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.
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