Al Anderson: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Onward
A veteran of the reggae music scene for over 35 years, Al Anderson of the Original Wailers was a bluesy rock session guitarist in Chris Blackwell’s Island Records stable when he was invited to join a young singer/songwriter named Bob Marley and his band of Rastafarians from Jamaica- the Wailers. This began a relationship that saw Anderson in the middle of a musical, social, and political movement whose international implications provided experiences satisfying, frustrating, and even life-threatening. Now, going head-to-head against former bandmates and their Marley spin-off, Anderson, with fellow Wailers alum Junior Marvin, lead a new group set on rekindling the ‘70s reggae fire. We spoke with Anderson a few hours before the Original Wailers headlining set at the sold-out Newport Waterfront Reggae Festival.
A little more than 35 years ago, you were called in to work as a session guitarist on Bob Marley and the Wailers Natty Dread album. Is it true that you were hired to Americanize the sound for a wider audience?
They wanted blues, and some other international influence other than the Caribbean sound. Bob had a guy named Wayne Perkins, a Nashville cat, session guy who was known for working with guys like Bobby Womack. So, he (Perkins) set the pace with ‘Concrete Jungle’, which has an amazing guitar solo for its time in reggae music. Nobody had done that. I didn’t want to go there with what I was asked to work with. Bob had most of the Natty Dread tracks finished. He needed guitar, some background vocals, and some horns, acoustic guitar, harmonica; these small things to complete the album. So Bob asked me, “What did I hear?”
Was that the only direction you had from Bob?
He was very clear that he had to be pleased. I did a lot of tracks. I played a little bit harder rock/blues guitar and he didn’t like it, and I did. I kept playing it over and over and Bob and Chris (Blackwell, producer) didn’t want it. Then, I said, I know what they want. They want that sweet blues thing. So, they got that for ‘No Woman, No Cry.’ ‘Rebel Music’ was a little more aggressive. ‘So Jah Seh’ was more majestic. I geared on what I heard and how he worded the song, where the emotion of the song was. It was a real tough session for me. One of the hardest sessions ever because it was about pleasing the CEO and the artist.
Did you find that pleasing the CEO and the artist was independent of serving the song; what you heard as best for the material?
I didn’t know Bob. I knew who Chris was because I had been in the studio with him before, doing funky stuff that he didn’t like. He would say, don’t play that, and I would say, that’s what people are playing now in America. It was like, 100% for the track, 50% for them, and 50% for me. That’s 200% involvement, so you can’t go wrong with that. (laughs)
Well, that record and subsequent ones really opened up Marley’s audience.
It helped. Even more with the Live! album. The studio album was mellow, and well-preserved. The Live! album was raw and just bigger, more ambient, and really what he sounded like with the live format.
Was that Natty Dread tour the turning point for you going from session player to band member?
The issue with me was I left England, my home, for three years. I didn’t go back to see my parents, nor did I have any family contact. I learned patois. I learned how to eat their food. People thought I was coming into a wealthy situation, and it was- Chris Blackwell’s a wealthy guy. But, I slept on the floor for a year before they distributed the album. I lived like Trenchtown people did. I slept outside the first night. Bob picked me up at the airport, and took me to a bunch of hotels, but I literally think he couldn’t afford it. He didn’t have the money. It was tough times for him. He put everything into his record, and had three children at the time, just born. Stephen, Ziggy, and Cedella were like, two, three-years-old.
And you slept outside rather than at a hotel?
Yes, in Bull Bay, where Bob had his house with Rita. I was mosquito-ridden. It was unreal. I had my suitcase by me as my pillow. ‘Rock, stone was his pillow.’ I know what it was like. Bob had a real tough time, and he wanted me to have a real tough time, too. He wanted me to feel and learn exactly how he grew up. In the end, I really appreciated it.
How were you received by the rest of the Wailers?
I didn’t know Carly (drummer Carlton Barrett) or Family Man (bassist and brother Aston Barrett). I got to know them really well. Carly was the jewel of the band. He was funny, a great cook, a clean person. He was a wonderful person to be around. The I-Threes, too. They fed me. Rita (Marley) used to bring me porridge, and steam fish on Sundays. This is when I was living in the basement of the studio on a carpet. That was the upgrade.
Did you feel like this was the test to see if you were one of them?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Peter (Tosh) and Bunny (Wailer) didn’t like me at all. I was the guy Chris Blackwell brought in to break up the band. Then me and Peter became very, very close friends. I got to see his strength in music and eventually envied him, and wanted to work with him more so than the situation I had with Bob because of really bad management.
Can you explain what you mean by ‘bad management?’
The way Bob and his manager ran the band, for me, wasn’t what I was used to. I was used to solid contracts, royalties, participation gratuities- things being taken care of, like going to the airport. I was all on my own, until I discovered how to work with Bob.