A veteran of the reggae music scene for over 35 years, Al Anderson of the Original Wailers was a bluesy rock session guitarist in Chris Blackwell’s Island Records stable when he was invited to join a young singer/songwriter named Bob Marley and his band of Rastafarians from Jamaica- the Wailers. This began a relationship that saw Anderson in the middle of a musical, social, and political movement whose international implications provided experiences satisfying, frustrating, and even life-threatening. Now, going head-to-head against former bandmates and their Marley spin-off, Anderson, with fellow Wailers alum Junior Marvin, lead a new group set on rekindling the ‘70s reggae fire. We spoke with Anderson a few hours before the Original Wailers headlining set at the sold-out Newport Waterfront Reggae Festival.

A little more than 35 years ago, you were called in to work as a session guitarist on Bob Marley and the Wailers Natty Dread album. Is it true that you were hired to Americanize the sound for a wider audience?

“They wanted blues, and some other international influence other than the Caribbean sound. Bob had a guy named Wayne Perkins, a Nashville cat, session guy who was known for working with guys like Bobby Womack. So, he (Perkins) set the pace with ‘Concrete Jungle’, which has an amazing guitar solo for its time in reggae music. Nobody had done that. I didn’t want to go there with what I was asked to work with. Bob had most of the Natty Dread tracks finished. He needed guitar, some background vocals, and some horns, acoustic guitar, harmonica; these small things to complete the album. So Bob asked me, “What did I hear?””

 Was that the only direction you had from Bob?

“He was very clear that he had to be pleased. I did a lot of tracks. I played a little bit harder rock/blues guitar and he didn’t like it, and I did. I kept playing it over and over and Bob and Chris (Blackwell, producer) didn’t want it. Then, I said, I know what they want. They want that sweet blues thing. So, they got that for ‘No Woman, No Cry.’ ‘Rebel Music’ was a little more aggressive. ‘So Jah Seh’ was more majestic. I geared on what I heard and how he worded the song, where the emotion of the song was. It was a real tough session for me. One of the hardest sessions ever because it was about pleasing the CEO and the artist.”

Did you find that pleasing the CEO and the artist was independent of serving the song; what you heard as best for the material?

“I didn’t know Bob. I knew who Chris was because I had been in the studio with him before, doing funky stuff that he didn’t like. He would say, don’t play that, and I would say, that’s what people are playing now in America. It was like, 100% for the track, 50% for them, and 50% for me. That’s 200% involvement, so you can’t go wrong with that. (laughs)”

Well, that record and subsequent ones really opened up Marley’s audience.

“It helped. Even more with the Live! album. The studio album was mellow, and well-preserved. The Live! album was raw and just bigger, more ambient, and really what he sounded like with the live format.”

Was that Natty Dread tour the turning point for you going from session player to band member?

“The issue with me was I left England, my home, for three years. I didn’t go back to see my parents, nor did I have any family contact. I learned patois. I learned how to eat their food. People thought I was coming into a wealthy situation, and it was- Chris Blackwell’s a wealthy guy. But, I slept on the floor for a year before they distributed the album. I lived like Trenchtown people did. I slept outside the first night. Bob picked me up at the airport, and took me to a bunch of hotels, but I literally think he couldn’t afford it. He didn’t have the money. It was tough times for him. He put everything into his record, and had three children at the time, just born. Stephen, Ziggy, and Cedella were like, two, three-years-old.”

And you slept outside rather than at a hotel?

“Yes, in Bull Bay, where Bob had his house with Rita. I was mosquito-ridden. It was unreal. I had my suitcase by me as my pillow. ‘Rock, stone was his pillow.’ I know what it was like. Bob had a real tough time, and he wanted me to have a real tough time, too. He wanted me to feel and learn exactly how he grew up. In the end, I really appreciated it.”

How were you received by the rest of the Wailers?

“I didn’t know Carly (drummer Carlton Barrett) or Family Man (bassist and brother Aston Barrett). I got to know them really well. Carly was the jewel of the band. He was funny, a great cook, a clean person. He was a wonderful person to be around. The I-Threes, too. They fed me. Rita (Marley) used to bring me porridge, and steam fish on Sundays. This is when I was living in the basement of the studio on a carpet. That was the upgrade.”

Did you feel like this was the test to see if you were one of them?

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Peter (Tosh) and Bunny (Wailer) didn’t like me at all. I was the guy Chris Blackwell brought in to break up the band. Then me and Peter became very, very close friends. I got to see his strength in music and eventually envied him, and wanted to work with him more so than the situation I had with Bob because of really bad management.”

Can you explain what you mean by ‘bad management?’

“The way Bob and his manager ran the band, for me, wasn’t what I was used to. I was used to solid contracts, royalties, participation gratuities- things being taken care of, like going to the airport. I was all on my own, until I discovered how to work with Bob.”

Peter had a better situation?

“To me, it was more professional. My first week of negotiations with him, he gave me $10,000. He said, get a car, get an apartment, get a new guitar and get ready to work. And, he was a great cook. He made great juices, fried fish really good, and his rice and peas were outstanding. For a man to cook like Grandma was unreal.”

Somewhat belies the image of Peter Tosh, the revolutionary.

“Bob was more the spiritual figure. Peter was more the Che Guevara, Zapata-type. Spoke for the people and meant what he said. Very forceful against government foes- CIA, FBI. He spoke the truth. Bob did, too. There’s no comparison. They’re giants. These are the men who showed me reggae music. Once I got to Jamaica, I got all their earlier records, and really sank into what these cats wanted. They didn’t want a lot of rock guitar playing. Eventually, by Babylon by Bus, they accepted it. Funny thing is, they got the worst performance for Babylon by Bus. It was a Friday/Saturday recording and Friday was spotless, but I think Chris is saving that. It was complicated.”

What about it was complicated?

“We didn’t get royalties for anything we did. Then, Bob cut us in on the royalties, but it was like, you couldn’t see statements. It was a very complicated situation for a guitarist looking at his future. I was looking to play with everybody, and I did. I got to play with Jimmy Cliff, got to watch Chinna (Smith) work on Blackheart Man. It was unreal.”

On a session, particularly with Bob Marley, how much input did you have on the arrangement? Was Bob leading the session as far as what he wanted to hear from each instrument?

“Bob had an idea, and then he had Carly, Family Man, Tyrone (Downie, keyboards) Junior (Marvin, guitar) and me to produce his idea. ‘Wya’ (Lindo, keyboards) was a big piece of the earlier production. Burnin’ – you could say that’s ‘Wya’ Lindo, without a doubt. Earl ‘Wya’ Lindo wrote ‘Redemption Song’. It was the Wailers band that really put the atomic, nuclear thing that made Bob’s ideas explode. Bob’s stuff was rough, his acoustic stuff. It was fantastic, but no man is an island. We added a lot to his sound, but we never got credit for it. They didn’t want the band to get too big. It was all about Bob. I was totally satisfied with Bob and how the band ran in the early days. Then, Don Taylor came along. Bad management, thief, charlatan, and a military strategist who could literally wipe you out if you didn’t obey the plan.”

What was the plan?

“The plan was to make a lot of money, keep the band in a cage, and feed us whatever it took. It was the worst thing a group of musicians could go through. We are all poor now. We all have to work. There is a group of people that have a lot of money. I don’t know whether they know what we went through so that they could prosper. There is a lot of respect for them at the same time because my name isn’t Marley, it’s Anderson. I was so happy to be a part of working with him that I forgot about the other bullshit. Natty Dread made me known to do certain things. Guys were calling me to do certain things that they had heard.”

Is that when you left Marley for Peter Tosh?

“I got an opportunity to sit down with Peter, and he said I want you to play in my band with Rob (Shakespeare) and Sly (Dunbar, legendary bass/drums duo). I was like, wow! At the first rehearsal, I was asked, are you going to leave Bob to work with Peter? Yeah. I knew Ronnie Wood when he was living in Miami, and I asked him about leaving Rod (Stewart) to work with Mick (Jagger and the Rolling Stones). He said you have to keep evolving. You stay in one bag, you get a lot of money, and you get tired and fat. So, I listened to him. And I got to meet Mick and Keith (Richards). When they went looking for artists, I suggested Peter, and got him signed to Rolling Stones Records after he wanted to leave CBS. It was like an evolution for me, things were getting better. At the same time, Exodus came along and wiped everyone out.”

So, you’d left Bob before the Exodus sessions?

“I left right after Rastaman Vibration because of managerial problems. Bob was a great, fantastic leader. A guy you would go into battle with and you knew he had a strategy. As soon as management came along, the guy (Don Taylor) took the crumbs out of our mouth, the tears off your eyes. He had no heart. Cold-blooded. I couldn’t take it anymore. We were struggling, hurting for money. Peter showed me a better situation and I went with that. He did it all for me as an artist and as a friend.”

Did you have a sense, a long vision at the time, that you were leaving one of the giants of music?

“For me it was all about the music, until the politics came. Bob could’ve easily been a prime minister. He was very wise. The people who couldn’t read- he let them know in all areas what was happening. He was an immense antenna who sent messages to millions of people. Peter had a range, but Bob was infinite. He was offering more information politically to the people than the politicians. They could trust and believe in him. He had the strength to lead a nation of people.”

Was it hard not to get swept up in all of that?

“It wasn’t as great psychologically as it was metaphysically for us as musicians. The physical part of going on stage with artists like Bob Marley, Peter, and Bunny was like, oh, my God, everybody wanted to do it. I was so happy to be involved in that. What I didn’t like was, once the music was over, wow, there was a whole other world. Bob was a leader. He was leading a party, a group of people. George Bush didn’t like Bob Marley. Bob Marley was close with Michael Manley and Castro. That communism thing in the Western hemisphere wasn’t working. When he started to politicize Michael Manley over Eddie Seaga, I had federal agents literally come and tell me they were going to assassinate every band member. I said, ‘Why would you bring it to me?’ They said because you are American and George Bush is American.”

It was a warning?

“It was a warning. I told Bob, and he offered the side of his face. He said, tell them to come and take this. And they did, they attempted. That’s when I left. I said I’ve had enough of Don Taylor. I’ve had enough of the politics. I love this guy as a singer/songwriter, as a brother. But, I’m not going to risk my life to be in a band. They weren’t liking the fact that guns, marijuana, and revolution is coming into America. Africa unite? Cuba, Jamaica unite? You don’t say shit like that.”

America, in post-Watergate at that time, is a bit shaky…

“Big Brother’s eyes and ears were all on who is against America in our closest hemisphere. People were looking and saying this guy (Marley) has the possibility of uniting the whole world. He had that Martin Luther King thing. Look what they did to King and Kennedy when they decided to bring black and white people together. Bob had the magical elements, like Obama, that people didn’t like (at first) but ended up loving. Peter, Bob, and Bunny- they spoke the truth.”

Peter, Bunny, and Bob are considered the original Wailers, of which only Bunny is still alive, and not a member of your current band- the Original Wailers. Can you talk about the Original Wailers of 2010, and the Wailers led by Family Man?

“I had an opportunity to work with him (Family Man) for around 12, 15 years off and on (in the post-Marley Wailers). Family Man is not a leader. He is a retard. He is so poorly educated and has no feelings towards anybody but himself. He is one of the most selfish individuals I have ever met. I don’t think Bob liked Family Man too much because he didn’t leave anything to him. He never bothered to come to Bob’s aid while he was making his journey. It was all about the money first. No heart. He met a groupie and decided to have a whole bunch of kids. Now, she is counting my T-shirt money, counting on the name that Bob gave us, and managing and controlling everything. It was like working for Dracula.”

So, the word ‘original’ in Original Wailers refers to the original intent, the original vision of Bob’s band and music. It’s not to suggest the band is comprised of original members.

“Absolutely. I saw the level they have; the songwriting level, the production level, the people level. We eat, work and live together, and have been for two years and it’s working. People are trying to low-ball us because there are two bands out there. I want to peacefully co-exist with those other people who call themselves the Wailers. My plan is to continue with the Original Wailers until it reaches its rightful audience and people respect what we do. Then, take the ‘Wailers’ off of it, and you’ll get Bob Marley’s music with Al Anderson and Junior Marvin.”

Let’s talk about the new album you recorded.

“I had a little money and I borrowed a little money, and said, let’s go do a record. I have a friend in Rhinebeck, New York- Paul Antonell- who has a beautiful place called the Clubhouse. The B-52s, George Clinton, Peter Gabriel all record there. It’s a really nice Neve board in a great barn. A big room, wood floors, great ambience, super drum room, and a great vocal room. The people are really nice. We sat down on the last day of our Australian tour with 50 songs that the band members had written, and cut it down to the best 14. I said, instead of going home, let’s go straight into Rhinebeck and record on an analog board, live drums, like we used to. We got Karl Pitterson, Chris Blackwell’s right hand man, producing. He’s done everything in Jamaica. He’s my favorite cat. Without him my guitar sound would be as thin as a pretzel. It just worked. It was magic. It was like the old days again. I can’t believe how it came out.”

And the line-up?

“We have Junior Marvin on vocals, guitar, keyboards and songwriting. Erica Newell on vocals. Desmond ‘Desi’ Hyson on keyboards, songwriting, and vocals. Stephen Samuels on bass. Christian Cowlin on writing and organ. Francis ‘Paapa’ Nyarkoh on drums. And me, on guitar and production.”

Who’s releasing it?

“We’ve got a label, Edel, in Germany looking at wrapping it up in December and having it out for Bob’s birthday (in February) with an Original Wailers T-shirt and CD. We hope that we can reach the fans that are familiar with our names. I’m so happy with the guys I’m working with. We are all taking all that we have and putting it into the band. It was the magic of the moment.”

Interview conducted by Larson Sutton and published at www.jambands.com.