the young group win the attention of red-hot producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd. With the finest musicians in Jamaica as a backing band — the jazz-steeped Skatalites — the Wailers’ first session for Dodd in 1963 yielded a hit, “Simmer Down.” The song spoke to Marley’s originality as a lyricist — here was a teenager telling his fellow rude boys to cool it lest they do something they’d later regret.

Tosh was the most militant of the trio, an imposing figure with a menacing baritone matched by his uncompromising protest songs.

Tosh and Wailer were each strong personalities in their own right, destined for fame as solo artists after they departed the Wailers. Tosh was the most militant of the trio, an imposing figure with a menacing baritone matched by his uncompromising protest songs, including his signature declaration, the Higgs-penned “Stepping Razor.” It’s telling that “The Capitol Session ‘73” set begins and ends with Tosh songs, the defiant “Don’t Blame the Youth” and the anthemic “Get Up, Stand Up,” a co-write with Marley. In many ways, Marley saw his boyhood friend as a peer, albeit a competitive one who never would be satisfied standing in anyone’s shadow.

Tosh backed up his words with actions. He was arrested at an anti-apartheid rally in Jamaica in the ‘60s, and several times was locked up for pot possession even as he loudly proclaimed weed’s virtues in interviews and songs, most notably on the classic “Legalize It.” In the ‘70s, Tosh looked askance at the Wailers’ partnership with Island Records and the efforts of label boss Chris Blackwell to blend the band’s Jamaican riddims and vocals with rock instrumentation. He changed his tune after exiting the band soon after the 1973 U.S. tour to embark on a potent solo career. His status was such that he was invited to open the Rolling Stones’ 1978 North American tour and collaborate with Mick Jagger on the hit single “(You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back.” The singer continued to enjoy hits into the ‘80s, only to be gunned down in 1987 when robbers invaded his home. He was 42 years old.  

Bunny Wailer, with his tenor approximating the tone of Chicago soul great Curtis Mayfield, was — like Mayfield — a master of integrating social and spiritual concerns in his thoughtful lyrics. Though not particularly prolific as a songwriter while with the Wailers, he went on to make one of the signpost albums of the reggae era, “Blackheart Man,” after departing the group. His long career included multiple Grammy awards before he succumbed to complications from a stroke in March 2021 at age 72.

Bunny’s departure in 1973 from the Wailers was the first crack in the solidarity of a group of unlikely musical brothers who had survived poverty and indifference to become three of Jamaica’s most revered voices. He quit in part because he was dubious about air travel, which prevented him from joining the Wailers on their inaugural U.S. tour. To replace this crucial voice in the group’s sound, the best and in many ways only choice was the man who made those harmonies soar in the first place: Joe Higgs.

After Higgs stepped in for Wailer in 1973, he left to resume his solo career, which continued until he died of cancer at age 59 in 1999. His stint in the Wailers was designed to be a brief one, but as emergency fill-ins go, Higgs’ contribution to the Wailers proved indelible. Seeing these three giants interact on stage, however briefly, prompts questions about what might have been had these one-of-a-kind vocalists somehow found a way to carry on as a unit.

Marley was undeterred by the shake-up. To replace Wailer, Higgs and Tosh, he hired three female backing vocalists, the I-Threes, who more closely approximated the call-and-response chemistry of American soul music, and in a way made it easier for Western audiences to accept his music. From that point on, Marley no longer could be denied, his charisma and passion in full bloom. When he died, his popularity was at its peak, his legend assured. Yet the otherworldly power and mystique of the original Wailers remains unmatched in the annals of Jamaican music, as “The Capitol Session ‘73” reminds us yet again.

Greg Kot is the editorial director of The Coda Collection. He is also the cohost of the nationally syndicated public-radio show and podcast “Sound Opinions” with Jim DeRogatis, and previously the music critic at the Chicago Tribune for 30 years. His books include acclaimed biographies of Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”) and Wilco (“Learning How to Die”) and a history of the digital music revolution (“Ripped”). He also coauthored “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Rivalry” and has written extensively for Rolling Stone, BBC Culture and Encyclopedia Britannica. When he takes off the headphones, Kot coaches in his Chicago-based youth travel basketball program (OTEhoops.com). In addition, he has coauthored two best-selling editions of the book “Survival Guide to Coaching Youth Basketball.”

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