Bob Marley gave a voice to the frustrations of young black Britons in the 1970s. If you went to the right places you could see him hanging out with original bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone. A documentary on the BBC on Saturday heard from some of those who met him – including one Peckham lad who went to the top at the South London Press.
Tony Hagan has been saying for years he played football with Bob Marley at his school in 1972.
But no one believed the former production manager of the South London Press – until now.
Tony featured on a documentary about Tuff Gong’s gig with Johnny Nash at a primary school, at least a year before the reggae star became famous in Britain and five years before the album Exodus made him an international star – and an inspiration to oppressed people across the planet.
Tony’s school, Peckham Manor, in East Surrey Grove, Peckham, now the Damilola Taylor Centre, would seem a random place to start on that journey.
But Tony’s art teacher Keith Baugh, had bumped into the pair of singers in town and invited them to perform at the school.
Mr Baugh said: “Did I expect them to come in? Not at all.
“But one day they came into class. The duo did a session in the school’s technical wing.
“I had my camera with me and if I had not, no one would have believed me.
“One of the kids cheekily asked Bob why he was wearing his beanie hat indoors. He said ‘This is part of my religion’.”
They performed Stir It Up – then went outside to play football.
Hagan, 63, said: “I’ve been saying for years I played football with Johnny Nash and Bob Marley but no one ever believed me.
“Then a few years ago the photo of us in the playground surfaced. So they believe me now.
“They played Stir It Up because that’s the one I went out and bought.
“The session ended close to the end of the day and we went out into the playground and had a kick around.”
Fellow pupil Bevan Booker said: “I never thought someone famous would come to our school because everyone avoided it. As young kids we were talking about it and the excitement is still there.”
Another former pupil George Dyer said: “Bob Marley used to talk about Bunny Livingstone and Peter Tosh teasing him when they were growing up calling him Red Bwoy because of his light complexion.
“I went through that too. As he was walking through the playground he looked at me and it was as if he said ‘Mi knaw, man. Mi knaw.’ He was feeling what I was feeling.”
Marley was born in 1945 in the St Anne’s area of Jamaica in poverty. His father was a white naval officer and estate overseer age 60, while his mum Cedella was just 18.
He did not make his name in Britain until an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973.
Chris Blackwell of Island records promoted him and his album Catch a Fire – which was mixed in Notting Hill – as a rock star.
Don Letts, a former pupil of Archbishop Tenison’s School, Kennington, and later of of 1980s band Big Audio Dynamite, said: “It was mind-blowing. We had never heard that combination of reggae beats and a rock guitar.
“The purists hated it but the younger ones’ ears picked up when we heard it.
“A lot of parents tried to assimilate by denying their background but Bob Marley lifted the black youth of this country. We were pissed off and angry and Bob Marley gave that a soundtrack.”
They recorded in Peckings Studios in Askew Road near Shepherd’s Bush. The band would also play football regularly on Battersea Park which was just over the river.
One day they all wanted to play – after days of arguing about Rasta and about going home. But when they looked out the window it had snowed.
“Snow?” said Tosh. “That’s a sign. We have to leave now.”
In 1975, Eric Clapton’s version of Marley’s 1973 song I Shot the Sheriff became a US No 1 – and Marley was famous.
The version they recorded live of No Woman No Cry at the Lyceum in July 1975 is the version that became a global hit.
Letts said: “Being at his concerts was like a religious experience. I know that I came out of there a changed man – empowered, informed and inspired.
“He legitimised Rastafarianism. But when I put my hair in dreadlocks my parents kicked me out and didn’t speak to me for four years.”
After being shot at home in the arm, amid political gang fights, on December 3 1976, Marley fled to Britain again to stay in Oakley Street, Chelsea.
It became like a second home – and Letts lived around the corner. But Marley soon left the stage.
He injured his toe playing football in Paris and his European tour was halted as it would not heal.
Eventually, cancer was diagnosed. Bob Marley’s last UK gig was in Stafford on June 3, 1980.
He died on May 11, 1981, in Miami, Florida aged just 36.
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