Wailing to a new tune 

The Original Wailers' Al Anderson, guitarist for reggae legend Bob Marley, reminisces on a remarkable career

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Buffalo Soldiers Al Anderson of the Original Wailers (second left) says Bob Marley was a complex man of principle.
  • Photo submitted
  • Buffalo Soldiers Al Anderson of the Original Wailers (second left) says Bob Marley was a complex man of principle.

Odds are you've never heard of Al Anderson, a soft-spoken guitarist from New York now well into his 60s.

Even so, you are undoubtedly familiar with Anderson's work, as it is said that his otherworldly guitar skills have been featured on over a billion dollars worth of music over more than four decades playing with some of the biggest names in pop, rock, jazz, R'n'B and reggae.

Coming of age in the East Village of the late '60s, Anderson was, and has seemingly always been surrounded by the type of transcendent talent that tends to rub off on those who hang around it long enough.

His mother was a pianist and church singer. His father played bass, and even sat in on a session with James Brown. His brother was Twisted Sister's first drummer. He lived down the street from one of the most iconic yet short-lived concert venues in New York's history, the Fillmore East. On any given night a young Anderson could catch a show there from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane, all in their primes. It's where he learned the slide guitar from Duane Allman, and bought peach brandy for Buddy Guy as an underage teen. In those days, if it sounded hip and fresh and cool, chances are Anderson played a part in it, or at least was privy to who did.

It's through Anderson's knack for being at the right place at the right time — not to mention his virtuosic musical abilities — that he found himself in Island Records' London headquarters in 1973 standing in front of none other than the reggae legend himself, Bob Marley. With founding Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer having recently left the group, Marley was on the hunt for a lead guitarist to play on his Natty Dread sessions, the very same that would lead to the iconic single, No Women, No Cry, with Anderson's unmistakable chords forming one of the most recognizable melodies in modern music. Soon, the quiet guitar player from America was a full-fledged member of The Wailers, and would join Marley on some of his most memorable shows around the world.

He remembers the beloved reggae singer-songwriter as a complex man of principle who gave so much to the music and country he loved.

"It was scary the amount of energy that was around him — it went from ecstasy to the most dangerous situations. There could be sharks all over the place or there could be angels, there was never an even balance for him," says Anderson. "He never got a chance to enjoy anything. He had great moments with family, but he worked all the time and sacrificed his life for the productivity of reggae music and Jamaica."

Now, Anderson is trying to carry on Marley's vision through The Original Wailers, a group he formed in 2008. Not satisfied with the level of talent his management company was assembling around him initially, the band has gone through several iterations until Anderson recruited the current five-piece lineup that earned a Grammy nod in 2013 for Reggae Album of the Year.

"I knew that Bob loved jazz music," explains Anderson, who said the singer was even learning to play flute before his death from cancer in 1981. "He was opening up his ideas with music, so I decided to add some jazz (musicians) from Jamaica that also play roots, rock and reggae as well. We take it to a place that The Wailers have never really gone to in terms of progress.

"In effigy to The Wailers, and all The Wailers, I play the music I know they'd really appreciate because it's strong and really represents the past, present and future."

Still, Anderson laments what could have been if The Wailers had not been divided by constant in-fighting, predatory record execs, and Marley's wife, Rita, notoriously protective of her late husband's marketability — even suing his half brother for using the singer's image to sell fish products before eventually settling out of court.

"As soon as Bob (died), the band didn't mean anything anymore," he says. "What we really wanted was equality with our production and our involvement with his music and the distribution.

"It's disgusting and grotesque, the fact that record companies and all the inner people we trusted with The Wailers, and the whole (Marley) family taking us to court... and it was totally against the whole principle of the music we made and what Bob was representing."

So now, Anderson, who was with Marley in the last six weeks of his life, is going to represent the cultural icon in the only way he knows how: music.

"Bob's on his journey, and he's still travelling around us in the heavens, I truly believe this, and I just want to be able to represent him and everything that I represented with him in the past with 100 per cent loyalty to his music. I'm going to continue to do that for the rest of my life because he instilled something in me that no one else has."

The Original Wailers play two shows in Whistler on Sunday, April 20. The first is part of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival's free outdoor concert series, and starts at 4 p.m. in Skier's Plaza. The second show lights up at Buffalo Bills at 9 p.m.

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