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|Griffiths is perhaps best known as a member of Bob Marley's celebrated backing group, the I-Threes. But to label her a back up singer doesn't do her justice. As half of the popular ' 60s duo Bob & Marcia, she recorded hits like "Young, Gifted, and Black." In 1988, her song "Electric Boogie" became an international phenomenon. And in the ྖs, when she released a new version of "Steppin' Out of Babylon," it ignited her career in the dancehall. Today, she still sizzles as one of reggae's top female singers.
Documentary filmmaking team Zetna Fuentes and Fela Small visit Marcia at her Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, home.
FELA: You came up as a singer at Kingston's legendary Studio One in the ླྀs.
MARCIA: Oh, yes. I couldn't sleep at night because I was so excited to get to Studio One every morning and sing. Remember, Studio One was like Jamaica's Motown all the great artists passed through there. I sang with almost every male vocalist of the time Ö "Oh My Darling" with Bob Marley, "Really Together" with Bob Andy.
ZETNA: You had some great hits with Bob Andy as half of the duet, Bob & Marcia including the remake of Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted, and Black."
MARCIA: That song is still going strong.
When it was released in 1969 it became really popular in England. Bob Andy and I toured the UK and Europe after it came out.
FELA: There wasn't much of a West Indian community in England at that time. How were you treated when you went abroad?
MARCIA: I remember going into places that didn't welcome us. But when they figured out that we were Bob & Marcia, they would treat us differently. That was England for you. I wanted to be accepted as an individual, not on account of my fame. But the song was very big all over Europe and Africa. Then we had a follow-up, "Pied Piper," that also charted in the UK.
ZETNA: You were really popular there.
MARCIA: When Bob Marley went to London for the first time with the original Wailers in 1973, he came back and said, "Boy, you guys are big in England." His own international popularity hadn't really started yet.
ZETNA: Do you remember when you first met Bob Marley?
MARCIA: Yes, I met him in 1964. I was just ten years old.
ZETNA: No way!
MARCIA: My father had taken me to sing a song at the Carib Theater. That was one of the venues in Kingston that staged big contests to discover new talent. I sang Carla Thomas's "I've Got No Time to Lose." It went down so beautifully that they made an appointment for me to go right over to Studio One. I went straight into the recording studio where I saw Bob, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh. Bunny and I went to school together Ö I was so happy to see a familiar face. I recorded my first song that day, "Wall of Love."
FELA: That same day? Do you remember what you were thinking?
MARCIA: I was just anxious to show them what I could do, you know?
ZETNA: Last summer we were in Kingston and had the chance to visit the venerable Studio One producer Coxsone Dodd and his wife at their studio on Brentford Road.
FELA: All the older musicians were sitting in the courtyard, cooling out under the trees. What was Jamaica like in the '60s?
MARCIA: Absolutely beautiful. Sometimes I wish I could turn back the hands of time and just relive those moments. People walked without fear at any hour of the night. As a kid you could enjoy Christmas. Now guns and drugs are the toys that Jamaican kids know.
ZETNA: Where in Kingston were you born?
MARCIA: I was born in what you would now call the ghetto, on Oxford Street. But in those days, it was beautiful. Nobody passed you on the street without giving you the time of day.
FELA: Did you sing a lot at home?
MARCIA: At home, in school concerts, with my church choir. I would always harmonize with songs on the radio. That's what I know best, harmony. I was so happy when I hit that stage at the Carib Theater that morning. It wasn't until I started working with Bob a little later that I realized that this wasn't just entertainment and fun. It goes much deeper. Bob showed me that you can communicate to the entire world with music. A song can soothe you, comfort you, advise you. When we do things sincerely from the heart, believe me, it connects. There are so many things music can do when the message is right.
FELA: The message behind the music we hear is so important, but it's not something people think about very often.
MARCIA: I think music is the greatest weapon we have on earth today. We don't realize the power that we have as musicians to really make a better world. Even with something as serious as war, all we have to do is to focus ourselves on addressing the issue. Bob used to sing "Real Situation" at every show "Check out the real situation. Nation war against nation. Where did it all begin?" The music never fell on deaf ears no matter where we were, from Japan to Australia.
FELA: Bob Marley made that his life's work.
MARCIA: On one occasioN, Bob was invited to play in Zimbabwe for Robert Mugabe's independence celebration. I had an experience there that I will never forget.
ZETNA: What happened?
MARCIA: I smelled something strange while we were performing. We kept playing, but we figured out pretty quickly that it was tear gas. Everyone in the stadium started running for their lives. There was a stampede. I saw kids trampled. Outside the stadium we saw hundreds of tanks and soldiers. We didn't stop running until we reached the house where we were staying, but the tear gas was all over the place.
FELA: It sounds so frightening!
MARCIA: Would you believe that Bob stayed on that stage with his two boys Ziggy and Steve? That alone showed me that he was not just singing words, he was ready to actually live his lyrics. Later on, when everything had calmed down after a long while, Bob finished his performance with the few musicians who were left.
ZETNA: Did you find out who unleashed the tear gas?
MARCIA: We heard that a group called the Freedom Fighters caused the whole thing. They weren't allowed in the stadium to hear Bob Marley, so they just tore the fence down, which triggered the government to use the tear gas. When Bob finally came back to the house, he just looked at us and said, "Now we know who are the real revolutionaries." [all laugh]
ZETNA: You are a part of one of the most important groups in musical history. Did you ever miss performing as a solo vocalist when you were working with Bob Marley?
MARCIA: Actually, even when I was on the road with Bob, I would still release songs as Marcia Griffiths. I've never relinquished my solo career. I've had a number one song in every decade since the '60s.
ZETNA: It's so rare to have an artist thrive for such a long period of time. How did you, Judy Mowatt, and Rita Marley get together to form the I-Threes?
MARCIA: I met Rita at Studio One. She had a group called The Soulettes. So Rita was a Soulette, while Judy was a Gaylette. [laughs] We came together when Mr. Dodd from Studio One asked the three of us to do some harmonies one day.
FELA: Coxsone Dodd has such a natural ear for artists and songs.
MARCIA: Oh Lord, there are only two people I know with that ear Mr. Dodd and Chris Blackwell. They can hear a song and know if it's going to hit.
FELA: So why did the three of you decide to form the I-Threes?
MARCIA: Well, we all became friends. In 1974, when I was doing some solo performances at a popular place in New Kingston, I invited Judy and Rita to come and sing with me. We jammed with some Sweet Inspiration songs and the audience loved it. That's when we decided to form a group. Then Bob heard about us and invited the I-Threes to sing with him.
Our first album with Bob was Natty Dread.
FELA: It's really incredible that the voices that backed Bob Marley continue to carry his message. You, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley all have separate careers but you continue to tour together. Do you spend a lot of time practicing before each tour?
MARCIA: Yes, and we actually learned that from Bob. If he was going on tour, let's say, in August, he would start rehearsing in December. And it's not like he would rehearse and take a break. He was constantly at it. He was a perfectionist. If anything ever
went wrong onstage, Bob would notice. If a harmony was off, he'd pick it up right away. If the drummer messed up, he'd know.
ZETNA: The I-Threes recently performed at a tribute to Bob Marley in Jamaica. How did it go?
MARCIA: I don't think that the artists who performed at the start of the night were very conscious of what Bob's music was all about. One reason he is still so respected is that he never did things for money. He usually said, "Well, if money come, money come," and of course it did. Performing with the I-Threes is a little like reliving certain moments when Bob was alive. It's really something else.
FELA: As a solo artist one of your biggest hits was "Electric Boogie," which of course started its own dance, the Electric Slide.
MARCIA: We're actually in the process of remixing that song with a rapper.
ZETNA: I can't wait for that to come out.
FELA: Everyone loves that song old people, young people, babies. Did you know it would be such a big hit?
MARCIA: No. It was released in December 1982, went straight to the number one spot
in Jamaica, and stayed there for weeks. Then Chris Blackwell released it
internationally, but he didn't promote it. One day Chris told me it was doing well
in the Bahamas, Amsterdam, just about everywhere. Then, when I was in the US on
the Sunsplash tour in 1989, I got a call from Doctor Dread from Ras Records, saying, "Marcia, your song is getting to be so big. They have a dance for it and everything." When I sang it in Washington, D.C., the entire audience got up and started doing the dance I was forced to learn it on the spot! I said, "Lord, this is unbelievable." After that, it just got bigger and bigger. Once, on a cruise I took from Miami to the Bahamas, they shut down the nightclub every night with "Electric Boogie." The cooks onboard were all Jamaican. When they found out that I was onboard, they asked me to sing it. I was surprised a lot of people don't even know that it's my song.
ZETNA: I don't think you could have turned them down.
MARCIA: It's so beautiful because it's a song that brings people together you don't
even need a partner to do the dance.