Stir It Up: Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers, Johnny Nash, the Grateful Dead

rums Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Stir It Up. This is a great early reggae song by Bob Marley and the Wailers. We will start with the original Bob Marley song, and then we will review covers from Johnny Nash and also the Grateful Dead.

Bob Marley and the Wailers and Stir It Up:

Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer-songwriter who became the most famous reggae musician, and a cult figure.  He died most tragically at a very early age, but his fame has continued long after his death.

Marley first appeared on the music scene in the early 60s, when he joined a band the Wailing Wailers with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer.  The group gained local fame in Jamaica, but had little commercial success until the early 1970s.

Below is a photo of Bob Marley on stage in a concert with the Wailers in Voorburg, Holland in 1976.

At that time, they were first signed to a record contract by Johnny Nash, whom we will encounter later in this blog post.  Again, their recordings with Nash did not sell; however, Johnny Nash was enchanted with reggae music, and Nash recorded covers of a few of Bob Marley’s songs.

Bob Marley wrote the song Stir It Up in 1967 for his wife, Rita Marley. It describes a man requesting that his woman help him in lighting a flame of passion between them.

It’s been a long long time
since I’ve got you on my mind
And now you are here
I say it’s so clear
To see what we can do, baby, just me and you

[CHORUS] Come on and stir it up
Little darling, stir it up
Come on baby come on and stir it up, little darling, stir it up

I’ll push the wood, I’ll blaze your fire
Then I’ll satisfy your heart’s desire
Said I’ll stir it, yeah, ev’ry minute,
All you got to do baby, is keep it in

Here is the “official video” of Stir It Up. It is extremely interesting, as it dates back to 1973, when the Wailing Wailers still included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer.

Here Bob Marley appears early in his career, before he became the charismatic Rastafarian superstar. This is a great video, with one glaring deficiency – at the 2:17 mark, the video abruptly ends in the middle of a verse.

So here we will correct this, by including the original audio of the entire song Stir It Up, from the 1973 album Catch A Fire.

This song contains all of the classic elements of reggae music – the funky guitar; the conga drums; the crisp keyboards; and the stately, steady-rocking beat.

The release of Stir It Up on Island Records guaranteed world-wide exposure for Bob Marley, and Island CEO Chris Blackwell’s studio provided thoroughly professional recording conditions for Marley’s music.

As a result, word about Bob Marley spread rapidly around the globe. His first major break occurred when Eric Clapton recorded a cover of Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff in 1974. That song became a big hit for Clapton, and introduced many people to reggae music in general, and Marley in particular.

Bob Marley’s album Rastaman Vibration then became a big Billboard charts hit in 1976. By this time Marley was on his way to becoming a major international star.

Here is a live performance of Bob Marley and the Wailers in Santa Barbara from 1979.

The audience is really into this song, and Marley is now accompanied by a large number of musicians and backup singers.

Bob Marley was not only a major artist, but he was also a charismatic political and social activist. A pan-Africanist, Marley injected into his songs a commitment to social justice and an anti-colonial fervor.

Many of Marley’s songs also stress important Rastafarian religious principles. Today Marley is widely admired for his commitment to peace and social justice. In fact, he is a hero to native communities worldwide, including aboriginals in Australia, native Americans in the U.S., and various cultures in India.

Marley was also an outspoken advocate of the legalization of marijuana, which apparently occupies a special place in Rastafarian philosophy and religious practice. This led to some difficulties with the law in both Jamaica and Great Britain.

In 1977, a malignant melanoma was discovered under the nail of one of Marley’s toes. His doctors advised that he have the toe amputated; however, Marley felt that this would be inconsistent with his Rastafarian beliefs.

As a result, physicians removed the nail and adjacent tissue. For a while, this seemed to solve the problem, and Marley continued touring. He was in the middle of a U.S. tour in fall 1980 when the melanoma re-appeared.

At this time, Marley traveled to a German clinic where he underwent a new-age treatment that involved avoidance of certain foods, removal of teeth containing metal fillings, and nutritional supplements. This method, called the Issels Treatment, is listed as an “ineffective cancer treatment” method by the American Cancer Society.

In any case, it was ineffective for Marley, the melanoma metastasized, and Bob Marley died in May 1981 at the age of 36.

This was a devastating loss to the music community. Reggae music had lost its biggest star. Following Marley’s death, however, he continued to sell millions of records. T-shirts, posters and other memorabilia also became best-selling items. And in 1994, Bob Marley was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Johnny Nash and Stir It Up:

Johnny Nash, Jr. is an American singer-songwriter-producer. He was born in Houston in 1940, and began a pop singing career in the 1950s.

Nash had modest success in the music business, and he split his time between singing and acting. He was apparently a very talented actor, winning an award for his role in the movie Take a Giant Step.

Below is a publicity photo of Johnny Nash.

In 1965, Nash and Danny Sims formed a record company, JODA Records. One of their first signings to that label was a family singing group consisting of four brothers between the ages of 9 and 16, called The Cowsills. That group would later gain fame after signing with another record company.

In 1968, Johnny Nash traveled to Jamaica, where his girlfriend had family ties. There a friend introduced him to the group Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers. Nash signed them to a record contract with his company JAD Records.

Unfortunately, none of the Bob Marley songs recorded on Nash’s label were commercial hits. However, Nash was very taken with the reggae sound. In 1972, Nash wrote the song I Can See Clearly Now, which was strongly influenced by reggae musical style.

Nash recorded this tune in London, backed by the Jamaican group Fabulous Five Inc. Both the single, and the album I Can See Clearly Now, were big hits for Johnny Nash.

The single I Can See Clearly Now hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Another song on this album was a cover of the Bob Marley composition, Stir It Up. That song was also released as a single, and Nash’s version reached #15 on the Billboard pop charts.

And here is the audio of Johnny Nash’s version of Stir It Up.

When I first heard this song, I assumed that the American singer Johnny Nash was simply ripping off the reggae sound. As it turns out, I was completely off base.

Nash had deep roots with this music. He was producing Bob Marley’s group, and in fact Bob Marley and the Wailers are backing Nash up on this song. For many people, this would have been their first introduction to reggae music, so Johnny Nash helped pave the way for Bob Marley’s later success.

Nash has a beautiful high tenor voice which he uses to great effect in this song. Bob Marley’s band provides the authentic reggae atmosphere, and the addition of horns, flute and even violins are impressive. The production values are really fine, making this a most enjoyable version of this Bob Marley classic.

We haven’t heard much from Johnny Nash for many years now. In 1979, his cover of Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World received some airplay, but that has pretty much been it as far as I know.

In 1997, a boxed set of Bob Marley songs was released, and this included some out-of-print selections from Nash’s JAD Records.

However, in the 60s and 70s, Johnny Nash did have an interesting career as a singer, songwriter and producer. He helped to bring reggae music into the popular domain, and he worked closely with Bob Marley at a time before Marley had achieved worldwide superstar status.

The Grateful Dead and Stir It Up:

We earlier encountered The Grateful Dead in our blog post on their cover of the song Good Loving.  So here we will briefly summarize the history of the Dead.

The Grateful Dead were an iconic Bay Area band. In the mid-60s, they materialized from a number of musicians who had played folk music with groups such as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. The original name of the group was The Warlocks, but the band changed its name when they discovered that an East Coast group had adopted the same moniker.

Below is a photo of the Grateful Dead from 1970. From L: Pigpen McKernan, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia. I believe that this photo is reversed, as Weir & Garcia seem to be playing their guitars left-handed.

More or less immediately after they adopted their name the Grateful Dead in December, 1965, the group began performing at psychedelic fairs on the West Coast. The Dead were notable residents of the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, until the atmosphere in that neighborhood became less laid back and more of a hassle, at which time the group members relocated to Marin County.

Early in their career, the Dead teamed up with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who took their bus “Furthur,” their music and their LSD-manufacturing operation all the way across the U.S. Along the way, the Dead participated in both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.

For most bands, the litmus test of success was to produce single records that cracked the Billboard Top 40 pop charts. Over their long history, the Grateful Dead only ever had a single song make it into the top 50. However, that didn’t stop the band from selling over 35 million albums and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

The Grateful Dead’s leader and frontman was lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who shared lead vocal duties with fellow founding member Bob Weir. Garcia was also an excellent banjo and steel guitar player, and from time to time in his early career moonlighted on those instruments with various West Coast folk and bluegrass combos.

However, Jerry was quick to point out that he was merely one member of the Dead ensemble. From their founding in 1965 until Garcia’s death in 1995, the Dead were more or less permanently touring.

The group is believed to have given more than 2,300 concerts – or perhaps more precisely, jam sessions. The Dead generally did not prepare a set list for any given concert, preferring instead to pick songs on the spot from a playlist that usually contained about 100 songs. During their life span, the Grateful Dead played over 500 different songs at their various performances.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Grateful Dead was their relationship to their fans, or Deadheads. It was not unusual for Deadheads to follow the band on concerts from town to town – since each concert was a unique live jam, Deadheads would have a different experience in each venue.

Whereas most bands take extreme measures to prevent fans from filming their concerts, the Dead had exactly the opposite impulse: they actively welcomed Deadheads taping their shows. They even allowed several fans to tap into the Dead’s own soundboards.

The net result was that the Deadheads began to resemble more a gigantic extended commune than the ‘normal’ followers of musical groups. Deadheads were an exceptionally eclectic lot, ranging from 60s-era hippies to professional athletes, from panhandlers to distinguished scientists.

Here are the Grateful Dead in a live instrumental performance of Stir It Up.

This is from a Grateful Dead concert in Landover, MD in March 1991. Jerry Garcia transitions from the previous tune, and immediately begins noodling around on his guitar. It soon becomes clear that we are in for an extended Dead instrumental jam.

After about a minute, Garcia breaks into the beginning guitar lick for Stir It Up. The band oh, so gradually shifts into a mixture of rockabilly and reggae, while the audience responds with great enthusiasm once they recognize the tune.

Jerry Garcia’s guitar solo is great fun. He wanders around and about on guitar, while Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Bruce Hornsby chime in on rhythm guitar, bass and piano, respectively. It is necessary to listen very carefully, as on several occasions you can barely hear Jerry’s playing.

At the end, the tune simply fades away.  The terrible quality of the video also helps to set the atmosphere, as it appears that the concert is taking place in an almost impenetrable fog.

To many people, this video will be a “non-event,” as it appears that almost nothing is going on. However, I find it mesmerizing, a great example of a Grateful Dead live jam, and a tangible reminder of how much we are missing now that Jerry Garcia is no longer with us.

The constant touring, coupled with the almost inconceivable quantities of drugs ingested by the Dead band members over the years, took its toll on the band. Three separate keyboards players for the Dead passed away (Pigpen McKernan in 1973, Keith Godchaux in 1980 and Brent Mydland in 1990). And Phil Lesh had a liver transplant in 1998.

Jerry Garcia experienced various health problems, largely as a result of addiction issues, compounded by the wear and tear from the band’s nearly incessant touring.

In the mid-70s, Garcia had become dependent on cocaine and a smokable form of heroin. This had noticeable effects both on his health, and the dynamics of the band.
By 1983, Garcia’s demeanor onstage had appeared to change. Despite still playing the guitar with great passion and intensity, there were times that he would appear disengaged; as such, shows were often inconsistent. Years of heavy smoking had affected his voice, and he gained considerable weight. By 1984, he would often rest his chin on the microphone during performances. The so-called “endless tour”—the result of years of financial risks, drug use, and poor business decisions—had taken its toll.

In 1985, members of the Dead held an intervention and forced Garcia to enter rehab. Although he came out clean and sober, he proceeded to relapse on several occasions thereafter.

Perhaps the most serious situation occurred in 1986, when he lapsed into a diabetic coma. The deleterious effect on his health was sufficiently serious that Jerry had to re-learn a host of skills, including playing the guitar. However, by 1987 he was back, re-energized, and the group produced a terrific album and some memorable concerts.

However, by 1995,
Garcia’s physical and mental condition declined. His playing ability suffered to the point where he would turn down the volume of his guitar, and he often had to be reminded of what song he was performing. Due to his frail condition, he began to use narcotics again to dull the pain.

Garcia checked into a rehab clinic, but on Aug. 8, 1995, he was found dead in his room of a heart attack, at age 53. Garcia’s condition was exacerbated by his long history of drug addiction, diabetes, heavy smoking, and sleep apnea.

Jerry Garcia’s death marked the end of an era. Although it was impossible to re-create the atmosphere of the band with Jerry at the helm, members of the Grateful Dead continued on in various combinations, for example, Furthur, The Dead, and Phil Lesh & Friends.

The band’s final “Fare Thee Well” concert was held in July, 2015 in Chicago, and live-broadcast around the world. However, that was not really the end after all, as a new group called Dead and Company is currently touring. This group includes former Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, together with John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and Oteil Burbridge.

For the Grateful Dead — what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Stir It Up
Wikipedia, Bob Marley
Wikipedia, Johnny Nash
Wikipedia, The Grateful Dead
Wikipedia, Jerry Garcia

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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One Response to Stir It Up: Bob Marley and the Wailing Wailers, Johnny Nash, the Grateful Dead

  1. Pingback: Baba O’Riley: The Who; The Grateful Dead; Pearl Jam | Tim's Cover Story

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