As the De La Warr Pavilion celebrates the 50th anniversary of Bob Marley’s appearance there, Kent Barker looks at the events in 1972 that led up to the concert. 

Bob Marley was already 27 when he arrived in the UK in 1972. Although he’d been playing with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in his native Jamaica for nearly a decade, he’d yet to achieve international recognition. 1972 would be a breakthrough year but that was by no means certain at the start. Soul singer Johnny Nash and he had recorded one of his numbers, Stir it Up that was apparently not doing well. A South London teacher Keith Baugh remembers being in a nightclub off Carnaby street when he overheard Marley and Nash bemoaning its failure to break into the top 40 – vital to get the airplay needed for a hit. It was at this point that Baugh made the unlikely – if ultimately astute – suggestion that the pair popped into his school in Peckham for an impromptu performance. If a decent proportion of the teenage students and their friends bought the record it could ease it up the charts, but more importantly it would garner considerable publicity.

As Keith Burgh recalls Johnny said the idea sounded ‘cool’ while Bob just smiled and said ‘nice’: “By the following day I had completely forgotten about the suggestion but three days later I had a phone call saying the gig was definitely on for Thursday morning” he says.

(Left) Johnny Nash and Bob Marley in Peckham; (Right) Bob Marley in Peckham
CREDIT: Keith Baugh

Marley’s reputation as ganja-smoking rebel had clearly not reached the headteacher of Peckham Manor boy’s school because he readily agreed to the suggestion that two ‘CBS recording artists’ should perform before the assembled pupils in the games hall.

Keith Baugh has become a highly regarded artist and photographer and kindly gave HIP permission to reproduce two of his shots from that day in 1972. As he recalled: “After one of the most memorable mornings for everyone who witnessed the performance, the two musicians got into their car and headed back to central London.”

The precise sequence of events from 50 years ago is hard to piece together. But Marley went on to co-write and provide vocals for about half the songs on Johnny Nash’s now famous album I Can See Clearly Now. They embarked on a UK tour with the Wailers as both the support band and the backing musicians for Nash. It was this com-bination that performed at the De La Warr on 16 July. Sadly, almost all information about the gig has been lost, although there are one or two locals who recall being there. Tim Smith was just 15 at the time: “You could tell Marley had the charisma and I do remember his dancing”, he says. “We were lucky enough to see him before he became famous in the UK and it’s now lodged in our memories.”

Jah Shaka in Bexhill

The collaboration with Nash, the publicity from the Peckham school event, and the tour dates enabled Marley to broker a record deal with CBS Records in London. Even though it provided a paltry £8,000 to record an entire album and led to protracted law suits, the Wailers returned to Jamaica for the studio sessions and then flew back to London with the master tapes. The album, Catch a Fire, began Bob Marley’s road to international superstardom. A road that ended only nine years later with his death, aged just 36. But Bexhill can be proud to have played a small part in Marley’s journey. As can the De La Warr which continues actively to promote black and minority ethnic music. Last month they featured the renowned Jamaican-born reggae/dub sound system star Jah Shaka, and the Marley 50th anniversary tribute will feature Trojan Sound System, Dennis Alcapone, and a host of others.

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