Musician of the Week: Peter Tosh
- Monday 6 May 2013.
Peter Tosh (born Winston Hubert McIntosh, 19 October 1944 – 11 September 1987), was a Jamaican reggae musician who was a core member of the band The Wailers (1963–1974), and who afterwards had a successful solo career as well as being a promoter of Rastafari.
Peter Tosh was born in Grange Hill, Jamaica, and was raised by his aunt. He began to sing and learn guitar at an early age, inspired by American radio stations. After a notable career with The Wailers and as a solo musician, he was murdered at his home during a robbery.
At the age of fifteen, McIntosh’s aunt died and he moved to Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica. He first picked up a guitar by watching a man in the country play a song that captivated him. He watched the man play the same song for half a day, memorizing everything his fingers were doing. He then picked up the guitar and played the song back to the man. The man then asked McIntosh who had taught him to play; McIntosh told him that he had. During the early 1960s Tosh met Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) and Neville O’Reilly Livingston (Bunny Wailer) and went to vocal teacher, Joe Higgs, who gave out free vocal lessons to young people, in hopes to form a new band. He then changed his name to become Peter Tosh and the trio started singing together in 1962.
Higgs taught the trio to harmonize and while developing their music, they would often play on the street corners of Trenchtown. In 1964, he helped organize the band The Wailing Wailers, with Junior Braithwaite, a falsetto singer, and backup singers Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith. Initially, Tosh was the only one in the group who could play musical instruments. According to Bunny Wailer, Tosh was critical to the band because he was a self-taught guitarist and keyboardist, and thus became an inspiration for the other band members to learn to play. The Wailing Wailers had a major ska hit with their first single, "Simmer Down", and recorded several more successful singles before Braithwaite, Kelso and Smith left the band in late 1965. Marley spent much of 1966 in Delaware in the United States of America with his mother, Cedella (Malcolm) Marley-Booker and for a brief time was working at a nearby Chrysler factory. He then returned to Jamaica in early 1967 with a renewed interest in music and a new spirituality. Tosh and Bunny were already Rastafarians when Marley returned from the U.S., and the three became very involved with the Rastafari faith. Soon afterwards, they renamed the musical group The Wailers. Tosh would explain later that they chose the name Wailers because to "wail" means to mourn or to, as he put it, "...express one’s feelings vocally".
He also claims that he was the beginning of the group, and that it was he who first taught Bob Marley the guitar. The latter claim may very well be true, for according to Bunny Wailer, the early wailers learned to play instruments from Tosh. Rejecting the up-tempo dance of ska, the band slowed their music to a rocksteady pace, and infused their lyrics with political and social messages inspired by their new-found faith. The Wailers composed several songs for the American-born singer Johnny Nash before teaming with producer Lee Perry to record some of the earliest well-known reggae songs, including "Soul Rebel", "Duppy Conqueror", and "Small Axe". The collaboration had given birth to reggae music and later, bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton Barrett would join the group in 1970. The band signed a recording contract with Chris Blackwell and Island Records company and released their debut, Catch a Fire, in 1973, following it with Burnin’ the same year. The Wailers had moved from many producers after 1970 and there were instances where producers would record rehearsal sessions that Tosh did and release them in England under the name "Peter Touch".
In 1973, Tosh was driving home with his girlfriend Evonne when his car was hit by another car driving on the wrong side of the road. The accident killed Evonne and severely fractured Tosh’s skull. He survived, but became more difficult to deal with. After Island Records president Chris Blackwell refused to issue his solo album in 1974, Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the Wailers, citing the unfair treatment they received from Blackwell, to whom Tosh often referred with a derogatory play on Blackwell’s surname, ’Whiteworst’. Tosh had written many of the Wailers’ hit songs such as "Get Up, Stand Up", "400 Years", and "No Sympathy".
Tosh began recording and released his solo debut, Legalize It, in 1976 with CBS Records company. The title track soon became popular among endorsers of marijuana legalization, reggae music lovers and Rastafarians all over the world, and was a favourite at Tosh’s concerts. As Marley preached his "One Love" message, Tosh criticized the hypocritical "shitstem". He released the album Equal Rights in 1977.
Tosh organized a backing band, Word, Sound and Power, who were to accompany him on tour for the next few years, and many of whom performed on his albums of this period. In 1978 Rolling Stones Records contracted with Tosh, and the album Bush Doctor was released, introducing Tosh to a larger audience. The single from the album, a cover version of The Temptations song "Don’t Look Back", performed as a duet with Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, made Tosh one of the best-known reggae artists.
During Bob Marley’s free One Love Peace Concert of 1978, Tosh lit a marijuana spliff and lectured about legalizing cannabis, lambasting attending dignitaries Michael Manley and Edward Seaga for their failure to enact such legislation. Several months later he was apprehended by police as he left Skateland dance hall in Kingston and was beaten severely while in police custody.
Mystic Man (1979), and Wanted Dread and Alive (1981) followed, released on the Rolling Stones’ own record label. Tosh tried to gain some mainstream success while keeping his militant views, but was largely unsuccessful, especially compared to Marley’s achievements. That same year, Tosh appeared in the Rolling Stones’ video Waiting on a Friend.
In 1984, after the release of 1983’s album Mama Africa, Tosh went into self-imposed exile, seeking the spiritual advice of traditional medicine men in Africa, and trying to free himself from recording agreements that distributed his records in South Africa. Tosh had been at odds for several years with his label, EMI, over a perceived lack of promotion for his music.
Tosh also participated in the international opposition to South African apartheid by appearing at Anti-Apartheid concerts and by conveying his opinion in various songs like "Apartheid" (1977, re-recorded 1987), "Equal Rights" (1977), "Fight On" (1979), and "Not Gonna Give It Up" (1983). In 1991 Stepping Razor - Red X was released, a documentary film by Nicholas Campbell, produced by Wayne Jobson and based upon a series of spoken-word recordings of Tosh himself, which chronicled the story of the artist’s life, music and untimely death. In 1987, Peter Tosh seemed to be having a career revival. He was awarded a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Performance in 1987 for No Nuclear War, his last record.
Along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer during the late 1960s, Peter Tosh became a devotee of Rastafari. and they became spiritual people.
At some point after his departure from the Wailers, Tosh developed an interest in unicycles; he became a unicycle rider, being able to ride forwards and backwards and hop. He often amused his audiences by riding onto the stage on his unicycle for his shows. His teacher for unicycling was Kelly Carrigan. They rode side by side for years.
On 11 September 1987, just after Tosh had returned to his home in Jamaica, a three-man gang came to his house demanding money. Tosh replied that he did not have any with him but the gang did not believe him. They stayed at his residence for several hours in an attempt to extort money from Tosh and tortured him. During this time, Tosh’s associates came to his house to greet him because of his return to Jamaica. As people arrived, the gunmen became more and more frustrated, especially the chief thug, Dennis "Leppo" Lobban, a man whom Tosh had previously befriended and tried to help find work after a long jail sentence. Tosh said he did not have any money in the house, after which Lobban put a gun to Tosh’s head and shot once, killing him. The other gunmen began shooting, wounding several other people and also killing disc jockeys Doc Brown and Jeff "Free I" Dixon. Leppo surrendered to the authorities. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted in 1995 and he remains in jail. The other two gunmen were never identified by name. It is said that they were killed in a gang war a few weeks later.
In August 2012 it was announced that Tosh would be posthumously awarded Jamaica’s fourth highest honour, the Order of Merit, in October that year.