During the '50s, it seemed every Jamaican had to have their own radio. They could tune in to stations broadcasting from the US, or perhaps even a US Military radio station close by. The sounds of New Orleans jazz, Motown, and rock & roll quickly became the soundtrack to the Jamaican street block party...a party which began once Jamaica had achieved full independence from Britain in 1962, and didn't seem to stop until some time in the mid-70s. Artists like Sam Cooke, the Temptations, Fats Domino, the Drifters, James Brown, Nina Simone, as well as African-American owned and operated Motown Records, were especially inspiring for the "rude boys" and girls cruising the streets and dance halls of Kingston.
The influence of all that soul and R&B being broadcast from America to radios in Jamaica cannot be overstated. With so much blood and death on the road to racial equality in the United States, it is often forgotten just how much progress has been made; but for Jamaicans in the 60s to see and hear American artists who shared their African heritage become successful, famous, have their talents recognized, and also just seemed to be having a lot of fun...it was hopeful and inspiring to see. A young Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, growing up in the Trenchtown housing projects (or as they called it "the government yard"), began to dream of a better life achieved by honing their artistic talents and vocal abilities.
Jamaicans began making their own R&B-inspired recordings, with aspiring producers cranking out new 45s and dub plates
at a rate that outpaced even Motown. Jamaican sound system culture was such that a group could cut a dub plate in the morning, set up some speakers on the street, and have people dancing to their own songs by sundown.
Small pressings allowed for producers to experiment, to take risks with new artists. Record songs, throw them out there and see what stuck; and as copyright law did not yet exist in Jamaica, you get this outpouring of undeniably catchy versions of American and British pop hits: the Skatalites
jazzing up Motown hits and jazz standards, Rita Marley's version of Pied Piper
is an absolute dance smash hit when compared to the snoozefest original Del Shannon version
(or maybe it's just me), and the Wailing Wailers covering the likes of the Beatles
and Bob Dylan
, taking songs in directions the songwriters never imagined.
In fact, one of the first songs Marley ever penned, "One Love
", borrowed heavily (both lyrically and musically) from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions "People Get Ready."
Recorded by Coxsone Dodd and backed by the incomparable Skatalites, the Wailing Wailers burst on the scene with hits like "Simmer Down
", "Lonesome Feeling
", and "One Love
". The loose vocal harmonies of the Wailers perfectly combined with the shimmy-shack, Bourbon Street stylings of the Skatalites to create a sound that just makes you want to dance in the sunny, dusty streets of Kingston Town while some entrepreneurial DJ or other wears out his newest dub pressings by cranking his sound system just a little, no, a lot louder than the speakers are supposed to go.
"Simmer down, control your temper...Simmer down, or you won't get no supper."
"One love, one heart. Let's get together and feel all right."
The message that would define Bob Marley until his untimely death in 1981 is already here in these early Ska hits: that is, why can't we all just get along?
Well, Bob, we're still listening, still asking why; but while we think on that, thanks for reminding us it's OK to throw a raging block party and have some fun in the mean time.
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