Bob Marley’s call for peace for Jamaica at the ‘Third World Woodstock’
The One Love Peace Concert attempted to bring calm and political unity to a country in turmoil
But he’d never met the lads — and didn’t exactly know what to expect. “They all struck me as special,” recalled Blackwell, who was working with Toots and the Maytals, the Jamaican group that brought the word “reggae” to the world with their 1968 single “Do the Reggay.” “I got this call to say they were stranded — yet when they came into my office, they came in a way like princes: They had a strong personality, a strong sense of self. They were impressive. I was immediately enamored with them.” Call it happenstance, or even serendipity, but the meeting couldn’t have come at a better time for Blackwell, and for the Wailers. Blackwell had lost his main Jamaican reggae artist, Jimmy Cliff, who had decided to leave Island Records to sign with EMI just a week before.
“At that period and time, I was very involved with rock music and not so involved in the day-to-day Jamaican music anymore,” Blackwell said. The Wailers needed Blackwell, and Blackwell needed the Wailers.
The rest, as they say, is history — beautiful, soulful history. A few months after that chance meeting, Blackwell found himself in Jamaica and in a studio with the Wailers, who played him Catch a Fire, their 1973 LP and first album released by Blackwell’s Island Records. It was the start of a lifelong friendship, as Blackwell would co-produce virtually all of Marley’s classic ’70s albums and contribute to his appeal to a worldwide audience.
“My experience with him was nothing but great,” reflected Blackwell, now 79. “We never had an argument, never had a misunderstanding. He always kept his word on everything. He led by example. He was a natural leader. Bob was always the first one on the bus. That was totally unique. I’d never seen that before. He was very understated and didn’t make a lot of noise. He just had that kind of aura.”
One Love, One Heart
Jamaica was not a good place to be in the ’70s. Not for tourists, not for natives — not for anybody. The island known for its nice vibes and white-sand beaches ran amok with gangs, drugs, violence, corruption and political upheaval. The leaders on both sides, Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) and Edward Seaga of the rival Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), had little in common — save for disdain for each other. Manley was aggressively opposed by the CIA and American business interests, and by 1974 he was opposed by the more conservative, Harvard-educated Seaga, whose previous life included time as a music producer and promoter. Things came to a head when the two politicians hired local gangsters to help them increase their hold on power.
Marley found himself in the middle of this concrete jungle when, in 1976, he was almost killed two days before he was to perform at Smile Jamaica, a public concert organized by Manley. A bullet passed through Marley’s elbow; his wife, Rita, had a bullet removed from her head. Marley played the concert but left immediately afterward for two years of self-imposed exile in London and the Bahamas.
“After his 1976 attack, he took off and went to the Bahamas,” said Neville Garrick, Marley’s longtime graphic designer and stage manager best known for creating the artwork for many Marley album covers. “He’d only come in [to Jamaica] for a day or two, and then he’s gone. So I think that even after the attack, he felt funny about the vibes in Jamaica for himself at that time.”
The need for peace, something the Smile Jamaica show attempted to bring about, stayed on everyone’s mind. Ironically enough, the idea for a proper peace concert would come from two gangsters from rival political factions: Claudius “Claudie” Massop (who repped the JLP) and Aston “Bucky” Marshall (PNP), who jointly decided that the best means to bring the country together was through music. And Marley, it was decided, would be the person to headline the show — and the movement.
“I know for sure that the whole idea stemmed from political people who knew Bob, and they all met up on mutual ground in England and said, ‘Let’s do something to bring some peace to the community,’ ” recalled Stephen “Cat” Coore, one of the founding members of the band Third World. “Things had been rough in the community. There had been a lot of political warfare. But that was what the plan was: to have this concert and bring some peace to the community,” continued Coore, who played bass for Marley during Smile Jamaica.
With Marley on board, momentum for the One Love Peace Concert grew. Those close to Marley say the musician felt a calling, not even two years after he was almost killed, to be his country’s messenger of peace. He also felt no fear.
“In a strange way, he did feel a calling,” Coore said. “He felt that there were certain things he wanted to do, and he was a man with a plan. When the time came to go to Zimbabwe on [April 17, 1980] to support the revolution there, he was the one guy who didn’t run off the stage when the tear gas was thrown. He realized what his presence could do to make the whole event happen. That concert was another top moment in Bob’s life.”
Returning home from England for the One Love Peace Concert, Marley received a hero’s welcome, something he didn’t anticipate. “I was 10,” recalled son Ziggy, now 48. “It was a big crowd at the airport, and it was so crowded and hectic, they had to pull me through the car window to get me into the car. It was a very exciting time. It was like … like Jamaica was about to change.”
Garrick recalled: “It was, basically, ‘Bob is home!’ There was a whole heap of men in the yard — from both sides. Everybody come fi check Bob. We started working with the peace committee … there was press that came. International press, too. I remember one thing Bob tell them: ‘Rasta don’t go left, Rasta don’t go right — Rasta go straight ahead.’ It just [goes] to show you that Bob was drawing a line to say, ‘I’m behind the church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — not on any particular side.’ ”
Billed as the “Third World Woodstock,” the One Love Peace Concert — on April 22, 1978 — attracted more than 30,000 people to the National Stadium in Kingston. The performers included rude boy Jacob Miller, Peter Tosh (who, Garrick recalls, berated political leaders sitting directly in front of him for their positions against legalizing marijuana) and, of course, Marley, who took to the stage just after midnight.
“The vibe was great, the whole vibe of the concert,” recalled Blackwell, who was in the crowd. “It was really sort of encouraging because the purpose of the concert was to try to get these politicians to work together rather than being at war. You have to remember, the political violence had damaged Jamaica badly — which really sort of started in the early ’70s, and now we’re in 1978 — so it had been going on for seven, eight years.
“People didn’t want to go to Jamaica. Jamaica was like South Sudan is today. It was affecting everybody, the overall negativity. Clearly, the public was sick to death of it. It took Bob really to be able to have the clout to get the leaders of the two parties to actually come together … nobody else could have gotten them to do that.”
Manley and Seaga were both in attendance — not sitting together, of course, but in the same place, sending a clear message to the country that a coming-together movement had begun.
Marley performed and didn’t disappoint, singing some of his biggest hits at the time. But it was during his performance of “Jammin’” that the show became something bigger — when Marley brought Manley and Seaga up to the stage in the ultimate gesture of unity.
“He called them up, [and] Seaga came up quick,” Garrick recalled. “I think it forced Michael’s hand. Seaga was on stage a good minute and a half before Michael [came up]. One came [from] stage right, the other [from] stage left. The pictures will tell it — the stage was full of people.
“They swarmed — at least 50 people on stage. The thing [Bob] was trying to say was: ‘OK, here are the two men you’re fighting over. We put them together. Now we’re calling for peace. If these two men can come together peacefully, then surely you can as well.’ It was very symbolic.”
Added Cooke: “That whole thing about how Bob got Michael Manley and [Edward] Seaga to come up on stage to shake hands was just Bob [saying], ‘This is what we’re gonna do to bring some peace to the community.’ Things had been rough in the community.”
So Much Trouble In the World
After that epic concert, there was a period of calm — even somewhat of a truce among warring communities in and around Kingston, including Tivoli Gardens, Arnett Gardens and Trench Town. But a short two and a half years later, in October 1980, Jamaica would have one of its most violent elections. Seaga’s JLP would emerge victorious and the balance of power switched hands.
“The fact that Jamaica had a tremendously violent election … doesn’t mean that the Peace Concert was a failure,” said Third World’s Coore. “The Peace Concert was a victory in a lot of ways. We’ve never really had that kind of volatility since those times. I still believe that whole era of the Peace Concert was a great period for Jamaica because people put their money where their mouth was and musicians stepped up to the plate.”
Added Blackwell: “Calm wasn’t instantly achieved, but [the show] broke what was a deadlock where there was no hope of anything being achieved.” Blackwell is currently promoting the One Love Marley Musical he produced that’s showing in Birmingham, England, and the One Love Peace Concert is a vital part of the story. “[That concert] did change things. After that, it quieted down. It didn’t quiet down to nothing, by any means, [but] that concert was the thing that caused people to change.”
Some 45 years after Marley, Tosh and Wailer walked into Blackwell’s office with dreams of making an impact on the world with music, a reflective Blackwell finds himself looking back on a life that could have been saved, not needlessly cut short by cancer, at 36 years of age.
“The whole thing of Bob passing was just really a tragedy, a disgrace in a sense,” Blackwell lamented. “Nobody, absolutely nobody — from he himself, people close to him, to those who worked with him after that period, including myself — never mentioned anything to him about having regular checkups to see if there were any negative effects from the [soccer] accident he had on his toe. We did know that he was advised to have it amputated, and he didn’t want to do that because he loved soccer — 98 percent as much as he loved music. The thought that if he had his toe cut off he would no longer be able to play soccer in the same way, without the agility with his foot.
“It’s a disgrace that all of us involved were not on him all the time to make sure he had checkups, and that really what happened. Nobody did anything, and when it happened it was too late, had spread too much, and there was nothing that could be done.”
Marley’s oldest daughter with Rita adds perspective: “You know what, Daddy was pretty strong in wanting to make a difference — not just in his life and his children’s life, but in the world,” said Cedella Marley, 49. “As corny as that might sound, he really believed he could do it. I think now, him seeing what’s happening, I think he should feel very accomplished.
“The good thing about Daddy is his message is more relevant today than 30, 40 years ago, and that’s powerful. That’s what I still admire about my dad.”