Judge Not, Bob's first record, was released on the Beverley label. Chinese-Jamaican businessman Leslie Kong launched the label after singer Derrick Morgan and his friend Jimmy Cliff visited him to seek financing for the recording of a song Cliff had written called 'Dearest Beverley'. At one stage in 1961 Morgan had seven records in the Jamaican Top Ten; one of the reasons he recorded so prolifically was that Kong made only a flat payment of ten Jamaican dollars per tune. But he also had a role as an unofficial talent scout for the Beverley label.
In February 1962, Bob auditioned 'Judge Not' for Morgan after his girlfriend, Pat Stewart, who was acquainted with one of Bob's aunts, heard him singing. Morgan thought the song was good but not great; Leslie Kong was willing to take a chance.
'Judge Not' was recorded at Federal Studio the same month. The joyous gallop of ska - a music as fresh and unique as the nation of Jamaica itself at the time - was the backbeat to the first recorded work of the youthful, shrill-voiced Bob Marley. At that same session Bob recorded two other ska numbers, 'Terror' and 'One Cup of Coffee'.
One Cup of Coffee, a strange saga of separation and financial settlement, was an early indication of the visual realism that would become a key feature of Bob Marley's lyrics in years to come. For the time being, however, the few listeners the record enjoyed assumed it was the work of one 'Bobby Martell', the name listed on the label: Kong had renamed him with this kitsch moniker in much the same way as he changed James Chambers to Jimmy Cliff.
Bob recorded another pair of songs for Leslie Kong, but when he refused to pay him, the relationship ended. It was said that, after an argument over Kong's swindling him, Bob prophesied to the label owner, frightening him, that one day he would make plenty of money out of Bob, but would never have the luxury of enjoying it.
After the initial disappointment, the fact that the three records released by Beverley's hadn't sold was irrelevant. Only sixteen years old, Bob was now perfectly justified in expecting some kind of musical future for himself. To make the next step forward, he decided to make a serious go of it with his spars from Trench Town. The Teenagers became first The Wailing Rudeboys, and then The Wailing Wailers.
Years later, after Jamaican music had evolved from ska to rock steady to reggae, Leslie Kong saw dollar signs in reconstructions of past Wailers sessions for the overseas markets and announced that he was going to repackage the trove of the Wailers' rock-steady meanderings. But Kong made what turned out to be a fatal error when he titled the substandard collection The Best of the Wailers. Bunny got wind of the scheme and cornered him in his record shop.
"Don' do it, mon," he said to Kong. "It cannot be de best of de Wailers, 'cause our best is yet ta come. When yuh seh dat de best of someone has done, den dat person is already dead or soon dyin', so we don' wan' dat."
Kong protested, and Bunny cut him off, seething, "If yuh do dis t'ing I prophesize dat it is yuh who will die."
The altercation had drawn a good-sized crowd, and Kong, feeling his ghetto reputation among the sufferahs was at stake, called Bunny's bluff and hollered that the deed was done, the album was already at the pressing plant.
Kong's brothers thought it was bad business, recalling the dire prediction Bob Marley had made years earlier when Kong refused to pay him the money he owed him for his fledgling solo sessions. What had been the gist of Marley's prophecy? the Kongs fretted. Wasn't it something about Leslie one day working with Bob again, but never enjoying the considerable profits the producer would reap from the project?
Several weeks after The Best of the Wailers was pressed, packaged, and burning up the marketplace, Kong's accountant popped into Beverley's record shop to inform Leslie, that based on the latest bookkeepign figures, the conniving Chinese-Jamaican was now officially a millionaire. Later that same day, Kong went home early complaining that he didn't feel well. Within hours he was dead at thirty-eight of a sudden heart attack. The coroner was puzzled by the case; Kong had no history of heart trouble. The young producer's untimely demise made no medical sense.
Photographs copyright Adrian Boot, 1997. Text from CATCH A FIRE: THE LIFE OF BOB MARLEY rev. ed. by Timothy White ©
1983, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1996 by Timothy White. Used by arrangement
with Henry Holt and Co., New York and the author.