Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Living Up To The Family Name - Part 2

Like Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley had a lot to live up to embarking on a music career in earnest during the years following his father Bob’s untimely death in 1981. As the eldest son of Bob and Rita Marley of Wailers fame, Ziggy (born David) was seen as the one to carry on the flame of the reggae tradition to the younger generation.

Bob taught his son Ziggy the guitar and drums, and Ziggy found himself playing on Wailers’ recording sessions at age ten. Already feeling the effects of the cancer that would claim his life, in 1979 Bob Marley brought his children Ziggy (vocals/guitar), Sharon (vocals), Stephen (vocals/drums) and Cedella (vocals) into the studio to record the single ‘Children Playing In The Streets’. The song was credited to the Melody Makers, and over the ensuing two years Marley guided them best he could through the formative stage of their young career, culminating in the Melody Makers performing at Bob Marley’s state funeral in 1981.

EMI America signed Ziggy and his younger siblings to a record deal in 1985. Their first two albums ‘Play The Game Right’ (1985 - credited to the Melody Makers) and ‘Hey World!’ (1986 - credited to Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers) erred on the light pop side of reggae and were critically lambasted. The resultant low sales and a push by EMI to market Ziggy as a solo act, led to the Marley clan departing EMI and signing on with Virgin Records. Worth noting is the fact that the Barrett brothers played on the first album, the same rhythm section featured in the Wailers (though they didn’t manage to infuse enough of the Wailers sound in the final product).

The move paid dividends almost immediately with the release of the lead out single ‘Tomorrow People’ (US#39/UK#22/OZ#26) in mid 1988. The song connected Ziggy and the Melody Makers strongly to their reggae roots, and like Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley’s vocal style and cadence bore an uncanny resemblance to his late father. The song also featured a keyboard track from ex-Talking Head Jerry Harrison (see future post), which tied in with the fact that its source album ‘Conscious Party’ (OZ#36/US#23) had been produced by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, also ex-Talking Heads. The album was critically and commercially well received and firmly established Ziggy Marley in particular as an artist of merit in his own right, though younger brother Stephen also started to have a major role in both song writing and vocals.

The follow up album ‘One Bright Day’ (OZ#84/US#18) consolidated the sibling’s new growth as musicians, yielding the hit ‘Look Who’s Dancing’ (UK#65/OZ#66) in late 1989. Meanwhile the group continued to perform to sellout venues including consecutive headliner appearances at the legendary Reggae Sunsplash. 1991’s ‘Jahmekya’ introduced modern dancehall and rock to the mix, featuring the minor hit single ‘Good Time’ (US#85), and garnered Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers yet another Grammy nomination, though it was a flop in commercial terms.

‘Joy And Blues’ (1993 - US#75R&B) saw Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers return with a vengeance to their reggae roots. Former Wailer’s bassist Aston Barrett once again stepped in to lend an added layer of old school reggae excellence, and this time the production mix enhanced his contribution. The group then established their own Ghetto Youth United label, and in partnership with Elektra, released the 1995 R&B shaded album ‘Free Like We Want 2 B’. Though their best days were behind them in terms of shifting records, the Melody Makers continued to record innovative albums such as ‘Fallen Is Babylon’ (1997) and ‘Spirit Of Music’ (1999), and remained without peer as a live reggae act, captured in the 2000 release ‘Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers Live Vol. 1’.

But as much as Bob Marley left a legacy in reggae music that was without peer, he was also a passionate advocate for political, social and cultural issues. No surprise then that Ziggy Marley carried the torch forward on that front as well. He became a Goodwill Youth Ambassador for the United Nations, won an NAACP Image Award, and founded the Ghetto Youth United record label in Kingston, whose focus is to identify and record the next generation of reggae artists. Ziggy Marley was also part of the ensemble Jamaica United that performed the 1998 hit ‘Rise Up’ (UK#54) (also included Maxi Priest, Ini Kamoze, Diana King, Shaggy). In 2003 Ziggy Marley released his first album without the Melody Makers. ‘Dragonfly’ offers a vocal style ever more synchronous to his late fathers, but a musical style more divergent than ever from Marley’s roots. Though regrettably Marley’s ambitions exceed the mastery of his craft, and it’s apparent that without his siblings to reverberate ideas around, Ziggy Marley erred in judgement with this one. Regardless, the Marley name alone guaranteed a top ten place on the U.S. reggae album charts. Still if Ziggy continues to falter, there’s another Marley sibling in the wings with Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley releasing the critically lauded album ‘Welcome To Jamrock’ in 2005.

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