When Bob Marley and his bandmates toured America in 1973, The Wailers barely had a name among international audiences. To that point, U.K. and U.S. music fans had only heard Catch a Fire, the Wailers’ debut Island LP. But The Wailers intended to change that. Hence a stint as opening act for Sly and The Family Stone.
By contrast, Sly Stone’s band was near the peak of its popularity. The group had hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971) and returned at No. 7 with Fresh (1973). But though it sounds like a dream show five decades later, the match of Sly and The Wailers didn’t work.
That became painfully clear to Marley and his bandmates when they got bounced off Sly and The Family Stone’s tour after a handful of shows. And though some people claimed the rejection came because The Wailers upstaged Sly and his band, there’s little evidence to back up that account.
The Wailers got fired after 4-5 shows with Sly and The Family Stone
The Wailers’ first international tours weren’t necessarily cursed, but there were forces working against them. For starters, Bunny Wailer hadn’t made the trip to America. By that point, he’d sworn off touring with the group.
Yet Bunny had a formidable replacement in Joe Higgs, the Jamaican musician who’d schooled The Wailers since their early days in the business. However, tensions were simmering between Marley and Peter Tosh, the third original Wailer.
But more than anything else, audiences who’d paid to see Sly and The Family Stone didn’t know what to make of The Wailers. And it didn’t take long for the band to find themselves stranded in America without any more gigs lined up.
As Higgs recalled it in Roger Steffens’ So Much Things to Say (2017), The Wailers made it through five shows across the country, including stops in Tampa, Lexington (Kentucky), and Denver. After a gig in Las Vegas, The Wailers had nothing left but their luggage and a pink slip.
Bob Marley and The Wailers didn’t connect with Sly Stone’s audience
In Catch a Fire, Stephen White quotes Sly and The Family Stone’s manager saying Sly didn’t like the attention The Wailers were drawing on the tour — and that he fired the band because of it. But the evidence doesn’t otherwise support that. Higgs himself recalled The Wailers bombing with audiences.
“Sly was the in thing at the time,” Higgs said in So Much Things to Say. “How was Bob a threat to Sly Stone? People said they can’t hear us: our accent, they couldn’t understand; our rhythm, too slow. We weren’t happening. And our outfits were inappropriate. We were rebels.”
Lee Jaffe, a close friend of Marley’s who managed that tour with The Wailers, backed up that account. “We just played and everybody sat there,” Jaffe told Sly’s biographer (via WETA). Reviews of the ’73 Sly-Wailers show at the U.S. Naval Academy echoed Jaffe and Higgs’ recollections.
One reviewer described the Wailers’ set as a “disaster” (via WETA), and spoke of the relief of the audience once the band had cleared the stage for Sly. Reggae’s popularity would grow steadily in the ’70s, and Marley’s later albums sold in America. But ’73 was still too early in the U.S. for the music — even from one of the greatest bands to ever play it.