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The Night Bob Marley Got Shot

Excerpt from new oral history ‘So Much Things to Say’ tells the story of harrowing 1976 ambush at Tuff Gong

Reggae historian and archivist Roger Steffens’ new book So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley tells the legendary musician’s life story through 40 years’ worth of interviews with bandmates, family members and Bob Marley himself. This excerpt focuses on the 1976 assassination attempt that almost took Marley’s life.

Roger Steffens: Bob’s life came within inches of ending on December 3, 1976, when a carload of assassins drove into a suddenly unguarded Tuff Gong at 56 Hope Road and opened fire on everyone in sight. The Smile Jamaica concert, headlined by Marley, was to take place two nights later, and the atmosphere in the city was tense and filled with violence.

Charles Campbell, a PNP government official in 1976, told me at the Reggae Sun Ska Festival in France in 2011 that it was he who had come up with the idea six months earlier, in June of that year, for a kind of concert of national unity. He wanted Bob and others to perform in a free public event. Others have claimed that it was Bob himself who approached the government for permission to do such an event.

Author Stephen Davis wrote one of the first, and best, biographies of Marley and studied the shooting extensively.

Stephen Davis: Stevie Wonder had done a concert the previous year in aid of blind children in Jamaica. Bob wanted to do something like that, a benefit concert. It was set up for the National Heroes Park. It had no political overtones, except, of course, the fact that there was a huge battle for the soul of the nation; it was an election year. And Bob had supported the [People’s National Party] in the past. Then [Jamaican Prime Minister Michael] Manley called for elections right after the concert was announced, so it would look like, at the height of the battle for Jamaica, that Bob Marley and the Wailers would appear to support the PNP. Now obviously, to do a concert like that, it might be a bit naive to say that there was no politics involved in this in the beginning. Because even to mount a small concert in Kingston, you had to have approval of the government. To do a large concert like Bob wanted to do, it all had to be done almost directly through the prime minister’s office. So there was politics involved from the beginning. So for all intents and purposes, and indeed appearances, it looked like this was a benefit for the People’s National Party, which was Michael Manley’s party.

Roger Steffens: Jeff Walker was the West Coast director of public­ity for Island Records, based in the label’s Hollywood headquarters and responsible for all publicity for Bob as well as all of the Wailers and Island’s other reggae artists. He and his wife, photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker, spent a great deal of time in Jamaica in 1975 and 1976. I devoted an entire four-hour Reggae Beat broadcast to the Smile Jamaica events in 1985, and interviewed both Stephen Davis and Jeff Walker on it.

Jeff Walker: Although there were efforts made on the Wailers’ part to divorce it from politics, it was specifically announced as co­sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. Bob was conscious that it could be interpreted politically. I think there was a certain amount of that he was willing to go along with. But he did not want to be swept into something where he was going to be used. The lineup was not just Marley. It was a lineup of the top bands of the time. So it was An Event. And I believe that the political forces, more or less, were behind the scenes and manipulating that event into something that might, they thought, be helpful in the long run. The elections were announced after the concert was already set and there was no way Bob at that point could say, “I’m gonna cancel the concert,” because then it would be interpreted politically.

Roger SteffensThe name of the concert would be Smile Jamaica, taken from a recent Bob Marley hit. Artist Neville Garrick did uncred­ited backing vocals on the tune.

Neville Garrick: I know of two versions of the song, a fast one and a slow one. I remember one he did with Lee Perry, which was the faster one. Sometimes Bob made songs for the Jamaican market, for there, how the people pick up sound there. And then the other one we made was not at Lee Perry’s four-track studio: it was at a multitrack studio, probably Dynamic, the international “Smile Jamaica.” Something that we feel had more refinement there. Almost calypso. It was just wid­ening the audience. One was for a specific audience, and one was for the world. And remember when “Smile Jamaica” was released, what happened after that – Bob was shot.

Roger Steffens: Some people thought it was a simple tourist song. Others felt that what Bob was saying was, “Hey, buddy, you better smile! Smile, you’re in Jamaica, dread!” It’s more of a threat.

Neville Garrick: Not even more than a threat. Is a time Jamaica is into a lot of political and economical problems, at the time, the ’76 elections. And Bob was always speaking to the problems of the people. I’m not saying that he was saying, “Smile, it’s cool.” Because if you listen to the song, he says, “Pour some water in the well,” you know like drought, we need help. But as long as you’re here, try and smile. You’re in Jamaica, do it with a smile, but move ahead. “Hey, natty dread, flash your dread and smile!” Don’t screw them. Like everybody say, “Oh, [in] all the songs, Bob is a prophet of doom, and Bob is just saying, ‘Boy, it’s going to get real bad.'” So this was really uplifting for the time. A lot of people saw it differently and figured this was a sellout. He did it for the government to promote tourism or something. But it wasn’t about that. In fact, it would be the best thing to use now, I feel, within a tourism thing, to say it. Because I even suggested one time, I said, “Why don’t you have that at the airport – ‘Smile, you’re in Jamaica’?” It would be great for the first thing you hear when you get there, and start playing some Bob Marley records when you’re in Jamaica, instead of Connie Francis and Nancy Sinatra.

Roger Steffens: The Smile Jamaica concert was meant to give people a positive sign that Rastafari was a way to unite them for a better life. Many others besides Charles Campbell and the PNP were involved in organising the event. Bob’s recent connection to the Twelve Tribes branch of Rastafari was cemented by his friendship with people like his football hero Skill Cole and keyboardist Pablove Black, who were key members of the Twelve Tribes.

Black, Rasta elderacclaimed Studio One player and bandleader, medical student and healer, would arrive at his friend Bob Marley’s side shortly after he was shot, and would spend the next two tumul­tuous days with him. In 1998, for the first time, Pablove Black gave an eyewitness account at the Reggae Archives in L.A. of that historic weekend. He began by explaining the importance of the Twelve Tribes at the time of “Smile Jamaica,” acknowledging the danger for musi­cians of being associated with either political party.

Pablove Black: Twelve Tribes run music business in Jamaica! Because we was the only ones who hold the culture. Everybody else had switched [to us], even Bob had to become part of we. But three months before the election I don’t do anything for any politician on any side ’cause you get marked. Me just say I’m not doing that show [the Smile Jamaica concert], and them carry it to a brother named “Scree” Bertram, Arnold Bertram, who was a government minister. We know him from calypso days. Him used to run music and him carry it now as the government man, and start print up poster. Before Bob agree to do a concert, them a print poster with him [on it]. But every time them call, him say, “Me never make no arrangement fe do no show fe oonoo [all of you], you know.” ‘Cause them did print it fe go on at Jamaica House [the prime minister’s residence]. And him say him not going to do it there, him no want it connect him now with that political party [then-prime minister Michael Manley’s PNP]. And them move it now down to the Heroes Park Circle. But up to the night before the show, nobody no know if him a go do the show or not.

Roger Steffens: Dr. Gayle McGarrity, a keen political observer, explained Marley’s political leanings at the time.

Gayle McGarrity: He was always seen as, and I think was consid­ered by most who knew him well, as being more on the PNP than the Labourite, i.e. JLP side, as he had lived in Trench Town, and Trench Town was always more PNP. That was the way it was in a society in which tribal politics and warfare was the norm. But he did have some friends in Tivoli Gardens, which is JLP turf. I remember some of those really seedy characters that would hang out at Hope Road, like Tek Life. Lovely name, right? I remember a lot of those guys being Labou­rites, and, in fact, a lot of people feel that was why he ended up being shot up at 56 Hope Road, because he had both the Labourites and the socialists hanging around there, and it was easy for people to know his movements.

Now, many of the uptown people that Bob started to associate with are people I grew up with. The uptown social elite circle was, in those days, a small one. I’m not being a hypocrite, but many of these Jamai­cans were essentially fascists. These were people who did not think twice about shooting to death black trespassers on their estates, secure in the knowledge that they would never even be charged with a crime, let alone serve time in Jamaica’s notorious prisons. We’re talking now about the really ugly side of white-brown Jamaican society – the very Babylon that moved Bob to take up his lyrical ammunition to destroy. And the fact that Bob was beginning to mingle, albeit probably to a limited degree, within these circles, was probably a reflection of his love for Cindy.

I noticed him beginning to make different kinds of decisions about how to spend his spare time, which was precious to him as he was always very disciplined and hardworking. I overheard some white Jamaican uptown types talking in Jamaican patois about how Bob was going to be made to pay for hanging out with this white girl. And when I told him, Bob just laughed. He said, “You know, I never thought of you as the type to be jealous and I-man no fear no one. Jah protect I.” But I continued trying to convince him of my fears, saying, “You know, they’re talking about this and that.” He would just brush it off, with comments like, “Miss World! I could have Miss Universe!” But I kept on trying to tell him what those who simply wanted him to disap­pear were saying. It was only about a week after the last time that Bob and I spoke about such matters that the assassination attempt at 56 occurred, so the whole thing began to feel very scary to me, too, and I didn’t want to be caught in the middle.

Roger Steffens: It wasn’t just Dr. McGarrity who was feeling the scary vibes. Norman St. John Hamilton was the manager in 1976 of the I Three and solo star Marcia Griffiths.

Norman St. John Hamilton: Although Bob Marley’s music was an integral part of my life and “uplift-bring-ment,” I never met him until the summer of 1976. It was after his concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City while he was on the Rastaman Vibration tour. The “natural mystic” that evolved from the stage that most memorable night changed my life forever. My plans to attend the London School of Economics to pursue a law degree were dashed; I became manager to Marcia Griffiths and thereby became intimately involved in the business of reggae.

Bob and I had a mutual respect for each other – as did Don Taylor, Bob’s manager. I stayed out of their business; they stayed out of mine. I set up Marcia’s tours without conflicting with Bob’s, with one excep­tion. When I learned that then-Prime Minister Manley had insisted that Bob do a concert in Heroes Park, Kingston, I was very apprehensive, I smelled trouble. I told Marcia that I had scheduled her for two shows, Friday and Saturday night of that weekend. I told her she had to come to New York on Wednesday for rehearsals. Reluctantly she arrived on Thursday, stating Bob’s annoyance that I had never created a conflict before.

I explained to her there was no show arranged and I wanted her out of Jamaica because I was afraid for her safety. She was relieved and mentioned that she dreamed “that a hen was walking with three chicks; someone was throwing stones which hit the hen and one of the chicks.” The rest is history. One of the victims at Hope Road that night was a young man named Griffiths, no relation to Marcia.

Roger Steffens: Friday, December 3, dawned hot and humid. Members of the Wailers Band gathered at Tuff Gong late that afternoon to rehearse for the upcoming concert.

Stephen Davis: Tuff Gong House was an old tropical mansion on Hope Road which is in uptown Kingston, and it was owned for years by a Mrs. Gough. She was apparently a very interesting woman who was a white Jamaican lady who was married to a black Jamaican man, and apparently ostracised by Kingston’s white community for that transgression. So she sold it to Chris Blackwell. It became a set of flats where a lot of people I knew, like Dickie Jobson, lived as apartment dwellers, until Bob sort of took it over around 1974. Now it has a big concrete block wall around it that Rita Marley built. But then it just had a sort of iron gate around it. It was fairly accessible, anybody who really wanted to drive in could just drive in. And it had a big mango tree in the back. And the front yard was paved. It was a large place. It must have had a dozen bedrooms; it was that big. Just a big tropical mansion. At that point, Don Taylor had taken out the sash windows and put in sort of louvered windows to replace them. The whole place had been gutted and was being rebuilt.

Roger Steffens: The openness of Tuff Gong House was well known. Musicians and others would come and go at all hours.

Pablove Black: The week before I see two guys come to Tuff Gong, come a Hope Road, and me know two gun-hawks [hit men]. Them come the week before. One of them never know it was me, and him come in and say, “Wha’ppen Bob?” And the next one a draw him away. But the next one know me and him say, “Wha’ you a do here?” Me say, “Wha’ you a mean? Me is a musician, you know. Me there anyway.” After the two of them leave me feel a cold spirit, and me just take me time come out and walk go up Hope Road, walk up to Twelve Tribes. And from that, me never go back there.

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Judy Mowatt: I had a vision a few days before the shooting. Marcia left; she didn’t feel too good about that concert. Like she had a premonition that something could happen, or she heard something and she left the island. Rita and myself had been going to rehearsals. So one night I went to my bed and I dreamt that this rooster, it was a rooster with three chickens, and the rooster got shot, and the shot ricocheted and damaged two of the chickens. I even saw like one of the chicken’s tripe inside, the intestines come out. And I didn’t like it, and I told it to Rita and Rita knew about it. But we were looking out for something. Because usually, how the Africa woman understands, a lot of times we depend on our dreams. We know that when you dream, if it’s not so, it’s close to what it is. So we were expecting something to happen. And then again, I went to my bed. I never mentioned this – but I went to my bed again and I saw in the newspaper where Bob sang that song “Smile Jamaica” and that was the song that created a controversy because of certain lyrics that he had in it that was like a then political slogan: Regardless, you control your state of being, so smile, because the power’s ours. The victory’s ours.

Roger Steffens: The forebodings came true in the midst of rehearsals around 8:30 in the evening. Two white Datsun compacts drove through the gates of Tuff Gong, from which the longtime guards had mysteriously disappeared. The exact number of gunmen who came leaping out, guns blazing, is a subject of controversy. There could have been as many as seven or eight, armed with machine guns and pistols, some reportedly containing homemade bullets. They went room to room, often firing wildly.

Tyrone Downie: At the moment when the gunmen broke in, we were rehearsing “I Shot The Sheriff.” Bob had stepped out, ’cause the horns weren’t on that record and the horn players wanted to play on it. So we were working all the horn parts, and Bob got bored from hearing the “da-da-da.” He came out of the rehearsal room and went into the kitchen to get a grapefruit or something. Don Taylor had just arrived and went round there to talk to him. Thank God they both went round there! Because right after that was just pure shot you hear start fire outside. And all of a sudden you see a hand come through the door like, around the door, and start firing this .38.

At first it was blindly. I mean, when I saw it happening I couldn’t believe I was actually witnessing this. And then when we really realise that that was a gun, and someone was firing, we all hit the ground. And just headed – the only way we could go was toward the bathroom. And we all went in there, and we were waiting for them to come in and finish us off, me, Family Man, Carly, the horn players Glen DaCosta and Dave Madden. Donald Kinsey came out of the rehearsal room too. Carly was just sitting around the drum. Family Man was standing with the bass. It was a small room, so everybody wasn’t in there at the same time. And were waiting and then Bob runs in, and then I said, “Oh, shit! This is it! They gonna come in here and just finish us off!” And what was going through my mind was, what’s going on! Who did this? Maybe they followed Don Taylor here, ’cause he was a gambler. There were so many things running through my head. Skill Cole was in some problem with horse racing, and we were just waiting. And then we heard a car driving out, which was Rita, and then a shot fired. And then after a while the shots stopped. And then they left, and Rita started asking, “Is Bob OK?” At that time she had a bullet in her head. So I was saying, “Has anybody seen Stephanie [Rita’s daughter]? Is she OK?” And Bob said, “Shhh!” And he had blood on his shirt. We were all in the bathtub, like four or five of us in the bathtub! When I came out of the bathroom and I saw Don on the ground, he was covered with blood, his eyes were wide open and I say, “Shit. Don is dead!” I just say, “I’m going home, fellas.” I walked to Half Way Tree. I wanted to get out of there! I just wanted to leave that place because I just did not know what had happened and why.

Stephen Davis: The Wailers’ guitarist, Don Kinsey, who was in the room with Bob when he was shot, said that it was just the three of them in the room. It was Don Kinsey, Bob Marley and Don Taylor. And Don Kinsey says that the gunman came in with this automatic weapon, looked at Bob, and obviously could have killed him, because Bob was just standing there in a corner. And that instead of aiming the weapon and shooting Bob, he aimed in a sort of vague, general direction, very lightly grazing Bob across the chest. The bullet then lodged in his left arm. Obviously, Don Kinsey insists, if this man had wanted to kill Bob, he would have. Instead, Don Taylor got five bullets.

Jeff Walker: I have to agree with that in the sense that the fire­power these guys apparently brought with them was immense. There were bullet holes everywhere. In the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, floors, ceilings, doorways and outside. I was there a half hour after the shooting, before all the blood had been cleaned up. And there’s just no question that if there was going to be carnage, there could have been carnage.

Roger Steffens: As threats against Bob’s life had become frequent following the announcement of the concert, protection had been arranged with a loose confederation of gang members and others, known as the Echo Squad. They disappeared from Hope Road shortly before the attack occurred.

Stephen Davis: This whole Echo Squad business, supposedly surrounding the house. I’ve heard that this was actually a couple of cops in a white Toyota out front, and that this was the extent of the so-called Echo Squad.

Jeff Walker: I heard about the shooting with Blackwell when he got a phone call in the Sheraton. We were in Jamaica with a film crew, and I’ll just preface this by saying this was a period of time when music on television was just beginning to have some sort of impact on the marketplace in America. And I felt very strongly, because Bob toured so rarely, that we needed to get him on film. And the Smile Jamaica concert was an ideal way to do that. But we weren’t going to film it ourselves. It was a conglomeration of filmmakers from New York, along with Perry Henzell, under the supervision of Peter Frank, who was responsible for that Wailers appearance on The Manhattan Transfer Show the previous summer. It was essentially Peter Frank’s film crew. I went down and joined Peter Frank’s film crew and Perry met us once we were in Jamaica. At any rate, we were discussing the plans to film some events around Jamaica the day before the concert when we heard that Bob had been shot.

Roger Steffens: Those who came to kill Marley met a variety of fates. There are continuing allegations of their alliance with American intelligence agencies, spurred by an unlikely coincidence regarding a key figure in the crew that came to film the “Smile Jamaica” concert. 

Excerpted from So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley by Roger Steffens. Copyright © 2017 by Roger Steffens. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.