Interview – Bob Marley by Esther Anderson

Bob Marley and Esther Anderson during the Carnival in Trinidad. © Esther Anderson

Esther Anderson knew Bob Marley very well. She met him when he was still just like any other Jamaican musician, developed a very close relationship with him and eventually was his girlfriend. In the following interview, she talks about him from her point of view.

When and how did you meet Bob Marley?

I met him in New York at the end of 72 just after finishing the feature film A Warm December with Sidney Poitier. I was also in the process of making my own short film when I got a call for the meeting in New York. It was first postponed and then I went to see my partner Chris Blackwell, the owner of Island Records, who invited me to see the concert one of our crew member’s band called Traffic. I went to the hotel to meet everybody, it was a sort of ‘rockstar’ party going on before the gig at the Lincoln Center. Bob [Marley] was brought in by Linton-Kwesi Johnson, a friend of Chris and I from Jamaica. He introduced him to me, and … the rest is history.

How long were you together and what influence did you have on each other?

When I met him he had just finished the first album for us, for Island Records, called Catch a Fire. He was on an American radio tour, I think. We went to the Lincoln Center and I watched him dancing and everything. I remember that he loved one of our artists on stage with all instruments, John Martyn. In fact he said that night that he wished he was John Martyn so he wouldn’t have to be bothered with a band. It would just be him on stage with his guitar doing all the drums and everything else which is what John Martyn did. However, time passed and I arrived in Nassau, as a guest of my partner Chris Blackwell to listen to Bob’s music. I had never listened to his music, I didn’t know who he was or anything, and Blackwell played me all the songs and I thought Concrete Jungle, Slave Driver and Peter Tosh’s contribution on that album was fantastic. I just thought it was a great voice for our people. I grew up in the music business in London since 1962 and knew everybody from Brian Epstein to Andrew Oldham, all the people who managed all these groups, we all grew up and worked together. Chris as usual wanted to take a plane to go around the Caribbean islands to go carnivals and stuff. He invited me and told me to invite Bob and the Wailers, which I did. But of course only Bob came along. The rest wasn’t interested. Peter Tosh in particular, he didn’t want to mix up with any Babylonians. Although he was sent to Island Records, he wasn’t prepared to socialize with the major share holder of the company [ i.e. Chris Blackwell]. So we went around the Caribbean, we went to Haiti, something happened to us over there and we ended up writing Get up Stand up on the airplane coming back. That was the beginning of my collaboration with Bob. I photographed him quite a lot in the Caribbean, quite a lot in Trinidad, some of the pictures you have were taken there.

It is interesting that you call it collaboration, writing songs and taking pictures. Is it because of your common origins somehow, him being half Welsh and you having grown up from an early age within the Western world as a model and an actress. You both had an international vision of the world as well as a very strong Jamaican education.

At the point when I got involved with him, I decided to really commit with him and the rest of them [i.e. the Wailers]. He asked me to. And I made a decision, I was given a chance to tour the world with the film I had just finished, because National General Pictures had a big tour set up for me to go to promote the film. I would end up winning the NAACP Image Award in America for it and actually be put forward for an Oscar nomination for the film. But I was totally committed to Bob and to help to push his music, to get it out. That was my few starring role, and I felt at that time that I was a bit tired, I just wanted to hear my own voice. You know, my short film was about the people looking for the elixir of life. I found out that everybody in the 70’s was looking for the elixir of life whether they were taking drugs, trying to stay young or to go to the Himalaya, whatever, putting holes through their heads to get oxygenated, whatever. Well, I just thought it is my own voice I need to hear and not other people voice, me repeating other people’s words as an actress. I felt as an artist I needed to rediscover my own roots. So when I returned to Jamaica, my intention was, whatever way i can help to get them across, Bob, the Wailers and the rest of the musicians. I was going to do it. I made a commitment and I stuck with it until I accomplished it before I left. We did have a lot in common in the sense that we both felt that nothing had changed for our country and the people from our country since the end of slavery. We were in the Limelight, at least I was, we could definitely do something about it, at least get our voices heard.

Would you say that your ideas and ideals brought you together?

Well, you know, I don’t know if Bob had a kind of education, I don’t think he did. It was very fortunate that I went to a quake after finishing school and I learnt a lot. The poems, the history about the writers of England, I thought well if Byron and Mary Shelley and all of them could be together and do creative things, and were definitely forcing their opinion about the state of England and everything else. In fact, even leaving England to go living abroad because they didn’t agree with many things going on here. I mean, Shelley was very political. We were no different, we were the new generation that come up very influenced by all of that because they were part of our education. It might have been fortunate.

One could say that you put into words the meaning of the fight for your people and he had the medium to communicate.

He definitely had the voice and wanted it. I had the experience to get people across because I had it done before for the artist Jimmy Cliff and Millie Small from Island Records, and my short film that I had just finished making starred one of the singer, songwriter and drummer from Traffic, the group that I had gone to see in New York when I met Bob. His name was Jim Capaldi. We had written a couple of songs for the short film that I had done and it was very much depicted in the 70’s the people looking for the elixir of life and so on. I was very influenced by Bob Dylan and people like that, how they wrote, how they defended their causes with their lyrics. And of course, musically, people like Jimi Hendrix, the way he played his guitar had the biggest influence on me. If you are a great band, like the Stones, you will get over because there is a market for it, the crowd had already developed that market. We developed a new market by helping to bring out the soundsystems from Jamaica which now belongs to what you call now the music industry. You had these incredible soundsystems and it is all based on these instruments that were developed in Jamaica. You had soundsystems all around the island playing music for the villages. That culture was brought to England and then when we came here to start Island Records, we put all the music here. I was a part of Island Records for the very beginning in 1962, when I went to live with Chris and worked and built up the company with him.

Bob Marley and Esther Anderson during the Carnival in Trinidad. © Esther Anderson

Can you describe Bob Marley in your eyes, as a person rather than his myth, what he became afterwards?

Well, I knew him over a period of 6 years, continuously working and collaborating with him. Anyway those years until 76 passed, and I didn’t see him again for a couple of years where he had been to Africa, to Zimbabwe and saw him in the end of the 70’s because he was gone by 1981. When i met him I thought he was quite innocent and I couldn’t believe that he actually had children. Of course he’s never said that he was married or anything like that, he never admitted truths during his lifetime, that he was married legally, that he had children all over the place. When I met him first he told me he had one son, and then later on another son. It kind of came up little by little. I thought he was very innocent and I sort of played along with him, I didn’t ask much questions. But in fact, as time has past and things have been exposed about what his life was, I realised that he knew much more than I thought, he was very aware of how the music business ran and stuff like that. He used to say to me ‘oh, I have given away all my music, I haven’t been paid a penny, why don’t ask Chris for my back money’ and I go and ask ; ‘Why don’t you ask Danny Sims for my back money’ and I asked Danny Sims [Founder of Cayman Music with Johnny Nash]. In fact, he had his relationships with these people who were totally man to man. He was very much a male oriented person but at the same time very soft, and so he attracted women. He just does naturally anyway, he picks up a guitar and attracts girls. So, as soon as he started getting popular in Jamaica, he was very attractive to a lot of girls. They all came.

He was very committed to what he was doing, he was very attractive. He had a lot of strength. He was quite self-contained while he was not on stage or not recording. While he was in the recording studio, he was fantastic, he was a great producer, you know, you really respected him. So if you saw him working, it is very difficult not to fall in love because he really knew his thing. Only if you love the music business, ‘rock’ music business, not classical one, he definitely had some sort of amazing charm and charisma. And when he smiled, his face lit up, he was extremely handsome, he photographed like a dream. He was perfect for photographers. Unlike the rest of the Wailers, he was more opened to encouraging any other nation to come around him. When the others were a bit weary, they didn’t want to mix up too much with Babylonians, you know. I don’t want to call them racists or what… He talked about his [Jamaican] mother but he loved to talk about his white father too, so that encouraged a lot of people to think, ‘I am white journalist, I can always come get an interview out of him’. That was easy.

Also, I don’t know what it is that made him attached to me like that. Apparently he asked Dicky Jobson about me from the first time he met me. He ask where I was, where I was gone when he had gone around America. When Dicky Jobson came back to Nassau, he told me “oh, Bob likes you and he asks for you…”. So I was “oh really”, but you know, it didn’t really make anything to me, I was a big movie star in those days, I didn’t care. I had just spent 7 years of my life with Marlon Brando, it was no big deal to me. However, once I started to help him and things happened in Haiti, we became very close, I became very protective towards him. I think that really bonded us together. I suppose that’s what the record company really wanted us to be left altogether on our own in Haiti and forgotten by the head of the record company [Chris Blackwell]. Bob told me everything about the band over there – working for ten years in Trenchtown, they had no money, they could’t feed their families. Now that he had an opportunity with the record company that I was part of, I decided that I will make sure that he goes through. I just knew that he was the voice, once he got through he could pull the others through the door. You could say I had an agenda from the very beginning, indeed, I thought that he was going to be my voice indirectly. I didn’t know who he was, I had never heard of him when I met him. But he’d heard of me, he had read about me in the newspaper, he told me that from the very beginning in New York. Once I heard the songs they had written, I thought they had it, they could do things with it. So once I started to photograph him, I saw that he was very strong and courageous and open. I was then quite happy to collaborate on any idea he came up with.

Do you think you were one of the only person who had such a collaboration with him?

I think so because at that time we were together, we went everywhere together, we also built a house together and we worked the whole time.

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