Bob Marley Was Reportedly Irked by the Airplay Eric Clapton’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ Got

By the early ’70s, the biggest names in British rock had gotten into reggae. After Paul McCartney and Wings dove in with 1971’s “Love Is Strange,” John Lennon highlighted the Jamaican style in 1973’s “Mind Games.” But neither track hit like Eric Clapton’s take on Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.”

Marley had released the song on The Wailers’ ’73 Burnin’ album. The following year, Clapton covered the tune for his 461 Ocean Boulevard LP. Clapton’s version really took off in summer ’74, and it hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in mid-September. It’s the only No. 1 of Clapton’s career.

While Clapton’s cover meant good things for Marley’s reputation on the international scene, he reportedly had conflicting emotions about it when he heard that version of “I Shot the Sheriff” getting more airplay than his own music in Jamaica.

Eric Clapton’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ got more Jamaican airplay than Bob Marley’s version

A bearded Eric Clapton in a floral-patterned shirt and hat backstage in 1974
Eric Clapton backstage in Chicago during his 1974 US tour | Michael Putland/Getty Images

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When Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” reached the top of America’s charts, it had already hit its peak (No. 9) in the U.K. earlier in summer ’74. Back in Jamaica, it was getting played in heavy rotation on the island’s two radio stations.

In the 1985 biography Bob Marley, Stephen Davis wrote that this infuriated Marley. At that point, he’d already had trouble getting his music in the rotation on Jamaican airwaves. And Davis wrote that Marley and a few associates had gone to strong-arm DJs into giving his music more exposure.

“Clapton’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ was being played every hour on the JBC, while the Wailers’ new single ‘Knotty Dread’ was never to be heard,” Davis noted in Bob Marley. In fact, JBC disc jockeys were playing the Clapton single (per Davis) “as no Wailers song ever had been.”

If this were a story about Led Zeppelin, the next scene would feature manager Peter Grant turning up at the station to give people a peace of his mind. But in Marley’s case he went on his own.

Marley reportedly confronted Jamaican DJs about Wailers airplay

Bob Marley looks off-camera. He wears a denim shirt and knit rasta-colored headwear in 1975
Bob Marley (1945-81) at the offices of Island Records, July 1975 | Michael Putland/Getty Images

Nearly 50 years later, it’s hard to imagine Jamaican DJs spinning Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” while ignoring Marley’s music, but that’s the way it was. According to Davis’ Marley, the situation bothered him so much he’d threatened the DJs in person a second time.

After hearing the airplay Clapton got, Marley and his friend “Skill” Cole went back to the station to inquire about the latest Wailers single. In Marley, Davis wrote that one DJ went to the police afterward to complain he’d been threatened.

In the end, Clapton’s cover brought Marley’s music to different parts of the world, so it was definitely a great thing for the rising Jamaican star. All these years later, it’s no contest as to which version aged better. It calls to mind a joke Shaq once told about a reggae album Snoop Dogg recorded.

“Snoop made a reggae album,” Shaq said at the 2015 Justin Bieber roast. “If you’re a rap fan, you may not have it. But if you’re a reggae fan, I know you don’t f*cking have it.”