Bob Marley's Reggae Landmark In 1973, a reggae group on the verge of breaking up released an album — its second that year — filled with militant anthems inspired by life in the Jamaican slums. Burnin' turned out to be Bob Marley's big break.
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Bob Marley's Reggae Landmark

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Bob Marley's Reggae Landmark

Bob Marley's Reggae Landmark

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Today, we bring back a series that we featured on this program last year. It's about the sound of history and it was produced by Ben Manila. Every year, the Library of Congress chooses 25 recordings to preserve for all time in its National Recording Registry.

(Soundbite of archived recording montage)

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): It's one small step for man.

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: Well, I should.

Unidentified Man: Will then (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Unidentified Man: I mean.

Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Singer): (Singing) And this land is your land. This land is my land.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you…

Unidentified Man: Presented by Palmolive, the beauty soap made with gentle olive oil

Ms. ARETHRA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer): Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

RAKIM (Singer): (Singing) I know you got soul. Brothers and sisters, hey, hey.

SEABROOK: The first in our series this month is the album, "Burnin'"by The Wailer,before they were known as Bob Marley & The Wailers. It was released in 1973 and went on to become a huge breakthrough for reggae internationally.

The album was added to the recording registry this year. Today's profile of Burnin' includes a cast of three - the man who produced the album…

Mr. CHRIS BLACKWELL (Producer, Burnin'): My name is Chris Blackwell. I was the founder of Island Records, and now I'm spending a lot of time in Jamaica, working with hotels and community projects.

SEABROOK: Then there's Bob Marley's widow - Rita Marley.

Ms. RITA MARLEY (Singer): My full name is Alpharita Constantia, and I was Anderson before I became Bob Marley's wife. I'm a singer - a singer in the band.

SEABROOK: And a musicologist.

Mr. JIM HENKE (Musicologist): I'm Jim Henke. I'm the chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. And I'm also the author of the book "Bob Marley Legend."

(Soundbite of song, "Small Axe")

Ms. HENKE: When The Wailers began it was Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston. The three of them started out as a vocal group. In the beginning, The Wailers was almost like The Beatles or something like that or these three great guys who worked off of each other and managed to really capture this tremendous spirit and tremendous, you know, musical ability.

(Soundbite of song, "Small Axe")

Mr. BOB MARLEY (Singer, The Wailers): (Singing) If you are the…

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Big tree…

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) We are the…

THE WAILERS: (Singing) …small axe.

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) Sharpen to…

THE WAILERS: (Singing) …cut you down.

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) Ready to…

THE WAILERS: (Singing) …cut you down.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Going back and listening to the album "Burnin'," it was an album that in itself was a very influential album on what pop music would become. But it's also - it's such an important record in the sense of really the way it speaks to the underprivileged people of the world to help them in their struggle.

Ms. MARLEY: We were grown and raised in the ghetto, so we knew nothing more than the ghetto life. An indicator - you would - it was a normal thing to go to bed and wake up with hundred or more policemen around your house - circle your house. And you can't come out. You can't - you can't come out to use your bathroom.

Bob always think of reality. And we're living in Trenchtown at that time. We were - it's a reality when you say this morning, I woke up in the curfew. Oh, Lord, I was a prisoner too. It's a reality.

(Soundbite of song, "Burnin' and Lootin'")

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) This morning, I woke up in a curfew. Oh, God, I was a prisoner too. Yeah.

Mr. BLACKWELL: This album, I think, it's much more politically strident that its predecessor, than "Catch A Fire" was. A song like "Burnin' and Lootin'," that was really aimed at Jamaica's, you know, frustrated underclass. Later on, Bob said that "Burnin' and Lootin'" was really more a philosophical song and wasn't really meant to have people wreck and running and burning and looting. But I think that when he wrote the song, that's not what he was thinking. I think he really was - was a call to action to this underclass in Jamaica to, you know, attain their freedom and asset their control.

Ms. MARLEY: (Unintelligible) I would rather go burning and then looting before I'd be a prisoner in this situation. So let's go burning and looting, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Burnin' and Lootin'")

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) That's why we gonna be…

THE WAILERS: (Singing) …burnin' and a-lootin' tonight.

Mr. MARLEY: (Singing) Say we gonna burn and loot.

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Burnin' and a-lootin' tonight.

Mr. HENKE: Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, had lived in Jamaica and formed Island, and Bob Marley - sort of on his last legs after smaller record deals have fallen through and all that - took The Wailers over to Chris' office in London.

Mr. BLACKWELL: When I first met them in England, when I first met Bob and The Wailers in England, they had gone to Sweden to do some work on a film but the film collapsed. And so they were stranded in London and somebody had actually run me and said, would you like to meet them. And yet when they walked in the office, the three of them was so charismatic that, you know, they made a very strong impact on me, made a deal with them, literally, on the spot.

You know, it's one thing if you already have a name and people know your name, and then the person walks in the room, you know, very charismatic. But when people are sort of kind of down and out, and they're charismatic, that's really pretty special.

These guys, together, were rebels. They were naturally rebels and they wanted really work. They really should have gotten how they really should be treated.

(Soundbite of song, "Get Up, Stand Up")

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.

Mr. BLACKWELL: Reggae was not considered serious music. It was considered a novelty music. There were virtually no albums of reggae that was sold unless they were compilation of them. There was no serious consideration given to the musicianship of reggae. And so when they'd finished that record, I sent it to lots of people. You know, I sent it like, you know, one would send records to tape makers, musicians, et cetera. And Eric Clapton was one of the people I sent it to.

(Soundbite of song, "I Shot the Sheriff")

Mr. ERIC CLAPTON (Singer) and Unidentified Group: (Singing) I shot the sheriff.

Mr. CLAPTON: (Singing) But I did not shoot the deputy.

Ms. MARLEY: When Eric Clapton sang "I Shot the Sheriff," (unintelligible) was like wow. It's like, well, wow. It's finally getting into the right ears that we had wanted it to be. But then, you know, normally, they would not listen to us, coming from where we're coming from. So it would take Eric Clapton to let certain type of people turn the radio on.

Mr. BLACKWELL: When he recorded that song, that was probably the biggest break, really, that Bob had had because Eric at that time was, literally, like, you know, like God in the music business. And God had gone to Bob Marley for his material. So it pointed towards Bob and gave him the respect that catapulted him really into a whole other level of credibility.

Mr. HENKE: Reggae was starting to catch on a little bit. You know, around the time in his "Burnin'" album, and then Clapton goes and cuts the song. Because it's Eric Clapton and it's a little bit more accessible, his version is more accessible than Bob Marley's. So it managed to catch on. And that really, I think, was a turning point for Bob Marley and for reggae music. And I think once that song caught on and became a number one hit in America, you know, the floodgates sort of opened. It's interesting, though, in retrospect, that Clapton has said that he doesn't really feel that he did justice to the song at all.

(Soundbite of song, "I Shot the Sheriff")

THE WAILERS: (Singing) I shot the sheriff. But I did not shoot the deputy. Oh, no. Oh.

Mr. HENKE: Right after "Burnin'" was released, Peter and Bunny both wanted it to end, so it's - really, this is the last album where the three of them were all together.

Mr. BLACKWELL: I think "Burnin'" stands up today, basically, it has great songs. It has great songs in it. It has songs of Peter Tosh singing. It has songs of Bunny singing. It has the classic "I Shot the Sheriff." It's something which I think represents the beginning of a whole movement, in a way. I think that's really part of the reason it's very important until today.

Ms. MARLEY: Well, I think of a freedom fighter, another fighting a battle or war (unintelligible) but one who took music as a weapon - an instrument that you could use to bring peace to the world. When we see this music coming through, we see one as a prophet, speaking on behalf of those who - that are not able to say something, speaking for those who are able to go out and say what's on their mind. Bob Marley does this for many all over the world.

(Soundbite of music, "Put It On")

THE WAILERS: (Singing) Feel them spirit.

SEABROOK: A profile of the album "Burnin,'" recorded by The Wailers. Another chapter from the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Our story was produced by Ben Manila and Media Mechanics.

Our parting words tonight speak of liberty and freedom. And they come from the mouth of the reggae great Bob Marley in his "Redemption Song." He sings…

(Reading) Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.

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