Why the Rolling Stones Signed Peter Tosh in His Post-Wailers Years

Many credit the 1972 film The Harder They Come with introducing reggae music to international audiences. Without question, it was around that period that acts such as The Wailers (featuring Bob Marley and Peter Tosh) began gaining fans the U.S. and U.K. The members of The Rolling Stones were among them.

Then Chris Blackwell’s London-based Island Records released the first two albums by The Wailers in ’73. On tours in support of those records, Marley (aided by Blackwell) began building an international profile all his own. Around that time, Tosh broke from the group and launched his solo career.

Not long after, Eric Clapton scored a No. 1 hit with his cover of “I Shot the Sheriff,” a track from the Wailer’s second Island LP. Clearly, reggae spelled big business, and a few years later the Stones signed Tosh as one of the few artists on the band’s boutique record label.

The Rolling Stones were big fans of reggae acts

Peter Tosh plays guitar and sings on stage with his bandmates behind him
Peter Tosh performs at the Palladium in New York as support for The Rolling Stones on June 19, 1978. | Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

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In ’75, reggae had broken through more barriers. That year, Toots and The Maytals began opening for The Who on the British act’s North American tour. And during an L.A. performance by Bob Marley and The Wailers, the guestlist included some of the biggest names in music.

George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, and Cat Stevens all turned up at Marley’s performance at the Roxy in ’75. So did the Stones, who were also touring in America that year.

According to Stephen Davis’ Bob Marley, the Stones invited Marley and The Wailers to open for them during the West Coast stretch of that tour. But Marley and the group declined, feeling (rightfully) they were too good to be an opening act — Stones included.

The Stones would officially get into the reggae business a few years later with the signing of Tosh. At that point, Tosh had already cut two solo albums (Legalize It and Equal Rights) on Columbia. But a Tosh performance the Stones witnessed convinced them to get the reggae pioneer on their own label.

Peter Tosh’s performance at the ‘One Love Peace Concert’ impressed Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh sing into the microphone on the 'SNL' set
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh perform on December 16, 1978. | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

In The Natural Mystics, Colin Grant pinpointed the moment when Tosh sealed his deal on the Stones’ record label. It happened on the occasion of the April ’78 “One Love Peace Concert” in Jamaica’s capital. At that event, Marley famously brought together the leaders of the country’s two warring political parties.

Prior to Marley going on, Tosh had his turn on the stage, and he didn’t take the peace route. Tosh lit a joint, blew smoke at the two political leaders, then proceeded to berate them in front of the entire audience for 30 minutes. Though Tosh would experience a backlash, it didn’t come until later.

“The most immediate consequence was a contract from Rolling Stones,” Grant wrote in The Natural Mystics. “Mick Jagger had been in the audience and a witness to the stupefying intensity and shock of Peter Tosh’s brilliant performance.”

Though Rolling Stones Records had been around since 1970, the label had almost entirely been for the Stones’ various solo releases. But that changed with Tosh, with whom Jagger recorded “(You Gotta Walk) Don’t Look Back.” Soon after, the Stones had Tosh opening up for them on tour as well.