Reggae Icons

MarleyA Franklin Avenue Library patron told me recently that he was fortunate to have seen a Bob Marley concert in New York City in 1979. Marley was, of course, the greatest star of reggae, a slow-tempo style of Jamaican music in which a guitar and/or piano uniquely accents the second and fourth beats in each bar, while combining with a drum's emphasis on beat three. The patron said it was one of the greatest live performances he’s ever witnessed, and he claims to have seen a lot of concerts. At the time, however, he didn’t realize just how fortunate he was to have seen the man who remains Jamaica’s best-known individual. Two years before that NYC concert, Marley was diagnosed with a type of malignant melanoma uncommon in people under age 60. Despite his worsening health, Marley maintained his hectic touring schedule and (for religious reasons) declined treatment.  He continued to tour until early fall 1980, when he no longer had the strength to perform — his final concert is captured on Live Forever: September 23, 1980, Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA.  He then agreed to submit to a controversial new, non-invasive treatment, but the melanoma continued to spread. Marley died 11 May 1981 at just 36 years of age. Marley has been described as the Third World’s first pop superstar.  He took reggae out of the slums of Jamaica and brought it to a worldwide audience. Just like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, music stars whose legends seemed to have grown exponentially, at least in part, due to their premature deaths, Marley has become one of the icons of popular music. Marley posters, t-shirts and other paraphernalia are as hot now as ever. Although the genre has survived three decades past his demise, Marley remains the artist most identified with reggae. As great as Marley was, however, he’s not the only reggae artist worth seeking out. Any casual Marley fan who would like to delve further into reggae, or anyone who is new to reggae altogether should be aware of some of the other titans of the genre. CliffJimmy Cliff – Cliff was a reggae superstar slightly before Marley. The movie The Harder They Come, (1972), starring Cliff, provided many Americans with their first taste of reggae upon its later U.S. release. Marley soon eclipsed the more pop-oriented Cliff in popularity, but Cliff remained a musical force and is still active today. In fact, his latest disc, Rebirth, released last summer, is being lauded as his best in years. For a taste of Cliff in his prime, try In Concert: The Best of Jimmy Cliff, or a good one-disc career retrospective is Ultimate Collection.Black Uhuru Black Uhuru – Many personnel changes occurred over the years, but leader Derrick "Duckie" Simpson remained the one constant.  Black Uhuru (taken from a Swahili word meaning “freedom”) was the dominant act during reggae’s second decade and the first reggae artist to win a Grammy Award. Among their finest works are 1980’s Sinsemilla and 1981’s Red. Peter Tosh – Tosh, with Marley, was an original member of The Wailers. Tosh had ongoing success as both part of that group and as a solo artist from the early sixties to the early seventies.  Always outspoken, ToshTosh’s music became particularly militant as a solo artist during the seventies and eighties, but he continued to rack up hits both domestically and abroad. On September 11, 1987, while in his Kingston, Jamaica home, Tosh and six friends were each shot in the head by a sometime houseguest accompanied by the shooter’s cronies.  Tosh was one of three who did not survive their injuries.  Legalize It is a classic album from his peak, while The Very Best of Peter Tosh gives you the highlights. Toots and The MaytalsToots & The Maytals – Toots Hibbert is considered one of the most charismatic frontmen in reggae history. Although the group never achieved the success of other reggae stars in the United States (they were, however, very popular in Britain), they were one of the key founders of the genre. Their 1968 hit Do the Reggay (one of several songs released that year using the name of a popular dance to also describe the new music style that was becoming associated with it) helped name the genre. For a good retrospective, listen to The Best of Toots and The Maytals ; 2004’s True Love, on the other hand, pairs the group with some of popular music’s biggest names on rerecorded versions of their classic hits. The story certainly doesn’t end with those reggae icons. Beyond the artists mentioned above, there are far more reggae musicians represented in the CD collection of the Des Moines Public Library. In fact, several of Bob Marley’s sons – Ziggy, Stephen, Julian and Damian (Jr. Gong) – alone have carved out notable careers in the genre. To see what we have to offer, perform a keyword search using the phrase “reggae sound recording” and you will retrieve a results list of over 160 items.  Cool runnings!

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