In 1972 Chris Blackwell had taken a gamble on an renegade rasta band out of Jamaica called The Wailers. Thus far it had paid off.  He had given band member Bob Marley  10,000 pounds and after a couple of months had gotten back master tapes of great material . When he heard it and did the math, he realized that unlike many of the typical Jamaican acts he had done business with prior, these men spent every penny on the material that they submitted to him.

He also realized  that they could potentially break out of the rut which typically befell reggae music in the UK.  Reggae was a singles market.  Successful acts and albums were a rarity. Popular singles could work well in the  Jamaican immigrant community and possibly crossover into some of the UK youth subcultures ie. Mods and Skinheads. The hit singles would move a decent number of 7inches and when grouped together they could move some compilation albums. The artists would do the UK chitlin circuit of sorts and make some decent money. However Blackwell saw that The Wailers, especially Bob, were possibly the fledgling genre’s best chance of becoming a real contender in the global music marketplace.

Blackwell put together a team to overdub and polish the album into a rock and roll grade classic. He recruited Muscle Shoals session guitarist Wayne Perkins, Robbie Shakespeare to replay bass on some tracks, Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards and organs and a slew of other musicians from Jamaica, the UK and USA. He A&Red the hell out of the project.

The original cover art for the first 20,000 albums was a Zippo lighter and done with the same attention to design as the big budget rock albums of the day. The album was called Catch A Fire.

He organized a UK tour that comprised mostly universities and smaller clubs. Everything was lining up the right way but the real kickoff for The Wailers, Blackwell and reggae music came perhaps because of  one appearance.  While in London in 1973, The Wailers were booked on The Old Grey Whistle Test. This BBC2  television music program was different from Top Of The Pops or any of the more chart based shows. It was a relatively new program but had the reputation of showcasing the real deal.  Grey Whistle was about artists doing  their work in a no-frills, intimate space. Devoid of pomp and theatrics this was where  you saw premier album oriented rock artists. Bob, Peter, Bunny and the rest of the Wailers performed two songs in their first ever UK television appearance. The rest is pretty much history.

In our 50th year, it would be good to look back at some of the methods, ethics, personalities and strategies that worked to turn us into musical powerhouse at one point. Perhaps there are a few lessons to be learnt.

Enjoy.

 

 

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