Sounds of the City: The Wailers’ Julian Junior Marvin at NJPAC
Would you rather play with Stevie Wonder or Bob Marley?
It sounds like a wild scenario. But Junior Marvin says he actually faced that musical conundrum on Valentine’s Day 1977.
The Jamaican-born guitarist was making a name for himself as a session musician in England at the time. And on that day, he recalls, Wonder and Marley both asked him to join their bands.
Marvin chose Marley, playing with The Wailers on the reggae legend’s final few albums — including the 1977 classic Exodus, featuring the tracks “Jamming,” “Three Little Birds,” and “One Love.” He also carried on with the band after Marley died in 1981.
That’s only one chapter in Marvin’s career. He’s also been an actor, appearing on stage in the musical “Hair” and in the 1965 movie “Help!” with The Beatles. He’s played with everyone from Steve Winwood to Tina Turner to, yes, Stevie Wonder. And he was named one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all-time by Guitar World Magazine.
You can catch Marvin live this Thursday, July 25, in Chambers Plaza outside of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark as part of the Horizon Foundation’s free outdoor concert series, Sounds of the City.
Jersey Arts spoke with the 70-year-old about why he picked Marley over Wonder, what he remembers most about Marley, what it was like to pal around with The Beatles, and more.
Jersey Arts: Do you remember your first guitar?
Junior Marvin: It was a bright cherry red Hohner. I think it was a Hohner. But it was bright cherry red. It was really pretty. (laughs)
JA: Was it a gift or did you buy it yourself?
JM: My mom bought it for me. One of my school friends said to me, “Why don’t we go get guitars and become rock stars?” (laughs) I think I was 13 at the time, going on 14.
I watched Elvis on TV and I fell in love with Elvis. I said, “I want to be just like Elvis when I grow up.” (laughs) So my friend in school — his name was Charles Hollingsworth. I’ll never forget him. He said to me, “Let’s go out and get some guitars. We’ll start a band, and we’ll be rock stars. We’ll be just like Elvis.” And he looked like Elvis. He looked like a young Elvis.
This was in London when I was growing up. And it was amazing because you had Cliff Richard & The Shadows, who was like the British version of Elvis. He wasn’t as good as Elvis, but he was good enough to be the British version. And then you had The Beatles and you had The Rolling Stones and you had Led Zeppelin. And then along came Jimi Hendrix, and I thought, “That’s the guy I want to play like.” (laughs)
JA: You were in the Beatles move “Help,” right?
JM: Yeah, I was 12 years old, and I was taller than all of The Beatles. (laughs)
JA: Did you get to interact with them?
JM: Yeah, we were in the studio for like about four days filming a scene that they did in the Bahamas with police chasing Ringo on the beach. I was one for the policemen chasing Ringo. But what happened was: They didn’t get exactly what they wanted in the Bahamas, so they did it in London. I think it was Pinewood Studios. They recreated the beach, and we were chasing Ringo. It look like about three days to get it right. (laughs) There was goofing off all the time and having fun. They were really fun guys.
JA: Did you want to be an actor first? Or did you always want to be a musician foremost?
JM: Well, my family are all musicians. And I started playing piano when I was like 1½ years old. So it was basically music first. And then when I got to London, my mother’s hairdresser was an agent for young black actors — young kids they wanted for commercials and movies and shows. She said, “Why don’t you bring your son and your daughter” — which is me and my sister. Because me and my sister spoke quite clearly, we got a lot of parts.
I did The Saint with Roger Moore. I also did Hair, the musical. And I also did a couple of stints with Patrick McGoohan. And there was a comedy series called No Kidding. My sister had a lead role in one of the No Kidding movies.
Once I got into here, I really got more into the guitar. I met Jimi Hendrix one day. He was really shy. He wouldn’t even look at me. He shook my hand and said, “Hi.” That was it. (laughs)
JA: So how did all that lead you to joining The Wailers?
JM: I was living around the corner from a studio called Island Records. It was literally a three minute’s walk to the studio. And I had a very good friend of mine who was a producer. He produced Genesis. His name was Johnny Branch. He said to me, “Come and hang out in the studio. You’ll get a lot of work. Because at that time, I was practicing about eight hours a day. Then I met Chris Wood from Traffic. He introduced me to Steve Winwood. And I met a whole bunch of people through Steve and Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, the drummer. And eventually, I met Eric Clapton. Then I met Chris Blackwell. Then Steve Winwood did a solo album, and I played on that album. And Chris Blackwell heard me on that album.
And then on Valentine’s Day 1977, he said I want you to meet somebody. And I thought it was just a session or something. So I brought my guitar with me. As it turned out, it was Bob Marley.
Well, like an hour before Blackwell came to me, I got a call from Stevie Wonder. On the very same day. But the thing was: Stevie wanted me to sign a 10-year contract. And Bob didn’t really care if I signed or not. As long as I was happy, I didn’t have to sign anything. And the fact that Bob was Jamaican and I was Jamaican, all my friends and my family told me I’ve got to go with my Jamaican brother. (laughs)
JA: Do you have a favorite memory of Bob or that period?
JM: He was a workaholic. He was such a workaholic. He loved soccer and he loved women and he loved music. (laughs) And he never answered a telephone. He was always like writing songs, and when the phone would ring, he’d say, “Oh, you answer it for me. I’m busy.” (laughs)
But he was very focused. And I think because there was an attempt on his life in ’76, when he came to England in ’77, he was very grateful that he was still alive and he got another chance. So he said every second felt like a year to him after that incident. He thought that everybody in Jamaica loved him, and then they tried to kill him. And it just kind of put him in a shock for a couple of weeks. And then when he came out of the shock, he said: You know what? I’m so happy I’m still alive. My life was spared. I’m gonna just focus on my music and work and try to bring people together, you know? Under the banner of one love.
Because his father was white and his mother was black. So to him, it was a special thing to bring people together.
JA: Why did you decide to carry on with The Wailers?
JM: Because Bob asked me to. I made a promise that I would. I didn’t want to break my promise. And I loved the music. I mean, I’ve played different styles of music. My father played jazz piano, so I learned how to play jazz. And I played with T-Bone Walker, which was all blues. And I played with Billy Preston. I played with Ike & Tina Turner. I played with Traffic. I had a rock band called Hanson that was signed to Atlantic Records, courtesy of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
Since I was very young, I started playing music. I just got involved in classical music, gospel music. Then it went to Spanish music to rock music, to Elvis, pop music, R&B. I was just so lucky. I was surrounded by music all the time, and it all kind of rubbed off — a little bit of each.
JA: What is the big difference between playing blues guitar and reggae guitar?
JM: Well, it’s not much different. Because reggae has a lot of blues progressions. The mood of reggae is very bluesy. It tells stories of people going through hard times. It also tells of people going through good times. But it has a blues side to it.
JA: Is there any musician you’ve worked with that’s intimidated you?
JM: Stevie Wonder. (laughs) Because he’s very complex. His songs are not that simple. If you listen to like “Sir Duke,” it’s like, “Okay, let me go do some homework here.” (laughs)
But I did a show with him in Philadelphia. It was a music convention. And the guests artists were Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder — the same two guys who wanted me on the same day. (laughs) And it was great. He makes things sound so easy. When he sings like “Happy Birthday” and stuff like that, if somebody else tried to play it, it’s quite complicated and complex.
JA: So what can people who go to the Newark show expect from your set?
JM: Well, we’re gonna have a big party, and we’re gonna celebrate Bob Marley. We’re gonna celebrate Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder. We’re gonna celebrate life, have a good time, play songs they can sing along to — “One Love,” “Three Little Birds,” “I Shot The Sheriff,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Could You Be Loved,” “Waiting In Vain,” “Exodus.”
Bob always wanted people to have a good time when they heard his music. So that’s what we do.