When Bob Marley rocked in Ridgmount Gardens

By Mike Pentelow

Cartoon showing two people walking along Ridgmount Gardens. The words to the song Exodus by Bob Marley emerge can be heard from someone's house. One says to the other "It's because property's getting so expensive round here"

Cartoon by Kipper Williams.

Reggae icon Bob Marley, who died 30 years ago aged 36, had close connections with Fitzrovia. He lived at 34 Ridgmount Gardens (between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street), marked now by a plaque, and his first gig in London was at the Speakeasy club at 48-50 Margaret Street (near the corner with Great Portland Street). It was in 1972, as a little known musician, that he moved into Ridgmount Gardens after he and his group the Wailers found themselves stranded without funds while promoting records on their previous label.

While in London he also lived with Cindy Brakespeare, who was Miss Jamaica in 1976, and they had a son Damian born in 1978. Bob wrote the song “Three Little Birds” as a tribute to Cindy.

His widow, Rita, reacted to the erecting of the plaque at Ridgmount Gardens during Black History month in 2006 by stating: “My husband had a special affinity with London. We truly look forward to seeing the plaque the next time we are in London. Jah bless you all. One love.”

One love, of course, was one of his great hits on the Island label, which he and the group, signed up to when stranded in London.

And it was during the hard winter of 1972-73 that he played his first London gig at the Speakeasy.

This would have introduced him to many of the top pop stars of the day who either performed there, were in the audience checking out fresh talent, or jamming on the way home from performances elsewhere in the early hours of the morning.

About this time, November 1972, for example Ian Dury was on stage, while Roger Daltrey of The Who was in the audience. Others who were frequently mingling with the fans were Eric Clapton, and (earlier in the 1960s) John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones.

Marc Bolan had been there the night he was killed in a car crash in 1977, the same year Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols attacked disc jockey Bob Harris with a broken glass. A friend of fellow Pistol, Johnny Rotten, beat up Joe Strummer of the Clash in the club as well.

In view of this it is perhaps not surprising that the club was run by Laurie O’Leary, a friend of the Kray gangster brothers, from 1968 to 1977.

The club had opened in 1966 and lasted until 1982. Two songs were written about it – by The Who on their album “The Who Sell Out”, and by Elvis Costello (London’s Brilliant Parade) on his album “British Youth.”

Marley and the Wailers returned to Jamaica, but revisited London many times, including in 1973 on their “Catch A Fire” tour, and 1975 when the live performance of “No Woman No Cry” was recorded. In 1976, during the Notting Hill riots, he helped form an alliance of young rastas and punks, recording “Punky Reggae Party” (at the Roxy, Neal Street, Covent Garden).

His next return to London, to live for 15 months from January 1977, was under traumatic circumstances.

On the eve of a peace concert in Jamaica in December 1976, he was shot and wounded in his own home. Despite this he appeared at the concert the next day, but decided for his own safety to take refuge in London.

During this spell he recorded his experimental “Exodus” album as part of his response, his first full album recorded outside of Jamaica. It includes the classic “Jamming.” He also liked to play football in London’s parks, and in 1977 received a foot injury in one game, which could have started the cancerous growth that eventually killed him.

In 1980 he was in London to celebrate the independence of Zimbabwe.
The following year cancer in his toe had developed and he went to Germany for treatment.

On his return flight to Jamaica he died, during a stop over in Miami, on May 11, 1981.

His final words were reportedly to his son Ziggy: “Money can’t buy life.”

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