The Story of Boston Reggae - Take Us Home

Who would have imagined that Boston-Cambridge, with its thousands of white middle-class college students, comparatively small (10%) black population and penchant for folklie music, would at this moment be the North American hotbed of reggae?
– James Isaacs, Rolling Stone, November 8, 1973

Who would have imagined indeed? Boston, renowned for its brahmin heritage and blue-collar brawlers, is hardly the first city you’d associate with Rastas or rootsy riddims from the Caribbean. You’d sooner think of New York, where significant numbers of West Indians had been settling since the mid- ‘60s, and to which some of them, such as Jamaican-born Bronx DJ Clive Campbell (a.k.a. Kool Herc), had begun to import Kingston sound-system culture to form a new scene that would later be called “hip-hop.”

Or why not Toronto? Deeply in need of nurses and domestic workers, Canada had relaxed its immigration restrctions in the late 1950s, opening its gates to thousands of Commonwealth residents from the islands, who would begin to change the complexion and accent of the cultural capital of Toronto. These new arrivals from the Caribbean added a new dimension to the city’s music scene as well, but it wouldn’t be until the mid- ‘70s that an indigenous Toronto reggae scene would truly take root.

In the early ‘70s, the North American city most associated with roots reggae was Boston, Massachusetts (or perhaps, to be more precise, its collegiate-oriented neighbor, Cambridge). But how did that happen?



In February 1973, Jamaican director Perry Henzell’s urban outlaw flick The Harder They Come opened at the Embassy Theater in New York City. It received decent, if a tad lukewarm notices, pulled in modest box office receipts, and quickly disappeared from screens. At Cambridge’s Orson Welles Cinema, on the other hand, the movie was a crowd-rousing hit. The student counterculture of Boston and Cambridge instantly took to the story of the country bumpkin Ivanhoe Martin (portrayed with verve by singer Jimmy Cliff), who—after arriving in Kingston with stars in his eyes—fails as a singer in the city’s nascent reggae scene, only for his record to become a hit after he gains infamy as a gun-wielding badman known as “Rhyging.” But what entranced the Boston audience even more was the movie’s soundtrack, packed with an intoxicating, prickly new sound that barely even had a solidly accepted name at that point. Writing in The Harvard Crimson, critic Lewis Clayton does his damnedest to explain this new music to its new audience: “Jimmy Cliff, a Jamaican rock singer, plays Ivan, the country boy who comes to the city determined to become a top singer of ‘reggae’ [what polite Jamaicans used to call ragamuffin music; it is a sort of synthesis of American rock and Jamaican native sounds].”

Thanks largely to its unique musical architecture, The Harder They Come played for 26 consecutive weeks at the Orson Welles before departing, and then returned shortly thereafter, becoming a fixture at the cinema for another seven years. In that time, midnight sceenings of The Harder They Come became synonymous with the Boston-Cambridge student experience, and in a short time Boston acquired the reputation as the one city in the United States that really got reggae.

That’s why when Island Records boss Chris Blackwell was launching his newly signed reggae supergroup, The Wailers, in the United States with a view to positioning the band’s frontman and chief songwriter Bob Marley as a new Bob Dylan-meets-Jimi Hendrix-style rock icon for the college set, there was little question about the very first U.S. city they had to play. The Wailers headlined at Cambridge’s Paul’s Mall for a five-night residency in July 1973, playing to enthusiastic crowds in the house and many more listening to the live broadcasts of the shows on WBCN radio. After their star-making showing in Boston, The Wailers moved on to their tour’s next stop in New York (where they were downgraded to opening act for Bruce Springsteen, a rising rocker being pushed by Columbia Records as yet another “new Dylan”). Wailers bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett would recall the Paul’s Mall shows as among the best the band ever played, and the Boston crowd as the most hospitable. Bob Marley & the Wailers would return to Paul’s Mall in June 1975, this time doing a seven-night residency, playing two packed shows per night.

Boston was indeed ever hungry for reggae, as the sound became preponderant on college and community radio. The most popular radio outlet for reggae was “Reggae Bloodline,” hosted by photographer and writer Peter Simon (brother of Carly)—he had had his own reggae road to Damascus moment upon viewing The Harder They Come in 1973. “I had gone to Jamaica in 1976,” recalls Simon from his Martha’s Vineyard gallery. “When I came back I wanted to spread the word of Jah to Boston in particular.” First broadcasting in 1977, Simon’s show was transmitted via the quirky folk music station WCAS-AM. “It was certainly the first reggae show in the Northeast, if not the United States,” Simon says. He would soon gain a much larger platform as “Reggae Bloodline” was picked up by WGBH, Boston’s most dominant radio station.

In 1978, a year after the launch of “Bloodline,” Emerson College’s student-run radio, WERS 88.9, debuted “Strictly Rockers,” a weekly, hour-long reggae showcase hosted by Doug Herzog (who would later become the president of MTV Networks). “Strictly Rockers” would undergo a change in format to become simply “Rockers”—two straight hours of reggae music every weeknight—and for many years was the station’s highest-rated program. Boston’s status as America’s Reggae City was enshrined, but here lay the catch: While Bostonians had established themselves as ravenous consumers of reggae, the city had laid very little ground toward demonstrating that it could be a significant producer of quality reggae music. New York had already been making strides in that direction, with Lloyd Barnes’ White Plains-based Wackie’s House of Music churning out discs with a rugged, bass-heavy, distinctively NYC feeling. Toronto, too, had an emergng reggae scene, spearheaded by musicians such as keyboard wizard Jackie Mittoo, and the Summer Sounds recording studio that was developing a trademark spacey, synth-laden Canadian reggae sound. Boston, meanwhile, had “few bands and many fans” (according to a March 1980 Boston Globe headline). That would soon begin to change.

 Noah Schaffer - Boston, 2018

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