Keeping the spirit of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer alive is Al Anderson, the longtime guitarist for both Bob Marley and the Wailers and Peter Tosh. Anderson currently leads The Original Wailers, paying homage to not only the music of these patron saints of reggae, but also to the attitude of creativity and growth placed as a foundation by Robert Nesta Marley.
The Original Wailers will be taking the US by storm this January, and Rootfire is giving away a pair of tickets to the US tour stop of your choice.
Rootfire’s Dave Shiffman had the chance to hop on the phone with Al during the Australia leg of the tour last week. Below is an excerpt from their conversation, but for anyone truly interested in this crucial chunk of reggae history you can hear the entire conversation on Rootfire Soundcloud page. And don’t forget – scroll down for your chance to win a pair of tickets!
Rootfire: I wanted to ask you a little about your upbringing. I live about five blocks from and on the same street as the high school in Montclair, NJ, where you grew up. How did you end up in Montclair?
Al Anderson: My father was a Marine. Couldn’t take New York anymore and my mother was pregnant, and her water burst in Jersey, so I was born there, and then she got to like the place.
RF: So you went to high school in Montclair, and then started an amazing musical career?
AA: Yea I got lucky. I was a scrub, the most unlikely person to have anything happen to at all, to tell the truth, because there was so many cats who were hot, with sports, and music, and singers, martial artists….Bruce Lee was a huge phenomenon when I was living there, believe it or not it was all about Bruce Lee.
RF: I read that you initially linked up with Marley through your mates in Traffic who were on the same label, on Island Records. How did you become friends with Steve Winwood and Chris Wood in Traffic?
AA: They used to tour to the FIllmore East, and I was in the Village. I lived in St. Mark’s Place and everyone was there. I got to meet Johnny Winter, Alexis Korner, Peter Frampton, The Allman Brothers…Johnny Winter taught me how to play slide guitar on top of a garbage can when I was about 17. Everybody was there, the psychedelic scene was in, you know Incense and Peppermints, the Mamas and the Papas, Hendrix, you name it. It was all there at the Fillmore East and West, that was the shit.
RF: At that time what were your musical leanings? Were you yearning to make a certain kind of music, or just looking to earn a paycheck playing guitar?
AA: I wanted to see my name on a record, and I didn’t care who, when or where. I just wanted to see it, and it didn’t have to be popular, didn’t have to be infamous, famous, nothing. I just wanted a piece of vinyl because all my heroes were on vinyl, I could see a picture of them, could see their name, and I thought that that was the success point of being a musician, just being on a record. Not having a lot of money but being on a record. And I got lucky. Just got lucky man, that’s all it was.
As far as Marley was concerned, there were hundreds of guys way better than me that wanted that job. I don’t know how it happened, I was just…well actually I do know how it happened. I was with Paul Kossoff, who they called to do the studio session for Natty Dread. He was the lead guitarist for Free, he’s on All Right Now and My Brother Jake, their whole catalogue, and he was not well. He was having some health problems. And so, I worked for Richard Branson first, he was the first guy who took interest in me and signed me to Virgin with Aswad and Delroy Washington, and we had a number one and I just wanted to venture out. Richard became a visionary, he wasn’t really into music anymore, he was into telecommunications, he was talking about cell phones, satellites, and space travel, and shit, and I was like ‘wow’ you know…
So I ventured over to Island, where Chris Blackwell was all about Jamaican music, Sting was there, he passed on Hendrix, and I was like “Wow, this cat’s pretty heavy.” He was the white Jamaican who was super cool, like Mr. Cool. And I was a tape operator, pouring tea and rolling joints and making sandwiches for people like Elton John, Jimmy Page, I did the Goats Head Soup session. One day I was in the studio with John Martin and Stephen and I had heard this one track like 200 times – they were mixing – and it was almost two days of it. Basically I was a tape operator, cleaning off the board, sweeping the carpets, I was homeless, I didn’t have no money, I didn’t have nothing. I was just hanging around the place getting 75 quid a week. I heard them say the upright bass is out of tune on this track they were mixing. And so I said, “there’s an electric bass in the closet here, I know the line.”
Chris [Blackwell] was in on the session, and I just went in and played it one time because I’d heard it like 200 times and he said “well what else can you do?” I said I played a little guitar, too, and so when they called Paul for the session for Natty Dread they were already a little familiar with me, but they didn’t really know me much outside of being a tape operator and cleaning carpets and pouring tea and rolling joints and making sandwiches for all these stars that they had there – that’s what I did for 75 pounds a week. I was homeless, hungry, and I just wanted to get in a group and get a place to live and just make something happen. So Paul Kossoff and Chris gave me the opportunity by subbing for him on the Natty Dread album. Like I said, I got lucky man.
RF: How much did you know about reggae music and Rastafarian culture before you started?
AA: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I knew Jimmy Cliff, I knew Dennis Brown who I’d met, and I knew John Holt. And all I did know about them is that they were on BBC One, and there music was different from The Wailers. The first stuff I heard was “Simmer Down,” “Catch A Fire” and “Burnin’.” And it was Wayne Perkins who was playing the guitar for Bob at that time, and Peter [Tosh] on “Catch A Fire.”
Those recordings gave me the idea of what possibilities they wanted to hear, but [Blackwell] didn’t want to hear that kind of guitar playing, so it came down to they wanted to hear more of a Nashville country feel, and like “Lively Up Yourself,” “So Jah Say,” “No Woman No Cry” and all that stuff I played in more of a country, Nashville style. You know, when I was like playing the rock and the jazz they were like “Eh, fuck that” and it was a headache, and then all of the sudden I started out with the country stuff and that was it. I played a little slide guitar on “Talking Blues” and then acoustic guitar and they freaked out and that was what they wanted. So I just gave them what they wanted. I just got lucky, was a lucky dude. Could of been any other guy.
RF: I’m curious, with your background, being so different from everyone else in The Wailers, how did joining the band influence your spiritual beliefs and lifestyle, if at all?
AA: Man, I went in to that thing and they were Rasta, and I was Krishna, so two different philosophies. I respected their beliefs and I was a slave and subordinate to everything The Wailers had and their involvement. When I met Bob, I moved to Delaware with his mother and two half brothers, so I slept on a sofa for five months. There was no room, I mean there was five people and there was no room there. And Bob was working for Ford at that time and we stayed there until he finished his contract out, and then from Delaware we went straight to Jamaica.
RF: So you didn’t really change your spiritual beliefs?
AA: The Rasta thing made a lot of sense…the head creator and the vegetarianism, and the philosophy of Haile Selassie, that Christian Ethiopian Orthodox thing, which was really respectful. I respect all religions, every single one of them because you have to be subordinate to all the gods. Some people only believe in one God but I believe in what everyone else in the Universe believes in. I don’t believe in what one person is gonna tell me, dictate to me, because there was a lot of people who were godly before Christ and the Buddha.
RF: I have to ask some more about Bob, because that was such a special thing you were a part of. What were some of the most memorable attributes about Bob, and can you speak to any special memories between the two of you?
AA: He was funny. He was more of an extrovert, but then became more of an introvert after they tried to assassinate him. You know, everyone in the band changed when they tried to kill everyone. They killed Carly, they killed Peter Tosh…it got really dark and so everybody changed. You couldn’t trust anybody any more, couldn’t trust anything, couldn’t trust what people say, do or be. In the music industry, and especially when you’re involved with politics like Bob was. Bob got Mugabe elected, and he got Michael Manley elected for eight years and Ronald Reagan and George Bush didn’t like that.
So for me and him it was all about the music, but he could not disassociate from his philosophy; his family, friends, everyone he was protecting that was not associated politically – there were some parties who were not friendly together, they were very violent – and there were people that were wanted and he protected them, so he sacrificed his life for his country first and his friends and his family.
I know him as a leader, and an amazing poet, and an amazing man that was more than any pop star that I had ever met. I had met Marvin Gaye and all of those guys from Smokey Robinson and all those guys from The Temptations and they were nothing like Bob. Bob was special. I had never seen a songwriter or an individual put everything – poverty, politics, philosophy, social behavior – in to his being on stage and how he wrote his material and dealt with us as a leader. I’d never seen any other pop star or musician or artist…because I tell you man, I’ve been in this business for a long time, and artists, producers, record companies, they’re crazy man.
I’ve always been subordinate to the music of whoever I had to work with. That was first. And it wasn’t about me and myself, because I don’t have time for that. There’s not much of me left and I’ve shared every nickel, piece of food and penny I’ve ever made. And whoever knows me knows that that’s my philosophy. So it worked for me. It doesn’t work for others, but fortunately it’s got me to where I am today. And I’m doing exactly what Bob told me to do. Find somebody who can really sing, because he didn’t really consider himself a great singer. He knew his poetry was there, but… And he said find someone who can be himself, sing their own songs, and not imitate him, and he told me to honor the relationship between Peter, Bob and Bunny that I had. He really felt bad that he didn’t reconnect himself with Peter and Bunny before he made his journey, it was a very sentimental time seeing him in the position he was, struggling to stay alive with all the situation he was engulfed in.
My situation with the original Wailers is that I got to play with Peter, Bob and Bunny and I lived with them for several years. I’ve been supporting their music for 37 years now and my highest interest is to portray these three individuals with respect. At the same time Chet Samuel is the lead singer for The Original Wailers, he has his own material, he has his own convictions on how he sees his own music, and I got lucky with a two time grammy nomination with the Miracle album, and so our intentions are to honor Peter, Bob and Bunny, but not be a tribute to Peter, Bob and Bunny as the other incarnations are. Our intentions are completely different. We’ve had several musicians coming and going in and out of the band, I think this is my fourth incarnation of The Original Wailers, and we’re continuing to develop all of what we have. We have a new album coming, it’s a bilingual album between Spanish and English that we’ll be releasing in the new year. A lot of things have changed in terms of the direction we’re going in, and that’s okay because for me change is more of an adventure than it is a future.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg of our conversation with Al Anderson. To hear the full interview, including Al speaking about his time working with Peter Tosh, listen to the unabridged audio version above.
Al Anderson and The Original Wailers will be hitting the US with Tribal Seeds and The Expanders starting January 10. Enter below for your chance to win a pair of tickets to the US tour date of your choice.