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Bob came, saw, conquered the 'Garden'

BY RICHARD JOHNSON
Observer senior reporter
johnsonr@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Jamaica Observer's Entertainment Desk presents the 16th in a series titled Bob Marley — The Last 40 Days, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his passing.

On September 19, 1980, Bob Marley gave one of the defining performances of his career as opening act for American rhythm and blues band The Commodores at New York's Madison Square Garden.

Two days later he collapsed in Central Park as he warmed up for a friendly football game. This was followed by a cancer diagnosis and his death eight months later on May 11, 1981.

This performance was part of Marley's move to break into the African-American community. He was touring the United States to promote the album Uprising, driven by the single Could You Be Loved.

According to music insider Copeland Forbes, there was the feeling that Marley should not do the show. Some felt he was committing professional suicide as his performance would not measure up to the Lionel Richie-led Commodores, who were among the top recording artistes at the time.

“I remember Bob was getting calls and visits from all over, including the Isley Brothers, who were really trying to protect him. But Bob kept on saying he knew his strength... 'I know what I can do,' he kept telling them,” Forbes recalled.

He said Marley was a late addition to the line-up and was not afforded a soundcheck. He was paid little for the performance and given a 50-minute set, but was undeterred.

“When we got there the place was packed. All the top celebrities were in the house — Dionne Warwick, the guys from Earth, Wind and Fire, Mick Jagger, the place full. Bob had to use the first two songs as his soundcheck, but he didn't mind, he just went ahead as he had rehearsed and little by little the people were getting into the performance. In no time it was like he had taken over the place with his music,” Forbes recalled.

Also inside Madison Square Garden that night was New York radio announcer and Marley's close friend Ken Williams.

He told the Jamaica Observer that Marley went into the gig as the underdog, but was undaunted. It was part of his plan to cross over to black America.

“For the promoters, Bob was just the opening act. So, there was no need to extend to him certain courtesies. Little did they know that he would become the night's defining act. After Bob and and the band adjusted to the sound inside the venue... it was all over. I had been asked to introduce Bob onstage that night and I remember the promoter running to me asking is he going to do 'the fast one' once Bob started to capture the audience and an encore seemed likely,” Williams recalled.

'The fast one' referred to Could You Be Loved, which was gaining popularity due to its disco-inspired beat.

Williams noted that Marley sang 'the fast one' and the thousands in attendance loved every moment.

“I stood there and watched in amazement. I couldn't help but think: 'Reggae do dat,' as I watched 20,000 people enjoy the music of a man from my country. After his performance so many of the people left, as they were satisfied. We could pick, choose and refuse seats; it was almost embarrassing. With all their splendour, The Commodores couldn't move the house in the way Bob did... it was just the power of the music and his message. For me this marked the beginning of the end of The Commodores as a group with Lionel. He would go solo shortly after,” said Williams.

For Forbes, nothing that The Commodores did compared to the magnificence of Marley.

“After Bob was finished and there was the encore the people just wanted more and just kept chanting his name. The Commodores came and with all their big hits, costumes, sets, and fireworks; Bob Marley was the name on everyone's lips. I remember Lionel Richie in full white and his white piano coming down out of the ceiling and all that the people were talking about was Bob,” Forbes added.

After collapsing on September 21, Marley defiantly continued his US tour with a concert at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh.

The tour was suspended after that show.