One could “write tomes telling the story of the Wailers before Chris Blackwell took them global” (Tangari) with 1973’s Catch a Fire. One could also gather volumes worth of music, so determining which to get can be daunting. Essentially this era can be broken into Studio One recordings (1963-1966) and Upsetters recordings with Lee “Scratch” Perry (1968-1971).
In regards to the former, “the Wailers cut more than 100 tracks” (Tangari) for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label in Kingston, Jamaica, between 1963 and 1966. “Energetic and ragged” (Leggett), “these historic sessions…showcase the embryonic stage” (Holley) when “the group was just called the Wailers, without the ‘Bob Marley &’” (Tangari).
Marley “the acknowledged leader of the group from the start – and the only one with previous recording experience” (Tangari). His “compositions were clearly the Wailers’ strongest fare” (Leggett) but Marley “was by no means the best singer (just the most charismatic) in the group” (Leggett). “Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and band baby Junior Braithwaite, whose piping tones gave the group its distinctive sound” (Greene 1), “sang lead on a large number of their songs” (Tangari).
The Studio One era is best captured on Heartbeat’s 2006 41-track One Love at Studio One, an expansion “by a couple of tracks Heartbeat’s earlier release under the same title from 1991” (Leggett). This is also a “spiffing up” (Tangari) of 1994’s Simmer Down at Studio One, Vol. 1 and The Wailing Wailers at Studio One, Vol. 2.
“While its greatest value is probably archival, there is a wonderful sense of musical exploration and joy in these tracks, which include original compositions, ska covers of American hits, doo wop exercises, island mento standards, spirituals and gospel pieces, and even renditions of songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles” (Leggett).
Several unreleased tracks and alternate takes – like Marley and company’s riff on the Beatles’ And I Love Her” (Holley), although it “leaves much to be desired” (Tangari), and a rare rehearsal track, Wages of Love – reveal their stylistic range and work ethic” (Holley).
Most of these songs were “done on Dodd’s Ampex 350 portable one-track tape machine, which means these are largely live-in-the-studio performances, many of them with backing from the Skatalites” (Leggett), although “the Mighty Vikings, Rita Marley, …and many of Jamaica’s finest musicians” (Holley) are featured as well. “In most cases this material is taken from the original session tapes and is presented without the overdubs found on other collections of this material. The in-depth liner notes, culled from hundreds of hours of interviews, by Wailers authorities Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson, piece together the Wailers formative years at Studio One” (Holley).
The Simmer Down collection (disc 1 of One Love) kicks off with This Train, “recorded in 1966…, but the rest of the set proceeds in chronological order” (Greene 1). “The Wailing Wailers, disc 2 of One Love, “starts in mid-1965, where its predecessor ended, and continues chronologically through the end of 1966. It was during this period that Jamaican music was shifting, slowing down from the exuberance of ska into the slower tempos and richer sounds of rocksteady” (Greene 2).
“The Wailers’ first single, Simmer Down, is one of the defining tracks of the ska era, addressing the violence of the Kingston slums in the patois of the people who lived there. The Skatalites provide the breathtaking rhythm track and horn arrangements, and Kelso, Tosh, Wailer, and Braithwaite harmonize the title under Marley’s rough-throated verses. For a one-track recording, there's an impressive amount of detail in the mix, and the song became an instant smash when Dodd played it at his sound system dance the same night it was recorded, quickly moving 70,000 copies. If that doesn’t sound like a big number, consider that in the 1960s the total population of Jamaica was less than two million” (Tangari).
“A number of the songs here were recut to greater or lesser effect in later years, including Mr. Talkative (aka ‘Mr. Chatterbox’), Lonesome Feeling, ‘Love and Affection,’ and, of course, the mighty One Love. This music has been too long neglected by archivists, and now fans can hear where it really all began for this iconoclastic band” (Greene 1).
“One…remarkable thing about this compilation is the sheer number of songs that don’t feature the distinctive Jamaican off-beat accent. Right into 1966, the Wailers regularly recorded straight r&b and rock ‘n’ roll tracks…the band’s outright jaw-dropping version of Dion’s Teenager in Love. Indeed, the Wailers continued to record non-reggae songs all the way through their 1970 Island debut Soul Rebels” (Tangari).
“From a historical perspective, some of the most interesting tracks are their versions of the spirituals Sinner Man, Amen, This Train, and Tell Them Lord” (Tangari), a track added to the One Love repackaging of the two previous discs. These “impassioned takes on Christian songs…function as interesting precursors of their later embrace of Rastafarianism” (Tangari).
“Braithwaite, an original member of the group and the first to leave, was Dodd’s favorite voice in the group, and he gets his high tenor out in front of the harmonies on Habits and It Hurts to Be Alone” (Tangari). The latter features Braithwaite’s “delicate and emotional lead vocal…[and] a nice guitar line from Ernest Ranglin (which telegraphs that the song was actually a clever rewrite of the Impressions’ ‘I'm So Proud’)” (Leggett).
“By the time of 1965’s One Love, Dodd had upgraded to a two-track machine, and songs like Rude Boy” (Leggett), “which later became the basis for ‘Rebel’s Hop,’ and Hooligan” (Tangari) “helped establish the Wailers as spokesmen for the ghetto and the warring gangs of dance crashers who ultimately brought the sound systems to their demise in the late 60s” (Tangari).
Songs like I’m Gonna Put It On, which “featur[ed] guitarist Dwight Pinkney and his band, the Sharks” (Leggett), and the Wailers’ “steamy version” (Greene 2) of “the lovely soul ballad I’m Still Waiting” (Leggett) “began to hint at what the Wailers would become” (Leggett).
The group’s initial phase closed with” (Tangari) “1965’s rude boy anthem Jailhouse” (Leggett), one of countless Jamaican singles of the period that extolled the fearlessness of the rude boys when confronted by the authorities” (Tangari). The song also shows the Wailers “working with the new and slower rocksteady rhythms, and while there were still plenty of horn lines present, the manic, skipping ska pace becomes less prominent” (Leggett), thus forming “the bridge from ska to reggae” (Tangari).
“In 1966, Bob Marley went to Delaware to earn money for a planned Wailers label, and Bunny and Peter recruited Constantine Walker to fill his place, recording numerous Wailers sides while Bob was gone. Marley’s elevation to iconic status overshadowed Bunny and Peter’s estimable solo output, and the Bob-less tracks here show that either one would have been capable of leading the group. The two share lead vocals on the stunning rocksteady tracks Who Feels it Knows It and When the Well Runs Dry. The harmonies are noticeably sweeter in the absence of Marley, and What Am I Supposed to Do vies with Alton Ellis’ Why Birds Follow Spring and the Paragons’ On the Beach for the prettiest rocksteady song” (Tangari).
“Tosh and Bunny [also] recorded the ominous gospel gem ‘Sinner Man’…and Peter’s attempt at a straight rock recording, Can't You See. Also worth noting here is Bunny’s version of Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ which keeps only the song’s chorus while rewriting the verses with lines like ‘Time like a scorpion stings without warning’” (Leggett). “Rolling Stone, a fine version of the Bob Dylan classic, was recorded at the final session the Wailers held with…Dodd” (Greene 2).
“With Marley back from the States later in 1966, the group recorded” (Leggett) “one final single at Studio One, which they self-produced and Dodd distributed – Bend Down Low/Freedom Time” (Greene 2). The former is “a song that prefigures the group's later work with producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry” (Leggett).
“All these curiosities add up to very solid set, but all of the alternate takes and rarities make it” (Tangari) “the definitive Studio One Wailers collection” (Holley). “To put it in evolutionary terms, this collection traces reggae’s musical and philosophical DNA down to its R&B, doo-wop, Rastafarian, ska, and rock steady roots” (Holley).
“There is an undeniable joy in the music on display, and its pure archival value is immense” (Leggett), but “casual Marley fans may find it all a bit half-baked and primitive” (Leggett). “For newcomers, it might be best to start with Marley’s 70s material (it’s more of a kick to hear the title track of this comp if you already know the version on Legend and Exodus, not to mention U2’s ‘One’) and work your way to this set via the Skatalites and some Studio One compilations. If you dig that stuff, One Love at Studio One will likely make you very happy” (Tangari).