Backstage in South Florida: (Bob) Marley and Me

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week: Rooting on Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Back when the music business incorporated

major labels, brick-and-mortar record stores, physical formats in lieu

of MP3s, and money to burn in the service of

promoting and sustaining its artists, it wasn't necessarily filled with young,

hip music mavens. For the most part, this generation was more attuned to money than music, and chatted about how many had units shipped.

These were the older, stockier, balding business types who still

preferred checkered sports coats, polyester leisure suits, and white

wingtips to the T-shirts and denims worn by those who fancied a future

that would actually focus on discovering new music, chumming around

with the artists, and introducing an unsuspecting public to the next big

artist worthy of mass consumption.

I was in the latter category in the late '70s and early '80s, but it was

impossible to distance myself from the cigar-toting Sals, Milts, and

Vytos who oversaw retail shops and distributors back in the day. Working

for Capitol Records at the time, it was my job to get the music played

on the radio. Along with influencing radio programmers and music

directors, the job also included cajoling record wholesalers and

retailers to inflate sales. If a song sold well, it indicated a demand

-- and demand meant that the song ought to be played on the airwaves.

In 1976, I attended a music seller's convention at the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach. For the most part, it was an opportunity for folks like Sal, Milt, Vyto, and their pals to reminisce about the good old days when the record labels would shell out big bucks for booze, broads, and whatever other enticement was needed to convince them to buy their wares. I felt differently, and when I learned that one of the featured acts at this confab would be Bob Marley and the Wailers, my interest was piqued.

Marley and company were poised on the verge of superstardom. Although their Island Records debut, Catch a Fire, hadn't quite delivered on the promise of its title, its successor, Natty Dread, became a smash in the U.K., and its 1976 follow-up, Rastaman Vibration, was destined to pierce the American top ten. This showcase gig for the business types should have served as fair warning that Marley and company were going to be huge. Instead, they looked on with indifference, occasionally cocking an eyebrow in suspicion of this subversive-looking bunch of dreadlocked Rastafarians and their charismatic frontman, who sang each song as if it was a spiritual, spinning confidence and conviction in the process.

I sat in the back of the room, but it was a relatively small space, and I still felt a connection with the musicians on stage. The audience's appalling lack of interest turned my anticipation to anger and frustration. The band deserved better. I felt obligated to encourage them -- to show them I cared, even if the others in the room couldn't be bothered. Partly out of adulation, partly in desperation, I shouted a request. "Play 'No Woman, No Cry,'" I pleaded, not even sure if Marley could hear me.

It was a moment of transformation. Marley paused, looked in my direction, pointed my way, and declared "This is for the fellow in the audience that made this request" before launching into one of the most inspiring songs in his canon. I stood there, awed at the acknowledgment, stunned by the sheer power of the Wailers' performance. It was as electrifying a moment as I've ever experienced.

In the decades since Marley's untimely passing in 1981, I've had occasion to meet his late mother, Cedelia Marley, and have seen his various offspring -- several of whom are dead ringers for their dad -- in various South Florida settings. I've never found the opportunity to mention to any of them what a transcendental moment that was when Bob sang that song for me those many years ago. I hope that someday, I still will.

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Lee Zimmerman