Guitarist Al Anderson Won't Let Anyone Take His Wailers Status Away

The Original Wailers are one of many incarnations of the Bob Marley legacy, this one led by guitarist Al Anderson. You probably don't know him by name, but definitely by his licks. He's the guy who infused American blues-rock leads into roots reggae on two of Marley's best-known albums, Natty Dread and Kaya. Anderson's relationship to the music is the stuff of legend, but holding on to it has been an uphill battle. You really have to start from the beginning to put two decades of lawsuits and fallings out in the proper context.

London, late spring of 1974: Bob Marley and the Wailers are on the cusp of an international breakout when guitarist Peter Tosh and keyboardist Bunny Wailer split from the group. Needing a guitarist, Island Records executive Chris Blackwell taps Al Anderson, a wiry, 24-year-old session player who had been working with label mate Stevie Winwood. “I was just lucky,” says Anderson from his home in Santa Monica. “I went down to Island not knowing any of the music whatsoever. Basically, it was trial and error. We finished the Natty Dread sessions [in England], and Bob invited me to live in Jamaica.”

And so he went. He slept on Marley's floor in Kingston the year between that album's sessions and release. There was no money back then, and the band weren't exactly fond of him. “In the beginning, I was looked at as the guy who was sent to split the group up. But that wasn't the issue. I was a servant to their music and their songwriting.”

It didn't take long for Anderson to assimilate himself as one of Marley's lieutenants, learning the patois, helping to build the Hope Road studio in Kingston. He recorded Legalize It with Peter Tosh the next year, then toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers alongside Junior Marvin on guitar and Carlton and Aston “Family Man” Barrett on drums and bass. Remember those names. When Bob Marley died in 1981, the years after saw fierce legal wrangling between Island Records and the Wailers, who took over the band's publishing rights and royalties. It introduced Anderson to the dirty side of the music business:

“Diane Jobson, Bob's lawyer, said in court that Bob's musicians had nothing to do with his production or arranging, and it was the biggest lie ever,” he recalls. “She convinced the judge the Barretts were hangers-on. That's the most disgraceful thing I've ever heard.”

In his mind, the heirs to the Wailers legacy were the Barrett brothers, pioneering musicians in their own right and key producers of the band's recordings. Eventually, however, when Aston Barrett and his wife, Jennifer Miller, muscled an administrative contract in their name to control the Wailers apart from Island Records, it proved disastrous for Anderson. He quit the band, disgusted by Miller's management.

After that, it got really ugly between Miller and Anderson. “She's decided that she's going to attack me continually to stop me from working,” he says. Anderson has been sued or threatened with legal action by Miller several times in recent years. In 2009, UB40's Ali Campbell booked a tour with the Original Wailers in U.K. [1], but then canceled when, Anderson says, the promoters feared legal action by Miller. Finally, a U.S. judge overturned one of Miller's civil suits and cleared Anderson to operate the band here without legal harassment.

Anderson formed the Original Wailers with Marvin, writing songs and performing live. But the relationship hit the skids, and Marvin quit the band. Anderson didn't see it coming, but he wasn't exactly surprised.

“The first rehearsal, he broke my guitar,” Anderson says, “so it got off to a bad start. “He got tired of working with me and the group we put together, and he left me in the middle of a tour in Europe. We dropped him off at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and I haven't heard a word from him since.”

Today, that leaves Anderson as the only actual original Wailer. The group are rounded out by Desi Hyson, a Dominican-born keyboardist who wrote four of the five songs of the band's 2012 debut EP, Miracle; Steve Samuels and Erica Newell from Jamaica on bass and vocals, respectively; Ghana's Francis (Paapa) Nyarkoh on drums; and keyboardist Marty Batista. The vibe on Miracle is that familiar one-drop, roots-rock reggae, but the Original Wailers deliberately distance themselves from being a nostalgia act.

“We are not a tribute to ourselves,” Anderson says with great emphasis. “We're a group that plays originals along with some of the golden oldies.”


 [1] The location of the tour was incorrect. Changed on Nov. 16, 2012.

This article appeared in print as “The Lone Wailer: Guitarist Al Anderson of the Original Wailers went through plenty of hell to keep Bob Marley's legacy burning.”

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