THE WILD LIFE AND UNTIMELY DEATH OF THE REGGAE LEGEND PETER TOSH

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From the desk of Contributing Editor Eli M. Getson-

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Growing up in Chicago during the 1970’s and 80’s I had the opportunity to see some truly epic musicians. Luckily, I looked older than my years, and also had the advantage of a stellar fake ID– so Dr. James Fortier, OBGYN could get into any number of late night haunts, concert halls, and after hours clubs.  I saw a lot of great acts in those days.  However, I contend that no artist I have ever seen, before or since, could hold a candle to Winston Hubert McIntosh, aka Peter Tosh.  Peter, usually arriving to the stage late, would literally stalk the floor with intensity.  He filled up a hall like no other musician I have ever seen– it was like he sucked the oxygen out of the place.  A Peter Tosh concert was a roller coaster ride.  He could appear stoned out of his mind, ranting about legalizing ganja use between songs– and then be completely lucid and take on the role of machete wielding revolutionary giving a political speech on the oppression in the Third World and the evils of apartheid.  Whenever I saw Peter I could not take my eyes off him– he literally scared/fascinated the hell out of me.  And hearing him do a solo version of “Get Up, Stand Up” was a religious experience that hit me like a ton of bricks.

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1983 ~ Peter Tosh Holding a Microphone and Guitar ~ Image by © Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis

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In a lot of ways I think Peter was ahead of his time, and probably is more of a spiritual father to the hip-hop movement than he gets credit for.  To say he grew up hard is an understatement.  Born to parents who were too young to raise him, Peter was raised by his aunt in the Trenchtown ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica.  He taught himself guitar early on by listening to American AM stations from Miami and New Orleans who played the likes of Chuck Berry.  Peter became quite a local celebrity in Kingston in the 1960s singing ska, and was introduced by his musical mentor Joe Higgs to Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer.

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1972, Jamaica ~ L-R: Earl Lindo, Bob Marley, Carlton Barrett, Peter Tosh, Aston “Family Man” Barrett. ~ Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

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It was through this fateful hook-up that Peter and Bob became friends and the Wailers were formed.   Through Joe’s teaching, the group learned to harmonize and often sang on the street corners of Trenchtown and at various local sets as they got bigger.  Through their will, guile and talent, the Wailers became Jamaican superstars and caught the attention of a young, British music exec named Chris Blackwell, who signed them and released their first two albums Catch a Fire and Burnin’ in 1973.  I am not sure if Blackwell signed the Wailers solely with the intent of making Bob Marley a star– but after a rather nasty spat over Blackwell’s refusal to record a Tosh solo effort, Peter left the group and began several years of twists and turns.  While Marley became the major Reggae star from Jamaica with his “One Love” message, Peter constantly berated a system he felt was unfair and would be beaten and harassed many times by the Jamaican police, even after he’d attained stardom.

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1973, Chelsea, UK ~ The Wailers together as a band with all its original members during their UK tour: Earl “Wire” Lindo, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Carlton “Carly” Barrett and Bunny Livingstone. — Image by © Esther Anderson/Corbis

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I’m not sure if it was bad luck, or his own inability to get out of his own way, but Peter could never attain the global success of his one-time friend, and now rival, Bob Marley.  Marley and Tosh were the opposite polls of the Reggae spectrum.  Bob Marley, wrote and sang about the hopes and quiet dignity of the oppressed– Peter Tosh wrote and sang about the brutal reality of living in a corrupt and violent system.  This came to a head at the 1978 “One Love” peace concert in Kingston.  Organized to calm political tensions, Peter took to the stage, fired up a massive joint, and performed a smoking set where he railed against politics, corruption, and the system.  Marley, performing after, tried to calm tensions, bringing opposite party politicians to the stage in a show of national unity.  In the audience that night were Mick Jagger and supposedly Keith Richards, who were so impressed by Peter that they signed him to Rolling Stones Records.  This chance encounter led to a windfall of good fortune– a record duet with Jagger, becoming the first Reggae star to perform on American TV (a now legendary appearance on Saturday Night Live), and several well received albums.  All of which serving to expose Peter Tosh to a more global audience.

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The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and  Mick Jagger with Peter Tosh

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Sometime after 1983, his relationship with Mick and Keith soured, and he went into exile.  What happened to Peter next no one really knows, but Reggae would never be the same.  Bob was dead and Peter was in Africa seeking spiritual advice.  Peter finally returned and in 1987 and recorded the Grammy winning, “No Nuclear War.” Peter seemed to be on the road to a career revival, but shortly after returning from his triumph at the Grammys he was brutally gunned down during a bizarre home invasion in Kingston.  Peter is little more than a footnote for a lot of casual fans today, while Marley became Reggae.  Peter as massive talent in his own right, could never quite get out from under Bob’s shadow.  All I can say is– I will never forget watching Peter Tosh live.  Ever.

–Eli M. Getson

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Peter Tosh

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Peter Tosh

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“You can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all the time–   …….so now we see the light, we gonna stand up for our rights”

Peter Tosh-singing on The Wailers hit “Get Up Stand up”

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42 thoughts on “THE WILD LIFE AND UNTIMELY DEATH OF THE REGGAE LEGEND PETER TOSH

  1. I don’t want no peace. I want equal rights, and Justice!

    I loved Peter since I heard him sing, “If you are a big tree, we are a small axe. Sharpened, to cut you down.”

    My African American mother-in-law said everyone she knew thought Bob was “white boy” music…. Peter was for black folk. I think this translates to “Peter was militant.”

    “You can’t blame the Youth” is my 3rd favorite song ever.

  2. Bob and Peter both had charisma (and chillingly, great voices), but I think Blackwell made the right move by making Bob the frontman of the Wailers. Marley’s suave looks and easy going demeanor were far more accessible to broader audiences, whereas Peter was too extreme and militant for mainstream America and beyond. I don’t think reggae would have been as accepted [successful] in the U.S. and abroad if Peter was made to shine in the Wailers. That being said, his work on Talkin’ Blues cannot be dismissed, and Peter has his own catalog of great hits. The other third player in the Wailers, Bunny Wailer, who is still around and making his own music is another very overlooked Jamaican musician.

    Again, Bob had the looks, the message and the virtue. And I think he has only been associated with “white boy” music given his resurgence of popularity which started in the 90s in the college crowd.
    A lot of roots Rastas still view him as a prophet and spiritual leader.

  3. Shines, I agree with you that pushing Bob up front was a good move. As far as him being called “white boy music” just since the 90′s, dissagree. Sure Bob was and still is seen as a prophetic voice among most Rastas, but during his life he was a bit surprised when performing overseas at the dearth of black faces in the crowds. It was the height of Motown and R&B, and these natty dreads from the islands were not nearly as popular with African Americans as they were with white folk. One of Peter’s favorite jabs at Bob was that he only became more popular because his Daddy was white.
    There was a disconnect then, and I say there is tsill one now, between the oppressed people in the islands and Rastafari/reggae’s militant and yes, even anti-white roots, and the perception in America that reggae is all pot, peace, and love. DOn’t let those three little birds fool ya’, Blackwell was shook every now and then when the boys would threaten him quite seriously.

    No matter who listens (who feels it knows it), Peter and Bob were great and are missed.

    • I feel that one needs to take Peter Tosh’s race-baiting with a grain of salt, especially when it came to him giving Bob shit for being half-white and cavorting with white girls and whatnot. The tone of it always struck me as him being a smart-ass and talking good-natured smack about a close friend.

      There’s some interview footage somewhere, don’t remember where, in which somebody asks him whether it bothers him that so many white people come to his shows and buy his music and whatnot. The ensuing tirade has often been quoted in dead seriousness, but when I finally saw the footage, it seemed obvious that he was basically giving a smart-ass answer to a dumb question.

    • As for the bit about the disconnect, this about sums it up for me:

      http://www.theonion.com/articles/bob-marley-rises-from-grave-to-free-frat-boys-from,1808/

      That said, it’s also impossible to deny that many people in the US, those who go past buying a copy of “Legend” and understand that Bob Marley didn’t “die from brain cancer because he smoked so much weed,” do “get” the roots of reggae. Most of us, however, are utterly in the dark when it comes to the dutty wine, daggering, and other such nonsense.

  4. Stepping Razor and I Am As I AM are two of my favorites. Something incredible about Peter that I think a lot of people just don’t know is out there.

    I have a niece and a nephew that I still tell them when things are tough, “you gotta pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and you gotta start all over”.

    Great post today.

    Good to see Peter make it in.

    • “Pick yourself up
      dust yourself off
      start all over again”

      Those are lyrics from “Pick Yourself Up,” a song introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1936′s “Swing Time,” considered by many to be the best of the ten Astaire & Rogers films. The music in that movie was written by Jerome Kern, and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

      Everything old is new again, isn’t it.

  5. I think the above point touches on what happened to The Clash in Jamaica. In which they thought it would all be rainbows and three little birds, when in reality it wasn’t.

  6. Good points, Brohammas – I used to write a column for Global Rhythm Magazine entitled Roots and Rhythms, and I always felt a little like an outsider when calling people like Cocoa Tea or Yabby You on the phone, hearing children and chickens running “inna de yard.” So, I started writing about more accessible musicians…

    http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-10-23/music/studio-two/

  7. I saw him on the Some Girls tour w/the Stones at the Palladium/Academy of Music in 1978(?). Jagger came out and did “Don’t Look Back” (?) with him. It was a wild show. Everyone was there. Before the show I ran into some pretty Manhattanite I knew – I said I can’t wait to see the Stones,

    she said “I’m here to see Peter Tosh.”

    I didn’t buy it.

  8. word from london sw2-brixton-’i listen to any damn music i want-allus have-born with my reggae and of course peter tosh-thanks to the legend john peel-gotta go there,s a hammock in st.johns bay antigua with my name on it-

  9. wow! That was a really good article. I really enjoyed reading more about Peter. I basically knew nothing about him, but now I am wanting to know more and to hear more of his music.

  10. I love both Bob and Peter but I think the reason he was never as successful as Bob was that he couldn’t rival him in his melodic and songwriting abilities. Peters music has a more static feeling while Bobs is more energetic. Still both are soul rebels.

  11. I’m very privileged to have seen Peter open for the Stones on the Some Girls Tour. Stepping Razor is one of the greatest and scariest songs written purely due to the power of his performance. I still get chills when I hear that song even today.

  12. Somehow, through oilfield work in Venezuela, I lost touch with Peter’s work. Why is it the Great always die young ?

    • I always felt that Bob’s death and Peter’s a few years later, robbed us of the Alpha and the Omega of Reggae and imagine with the explosion of world music in the 1990′s what could have happened if the two of them were there to write, record, and push each other. I always fantasize that Bob and Peter would have reconciled as older men, remember these guys knew each other since they were teens, which makes it incredibly sad that Peter shut Bob off. Would it not have been amazing if Peter, Bob, and Bunny recorded together again. We can only dream.

  13. I don’t care who you are..and this is coming from a white girl…Peter Tosh is amazing. I was too young to ever see him play in concert but your description takes MY breath away. Bob Marley is an amazing artist but Peter, Jimmy and Desmond will always be the heart and soul of Reggae for me. Thanks for such a great post~ Johanna

  14. Great article with great photos. Very informative and actually it just deepened my appreciation for Peter Tosh. Such a shame he left us so young…

  15. this was a very interesting read — including the many comments. I’ve always loved music, of any kind, sadly don’t know much about it’s history. I take the visual art approach — if it speaks to me, resonates in some way — I like it. have only heard Peter Tosh sporadically, thought he was interesting. the background on his life is fascinating. I’ll probably search out more of his music now. Thanks.

  16. This is a great article. I came across this when I signed into wordpress.com. Your post were among those “freshly pressed.” I’ll add your link to my blog.

    Peace!

  17. Thank you very much for writing about The Stepping Razor. I am glad God used you to bring some attention to Peter Tosh because people must really listen to his amazingly composed songs that are more meaningful today than the time he did them. He really was advanced as he once said it would take 10 years for influence musicians to do music the way he did. To all who do not know Peter`s music and would like to try it , just go for the Equal rights album and you will want more of his music including singles he did in the sixties. Then you will realize how much he was more advanced even than his peers including Bob Marley. Peters music has always been uplifting from ever since he did the raps in the Wailers songs right through his singles to his solo career. The worl lost one of it`s most influencial freedom fighters who was interested in the peoples well being than his career and up to date no other musicians has manged to fill his shoes. They silenced the voice but the spirit lives on and stronger today. He said in `Glass House(Mama Africa)`

    I`m in this world to give Jah praise,
    and all i ask for is longer days,
    i have come to do the right things
    and if you don`t like my doings we `re gonna fight.

    He also said, `I came to this land to guide and teach my fellowman`.
    I also invite those people to listen to songs like, Testify, Pick Myself Up, Get up Stand Up, Come Together, Rumours of War, No Nuclear war, Recruiting Soldiers, Lessons In My Life, Fools Die, Not Gonna Give it Up, Equal Rights, Crystal Ball, Vampire, That`s What They Will Do, Where You Gonna Run, Downpressorman;,Poorman Feel it, Creation and In my Song. These songs will open up your mind and help you realise why he was such a serious singer. These are just a few that you can begin with.
    I hope you find the treasure in these songs and of course more because everysong has a meaning or a story behind. Peter Tosh was not a fancy singer. In a concert he told the crowd that, “I`n`I did not come here for entertainment or to give praise to material gods, i am here to uplift the name of JAH.

  18. After just recently returning from a journey of the Caribbean, I’ve been rediscovering the early works of Tosh & Marley by listening to the Wailers. I have a much different perspective and understanding of their music now. Despite the controversy that plagued Peter Tosh’s career, he was very innovative and ground breaking. One must at least respect his will to express himself at any cost. That itself is art.

    I appreciate you sharing and honoring a music legend!

  19. Hi, I am new to WordPress; and while exploring around the site, I saw your article and it drew me in. I was impressed and enjoyed your journaling and photos of Peter Tosh, immensely. You have a great gift, and I learned something new and interesting. I have always enjoyed listening to the sweet rhythmic sound of Reggae Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Black Uhuru….I find it so interesting, that a soothing sound such as that, made by such talented artists, would reveal that their lives were so tragic.

  20. Glad for this great article on Mr. Tosh. Never got see him live. Did see Chuck Berry live do “Johnny B. Goode” once. Pete’s version is six thousand times better. “And you will be the leader of a reggae band…” Thank you Mr. Tosh.

  21. Actually when you really think of it, all three Wailing Wailers were strong, powerful militant men who were willing to stand for what they believed was right. Indeed Bob is the one who sang songs like “One Love,” “Could You Be Loved,” “Three Little Birds,” “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” all of which are songs that he’s most recognized for. But then he also did stuff like “Talking Blues,” “Exodus,” “So Much Things To Say,” all of these songs and several others dealt with the “soldier ” side of Bob’s personality. Likewise, Bunny Wailer had songs like “Botha Is The Mosquito,” “Let Him Go,” “Rasta Man,” but then he had other stuff like “Jump Jump,” “Dance The Night Away” and “Electric City.” All of that said, great article!

  22. There’s a recording floating around the internets of Bob Marley & The Wailers at the Record Plant in Sausalito CA, circa 1973 or so.. Peter Tosh does a fierce rendition of “You Can’t Blame the Youth”. My favorite track on a favorite recording. Worth searching out.

  23. As a high school student in the mid 80′s I thought reggae music was Bob Marley solely. Freshman year of college my roommate brought out Peter Tosh’s “Equal Rights” album and everything changed, opening a whole new world of music for me.

    Stepping Razor R.I.P.

  24. Funny how that one snap with Tosh and Jagger makes it look like Richards is on his cell. But that can’t be. And it was so great back when it couldn’t be. Simpler times.

    Anyone, Tosh rules. Go run down “Reggaemylitis”. Irie feelings.

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