Natty Dread- the album that spawned a roots revolution

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL Observer writer
Sunday, October 26, 2003



Bob Marley (right), Bunny Livingstone (centre) and Peter Tosh performing at the National Stadium in October 1975. It was the last time the original Wailers shared the same stage. (Photo: Lee Jaffe)

ROOTS-reggae band, The Wailers, were at a crossroads at the beginning of 1974. Although their two albums for Island Records, Catch A Fire and Burnin', gained rave reviews from critics abroad, sales did not match up and there was pressure on them to make a more commercial record.

By the end of the year, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone had left the group, leaving Bob Marley as its only original member. In early 1975, Marley delivered Island Records founder and president, Chris Blackwell, the third Wailers album: Natty Dread. It was the breakthrough record they had been waiting for for three years.

Released in February 1975, Natty Dread sold relatively well in the United States and solidified Marley's growing reputation in the United Kingdom. It was similar to Catch A Fire and Burnin' in terms of social commentary but musically, Natty Dread heard Marley going beyond reggae's drum-and-bass boundaries and experimenting with different sounds.


Wailers guitarist, Al Anderson, rehearsing at the Tuff Gong studios in Kingston in November 1999. (File photo)

"Natty Dread was pretty progressive, songs like So Jah Seh and Talking Blues were folk, and No Woman No Cry was country," American guitarist, Al Anderson, told the Observer in a 1999 interview.

Anderson, who had met Marley while working as a session guitarist in London in 1973, was one of the new faces brought in for Natty Dread. Bernard "Touter" Harvey, a 16 year-old keyboardist, also appeared for the first time. So too the I-Three, a harmony trio that included Marley's wife, Rita, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt.

Blackwell had shown patience by sticking with The Wailers for a third album. Catch A Fire and Burnin' were strong sets that showcased the writing talents of Marley and Tosh. But they did not have the hit song needed to break them in the US where they had toured in the summer of 1973, opening for a young Bruce Springsteen and the red-hot Sly and The Family Stone.

The tour was a disaster: The Wailers were ditched from the Sly Stone tour after only four days and a subsequent trip to the UK ended in disarray after Marley and Tosh reportedly came to blows. Tension had built up since the start of the American jaunt when Blackwell suggested that the charismatic, lighter-skinned Marley be named official leader of the group. The powers-that-be at Island also wanted his photo alone to be on the cover of the new album.

Though Marley, Tosh and Livingstone performed as opening act for soul singer Marvin Gaye at the Carib Theatre in May 1974, the trioka that rose out of the slums of Trench Town in the early 1960s had effectively split. That month, Marley gave a glimpse of his new direction by releasing Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock) which had accompaniment by the I-Three, Harvey and the Barrett brothers -- Aston (bass) and Carlton (drums).

According to Lee Jaffe, an American who was a member of Marley's inner-circle at the time, Rebel Music was written by himself and Marley while they were returning to Kingston from Negril one night in 1974.

"It was at a time when there were a lot of roadblocks, it was like three o'clock in the morning and we just started singing that song," Jaffe recalls in his book, One Love: Life With Bob Marley and The Wailers. "I was playing harmonica and we just wrote the song right in the car," Jaffe said, "and then Bob gave writer credit to people who were not even there."

There was no doubt as to who wrote the next song released by Marley's Tuff Gong label. Knotty Dread was co-written by Marley and his good friend, football star Allan "Skill" Cole; the uptempo song was another hit in Jamaica, and Marley and his new band began recording material for the album of the same name at the Harry J Studios in Kingston, where Catch A Fire and Burnin' were also done.

Going against Marley's wishes, Blackwell reworded the album's title (from Knotty to Natty). Work on the set was completed in London at Island's studio in Hammersmith where Anderson's bluesy licks were added.

The album, and Marley, were given a massive boost when rock superstar Eric Clapton's cover of Marley's I Shot The Sheriff raced to number nine on the British National chart and shot to number one in the US in late 1974. When Natty Dread finally hit stores abroad, Bob Marley was no longer just another Rasta singer.

Marley and his new-look band began their promotion of Natty Dread in the United States in June 1975. Once that was completed, they left for the UK where the album made the national charts; No Woman No Cry, an ode to the group's years of struggle in Trench Town, reached number 22 on the singles chart.

In October, The Wailers returned to Jamaica to perform with American singer Stevie Wonder at the National Stadium. Marley was accompanied by Tosh and Livingstone for a jam with Wonder, a fan of the group; it would be the last time they performed together.

Blackwell capitalised on Natty Dread's success by releasing Live!, which caught the band's amazing show at the Lyceum in London in July 1975. The following year, Island released the lyrically-easy Rastaman Vibration which saw Marley making further inroads into the American market.

While Catch A Fire struck a match for reggae, Natty Dread was the album that was responsible for the roots revolution of the mid and late 1970s. Within one year, Peter Tosh was signed to Columbia Records, Inner Circle went to Capitol and Island began distributing albums by Bunny Livingstone (now Wailer), Burning Spear and Toots and The Maytals.

In 1997, the Charlie Hunter Quartet paid homage to Natty Dread by recording a straight-ahead jazz version of the album. It was part of respected jazz label Blue Note Records' Cover Series.