A Reggae Valentine from Bob Marley’s lead guitarist…
Valentine’s Day is celebrated by many people around the world, but for longtime musician Junior Marvin, it will forever be one of the most memorable days of his life. It’s the day legendary singer-songwriter Bob Marley asked him to join his band.
I sat down with the Jamaica-born/London-raised performer to talk about that fateful day, Jamaica, and of course, the legend himself, Bob Marley.
Lisa Walker: What exactly happened on Valentine’s Day back in 1977?
Junior Marvin: I was in London and had just finished an album with Steve Winwood, Arc of a Diver, when Chris Blackwell (the founder of Island Records) heard my guitar playing and contacted me by phone saying that he wanted for me to meet someone.
When I first saw Bob, his back was turned and he had this glow around him like an aura. It was right then that I knew it was Bob Marley. As he turned to face me, he had a big smile on his face. He told me that he had heard good things about me and would like for me to work on his next album. I was speechless.
LW: Is it true you had another offer that very same day from another famous musician?
JM: A couple of hours before meeting Bob I had a phone call from Stevie Wonder asking for me to join his band and offering me a ten-year contract. I couldn’t believe it. I told him I would give him an answer later that day–but then I met Bob Marley.
It was a difficult decision because both artists are musical heroes for me, but I ultimately decided that because I was born in Jamaica, and so was Bob, I wanted to reconnect with my roots. I wanted to support my brethren.
LW: You were born in Jamaica, but moved with your family to England when you were young. I hear they referred to you as the young Jimi Hendrix of London?
JM: My family moved to London when I was about nine or ten and they enrolled me in a good school. I learned how to play classical piano from my aunt, jazz from other family members, and then rock and roll in grade school.
And, yes, when I was 14 years old people started comparing my guitar playing to Jimi Hendrix, which was a real honor.
LW: Did joining Marley’s band give you an opportunity to return to Jamaica?
JM: [Not exactly.] When I first joined the Wailers, Bob was already in exile from Jamaica, for political reasons related to his music, so that’s why he was in the U.K. We recorded a few albums, including Exodus.
By this time, Jamaica was in the middle of a Civil War and Bob decided that he wanted to return to do the “One Love Peace Concert” in hopes of uniting the people and educating them about politics and violence. We left for Jamaica, Bob moved back into his home, and we began recording at his studio. The concert was a success and the political climate eventually calmed.
It was a very exciting time and a great memory for me. We were doing more recordings, more touring, got invited to do a concert in Zimbabwe, and were even set to do a big tour with Stevie Wonder–but by then it was 1979-1980 and soon Bob collapsed and became ill [with the cancer that eventually killed him in May of 1981].
LW: It was a very sad time when Bob Marley died. What was he like?
JM: Bob was a really great guy and very grounded, but a bit of a workaholic. He was intense and always trying to do his best whether it was music, family, or soccer. Sometimes he didn’t get enough sleep but he had a great work ethic, was very disciplined, very spiritual, and knew how to keep balance. So we were busy every day and worked really hard at the music, but we had a lot of fun and the band/music was a big success so, it was all worth it.
LW: You now have a home in Jamaica as well as in the Washington, D.C., area. What are some of your favorite places on the island?
JM: I love many places in Jamaica. The North Coast beaches are beautiful. Ocho Rios has beautiful waterfalls and Montego Bay has tourist attractions. Negril has seven miles of a beautiful coastline. Port Antonio in the northwest is wonderful and Bath has botanical gardens and healing hot springs. The food is also delicious in Jamaica and there is a lot of history. I can’t say enough good things about the island.
LW: What are some of Bob Marley’s favorite places in Jamaica?
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JM: Bob really loved the beach and loved playing soccer there, jogging, and exercising. Definitely Ocho Rios, but he also loved some of the beaches near Kingston like Bull Bay and Hellshire. The people are really nice there and they catch fish right out of the water and prepare it for you right on the beach.
LW: Do you think it was a coincidence that Bob Marley chose Valentine’s Day to ask you to join his band? I can’t help but think of his message of “One Love” and reputation for bringing people together.
JM: As Bob Marley would say; it’s a “natural mystic.”
Here are five ways to celebrate Bob Marley, reggae, and Jamaican culture in February:
Bob Marley was born on February 6, 1945, and would be celebrating his 69th birthday were he alive, but it’s not too late to celebrate his legacy and the vibrant reggae culture of Jamaica.
February is Reggae Month on the island–and winter is the perfect time to plan a trip. Enjoy free performances on Reggae Wednesdays throughout February, pay a visit to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, or join in on the fun at the Fi Wi Sinting Jamaican Folk Festival (February 16), the Oneness Reggae Fest (February 21-22), or the Blue Mountain Music Festival (February 22-23).
If February is out of the question, there’s plenty of time to plan for the biggest reggae inspired event in Jamaica this summer, the Reggae Sumfest (July 13-19) in Montego Bay. The festival features indigenous reggae music and international guest performers.
Lisa A. Walker is a book production manager at National Geographic. Follow her story on Twitter @walkersvibes.