Guitarist Junior Marvin’s two musical heroes growing up: Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder.
And in a twist he couldn’t have dreamed of back then, both Marley and Wonder made competing offers for his services. It was Valentine’s Day, 1977.
Marvin had met Marley through Island Records president Chris Blackwell, who knew of Marvin’s work with Traffic in England. Wonder, meanwhile, saw Marvin play in the States with T-Bone Walker, Ike and Tina Turner and Billy Preston.
“I mean, how can you choose?” Marvin said. “Just getting a call from either of these guys was a dream come true, and I got calls from both on the same day.”
He sought the advice of friends and family and other musicians, he said.
“They said I had to go with the man who shared my heritage. I’m Jamaican, so I chose Bob Marley.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Marley and the Wailers were getting ready to record “Exodus.” Marvin’s distinctive guitar work was all over future classics “Jamming,” “One Love,” “Wait in Vain” and “Three Little Birds.” In 1999, Time magazine declared “Exodus” the album of the century.
“When Time wrote that, it was probably the proudest moment of my career,” Marvin said. “I am proud of that album. We all worked so hard on it. It was an honor to be selected over Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.”
In 1978, the Wailers produced the album “Kaya” and the hit “Is This Love.” The following year Marvin played on “Survival,” which united him with Al Anderson. Anderson, who had delivered the timeless guitar solo on Marley’s early hit “No Woman No Cry,” had left the Wailers in 1976 to work with Peter Tosh.
“I met Al while I was playing with T-Bone. He was working with Mary Young and playing on Island sessions at the time,” Marvin said. “One night I had a dream I would have the opportunity to play in a group with Al.”
Both Anderson and Marvin played with Marley until his death in 1981. Shortly after Marley died, they made a pact to continue performing as the Wailers.
“We spent time with Bob in Germany while he was ill,” Marvin said. “He asked us to keep the band together after he was gone. He made us promise to keep the standard of music high, but to create our own songs as well.”
Led by bass player Aston “Family Man” Barrett, the Wailers released three studio albums and three live efforts after Marley’s death. In 2008, the group collaborated with Kenny Chesney on a No. 1 country hit, “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.”
“That was a lot of fun,” Marvin said. “He was real down-to-earth. He was interested in our history and was even talking about the possibility doing a reggae album.”
Chesney shot the video for “Heaven” in Jamaica with the Wailers. The band appeared happy on tape, but trouble was brewing. Before the end of the year, Marvin and Anderson left the band.
“We looked up to Family Man as our leader, but when his girlfriend took over it became a John and Yoko kind of thing,” Marvin said. “It was like the other band members didn’t count. There were no rehearsals, and we were not represented financially.”
The guitarists felt the musical standards weren’t living up to their promise to Marley, so they struck out on their own as the Original Wailers. Despite boasting two lead guitarists, the division of labor in the Original Wailers is relatively simple. Because they overlapped on only a few albums, each man plays lead on the material where he originally appeared. As a lead singer before his stint in the Wailers, Marvin handles the vocals.
“Whenever we play, we explain the two Wailers to people,” Marvin said. “I think there’s room for all of us to coexist.”
Original Wailers shows, Marvin said, are about half Marley classics and half new material. This summer he hopes the Original Wailers will release their first album, “Justice.”
“We just got off a five-week European tour, and the reaction to the classics and the new songs was pretty much the same,” Marvin said. “Obviously more people were able to sing along to ‘Buffalo Soldier,’ but they were dancing and enjoying the new songs as well. We were thrilled to see that.”
Marvin said he feels Marley’s spirit in all the music he creates and has no regrets about choosing Marley over Wonder back in 1977. Besides, he got his chance to play with Stevie Wonder.
“I have a photo of me standing between Stevie and Bob singing ‘jamming in the name of the Lord,’ ” Marvin said. “It’s from when we played the first black music convention in Philadelphia for (Philly soul songwriters and producers Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff. It was a proud moment to be standing on the same stage as those two men at the same time.”