Ken Williams and his bond with MarleyFriday, April 16, 2021
BY RICHARD JOHNSON
The Jamaica Observer's Entertainment Desk presents the 12th in a series titled Bob Marley — The Last 40 Days to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his passing.
VETERAN radio broadcaster, entertainment insider and event promoter Ken Williams cannot pinpoint the day or circumstances under which he first met Bob Marley, but what he knows for sure is that they developed a lasting friendship.
“The music was the bond. I guess Bob found in me someone who loved the music just as much as he did and so we instantly became close. So close was our relationship that he would not come to New York without coming to see me, and once I was in Jamaica my first stop was always 56 Hope Road, even before getting to my hotel, I just had to stop and see my friend once he was not travelling. The truth is what started out on a professional level quickly moved to a personal connection,” Williams told the Jamaica Observer.
Williams has many fond memories of being with Marley and his team in Jamaica and New York.
He recalled an occasion when Marley and his confidant Allan “Skill” Cole were in New York and visited him at radio station WLIB, located on Lennox Avenue in Harlem, where he worked as programme director.
Following their interview, Marley and Cole became hungry and sent out for cornbread and white fish from an eatery operated by Muslims at a nearby mosque.
“We then just sat down, broke bread and hol' a reasoning for hours. This became a regular thing. Once he was in New York taking a break from tours or visiting we would link. I was impressed by his intelligence and focus on the music. I recall once he had a show coming up in New York and because I was working on the radio he asked me for a list of songs that the people on the ground were responding positively to. I was so impressed. Bob Marley asking me what I thought he should perform in New York. I shared my thoughts and I recall him saying to the band, 'Unnu hear sah.' “
Life-changing events of September 1980 brought them even closer.
Marley was in New York for the United States tour to promote the album Uprising. Part of the promotion included being opening act for The Commodores at Madison Square Garden. Two days later, on September 21, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. He would then be diagnosed with cancer.
Throughout this period, Williams stayed in touch with him, and Marley found solace spending time at Williams' nightclub, Negril.
“Even though there was talk, I believe I was in denial about Bob's health initially. This was perhaps because of how upbeat he was. He would come to the club very often... it was like his comfort zone. One night my DJ Ricky Warmington was playing some Marley in the club. Bob went over to him and said: 'Don't want unnu play only Wailers tune, other man deh yah to.' I thought that was such a classy thing to do... just to acknowledge other artistes who were in the club and asking that their music also be played.”
Then Marley's condition began to deteriorate. Doctors in New York had given up on the Jamaican superstar and the decision was taken to transfer him to the clinic run by physician Josef Issels in West Germany.
“I did an interview with Bob on air and told listeners that he was going to Ethiopia, taking some time off for rest and recuperation. A few days later he told me to come see him at his hotel. I went and he opened the door...there he was, he looked weak and he had no locks. He said to me, 'A suh mi stay now,' and I reassured him it was fine. He then explained that he would be going to Germany. Once he was there we stayed in touch. I remember him calling in on the radio one day. He was clearly weak and didn't stay long on the call.”
That would be the last time Williams spoke to Bob Marley. On May 11, 1981 he died in Miami en route to Jamaica. Recalling that day brings back painful memories for Williams even 40 years later.
“I was on the radio and we began to hear murmurings. I was there denouncing them as rumours. Then came the call from Island Records...'Calm down Ken, it's true'. Oh man... the pain I felt all over. I still can't put into words what I felt. It is a feeling that never leaves me,” he said.
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