Peter Tosh, the fiery "Bush Doctor" of reggae legend, would have
been 51 years old on October 19, 1995. During his 43 years of life,
Tosh helped create a form of music that has reached to every corner
of the planet, and in the process established himself, and his
group the Wailers, in the forefront of the Movement of Jah People.
Always the revolutionary, Tosh was a prime exponent of the notion
that there can be no peace without equal rights and justice. His
words were the rallying cry of the Los Angeles uprising, and of
oppressed peoples everywhere.
Tosh was born in the westernmost rural parish of Jamaica, and
arrived in Kingston when he was 15. Soon after he met Bob Marley
and Bunny (Wailer) Livingston, and formed an immediate and fast
friendship with them. In the beginning, Tosh was the only real
musician in the group, and he tutored the others on guitar. By the
mid-60s, the Wailers had established pre-eminence in the rough and
tumble world of Jamaican ska music, charting five of the top ten
records at once in 1965.
A couple of years later, American soul star Johnny Nash hired Peter
as a songwriter, and signed him and the Wailers to his JAD label.
Nash was one of the first international artists to recognize the
nascent power of the reggae riddim, and helped bring it to millions
overseas. He often used Peter on his own recordings, to lend them
an authentic island feel.
In 1972, Island Records president Chris Blackwell signed the
Wailers, and released the group's final two albums the following
year, the landmark "Catch A Fire" (featuring Tosh's leads on "Stop
That Train" and "400 Years") and its follow-up "Burnin'" (with
Tosh's "Get Up Stand Up").
Back in Jamaica, the Wailers shared the local stages with major
foreign artists such as the Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye. But like
the Beatles, to whom they were often compared, the Wailers had too
many lead potentials to continue as a trio, and in 1974, each of
the three members began solo careers.
Peter established his Intel-Diplo H.I.M. label (Intelligent
Diplomat for His Imperial Majesty). One of his most potent and
controversial singles, "Legalize It," was banned from broadcast in
Jamaica, but it became the title track for his debut lp on Columbia
Records in 1976. The album, which has been a perennial top seller
on the world's reggae charts, right through the present time, was
followed by an even more militant classic, "Equal Rights," yielding
a powerful single called "Stepping Razor," which became a kind of
signature song for the toweringly sharp singer.
In 1978, Tosh appeared at the clamorous One Love Peace Concert at
the National Stadium in Kingston, interrupting his set to excoriate
the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition for their cowering
acquiessence to the Babylonian powers of an oppressive "shitstem."
His uncompromising words caused him to be brutally attacked by
seven policemen not long after, and they beat him and left him for
dead in a cell. In the meantime, Mick Jagger had seen Tosh's
riveting performance at One Love, and asked Peter to be the first
outside artist on the Rolling Stones own record label. "Bush
Doctor," the first album of their collaboration, was highlighted by
a hit single of a duet between Mick and Peter called "Don't Look
Back," which they sang together on an unforgettable "Saturday Night
Live" broadcast. A second album, "Mystic Man," was among the most
outspoken works of his life, featuring "The Day the Dollar Die" and
"Buk-in-Hamm Palace."
Eric Clapton was also a big fan of Peter, recording a duet with
Peter on Tosh's composition "Watcha Gonna Do." Soul artist Gwen
Guthrie joined Peter on a single called "Nothing But Love." "Mama
Africa," his next album, led to an historic pairing in 1982 with
Jimmy Cliff, for a tour of record-breaking engagements; and to
1983's world-spanning tour, which became the longest reggae road-
trip in the annals of the music. Concurrently, Peter's cover of
"Johnny B. Goode" charted in the U.S. and Europe. A riotous "home-
coming" performance in Swaziland is still talked about in Africa,
where Tosh's political stance is a continuing inspiration to
freedom fighters there.
Between the numbing requirements of the road and the savaging he
received at the hands of Jamaica's police, Peter spent the years
between the end of 1983 and the summer of 1987 recuperating,
writing, and travelling again to Africa. These meditations led to
his first album in four years, "No Nuclear War," which was awarded
a Grammy in 1988. But shortly after its release, on September 11,
1987, three gunmen broke into his Kingston home, killing the singer
and two others, and wounding four other people. Peter's funeral was
held in the National Arena before thousands of mourners.
A motion picture documentary of Peter's life, "Stepping Razor/Red
X" has been shown in theaters all over the world; it was nominated
for Canada's Oscar, the Juno Award, in 1993.
As Tosh said, "I am a man of the past, and I'm living in the
present, now I'm walking in the future." That future includes a CD
box set of his grand life's work.