PHOTO: Michael Heeg/Courtesy of Devo
Living Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever
Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale discuss the evolution of devolution, and the video revolution they helped whip into reality: "We drew a line in the sand, and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo"
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, members of seminal new wave/post-punk band Devo, who challenged the status quo with irreverent, catchy songs.
The average music fan thinks of dome-shaped headpieces and whipping it good on the dance floor when they hear the name Devo, but for an entire generation of music lovers, the four-letter moniker means something much more.
The Akron, Ohio art rock band formed in 1973 to spread a message about societal regression, driven by herd mentality and negative cultural influences (the name is short for "de-evolution"). The music they created was infectiously fun, with catchy choruses and a synth-driven futuristic energy that fit in perfectly with the new wave genre that was becoming popular in the early '80s. But behind the campy outfits and colorful videos, there was a nonconformist message — which the band managed to maintain even at the height of their popularity.
From the science aesthetics of Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Duty Now for the Future (1979), to the subversive empowerment of Freedom of Choice (1980) and
New Traditionalists (1981), Devo approached their output as a sardonic experiment. Their sometimes deceptive lyrical simplicity and sonic nuances created alchemy, and their charisma individually and as a unit made for a compelling blend of nerd rock meets post-punk.
Devo’s dynamic videos always had a message driving the madcap imagery and ideas. Maybe even more than Sparks, who were touted as "your favorite band’s favorite band" in their recent hit bio-doc, Devo’s influence on music is substantial, with everyone from Talking Heads to David Bowie (who helped discover them) taking obvious cues over the years. If some thought Devo a novelty act, they proved otherwise a long time ago.
As Devo celebrates the 40th anniversary of their fifth album Oh No! It’s Devo this month (as well as their third nomination for consideration into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), they are also cementing their legacy as a band who call out the ills of the world in their music and actively work to change them, too. Throughout the month of April, Devo will donate all proceeds from their catalog to aid Ukraine. The band also have a top slot on the highly-anticipated Cruel World music festival in Los Angeles this May, which some have nicknamed "Gothchella" thanks to its darkly nostalgic, '80s-heavy lineup.
The story of how Devo emerged as a force in music includes some very big names, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Can you share how they and others had a hand in your early success?
Jerry Casale: We popped up on the radar through many efforts that we made, and they finally succeeded in paying off, where Iggy became aware of us and we spoke with him in Cleveland, when he was playing on the Idiot tour and David Bowie was playing keyboards for him. We got him a demo cassette, and you would assume those things go in the wastebasket, because I know how that is when you're on tour…. He actually listened to it and Dean Stockwell and Toni Basil, who I had also gotten to, they talked to Iggy about it. He played it for David Bowie.
So then David Bowie heard it, and told Iggy to put me in touch with David's lawyer Stan Diamond in L.A. and we started a dialogue. Then Toni and Dean played it for Neil Young in San Francisco about the same time. So then [Young] called up and wanted us to be in his film, Human Highway. And it all started snowballing.
We did everything we could, and that was a do it yourself aesthetic. Back then, there was no internet…. We sent packages to Saturday Night Live over and over too, with the videos and the songs because we loved that program and we wanted to be selected to play on it. Of course there was no chance in reality that Devo was going to be able to do that then. That took having a manager and a label. We got on Saturday Night Live in October of 1978.
It’s been over 40 years since Devo became hitmakers and you are still getting recognition for your work. In a general sense, what do awards and honors mean to you at this point in your career?
Mark Mothersbaugh: You know, it's nice to be recognized. We're in a business where there's always somebody younger, somebody cuter, somebody who got there faster, somebody who's getting paid more, somebody who had a bigger hit — there's all these things that figure into people wondering, Where am I? How am I doing? Did anybody pay attention? So it's kind of really nice.
Casale: I think that any artist would have to be a bit dishonest if they said they didn't like the fact that they are being recognized by some official organization or outside body of self-proclaimed gatekeepers. Yeah. It does mean something. I mean, my God, when you're a performer, you get up in front of people. Think of the nerve it takes to get up in front of people, like, why should people watch you? You were looking for approval, right? From the time you're a kid, you're looking for approval.
In 1985, Devo was nominated for a GRAMMY for your video work, which was always such a big aspect of what the band was about.
Casale: Yeah, it sure was. I directed all those videos, and from the beginning, was kind of spearheading the visual aspect of Devo. We had agreed that it was going to be a multimedia kind of experimental art collective. So from the beginning that was very intentional.
For those of us who belong to "Generation X," Devo are a very significant band, especially the album Freedom of Choice and the releases that came after. Do you hear a lot from fans of different ages about how formative you were to them?
Mothersbaugh: I have two daughters and I watch them and what things help them figure out what's going on in the world. Music plays a big part of that. I do get those letters and I meet those people at our shows, and, yeah, I like that. That's kind of sweet. For me, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And, you know, for them, it's Devo and that tickles me.
Casale: We were very polarizing without even wanting to be, but we just were. Because of the way we looked, the way we sounded, the way we acted and what we said. We drew a line in the sand and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo. So a lot of young fans would all tell us the same story about how they got harassed or beat up or made fun of in school because they liked Devo. We inspired a lot of people to start bands, and a lot of bands that came after us that we respect have cited us as an influence. So we were an artist’s artist. That's heartening.
How did you two come together?
Mothersbaugh: When I met Jerry at Kent State University, he was a grad student and I was a sophomore. We collaborated early on on visual things. He had come up to me and said "Are you the guy that's sticking up pictures of art and astronauts holding potatoes standing on the moon?" And I go, "Yeah, what of it?" He goes, "What does a potato mean to you?" I really liked that for an opening conversation.
Before there was a word for posting up art or graffiti, before there was Shepard Fairey, I was a teen who was posting artwork around school at Kent State. I don't know why I did it, but I had to do it for some reason. So that's how we met. We were visual artists, and we collaborated on visual projects. He liked that I was making these decals that stuck on things, and he liked that I liked potatoes. So I made these potato decals for him for his senior graduation class project… that he hung all over photos he’d blown up from his high school yearbook of different kids he didn't like.
What is the significance of the potato?
Mothersbaugh: We were trying to figure out, who are we? And how do we fit into the world? We were both the kids of working class parents, and we decided we weren't asparagus people or part of the elite or the rich, we were like potatoes. We were like spuds. We were like asymmetrical, not very good looking vegetables that came from underground. But they were a staple of everybody's diet in the USA.
The interesting thing about potatoes for us, it's like, potatoes have eyes all around, so they see everything. So we called ourselves spuds, and we used that term in exchange for comrades or mates.
In terms of presentation and imagery, including costume, your most iconic has to be the red dome hats. How did the idea for those come about?
Casale: The inspiration for the design came from an Art Deco 1930’s ceiling fixture. So imagine a milk glass-like fixture that looked like a dome hanging from three chains on the ceiling with a bowl. But upside down, right? I used to just stare at that when I was a kid in my grade school and I always thought it was such a cool image.
And so years later, when we were talking about Devo wearing some kind of headgear, I kept thinking of that. Making them red and making them plastic and wearing them became a thing. Then we could make multiples and we could sell them to people because people wanted them. In fact, people were stealing them. So we started selling them.
Devo had chart-topping success but the project was always sort of out of the box and different, even weird to some. Now bands like yours seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve.
Mothersbaugh: Because Devo had content. A lot of the bands that were out at the same time as Devo, you could just kind of group them together. We had a concept that was unique, not just only for the time period we were in, but actually, for a much bigger time period of rock and roll.
Just even questioning man's central glory on the planet. We kind of pose the question that maybe humans, we're not the best species on the planet; maybe we’re the only insane species. We might be the only organisms out of touch with nature and destructive, as opposed to being a symbiotic part of everything. And you know, that didn't win friends and a lot of people took offense to that. They're usually the people that should take offense to it, because we were probably talking about them.
So we had a pretty unique concept, and it was what we wrote our music about. I think there are a lot of artists out there that respect that or understand that.
Casale: The test of time proved that those bands weren't so weird after all. I mean, look in the '60s, '70s and '80s: Those three decades, there was an explosion of diversity — of creativity, of technology, of new ideas, new sounds, and groups who performed a body of work well. If you bought a record because you liked one song on that record, you probably ended up liking five or six songs on that record, because it was a piece and all connected.
I think that's what kids today miss. They miss that reality. There were real groups, and real artists that did something with a whole body of work that mattered. And it was exciting. The packaging mattered and what the artist said mattered. We had MTV playing the videos. So [the '80s were] like the last decade where this explosion of Western culture was exciting, at the top of its game. That was the end, then it started to devolve and decline.
In addition to its statement- minded subtext, your early stuff was so atmospheric and that seems to have led you both down cinematic paths later in your careers, Mark with your scoring of shows like "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse" and "Rugrats," and appearance on the kids show "Yo Gabba Gabba," and Jerry with your directorial work.
Casale: Devo was kind of put on ice in the '90s and Mark wasn't interested in doing anything except scoring and composing for TV. Because I had directed like 20 Devo videos, [I started] directing videos for other bands.
So I had a whole music video career as a director for bands like Rush, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters — the first video they ever made. They were anti-video because all the grunge bands were anti-video, but Dave Grohl said, "You know what, if we have to do one, let's get that guy from Devo because I can trust him because he's been in my position as a band member on stage, so he won't make us do foolish things." That led me to commercials. So then I had this whole directing career doing TV commercials up until about 2005, when it kind of trickled out as the business changed a lot and the money went away.
Mothersbaugh: I can tell how old somebody is when they say, "Oh, I really like your music," and they're talking about they're talking about "Rugrats" or "Pee Wee's Playhouse." And if they're talking about Devo, they probably have gray hair. Except for kids, because the internet is this amazing place. They’ve got the whole world right there in their hands.
So yeah, now we get people of all ages, asking about Devo, who are knowledgeable about it. So that's kind of interesting. In the early days we sounded like some sort of outer space version of Captain Beefheart mixed with Sun Ra or something like that. Jerry and I always thought about sound and vision.
One of the things we learned at Kent State was protesting isn't the way to change things in this country, because when they get tired of you, and when the government finally is irritated enough, they just shoot you. Like they did at my school. So we thought, who's changing things…and we were looking around and we thought… Madison Avenue, that's who changes the world. They get you to buy stupid cars, eat food that's not good for you, buy clothes you don't need and you're happy at the end of it.
We just thought well, what if we use those techniques in reverse, and figured out a way to talk to people about reverse evolution, talk to people about how to change the trajectory of the planet. We looked for ways to add hooks into our songs but our whole idea was just to get people to come in, find out what we were. If they liked the song, they’d buy the album, and then they'd listen to the album and hear “Jocko Homo” and or they'd hear “Too Much Paranoia,” or they'd hear the last line in a “Beautiful World": "It's a beautiful world for you, for you, but not for me." And the videos were made to show that.
Your devolution message has sadly never been more relevant.
Mothersbaugh: I agree that the world has devolved. It's even more complicated than ever to find out the truth about things. Jerry likes to call Devo, "the band playing on the Titanic while it goes down."
I'm the eternal optimist. I keep wanting to think that between technology and just people becoming aware of where we are, you know, that they can figure out ways to turn things around. So I like that our music is being listened to and I hope it has a positive effect on people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage
Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music
Burning Spear is one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years into his career, the roots reggae artist continues to share messages of Rastafarianism and resistance, all through impeccably crafted rhythms.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with reggae icon Burning Spear. His latest album, No Destroyer, is his first release in 15 years.
Fifty years ago, venerable Jamaican artist Burning Spear released his debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear. While not as well-known as the Wailers’ Catch A Fire and Burnin’ (both of which were also released in 1973), Burning Spear is nonetheless a pillar in the construction of roots reggae’s foundation.
Produced by Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd and released on Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, the album’s solid rhythms are anchored in thunderous basslines (played by the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles) and embellished with cascading horns that majestically frame Spear’s mesmerizingly intoned vocals.
Rife with mystical lyrics steeped in his Rastafarian way of life, uncompromising words of resistance, and supported by impeccably crafted bass-heavy reggae beats with flourishes of jazz and highlife accented horns, Burning Spear’s debut album established him as one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years on, those characteristics resonate just as strongly on Spear’s latest release No Destroyer.
Recorded in 2011 at the Magic Shop in New York City, Spear decided to release No Destroyer — his first album since 2009’s GRAMMY-winning Jah Is Real — in August because "the time was right."
"I think people will enjoy this album, I am saying things I never say before," Burning Spear told GRAMMY.com in a recent Zoom. "The people, the fans, will find something to hold on to, to take them places or to certain situations. The album shows you where you are coming from, your tribulations, the distance you are traveling. When I listen back to it, I didn’t quite know I was putting out all that energy, sending out lyrics not only connecting musically but connecting to all the people."
Burning Spear announced his retirement in 2016, though his time away was brief. He returned in 2021 with a new single "Mommy," which honors women who hold their families together, especially in challenging times; "Mommy" was No Destroyer’s first single. In 2022 Spear returned to the concert stage and has since performed at festivals across the globe and onboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock reggae cruise.
"I wasn’t thinking about coming back but my wife, Sonia Rodney, thought I should do a few shows here and there, for the fans who have supported I man for so many years," Spear acknowledges."So I did some shows for the people who really wanted to see me again and it was great." Spear, however, has not performed in his native Jamaica in nearly 20 years. "I do go back to Jamaica to spend time and have a little fun but that is about it," he says.
Born Winston Rodney in Jamaica’s rural St. Ann’s Bay, Winston took his moniker from African freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, who was previously known as the Burning Spear and later became the president of Kenya. Kenyatta and Spear were deeply influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the St. Ann Jamaica born pan-Africanist and fiery orator who preached self-reliance and political unification for all African descendants. Garvey’s teachings have exerted a tremendous influence on the Rastafari way of life and the United States’ civil rights movement.
More so than any Rastafarian reggae artist, Spear has used his music to create an ongoing awareness of Garvey’s philosophies. Spear’s international breakthrough arrived with the release of his Marcus Garvey album in 1975; Spear has continued to invoke Garvey’s name on all of his subsequent albums. Prior to reggae becoming the island’s most recognized global export, Marcus Garvey "opened the door of Jamaica and spread Jamaica all over," sings Spear on the No Destroyer track "Jamaica."
"Marcus Garvey is our hero, he stood firm, he opened the gate for Jamaica, Rastafari spread the roots and the culture," offers Spear. "I would especially like Jamaican people to listen to the track 'Jamaica' and as Jamaicans of African descendents, question themselves. Of course, the whole world needs to listen to the album, too."
Burning Spear was referred to Studio One — largely considered Jamaica’s Motown due to the label’s consistent output of hit records and the many reggae luminaries who launched their careers there — by another St. Ann native: Bob Marley. Spear’s first single for Studio One, 1969’s "Door Peep Shall Not Enter," sounded unlike anything released by Dodd. Along with vocal trio the Abyssinians’ "Satta Massagana" issued the same year, Spear’s song was critical in shaping the Rastafarian roots reggae movement that came to prominence in the next decade.
Spear’s spoken intro on "Door Peep" — "I and I, son of the Most-High, Jah Rastafari"— resounds like a direct announcement from the Messiah. The song’s biblically laced lyrics caution informers who attempt to interfere with Rastafarians, considered societal outcasts at the time in Jamaica; Spear’s repeated call to "Chant down Babylon," supported by Rupert Willington’s evocative, deep vocal tone, creates a spellbinding effect.
"When Mr. Dodd first heard 'Door Peep' he was astonished; for a man who’d been in the music business for so long, he never heard anything like that," Spear. recalls. "I went there on a Sunday and the next day I recorded it, my first song, my first time recording. Mr. Dodd made a lot of income off of that song. A lot."
Spear released another solid roots reggae set with Dodd, the soulful Rocking Time, in 1974. His next album, 1975’s Marcus Garvey is considered a benchmark of Jamaica’s 1970s roots reggae golden era. Marcus Garvey features Willington and Delroy Hinds’ sublime supporting vocals and the extraordinary musical accompaniment of the Black Disciples band.
The magnificent title track was originally intended for exclusive play on producer Lawrence "Jack Ruby" Lindo’s Hi Power sound system. However, the song was so popular at Ruby’s dances, he released it as a single and it became an immediate hit. Spear followed that with another stirring reggae anthem, the haunting lament, "Slavery Days"; the Marcus Garvey album soared to the top of the Jamaican charts, which led to a deal for its wider release via Island Records.
Burning Spear would go on to release Man in the Hills, again featuring Willington and Hinds, for Island. Yet his subsequent albums on the label throughout the 1970s were released as a solo artist. Spear released albums for a variety of labels throughout the 1980s before signing to Island again, issuing just two albums with them in the early 1990s.
Spear contends he didn’t make money from any of these recordings, and only started to see returns when he and his wife took control of his catalog circa 2002 and began releasing Spear’s music through their Burning Music Productions.
"When I started out, a lot of us was getting nothing from what we been doing musically," Spear explained. "People listening to all those beautiful songs thinking that we, the artists and musicians, were well taken care of but we were not."
Spear rails against the shady deals and corruption within the music industry on several of No Destroyer’s tracks. "Independent" is Spear’s story of persevering despite experiencing many unethical business transactions; "No Fool" lashes out at record companies "committing fraud and they think they are so smart." "They Think" calls out individuals who doubted that Spear could succeed as an independent artist. "Talk" takes aim at the "musical sharks" who "eat up the small fish," whom he dismisses with the unyielding refrain: "No more slave trade, no more surrender."
"Sometimes we as artists can’t explain ourselves just by talking. Through the music we explain how much we hurt, the things that hurt us, what’s been done to us," Spear says. "As artists and players of instruments, we have to talk of these things, so the world will hear fully what we’ve been through in the music industry, things I have gone up against, things that shouldn’t have taken place, but they happened."
Like so many young Jamaican artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Spear perhaps did not have a full understanding of the international record deals he was signing. More than likely, it was never explained that the advances artists receive are intended to cover the cost of recording their albums and that money must be recouped by the label from album sales before an artist will receive any revenue. During that era, recording companies owned the master recordings and required artists to give them their publishing rights, too.
After decades of receiving little financial returns for his albums, Spear and Sonia sought to identify the specific barriers that prevented the money from coming in. Sonia taught herself the nuances of the music business by reading books, attending seminars and talking to seasoned professionals. One of the first things she did was launch a Burning Spear merchandise line, which immediately generated revenue. They also learned how to manufacture their own albums/CDs, and handled their own distribution.
"We started making connections with other people, give them our works on consignment and right away we see that independence is not so easy. There are a lot of sharks, unreasonable people with dirty business practices who come at you because you are independent, saying, ‘how dare you be independent,’" Spear says.
Spear now owns the copyrights to most of his songs. After some research and a subsequent lawsuit, he bought back some of the copyrights to his earlier music from the estate of a deceased former manager who had never purchased those rights. Spear is especially proud of his 2009 Best Reggae Album GRAMMY Award for Jah Is Real, a significant accomplishment for Burning Music Productions.
No Destroyer also addresses the struggles endured by musicians that came up with Spear, while recognizing their efforts in establishing reggae as a globally embraced music. "Robert Nesta Marley built his foundation the hard way," sings Spear on "Open The Gate." The song also honors Culture, Alton Ellis, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, ska pioneers the Skatalites, Peter Tosh
and Delroy Wilson, among the many Jamaican music legends who "opened the gate for reggae music."
"The artists and musicians who were there before us and those who were there before them, opened the gate and the gate is still open, or else you wouldn’t have a new generation of reggae music," Spear remarks. "It was just the love of reggae music, coming from mento, ska, rocksteady, (that kept us going). We all went through the same thing before we stood strong and saw that we weren’t being taken care of properly."
Spear’s taking control of his music and becoming an independent artist is a present day fulfillment of the self-reliance Marcus Garvey advocated for over a century ago. In his concluding comments, Spear appealed to the authorities to clear Marcus Garvey’s name of all criminal charges. Garvey had been a target of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI for several years and aAs his following increased — on Aug. 1, 1920, an estimated 25,000 delegates gathered at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for the first international convention of Garvey’s Negro Universal Improvement Association — the FBI intensified their efforts to subdue him.
In 1923, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in the United States after his Black Star Line shipping company — founded with the aim of providing passage for Africans in the diaspora who wanted to return to the continent — sent out advertisements showing a steamship that the company was in the process of purchasing (but didn’t yet own.) Garvey was fined $1,000 and received a five-year prison sentence that was later commuted; he was then deported to Jamaica. Garvey’s descendants, political leaders and others have petitioned President Biden for a posthumous presidential pardon, following an unsuccessful petitioning of President Obama.
"Marcus Garvey’s record should be set free," declares Spear. He also implored Jamaica’s government to institute a public holiday honoring Garvey and include him in the curriculum for all Jamaican students.
"I am a musician; I don’t want to sound like a politician, but the time is right for a Garvey subject in school. We want the upcoming generation to have a full understanding of who Marcus Garvey was and what he stood up for," he says. "Jamaica must come together and make sure that it is done. The time is right to let the people’s voices be heard."
So, too, the time is right for Burning Spear’s voice to be heard, again.
Photo: Timothy White
Living Legends: Michael Bolton On How Comedy Changed His Career & Why He's "The Forrest Gump Of The Music Business"
Amid one of the busiest years of his career since his '80s and '90s heyday, Michael Bolton has traded his signature long locks for a new signature trait: gratitude.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. Ahead of his Sept. 3 show at the iconic Hollywood Bowl, Michael Bolton looks back on the trying times of his early career and how it led to blending his love of music and comedy.
Nearly 50 years into his career, Michael Bolton isn't worried about staying relevant — he's simply trying to have fun.
This year alone has seen Bolton perform incognito on "The Masked Singer," co-star alongside Awkwafina in "Nora From Queens," and cameo on the HBO Max sitcom "Clone High." And amid all of his screen time, Bolton reignited his love of songwriting with Spark of Light, his first album of original music in 14 years.
Whatever he's doing, Bolton's goal remains the same: never take a moment for granted. Perhaps that's because his legacy took 18 years to begin, or due to his humble Connecticut roots.
Despite being a two-time GRAMMY winner with more than 75 million albums sold worldwide, Bolton has never thought of himself as one of the greats — but he's always been happy to be considered as such. That humility has given him longevity, along with a comedic sensibility that proves he's never taken himself too seriously.
Bolton's humorous side was most famously displayed in 2011, when Bolton teamed up with comedy troupe the Lonely Island for "Jack Sparrow," a hilarious short that ironically saw him dress as Gump himself (and, of course, Jack Sparrow). Since then, Bolton's career has opened up to generations who he never imagined would know the likes of "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You" or "When A Man Loves A Woman."
Combining his loyal longtime fan base with the new, Bolton is still getting to play venues like the famed Hollywood Bowl at age 70 — and, of course, taking in every minute of it.
Just after getting back from a stretch of shows in Asia, Bolton caught up with GRAMMY.com about his resurgence as a comedic actor, his advice for struggling artists, and why he considers himself the industry's Forrest Gump.
You, sir, have had quite the ongoing impact on culture, I must say.
Are you talking about my long hair or my records? [Laughs.]
Well, both, but also you're still doing all of these different things, between "The Masked Singer" and "The Dating Game" and such. It's really cool to see the ways that you're staying active in today's pop culture, not just leaning on your legacy.
I guess that's what they mean when they say "staying relevant."
Yeah, I suppose. [Laughs.] But it always feels genuine for you. I think there's a difference between trying to stay relevant and doing a genuine thing.
Creative work is the thing that leads to legacy and allows you to continue momentum moving forward. And it gets you together with really great creative people like the Lonely Island guys.
I was starting to have a great career of hits, and I realized I love comedy. And I had this opportunity, working with the Lonely Island guys from "Saturday Night Live," that I could have fun, take shots at myself — and others — and keep it musical as well. I think we're over 250 million views on the "Jack Sparrow" video.
And I agree with you — you can't get there by chipping away and refining and digging into details. You have to do it naturally, because people can feel it when it's contrived. But they also can feel it when it's real.
That's why we're working with a lot of creative people who are making films as well as streaming TV. I've worked with a lot of young songwriters and producers on this newest record, Spark of Light, to get their input and get a fresh take on music today. At the same time, the young writers and producers are looking to me to get a classic take on music. Because they want their music to be part of a catalog that [lives on] 30, 40 years later. People know your music for all different reasons than just putting it on a record and promoting it.
There is a stage where you're thinking, Is this too much? But I learned that comedy and music create the gift that keeps on giving.
And that's exactly why people love the Lonely Island, right?
Yeah, yeah. And I never planned on that. I was a big fan of theirs, and I was a big fan of "Saturday Night Live," but I never thought I would carve out something like the "Jack Sparrow" video, which opened up a generation, or two generations, behind me who have become fans since then.
Did you feel like you saw a shift in your audience after that? You said that it opened up your music to new generations, but was that a tangible thing?
Yeah, I witnessed it. I felt it.
[The night it aired], I found a place to hide in the ["SNL"] building while everyone was watching it, because if they [didn't] like it, I [didn't] really want to go through that. And they loved it.
John Mayer was there that night — he's a friend of mine from Connecticut. And he said to me, "Tomorrow, you're gonna see something you've never seen before." And I said, "Well, tell me it's gonna be good." And he said, "No, no, they're gonna love this."
The next day, I came downstairs, and my daughter was at the kitchen table, reading the quotes that were coming in from people, their responses to the video. She looked at me and said, "Dad, you're not going to believe what's going on."
From that time on, younger people in the streets would recognize me — it would be about "Jack Sparrow" and about the comedy, when for many, many years before, it was always about long hair, the hits, my rock days. The people who love this video were eager to hear what I was doing next musically.
Was comedy something that you were passionate about before then? Or something that you wanted to bring into your career?
I've always loved it from a certain distance, because my primary focus was music since I can remember. I was probably around 11 or 12 years old when I picked up my first guitar. I was listening to a lot of blues, like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I fell in love with the blues and started playing electric guitar, and put together a band. I knew what I wanted to do, and it was make music.
But comedy was something I loved. I was constantly in trouble with the principal at my school, because I couldn't take the work seriously. When they found out that I was being signed to Columbia Records, to Epic Records, they stopped putting pressure on me to cut my hair. And the next thing we all knew, I was having a career in the business. But it took me 18 years to have my first hit.
So many people would have given up after waiting that long. What kept you going?
What kept me going was that love for it. I'm grateful that I was surrounded by women most of my younger life. And my mother was so supportive of me pursuing music [growing up], and [now] I have three daughters.
But if I knew how hard it was going to be, I'm not sure I would've made the trek. Because there was so much time when there were no paychecks coming. And you're in the music business in Connecticut, if it snows, your concert is closed. So the promoters will call and apologize, but when you hang up the phone, you realize you have to figure out how you're going to feed your kids at night. That's the most intense pressure and excruciating experience for the "starving artist" syndrome — the reality that you may not be able to provide for your family.
We were getting eviction notices and our landlord would beg me to make sure the next check didn't bounce. So I started writing songs for other artists, and I was able to put full focus on my next record, and the one after that, and the one after that in '83. It all came together.
I tell young people that, whenever somebody says, "I've been at this for 10 years already," I say, "It took me 18 for my first hit, so don't give up. But know that it can take that long. And when it does finally happens, it's an even greater success story."
What do you tell people when they ask you about how to have longevity as an artist, especially since you did have such a long road to success?
My first instinct is compassion for anybody who's been at it this long… Having success once is not enough. I've seen people win GRAMMYs, and the next year, they disappeared from the map.
It took me longer to appreciate the success that I was having, because there was a part of me that was so protective of my own heart. I didn't want to get too excited. I find that it's not as big of a success as everyone was claiming it was. I didn't know how to celebrate success until I was sure [it was a success].
When you finally start to have success, and you've been hungry for so many years, you move into a different gear, to a different mode, wanting to ensure the continuation of success for your catalog. You realize that you can't take anything for granted, so you learn how to promote your records better. You learn how to partner, be a better teammate for the record label.
If you do your job right in the studio, making your record, it's going to do most of the heavy lifting for you. It's going to create word of mouth, you're gonna have core fans coming out and supporting you. But you can never take it for granted.
You started out as a songwriter and had a lot of success doing that. Is there a song that you gave away that you wish you would have recorded?
I don't think so. I've passed on some songs that were played for me, that were ballads that felt a lot like what I've done in my career already. And it felt like they're not a career changer. I think I could've had fun singing it, but it's not a real test record — like a real, career-establishing record.
I have the good fortune of the bar being kind of high — like, the vocal performances require the kind of intensity that is not common for a male voice. So my job basically was to hit it out of the park.
When I was a kid, I grew up [being] into the Yankees. I found out later in my career that [some] power hitters became fans of mine because they related to the intensity, and the power of [my] music.
I hope Aaron Judge is blasting some Michael Bolton to get inspired in the locker room.
[Laughs.] Everybody could use a lot more Aaron Judge.
When you look back at your catalog, which song — or songs — feel the most like the artist that you set out to be?
Probably a combination of a few. The biggest hit that I've had is "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You?" It went to everyone twice because I released it again. It was [originally] released by Laura Branigan, and it did really well with her.
About eight, nine years later, I released it myself as an artist compared to just being a songwriter. And something else happened — that version is much bigger than the first time around.
At the same time, "Said I Loved You, But I Lied" is one of my favorite records that I've ever made.
Why is that?
Mutt Lange was my producer, and he's always done something very different that makes the record itself stand out in the middle of these hit songs — and none of them specifically sound like a Mutt Lange record.
It's pretty amazing, the good fortune of finally doing what I love to do on my own terms. And that's what happens when you have enough success.
What's a standout memory for you from everything that you've done?
I had a chance to sing with Luciano Pavarotti. And I am a tenor — we don't use the term tenor or baritone or anything like that in pop music. But when a tenor hears another tenor on the radio, you stop what you're doing and you listen to how these high notes get sung and held for a long time. The control and the power that the great tenors had is something that really excited me, and I had the opportunity to work with all three tenors and do something that I had never, ever dreamed.
It took me about two months to learn Italian and to learn opera. I was up until 5, 6 o'clock in the morning, almost every night trying to absorb it all before this performance in Italy in Pavorotti's home city.
I can only imagine trying to actually sing something like that, let alone on stage, with one of the most iconic stars from that country.
It was very daunting. Exciting, like, otherworldly. But it was very, very daunting.
Pavarotti walked in after we were warming up the orchestra. It was an outside venue, an amphitheater, and Princess Di was in the front row. Bono was on stage during a song or two.
We began getting ready, and Pavarotti heard me singing with the opera, and he walked over to me. I was nervous. And he said, "I see you have been studying the tenor."
I said, "Actually, I've been studying you. And I don't know what I've been doing with my voice all these years." He smiled ear to ear and said, "You do not sell as many records as you have if you're not doing the right thing. Let's rehearse."
That was the beginning of our friendship.
How does the career that you've built compare to what you envisioned for yourself when you were first starting out in the business?
Sometimes I feel like I'm the Forrest Gump of the music business. Because each scene, I'm standing next to Stevie Wonder, or Ray Charles, or Pavarotti, or Paul McCartney, or somebody who's a part of my love of music and were a powerful influence on me. I never thought, One day I'd love to meet this person or with this person. It just happened. When it finally started happening, it just became surreal. Dream-like.
What's left on the Michael Bolton bucket bucket list?
I think there's definitely some more recording to do. There is also definitely more streaming television, film, comedy. And maybe it's a musical, maybe it's a film, I'm not sure, but there are a couple of projects looming.
At the same time, when we got offered to do the Lonely Island "Jack Sparrow" video, it was a surprise. So I'm kind of thinking that what's gonna happen it's gonna reveal itself, and surprise me again.
Do you think you'd ever do another Lonely Island thing, was that such a moment that you can't really repeat it?
I would do it in a heartbeat if the script had "funny" written all over it. That's the only sin you can have with comedy, is for it not to be funny. Then you can't get away with anything.
Living Legends: Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating On New Album, 'People Just Want To Have Fun'
The last original members of three-time GRAMMY-winning group Kool & The Gang discuss stories behind their classic hits, hip-hop samples, and how they kept the creativity going on their new album.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Robert Bell and George Brown, respectively the bassist and drummer of legendary funk/disco group Kool & The Gang. Their latest album, People Just Want To Have Fun, is out now and the group are touring throughout the summer and fall.
Fifty-nine years into their career, Kool & The Gang's music endures and still gets the party going. You can't go to a wedding or other big celebration without hearing one of the GRAMMY winners' many undeniably groovy, joyful classics — "Jungle Boogie" (1973), "Celebration" (1980), "Get Down On It" (1981), "Ladies Night" (1979), to name a few. And they're still making new music!
The group's iconic horns and drums are the DNA of so much other music — over 1900 tracks — including many classic hip-hop tracks, making them one of the most-sampled bands ever. Their chilled 1974 instrumental "Summer Madness" is featured on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," Ice Cube's "You Know How We Do It," and more recently, as the main instrumental in Jhené Aiko's "Summer 2020." Elements of "Jungle Boogie" can be heard on Luniz and Mike Marshall's "I Got 5 on It," TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," Madonna's "Erotica" and Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome." Last year, 23-year-old Brazilian house sensation Mochakk paid tribute to one of their deep cuts, "Sombrero Sam," with a dance floor reimagining of the jazz track.
Kool & The Gang often get tagged as a disco band, but real heads know they got their start in jazz. Their 1970 self-titled debut album is fully instrumental and opens with a funky, swinging, jubilant mission statement that just makes you feel good. The group's fourth studio album, 1973's Wild And Peaceful saw them channel their funk and disco power and breakthrough into the charts and the wider public consciousness, with "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging."
Their funky tunes have also soundtracked a wide range of memorable moments in film. 1976's "Open Sesame" was featured in the wildly popular film (and soundtrack) Saturday Night Fever, cementing their status as household names in disco. "Summer Madness" was featured in another huge blockbuster, 1976's Rocky, and in 1994, Quentin Tarantino featured "Jungle Boogie" in Pulp Fiction (and on the soundtrack), bringing their music to another generation.
In 1979, the band brought in Brazilian producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Eumir Deodato and their first lead vocalist James "J.T." Taylor. This led to a string of hit singles and albums: Ladies' Night in 1979, Celebrate! in 1980 and Something Special in 1981. The band continued with a prolific release schedule through the '90s, followed by two studio albums each in the '90s and '00s. In 2021, they released Perfect Union, their first original music in over a decade and final project with Ronald Bell.
The band began in 1964 with brothers Robert "Kool" Bell and Ronald "Khalis" Bell, along with high school friends Dennis "D.T." Thomas, George Brown, Robert "Spike" Mickens, Ricky West and Charles Smith in their hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. The surviving original members – bassist Robert "Kool" Bell and drummer George Brown – are keen to continue their mission of bringing joyful music to the world with live shows and new music as long as they can.
They recently released a new LP — their 34th studio album! — People Just Want To Have Fun and are touring North America this summer, along with a Las Vegas residency in October. The album features some of the last studio work from the band’s late legendary horn players Thomas and Ronald Bell. Brown also has a brand-new memoir, Too Hot: Kool & The Gang & Me, detailing the legendary self-taught drummer and songwriter's musical and life journey.
GRAMMY.com sat down with the living funk legends Robert Bell and Brown to discuss the stories behind some of their classics, the hit-making partnership with Deodato and Taylor, and their new album.
Kool & the Gang has performed continuously longer than any other R&B group and y'all have been together for 59 years. What's your secret?
George Brown: A love for the art of music and for the arts as a whole, and a love for performing for people to give them two hours of happiness and relief from the everyday humdrum and all that's going on in this world. We love to perform and it gives us a release as well. It brings people together big time. And that changes the quality of society and culture because you're bringing people together, and all those cultures mix and we believe makes us all better for it.
Robert "Kool" Bell: Well, sticking together. When we first started, our parents always told us, "Be sure that you guys stick together." That was many years ago. Before Kool & the Gang, we called ourselves the Jazziacs, which we started in 1964. Then we were the Soul Town Band, then Kool & the Flames, then Kool & the Gang in 1969 when we put out our very first record. We have been together for all those years; next year will be 60 years.
Kool & the Gang is one of the most-sampled bands. What does it mean to you that your music has played such an important part in hip-hop, throughout its continued evolution over the past 50 years?
Brown: It's a great honor for the younger artists to see and hear what we were doing and to apply it into their music. [It's like] people saying, "We love what they've done. Let's try it in our music and make another entity out of it." You can't get more honored than that.
Bell: It's a blessing. We are the most sampled band in hip-hop, but we are also [one of] the most sampled bands in the world.
What do you feel when you hear Kool & the Gang's horns and drums on another track, in a whole new context?
Brown: Once again, I feel honored. It shows the awareness people have of Kool & The Gang, and that's a wonderful thing that adds to the longevity and to the mystique. And I think it also adds to the genius of the band, in what we created — I don't mean it in an egotistical way — where it can be co-opted into somebody else's music and it works for them too.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine to be honored this way. When we started [making music] there was no such thing as sampling and even in the early '80s when things started coming up, we didn't think we were going to be such a darling of the hip-hop world. Now, we're [one of] the most sampled bands and I'm the most sampled drummer. An interviewer said I'm like the grandfather of this music and I said "Really?" My bandmates and I don't let it go to our heads. At the end of the day, like everybody else, we're guys who write songs to make people happy.
Bell: It tells me that people are listening and respect what we do. There have been some very creative songs [sampling our music]—"Summer Madness" on Will Smith's "Summertime" Diddy and Mase [did "Feel So Good"] with "Hollywood Swinging," A Tribe Called Quest [on "Oh My God" and "Mr. Muhammad."] There's many, many more.
"Jungle Boogie" is one of those iconic, oft-sampled tracks. How did that one come together?
Bell: My brother Ronald was the key writer for "Jungle Boogie." We were dealing with some issues with our record company at the time. They came to us and said, "Listen, you guys have some regional hits but we have a guy that we want to work with you.” He had some big records, [including] "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. We met with the guy one time and we weren't really feeling it. So we went to the studio — Baggy's in Downtown New York — one morning and we created "Funky Stuff," "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" — Top 5 records. Well, Top 40 for "Funky Stuff," but No. 1 on the R&B chart for six or seven weeks and the other two [were] Top 5 on the pop charts.
Brown: Long story short, we started working on some tracks as we got to rehearsal studio and Ronald had the horn line and I came in over that groove, which is kind of derivative of "Funky Stuff." We were going to call the song "Jungle Gym" but Dennis Thomas came in and said "Let's call it “People Boogie" or "Jungle Boogie." So we started putting horns that kind of sounded like elephants.
Quentin Tarantino did us one of the biggest favors of all when he put it in Pulp Fiction. It was crazy. Who would have thought?
It was the same with "Hollywood Swinging." Ricky said, "I have an idea for a song called 'Hollywood.'" Frankie Crocker was a big [radio] DJ in New York and he had a thing where he'd go "Hollywooood." It's a life story about him, going out to California to become successful, sort of like a reverse of "Midnight Train to Georgia." We don't say “These are hits!” we just say, "Okay, sounds good." And people get it and take it to another level. It's amazing.
Do you think that the specific combination of the bandmates being friends and having known each other for a long time helps creatively?
Brown: Absolutely. Because if you take any band and the way they play guitar or bass or horns or piano, the pressure that they play with, the way they strum their guitar, the way they move the air, it's personal to them. When the chemistry works between the drummer and the bass player, because of the sensitivities and the way they play, it just works. And next thing you know, you have a whole band and the chemistry is there, no matter how long you've been apart. As soon as you sit down together, that same sound comes out.
In the late '70s, the band started working with Brazilian producer Eumir Deodato. How did that partnership come together and how did he help shape the band's sound?
Brown: That's my dude. He's a wonderful musician. You know, when he was in Brazil at 17, so many people asked him to produce and write strings and arrangements. He's got a bunch of his own gold and platinum albums, [in addition to] other artists'.
Deodato acknowledged my writing and took it to another level.
I was always writing poems and lyrics and playing piano and I'd get a solo on the album. But it wouldn't be taken as seriously until he came along. Everything we worked on with him went platinum. It was like he had a magic wand. I presume it was from learning from him when we were working together, just bringing up our acumen as producers and musicians.
Bell: Deodato was doing his album at the House of Music and that's how we met him, because we also chose that studio to record the Ladies Night project. Of course, we knew Deodato because he was a jazz guy, and my brother was a jazz lover as well. We thought that would be a perfect match.
We figured that working with Deodato we'd do a jazzier album. [Laughs.] But it was less jazz and more pop. For the session when we did "Celebration" and Deodato brought in a 40-piece orchestra. When they started mixing the record, my brother went into the studio and said, "What happened to the strings?" Deodato said, "Well, that's not the record. This is the record. This is a hit. Here's a tape of the orchestra so you can listen to it whenever you want."
["Celebration" became the] most played record in the world, a No. 1 record; they even played on the space station. Deodato knew it. He knew where we wanted to go and where he wanted to take us. That was a successful match for three albums.
What do you think Deodato helped bring out of you, George?
Brown: He was the guy that said, "That sounds great. Those chord changes and that melody, that works." He'd come in when I was playing piano in the studio before work, I'd be playing flowery stuff, just making up stuff. But he would say, "Señor, you've done it again! That's quite cute." He knows. And that's the genius. I think [he has] that type of personality that can really see through a maze and say there's something there and point it out.
Did y'all have any idea "Ladies Night" would be as big as it was?
Bell: Well, we felt good about it. This was our very first record with a lead singer. I was hanging out in New York with my wife and we were going to Studio 54 and Regine's and some of the other hotspots in New York at the time. And we realized that every weekend there was a ladies' night. I went to the guys and said, "Hey, I have a great idea for a song with our new lead singer. Ladies night." My brother said, "Wow. There's one of those everywhere around the world." Frankie Crocker broke that record in New York.
Brown: It was also a big surprise. I was coming from my manager's office, walking down Seventh Avenue, and I came up with a baseline and when I got back to my apartment, I started harmonizing the piano chords.
When all of us started working on it, we put some horns in there that were expressing the same lyrics the girls were singing, and some disco sounds. It was the right tempo and everybody sounded great. Then it's platinum, platinum, platinum, overnight. It just kept going. Holy smokes, it was crazy. When I showed [Deodato] the track he said, "Ah, señor, this is what we're looking for!" Getting with the right people and taking their counsel always works.
The band started out jazzier, then went funk and disco, into R&B and '80s flavor and beyond. How have you been able to adapt to a changing music landscape while staying fresh and true to yourselves?
Bell: Well, when you hear one of our records, you can tell that it's Kool & The Gang. On the vocal side, there's been some changes. We've had different lead singers since J.T. left, but we always put our little sound in there; in the horns, in the baseline, guitar parts.
Brown: We write we want and what we feel, not because everybody's writing this now. And we're pretty eclectic. We were interviewed in England and the gentleman said, "You guys are very eclectic, you got some big cojones. Most artists find their niche and stay there." We never have.
It's something very specific about the band because we've always been open. We were teenage jazz musicians turned pop stars. Jazz is very eclectic… it's not just a common cadence. That's what we love, so that's how we've always been.
You have a new album, People Just Want To Have Fun. Tell me about the inspiration for it.
Brown: It is like everything we've done from the beginning to now, but all the new harmonics and cadence. The vocals and lyrics are different, but we're still talking about having fun. And we're still bringing some wonderful love songs and some songs of unrequited love and temptation and party songs.
The lyrics and the vocal quality are different. Sha Sha Jones, who's a great [song]writer who has been writing on our team for years, she's doing some of the leads, which is unusual for Kool & The Gang. [She has a] gorgeous voice. It's harmonically, lyrically and vocally new. We have different mixes coming out. The "Let's Party" pop mix is out and a rap with Afrobeat mix is coming.
Has it been challenging to continue the legacy of the band after the loss of Ronald and Dennis?
Brown: Well, that's why we did the album. We lost our manager some months ago as well. We're moving right along and the band is doing well. And the legacy of the band — God willing, 100 years from now they'll still be playing our songs. I do believe that.
It goes on — it's sad, but there's nothing you can do but press on regardless, because that's what life is all about. You can't say, "Oh, that's it." You have to pick yourself up each time and strengthen yourself and move forward. That is the spirit of humanity.
Bell: Yes, it has always been a little difficult when you lose original members. That was with Ricky Wes, Spike Mickens, Charles Smith, now my brother and D.T. There's no one left but George and I. The blessing is that we're still here, people are loving the music, and we're still touring and having fun. [Chuckles]
When you were a kid in Jersey City, did you ever imagine you'd still be making music now, and that your music would be so loved and celebrated?
Brown: Believe it or not, yes. Ronald knew it. I knew that what we were doing was going to blossom. To what extent, I didn't know. As kids in Jersey City, working in the clubs when we were teenagers to two o'clock in the morning, that gave us a taste. And it just blossomed.
When we did amateur hour at the Apollo Theater, the musicians who were in the orchestra said, "You guys are going to make it. You guys got this new thing." Honi Coles was emceeing and he said, "You see these kids, ladies and gentlemen, they come out and they play jazz, they're not playing the songs of today. You're going to hear from them. Watch."
Bell: It definitely has been a blessing, in a business that can sometimes be very difficult to survive in, with so much competition and making the right decisions, etcetera, etcetera. I have a saying, you live and learn, and then you learn to live. People sometimes ask me, "Would you do it the same way again?" Yeah, because that's how I learned what it's all about. That's why we're still around today. And that, indeed, is a blessing.
Living Legends: Reggae Great Marcia Griffiths Looks Back On Her 60-Year Legacy, Working With Bob Marley & Inspiring The Next Generation
In a career-spanning interview, iconic singer Marcia Griffiths spoke with GRAMMY.com about her impressive run of solo releases and many years spent singing with Bob Marley as a member of vocal trio the I-Threes.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with reggae singer Marcia Griffiths, whose voice can be heard on seminal recordings from the '60s and '70s. Griffiths continues to perform today, and will headline Celebrate Brooklyn! In July.
Singer Marcia Griffiths believes her life has been preordained. "When I was a younger girl, I used to pray that I could be of service to mankind," she says.
It seems as if her prayers were answered: Her sweet voice caught the ear of a neighborhood singer as a young teen, and she soon launched her career at Jamaica's equivalent of Motown Records. Griffiths later met Jamaica’s biggest musical legend and sang on some of his most popular recordings. Her solo releases remain indelible works in the reggae canon, and have remained a constant on turntables the world over for nearly 60 years.
"God could not have chosen a better position for me. I can stay in one place and send my voice to the four corners of the world and touch souls," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I had no vision of this — that I would’ve lasted 60 years down the road."
Now 73, Griffiths is a reggae icon whose career highlights include numerous solo records, over 50 collaborations with singers such as Shaggy and Buju Banton, and seven years spent in the I-Threes — a trio consisting of Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley, which sang with Bob Marley until he died.
Yet her career had auspicious beginnings. At the behest of her neighbor, Marcia entered a neighborhood talent competition. She easily won, and soon began to perform with ska group Bryon Lee and the Dragonaires. Not too long after, not one but two label heads offered her a contract — she decided to sign up with the legendary Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and his Studio One label in 1964.
Dodd "gave me the baton and I just ran with it," Griffiths recalls, adding that in the '60s, "We were so sincere in what we were doing….We just wanted to sing our hearts out."
From there, Marcia Griffiths worked with a who’s-who of Jamaican music in the 1960s and ‘70s: Marley, Bob Andy, legendary producer Sonia Pottinger, Lloyd Charmers, and many others. Griffiths' first solo hit, 1967’s "Feel Like Jumping," established her as a force in rocksteady and the burgeoning reggae scene. Her 1982 single "Electric Boogie" is credited with the birth of the electric slide dance in America; in 2005, her legacy was honored by fellow reggae icons Toots and the Maytals' on their GRAMMY-winning album, True Love. Griffiths also received a nomination for Best Reggae Album at the 63rd GRAMMYs for her work on the Wailers’ One World.To date, she's released 16 albums, and hints that her 17th will be completed by the end of the summer.
Griffiths continues to perform and record today, her voice sweet and nice as ever. Ahead of a performance at the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival on July 15, Marcia Griffiths spoke with GRAMMY.com about finding her power, working with Bob Marley, and the importance of creating uplifting reggae music.
The beginnings of your career in reggae are legendary. Yet to walk into Studio One at such a young age — a place with a lot of older men, and likely some very serious people — was probably very intimidating.
Oh yes. And don't forget, we're talking about a male-dominated business. That's where I met Sister Rita and the Soulettes. I met Bob Marley there, Ken Boothe, the Heptones — just about everyone. I see Studio One as Jamaica's Motown. All the greats, that's where we all graduated. That was the place to be.
It was a little uncomfortable for me as a young girl going in and seeing all these people that I've just been hearing on the radio. So it was really overwhelming. And of course, my father had to be everywhere that I was at the time.
I recorded a song, a ballad called "Wall of Love" that was never released up until this day. This song was written by a friend of mine, he lived in Hannah Town [in Kingston], where I'm from originally. I used to just do the harmonies on the song while he was playing his guitar. So when I called him to come up to Studio One, [my friend] was shocked because he had never seen a studio or been close to any studio.
I never had any nervousness, any part of me; he was the one who got cold feet. So he ended up not even coming in the studio. I'll never forget, [organist] Jackie Mittoo said, "Little girl, you know the song? And I said, "Yes." And I sung the song and the music starts to catch a chord and I ended up recording that song all by myself.
I met Bob Andy at a rehearsal in a group called the Paragons and we became very close friends. Then he wrote songs for me like "Feel Like Jumping," "Tell Me Now," "Melody Life," "Mark My Words," "Truly." All those Studio One songs were during the decade of the '60s. And my first hit song was in 1967, "Feel Like Jumping."
I love that song. It still feels so fresh and enthusiastic. Do you remember recording that one?
In those days when you're recording a song, it's just two tracks. So the voice and the music goes on one side. Other artists like Bunny Wailer would sing harmonies when I and Bob Andy were recording. And the Heptones — it was like a family affair.
It was like a togetherness and so much love. And innocence. So much was invested in all of these songs, and that's one of the reasons why these songs have such longevity and they can be played years down the road as golden oldies — we were so sincere in what we're doing. We were genuine. We just wanted to sing our hearts out. All the good ingredients are invested in all of these songs.
And that's one of the reasons why we're still talking today. At the time, did you have a sense that you were recording, that you were making music that was so enduring?
I came to understand more that to have a God-given talent was something very special. And when I read the Bible, I see where God calls upon singers and players of instruments. We are the ones who can take the music to the four corners of the earth. And true music comes in message to teach, to educate, and to uplift and unite the world. We cannot live without food and music.
When I met Bob Marley, I still had no vision that I would end up working with this man. He was the one who opened my eyes. When I started performing with him and recording with him, I saw how serious this man took his music. I've never seen anything like this in my life. Right there and then, I said to myself, This is a responsibility that we have, and we have to be careful of the message that we are sending.
Because he was so sincere and dedicated to doing what he was doing that he never cared about money or anything. I realized the position that I was in was much deeper than I thought; it wasn't just entertainment and you go on stage and sing and dance.
It certainly comes through in your music and, obviously, in Bob Marley's as well. Do you have a powerful memory about performing with him as a member of the I-Threes?
I am happy that I gave him flowers while he was alive, because I knew that this man was very, very special before anything happened. I have never seen anyone so unique and sincere.
When we went to Zimbabwe and everyone, including us, ran for our lives, that man stood on stage and he was ready to die or to go down with his people. [Editor’s note: Bob Marley performed during the newly formed Zimbabwe’s Independence Day in 1980, and police fired teargas into the stadium.]
I realized then that he was not a person that was just preaching, he was practicing what he preached. Because he wasn't going anywhere; he was ready to go down with his people. So all of this showed me who this man was.
But what stood out in my mind more than anything else is, I was on tour, and I was maybe about seven months pregnant. We were doing "Lively Up Yourself" — and we have a lot of activity in that song, dancing up a storm — and immediately after the song was finished, I just saw dark coming towards me. Some little things twinkling before my eyes, and I knew that I was about to pass out.
So I held onto Sister Rita's dress and I was trying to beckon to her that I was going to faint. Out of nowhere I felt an arm around my shoulders, and it was Bob. And it is not that he saw something happening. He led me away from Rita and Judy slowly while he was there with the microphone, and he was doing ad libs about mothers and children all over the world. And I was instantly rejuvenated.
I didn't take it lightly. It was something very special. And the whole thing was just the works of God; I cannot merit it to anything else. So that is something that always stands out in my mind with being on that journey with the band.
Is it true that you recorded all of the backup vocals on Exodus?
It was just Rita and myself that went to England; I think Judy was having one of her babies at the time. But a couple of nights Rita was not available and I went in and I did a lot of the tracks. Actually, we ended up with two albums from that trip: Kaya and Exodus.
Some nights when I'm there by myself, I would do my part, I do Sister Rita's part, do Sister Judy's part, and then I do another fourth harmony because Bob usually liked high harmonies.
So whatever it is that I'm doing, it was never like a strain or work. It was always something that I'm enjoying. And Bob was so unique that some of the ideas that he would come up with that we would sing, they were just one of a kind. Definitely on another level.
Exodus is such a seminal album as well. When you were in the studio, do you recall feeling anything special about the work that you were all doing together?
Oh yes, because at the time I think Bob had been going through a whole lot of changes. This all happened after the shooting and everything. So he was more in depth. He was hurting, and everything that was coming out of him was so real. It's always real, but this time it was with a whole lot of emotion.
So I could feel every moment that he invested, even when we were there at night doing anything at all. I remember Tyrone [Downie]. [Aston Barrett a.k.a.] Family Man, Junior Murvin — just a few of the musicians were present in the studio because some of the tracks, Tyrone Junior, they do backup as well.
Did the mood in those sessions, everything that was going on in Bob's life, etc, affect what you brought to the sessions?
Of course, because energy is so important. I can pick up energy easily, and sometimes you have good energy and you have bad energy. So the energy that was coming, it was so solid and positive that immediately you know that you are in it 100 percent. And whatever's coming out of you is 100 percent of yourself as well.
You also had a very prolific run with Bob Andy for many years. Can you tell me about that creative partnership?
All that started when Bob Andy and myself left Studio One in 1969 and we went to Harry J [Records]. Bob Andy and myself recorded that song "Really Together," and that was a really big song up until this day. It's one of the biggest dubs on soundsystem dub specials.
I think it was Bob’s idea to re-record the Nina Simone song, "Young Gifted and Black." Anywhere I perform today, I do that song on stage and it is fresh as ever. I perform that song with my son.
The song was No. 2 on the British charts and we had to go to England to do "Top of the Pops." And that was a whole new experience for both of us.
Being in England was like I was doing another life, because everything was just so familiar, and I was truly enjoying every moment of it. So we ended up recording another song called "Pied Piper" as a follow-up to "Young, Gifted and Black."
How did you manage to negotiate for yourself as a young woman in an industry that doesn’t treat women or artists well?
That's a downfall we experienced in Jamaica especially, not knowing the business part and not having good management. Back then, we never had any manager to do the business part. And you cannot be a singer and a manager or a business person at the same time. One is definitely going to suffer. And it's a business. We would get caught in the fine print.
It’s much different now because we learn from our bad experiences. I communicate with almost every upcoming young woman in the business. It's one of my highlights to know that I was their inspiration. I share a lot with them so they don't fall in some of the holes that we fell in along the journey.
But things are looking brighter. And nowadays, a lot of these sisters are knowledgeable of what's happening. And I'm truly thankful for that.
It's wonderful that you are sharing your experience with other women who are looking up to you. As a female solo act in the '70s, did you feel supported? Was it tough to make your way as a serious artist?
By then I was gathering so much knowledge from traveling. In the '70s, I-Three were just totally involved with Bob Marley. If I'm going on the road with Bob, we’d go for months.
But at no time did I relinquish my solo career. In the decade of the '70s, I had two albums that were released: Naturally and Stepping out of Babylon. And sometimes they would demand that Bob Andy and myself [perform in] different parts of the world, especially in England. So that decade was between Bob and Marcia, Bob Marley and I-Three, and myself as a solo artist.
I'd love to hear a bit about those solo records that you put out in the '70s. How did you differentiate what you were putting out as a solo artist from the work that you were doing with Bob Andy or with Bob Marley and the I-Threes?
It's much easier when I'm doing my solo thing, whether it's a recording or a performance. On most of my recordings, I do the harmonies myself. And the engineer would love [that] because it's tighter, it's more precision. Everything is just locked in nicely.
Bob [Marley] was just so unique and so full of music that you can expect anything in a session with Bob. He was always surprising you with some ideas and unique sounds. It just amazed me. Sometimes you'd want to stop and say wow, but you don't want to make it so obvious.
With I-Three, it flows easy as well because we had a connection. I usually tell people that coming together with Judy, Rita and myself, was ordained by the Almighty God. It was never a mistake. At the time when we formed this group, I invited Judy and Rita to come and sing some back up for me at a three night performance in New Kingston. We did a little jam session on stage and the audience loved it. They said, "Why don't you girls form a group?" And we say, "Why not?"
That was the time that Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer — who are the original Wailers — had a major fall-out. And Bob Marley heard that we formed a group and immediately he called us in to do "Natty Dread" and it went straight to No. 1. We became his three little birds. And we started there, right up until God called him and he passed.
Is there a recording that you don't speak about too often but strikes you deeply?
The song that I wrote for Bob Marley, "He's a Legend," that was something very special for me. I hardly talk about it. But the song speaks for itself because every single word in that song is truth and reality.
I remember going to someone's birthday and they requested for me to do that song for him. So I said, "That song was just written for one person, and I don't know if the person that you are asking me to do the song for is even worthy." It's not just singing words; it is meaningful that it has to be suitable for whoever I'm seeing the song for.
This song is saying, "Oh, what a blessing I received, to have been so privileged to share such wonderful moments with such a man." So everything that we are singing about and I wrote is things that I experienced, I'm not just writing nice lyrics or something that will make someone feel nice.
This is the same man who opened my eyes to know that the message in the songs are the most important thing, especially in reggae music. All these songs that he has done, we see in today's world and today's life that everything is manifesting. He was way ahead of his time. So "He's a Legend" was something that I experienced and it was straight from my heart.
I like hearing that display of integrity, because people think that songs are just songs or pop songs, but it’s so much deeper than that.
When I started work with Bobby and I realized, nothing came before his music; no money, nothing. So it was something else for me to go into a studio and to sing about folly, or things that are not really truth and reality.
Bunny Wailer wrote "Electric Boogie" because of the rhythm that I gave him. Bunny's also a great songwriter, like a Stevie Wonder, who writes about life and reality, but because of the kind of rhythm and the dance beat that he heard, that was a happy, fun song.
Bob Marley himself was a versatile songwriter. He wrote about love, he wrote about life, people, lifestyle, wars and those things that is to come, and what was there that he was experiencing at the time.
You sung some of the most enduring reggae love songs, like "Dreamland," "Truly" is the message of spreading love very important to you as a singer?
Of course! That is my life, because without love and truth, the world crumbles. From the moment a baby is born, and they hear music, they start moving their little bodies. Music touches the soul, which no doctor in the universe can do.
So for me, spreading love and joy to the world and to every mankind — especially to the sisters. A song like "Survival" is one of my favorite songs because it is relating to the sisters who are abused by men.
And I try to embrace my sisters because we are not just here as women to look after babies. Of course, we are mothers of creation, but some men see us as the household chores. Women are flying airplanes now and they're doing so many different things. So there's no limits to us.
So I just want to spread the love. I always tell people that I know I am the mother of love. And all I have to give to the world is love. And I try to do it through my music.
In the past two months, two people that were very ill and were passing — one of them was from Canada and wanted to meet me before he died. And they flew him down to Jamaica and I met him. And just four days ago, my eldest son called me and he said that he has a friend and his father was passing and he asked that I just send a voice message to him.
Sometimes I see some young pregnant mothers, and for some reason they believe if I rest my hands on their tummy, their babies will be blessed. I'm blessed that people see me in that light, and I will just continue to touch souls and to do whatever I can do for mankind.
There's no limit for me. I shall sing as long as I live.
Are you working on anything new? The last album you put out was in 2019, Timeless.
I started an album on the Penthouse label, which is where I've been recording. I've been there since '86 and that's how I came to do all these collaborations. I have 50 collaborations.
I'm completing an album. I have maybe about three tracks left, but I'm completing it by the end of August. I'm working with Clive Hunt and of course, Buju.
There's no energy like the youth. And I think that's one of the things that keeps me relevant over the years, that I interact with the younger generation. The last four shows I did were with Romaine Virgo, Grams, and it's beautiful. So I just try to maintain on that level.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.