Thirty-six long, long years ago, the U.S. bicentennial was in full swing and swagger.
Here in the States, rock and roll was still king, but the ugly, artificial facelessness of disco was looming and blooming on the horizon of dance floors everywhere. No, I simply cannot express in words just how much I absolutely hated disco. Most rockers felt the same way, and, yes, I still do.
Sure, disco changed the direction of contemporary music forever, but 1976 was also the year that reggae music was beginning to influence artists as quickly as a six-pack of cold, Jamaican Red Stripe Beer does to a person with an empty stomach.
I’ll never forget that day 36 summers ago when I received an advance copy of the album Rastaman Vibration by Bob Marley and the Wailers. I was aware of Marley’s songwriting prowess from seeing his writers’ credit on Stir it Up, the infectious 1973 hit from Johnny Nash, but that was all I knew of the man or his music.
That night, I played Marley’s album on Augusta’s WAUG-FM, where each evening at 11 p.m. I would feature an album in its entirety. Neither I nor the many startled listeners who phoned the studio that evening knew just what to think of this “new” style of music.
To my later and greater embarrassment, I even referred to it on the air as “reggie” music, as no one I knew in the pre-Internet world knew how to pronounce it correctly either.
But, just like the first time I tried wasabi on some sushi, I was intrigued. The quirky, rhythmic accents on the downbeat and the irresistible melodies made reggae a staple of my musical tastes that remains to this very day.
In those years, I was just a casual musician who knew a few chords on the piano. But even that didn’t alert me to the fact that folks had been listening to very palatable forms of reggae, mento, and ska (the latter two being the “grandfathers” of reggae) on rock and top-40 stations for years.
Most everyone just didn’t know it!
During the British invasion of 1964, a young Jamaican named Millie Small enjoyed her only U.S. hit with the cutesy and very memorable tune My Boy Lollipop. Five years later, Desmond Dekker and the Aces struck gold with Israelites. Both were ska-infused classics that are still revered today.
The American-born singer Johnny Nash also flirted with reggae for years, culminating with his mammoth 1972 hit I Can See Clearly Now. Nash’s follow-up single was Marley’s aforementioned Stir it Up and soon the spliffs began to get wider and fatter as more artists infused these Jamaican influences in their music.
That same year, Paul Simon saw this “Trench Town trend” and released Mother and Child Reunion and Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. No, we had no clue we were listening to reggae.
Even Led Zeppelin got on the “Dunn’s River Falls Lorry” with their terrific top-20 hit from 1973 D’yer Mak’er. The extremely unusual story about that song alone deserves its own “Music by Turner” column in the future. No, it’s not pronounced “Dire Maker!”
Interestingly, Eric Clapton also brought Marley’s talents into the mainstream with his first No. 1 single, 1974’s I Shot the Sheriff. Two years later, Clapton released a reggae version of Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door with far less satisfying results.
Other ska and reggae-influenced songs from years ago include Montego Bay (Bobby Bloom), Jet (Paul McCartney and Wings), Roxanne (The Police) Dreadlock Holiday (10cc) and the Neil Diamond-penned Red Red Wine from UB 40 that topped the charts in 1988.
Steely Dan, The Clash, Joe Jackson and Eddy Grant are just a few more musicians who have many reggae-styled numbers. Jimmy Cliff and former Wailer Peter Tosh were great pioneers of the genre and their body of work is still highly regarded today.
But it’s Stevie Wonder’s classic Boogie On Reggae Woman that will always be at the top of my list for one very specific reason. Why, you might ask? Because the song finally taught me how to pronounce “reggae” correctly!
Haile Selassie lives, indeed! No problem. Every ting criss, mon, and I’ll see you in Negril. I’ll be on the beach enjoying a Red Stripe and some conch. Gee, maybe there’ll even be some bobsledding.